Sermon - 28th April 2013
Scripture - Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; with reference to Robbie Williams's song 'Angels'
Rev Andy Braunston
Contemporary Ideas About Angels
We live in an irreligious age but, at the same time, an age where people are interested in spiritual things. It's quite a contrast. Increasingly people don't really know or understand the claims that Christianity makes. The Church is, largely, respected but seen as not being relevant to people's lives. Often it is seen as being backward and, increasingly, as a barrier to social progress. Of course pronouncements on issues of sexual morality rarely play well in a society that can't begin to understand why the Church may struggle with certain issues.
Despite this distance from the Church there are still huge numbers of people that consider themselves Christian, who say they believe in God and who see themselves as spiritual. Some of these folks may investigate alternative spiritualities, most, I suspect, simply content themselves with trying to be nice to other people and live with the idea that you don't need to go to church to be a Christian.
The sense of spirituality is, however, strong – maybe that's why the song we looked at last week, Hallelujah, is so popular – people see and respond to its spirituality. There is, also, a strong interest in the supernatural – angels and demons in particular. There is a whole genre of teenage fiction looking at vampires and this spills over onto TV with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Twilight series of books. Often inscriptions on the headstones of children's graves make references to angels – sometimes the child is thought to now be an angel, sometimes the angels have come for the child. In this context Robbie William's song Angels was incredibly popular.
Robbie Williams's Song
The song was the most successful of all Robbie Williams's singles, selling over a million copies and staying in the charts for 6 months, and was written by a virtually unknown Irish writer, Ray Hefferman, with Robbie Williams writing the chorus. It rose very quickly in the charts and was given an award at the Brit Awards for being the best song in the previous 25 years. It is a song that has been covered by many other artists and it is very popular. I'm not sure if it is popular because of the striking tune – particularly the chorus – or the lyrics.
It may be me, but I'm not sure I fully understand the lyrics! Williams has been quoted as saying that he wrote it due to his fascination with the supernatural and the idea that loved ones come back as angels to care for us. His ideas may seem odd to those of us who are Christian but they are not uncommon in our wider society. People do have some interesting ideas about angels. I knew a minister once who believed that she could talk with angels – she'd talk with them and they with her. For a fee she'd tell you what the angels were saying. Angels appear in most religious traditions – certainly within Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as Zoroastrianism. Interestingly, contemporary people are more interested in angels than most Christians are – we tend to accept them as part of the Biblical stories but they really don't have a lot of resonance with our contemporary understanding of the Christian faith.
Biblical Ideas About Angels
Angels are a large part of various Biblical stories and images. We're used to thinking about angels at Christmas and we may sing carols which talk about Gabriel's role in telling Mary she was to bear Jesus, his appearance to Joseph to both assure him about Mary's pregnancy and to get his family out of Israel. The angels appear to the Shepherds to tell them of the Messiah's birth. Angels ministered to Jesus in the Wilderness and, to Mary and the women in the Garden of Gethsemane. Isaiah's vision of heaven included winged creatures who assisted with the worship of God – images of these grace the ancient church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and the visions in Revelation include angels who worship God. In the vision of the end in today's reading when the New Heaven and the New Earth finally come the loud voice from Heaven is that, presumably of an angel. Angels visit Abraham and Sarah before going on a fact finding mission to Sodom and Gomorrah and the crowd tried to rape them. In the New Testament we are told that could be, like Abraham and Sarah, be entertaining angels without knowing it.
The Hebrew words which are translated as “angel” are “malak Elohim” which simply mean “messenger of God”. Our image of angels with wings and halos seems more grand than this simple description. The Book of Daniel is the first to offer any names for the angels and he names Gabriel – God's primary messenger - and Michael – a holy fighter. The first Christians, being Jewish, inherited the Jewish understanding of angels as messengers. They are seen as good, loving messengers of the Lord. Gradually other angels came to be named – Uriel and Raphael and, of course Lucifer as the fallen angel. By the fourth Century Christians were arguing about whether angels had bodies – after all they appeared to people in the Old Testament as humans – or if they were supernatural spirits. By the middle ages angels were seen as created beings who also worship and obey God but which are supernatural. Attention was drawn to the Psalms where the angels are addressed and urged to praise God as well as to passages in Revelation which describe the worship of Heaven. As supernatural beings they are asexual but often art depicts them as male – another example of maleness being assumed to be normative.
Catholics, in particular, have continued the theme of human interaction with angels and there were some old, pre 1960s, prayers to angels – to one's guardian angel asking it to watch over one as well as prayers to Michael the heavenly warrior – this prayer seemed to be directed against Communism.
Muslims also believe in angels, seeing them, like Christians and Jews, as messengers of God. There is a common belief in Islam of recording angels who make note of all our deeds and write up the positive and negative so that our deeds can be weighed on the day of judgement.
So what we can take from these ideas about angels for our own journeys of Christian discipleship?
First, it is ironic that in an age where people are increasingly interested in the spiritual, the Church seems, in an effort to appeal to modern people, less interested than ever in spiritual things! There has been an understandable effort to make Christianity seem rational and intelligible to modern people but that process has contributed to our increasing irrelevance. As the Church is busy apologising for the supernatural, the world is glued to TV shows about vampires and UFOs. In the vacuum left by the Church a range of whacky ideas has moved in. Yet we believe in the supernatural – we believe that Christ rose from the dead, that he meets us when we gather to worship, that he brings healing, that love is the strongest power in the universe – these are all ideas which are deeply rooted in the supernatural and in the Kingdom to come and are more interesting than vampires.
Second, in an age where we are in contact with more people than ever before we are increasingly isolated. Each morning I check my emails and log into Facebook. Through social media I catch up with friends in Manchester, London, Copenhagen, Canada and California. In an instant I can chat to friends in Australia. I don't know my next door neighbours names. It is easier than ever before to keep up with what is going on in the world but, at the same time, to feel estranged from that world. The Bible, again and again, talks about God interacting with our world through angels – His messengers. Abraham and Sarah entertained angels with some hunch of who they were, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that we unwittingly entertain angels. An Easter theme is recognising Christ in the stranger when we think of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus being unaware that the Risen Lord was walking with them. In offering hospitality we let God in as we open ourselves up to other people. As we make an effort to get to know our neighbours we open ourselves to God's loving kindness. As we make an effort to get out of our pews after worship and chat to folks we don't yet know in Church we find that we become enriched and blessed with the stories and spirituality of others. We let God in as we let others in – after all we open ourselves up to the possibility of entertaining angels.
Finally, we have a chance to share the angelic ministry. I don't believe, as Robin Williams seemed to, that we will become angels when we die. But we can share in the angelic ministry of being God's messengers. An Evangelical view of the Church is that we're heralds of the Gospel – we are called to proclaim the coming kingdom – the place where justice reigns, the place where there is no more sorrow or sickness, pain nor persecution, tears or trauma – the place where God dwells in our midst and where we, with the angels, see Him as he really is.