1 Advent A ANGELS AMONG US SERIES
It was a dark and snowy night…No, seriously, it was a dark and snowy night, with big flakes pelting the window shield of my car. I had just finished my Sunday duties as an intern at Messiah Lutheran Church in Elliottsburg, Pennsylvania. Messiah is a rural congregation that is nestled among beautiful, rolling hills in dairy farming country, about an hour north of Gettysburg. My host family for the week had fed me supper, and I was headed back to Gettysburg Seminary which includes traveling down a steep and winding mountain road. As I made my descent, I began to feel my tires begin to slide a bit on the slick asphalt. So I took my time, and breathed a sign of relief, when I reached level ground.
But my journey that night was far from over. About two miles later, one of my tires blew out with a loud bang. I pulled over to the side of the road, and went to retrieve the spare tire from my trunk. As fate would have it, my spare trie was flat as well. I knew I was in serious trouble. My car was going no where. It was Sunday night so no service stations were open. Plus there was the added bonus that I was out in the middle of nowhere and the snowfall had picked up its pace.
I threw up my hands in the air, and said “Well Lord, what am I gonna do now? I’m in serious trouble here.” It was the kind of trouble that we used to read about in Reader’s Digest where someone narrates their desperate struggle to survive against all odds. To say that I was scared would be an understatement.
The first thing I remembered from those survival stories is that the worst thing anyone can do is panic. So I took a deep breath, tried to calm myself, and closely surveyed the surrounding countryside. It was mostly acres of farm land and open space. But then I saw lights coming from a farmhouse that was less than a quarter mile down the road.
I made the decision to head for the house, tell them my tale of woe, and hope they were generous and kind souls. When I got to the door, an elderly lady answered. I introduced myself as Vicar Eck from Messiah Lutheran Church in Elliottsburg, and told her what had happened. Immediately a smile came across her face. She said “Why my nephew goes to church there and he owns the service station in town. Come on in, get yourself warm and I’ll give him a call.”
A few minutes later, her nephew, pulled up in his big pick-up truck. Long story short, he took my spare tire back to his shop, fixed it, and I was back on the road in less than an hour. Now most people would say that what happened to me was an extraordinary set of coincidences and lots of good luck. However, as I drove back to seminary I knew without a doubt that angels had visited me that night.
I figured there must have been one of them on each wheel, preventing my car from slipping off the mountainside in the middle of a snowstorm. Then they held my tire together until I reached the bottom of the mountain. Finally, they coordinated their efforts so that I ended up close to the only farmhouse for miles. Then the human angels took over and offered me a warm shelter, hospitality and a way back home.
Before this incident happened to me, I honestly never gave angels a second thought. But since that time, they have appeared in my life when I needed them the most. These days I carry an angel wing token on my keychain that was a gift from a friend. Raphael, who is the Archangel of healing, is someone I call on regularly to bring health and wellness to others, including myself.
This year’s Advent theme is “Angels Among Us.” As we look at the stories of angels in both the Old and New Testaments, my hope is that we will understand the role angels play in the lives of God’s people, both then and now. So, are you ready to believe in angels? It’s O.K. if you don’t. But stick with me over the next four weeks and see if I can’t change your opinion about these heavenly messengers.
The word “angel” first appears in the Bible in Genesis 16 where the angel of the Lord speaks to Hagar. Yes, there are cherubim and a flaming sword who guard the tree of life in Genesis 3, but the word “angel” does not appear until Genesis 16. The Hebrew word for angel is MALAK. It means “messenger, ambassador, representative or one sent.” It usually applies to divine beings, but it can also apply to humans. In the New Testament the word for angel is AGGELOS. It also means “messenger or delegate” It’s usage lines up with the Old Testament.
That being said, the message angels bring is not always good news of great joy for all the people. Sometimes angels bring words that are hard to hear, such as when Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy. They also warn us of impending danger, and even bust people out of prison. Guardian angels are also mentioned in the New Testament [Mt 18:10, Acts 12:15, Rev 1:20, etc.]. They watch over individuals as well as churches. Then there are the Archangels, who are not only mentioned in the Bible, but also in Jewish and Muslim literature.
Today’s angel story is a familiar one. It’s commonly known as Jacob’s ladder. Most of the time we hear this story in isolation. But if we know what led up to this angelic encounter it gives us a deeper appreciation for what’s happening in the story. Earlier in Genesis, Jacob had stolen his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing through lies and deception. He was hardly what we would call a righteous man. Esau threatens to kill him, and so Jacob flees to his Uncle Laban’s house. This story takes place while Jacob is on the run.
One evening, tired and worn out from being his journey, Jacob collapses and falls asleep. He uses a stone for his pillow which is pretty desperate in my book! While he was sleeping he had a vision of angels ascending and descending a CULLAM, a ladder or staircase. It reached from the earth to the very dome of heaven. These messengers were coming and going, doing the work God had called them to do, as emissaries of the Almighty. Perhaps they were there to remind Jacob that his life had a higher purpose than cheating and stealing.
Then the Eternal One stood beside Jacob, in what form we do not know, and said , “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south. And all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
This narrative absolutely blows me away. It tells us something about the nature of God and God’s messengers that we need to hear. Jacob was hardly a virtuous person. And yet, God met him where he was, running from his past mistakes and betrayals. Then God delivered a word of grace that the Holy One still had faith in Jacob. God would honor the covenant that was made with Jacob’s grandfather and father. God would walk with Jacob, until the Almighty fulfilled God’s calling for his life.
Isn’t that powerful? Isn’t that amazing grace that saved a wretch like Jacob, and like us? God meets us wherever we are, even when we are running for the mess our lives have become. God’s messengers speak words of grace, hope and healing, that tell us we are loved. God still believes in us and will not leave our side until all of God’s promises to us are fulfilled. Is it any wonder that Jacob exclaimed, “Surely the LORD is in this place and I did not know it! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate, the public meeting place, where earth and heaven meet.”
When Jacob arose early in the morning, he took his stone pillow, consecrated it with oil, and named the place Bethel which means “the house of God.” If we know the rest of the story, Jacob turned out to be a godly man. He was renamed Israel, the father of a nation.
Friends in Christ, this is a beautiful and powerful story! Going back to my angel encounter, I can say without a doubt that I did not deserve such a divine intervention. And yet, God was there. God’s holy angels held my car together and guided me safely to a place of hope and rescue. Like Jacob, I can only exclaim, “How awesome is this place! This snow-laden field in Elliottsburg, Pennsylvania, is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
The word of Good News I hear for all of us this morning, is that we cannot run away from God. We can give it a good try, but God runs after us across the dry desert and over winter landscapes to bring us a message of hope and healing. The message God and his holy angels sends us is the same one he spoke to Jacob: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
This is such a beautiful word of Good News, I can hardly stand it. As our nation faces challenging and changing times it is a promise I cling to with every fiber of my being. I encourage you to do the same. So, over the next four weeks as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, it is my prayer that our eyes will be looking for God’s presence, that shows up in unexpected place in our lives. May God’s holy angels deliver the word of Good News each of us needs to hear this holiday season. Amen.
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck