Readings: Isaiah 63: 7-9; Hebrews 2: 10 – end; Matthew 10: 13 – end
Preacher: Ruth Martin
It is one of the facts of our life today that the church rarely talks about angels, and rarely talks about heaven. Our world view has shifted so much from the poetry of the bible where heaven is above us, and earth below heaven, and heaven has its angels, and heavenly hosts, that it is almost as if in leaving behind some of the language of our scriptural heritage about heaven and angels, we have lost what it might mean to be alert to the presence of God.
The church’s embarrassment about talking about heaven and angels also sets us apart from many of our community. In 2011 a survey found that more than 30% of people in this country believed in angels, and only slightly less, 29% believe in guardian angels for them and their children.
Joseph believed in angels.
We know from the Gospel of Matthew that Joseph set aside convention by going ahead with his marriage to Mary even though she was expecting a baby that was not his in a society where unmarried mothers would have been at risk of what we would call ‘honour killings’; yet Joseph went ahead because he listened to a message from an angel.
In doing what he believed to be right, rather than what was conventionally expected of him, Joseph pushes a boundary, and achieves a higher level of righteousness , where doing what he believes God wants him to do, takes precedence over what his family and friends would have probably urged him to do.
The ‘angels of the Lord’ are crucial for the amazing moment when God sent his only son to earth as a helpless baby, but Joseph, Mary, the Wise Men and the Shepherds, all played their part in listening to the angels at this extraordinary time. It is scripturally the case that angels are described as dazzling in appearance; the angelic messengers we know, such as Gabriel, form the connection between heaven and earth, God’s ‘heavens opening’, messengers to announce how God took human form in Jesus- the bridge between God and Gods people, the bridge between heaven and earth.
In our Gospel today Joseph has two more visits from angels- one urging him to flee to Egypt straight away ‘ get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt….’
Then another, equally directive in style
‘get up, take the child and his mother and go the land of Israel because those that were seeking the child’s life are dead’
Joseph not only believed in angels, and heard their messages, he trusted they were from God, and in acting on them, showed that he had a radical trust in God.
Just as the baby Moses, found in the bulrushes, had a precarious risky start to life, but went on to be the leader of his nation struggling to escape from slavery, so Jesus has his precarious start to life, poor, homeless and at risk from the death squads of his day. In both situations God chose to speak through the actions of loving adults, through human beings who were called to act in a righteous way.
Not always does someone motivated by what is right succeed, and the ultimate sacrifice of people driven to do what they think is right, but overcome by the ruthless brutal power of others, particularly through a vengeful violent state, is as familiar to us today as it would have been in those tremulous first days we celebrate this season = when God become human as well as divine.
We only need to pause and think of South Sudan, Syria, to grasp how this continues to overshadow lives today.
Yet we know that for there to be hope, and for future generations to know joy and peace there has to be a trust in God and a willingness for his servants on earth today to have that radical trust.
In his book about truth in times of crisis, Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop in South Africa, remarks about the church of Saint Egidio in Rome, where the crucifix has no arms, and points out that God relies on us to do God’s work in the world, we are God’s arms.
The Greek term aggelos, pronounced angellos, means messenger and does not differentiate between human messengers and divine messengers.
We may or may not have had occasions where we believe the presence of God has become so real that we sense the presence of angels protecting us or warning us, or alerting us. But we probably all know people who for us embody that radical trust in God which enables us to listen to them attentively if they try to offer well meant insights.
Joseph is one such man. He placed his trust in God at times of crisis, acted, and Mary trusted his actions in protecting her and her child. Josephs faith is not just ‘religion by the book’ or the law of his times, he is alert to God in the moment, ready to obey God’s unpredictable Spirit.
As we pause to take in the joy and wonder of this Christian season, knowing that the dark clouds of Herod’s fury in the Gospel are a foretaste of an ugly death to come for Jesus in his adult life, and that the wise men will bring presents that indicate suffering as well as majesty, let us pray that we too are alert to God in the moment , and will sense God’s presence in our own lives, and be ready to act in a righteous way when any human need requires our action. Amen.