Let me tell you about my most important theological examination, and let me be clear in saying, I am not talking about any of my classes at Duke Divinity School. Piffle! Nor do I mean my appearances before the Board of Ordained Ministry. Pish-posh! Instead, I am referring to a theological examination I received almost immediately after beginning my first appointment as the associate pastor of Warwick Memorial United Methodist Church in Newport News. This examination was proctored over the telephone by a parishioner named Donia. She had reached out after worship one Sunday and told me she wanted to call and talk about a few things.
The phone rang, and the examination began. I need to know, Donia began, "Do you believe in angels?"
I thought about her question momentarily and replied, "I do."
And that was the end of the exam. I am very proud to announce that, according to Donia, I answered all of the questions correctly.
As we do each year, we will spend the liturgical season of Advent preparing for the coming of the Christ child into our world and into our lives, as well as looking towards the triumphant return of the glorified, risen Christ in the fullness of time. As the candles in our Advent wreaths bring flickering light into the abundant darkness of the world in this time and place, we look towards a time of shepherds, an innkeeper, a young, unwed mother and an anxious yet trusting husband-to-be, reverent beasts, and yes, an overabundance of angels.
In the birth narrative of Luke's gospel, we encounter a multitude of the heavenly host whose purpose seems to be to show up in the darkness, announce the birth of the messiah who is the Christ, to praise God, and to nearly scare the life out of a small group of unsuspecting shepherds who were just doing their jobs, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
I have to admit that when considering angels, I have never imagined them as the young cherubs of Raphael, and I have always struggled with any image of angels as warriors. In the early chapters of the Gospel of Luke, angels have struck me either as the court and choir of heaven or as purveyors of God's holy mischief in the world, as the angel Gabriel is when he administers a theology examination to Zechariah: There is only one question on this exam, and since you got it wrong, you will not be able to speak! or Hi, Mary! It's me, the angel Gabriel. Listen, I know you are young and unwed and everything, but what are you planning on for the next, oh, let's say, nine months or so?
It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was in the small town parsonage of the church I was serving at the time, recovering from that morning's worship, when the phone rang and a church member, a young mother, told me she needed to talk. "Would you like to talk now," I asked, "or would you like to meet sometime on Monday?" At least part of me was hoping she would choose the latter.
"Now," she told me, "I need to see you now."
We agreed to meet in my study at the church, and when we did, this is what she told me: "I have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I am scared, and I am angry, and I don't think I can come to worship anymore."
More than half a life spent in ministry has taught me that if the first thing that comes out of your mouth at a time like this is something good, something worth hearing, it is not you speaking. It is God.
After telling her how sorry I was about her diagnosis, I gave her a suggestion, which was this: try continuing to come to worship, just don't read the liturgy. Do not pray the prayers or sing the hymns, just listen to the voices of the people around you read the liturgy. Listen to them pray the prayers and listen to them sing the hymns. There is life in these words, and the people around you, the people whose voices you hear, will be the people who carry you through all that is to come.
Now, this was a small community that did not hold its secrets for long, and soon as we have all seen time after time, the United Methodist army began to slowly, discreetly follow its divine marching orders. Meals were delivered. The youth ministry reached out to the children. There were invitations to coffee and conversation. Survivors of breast cancer would reach out to me, saying "I know my story is not her story, but if you could, just let her know that I am always willing to talk."
Do you believe in angels? I do. I am not sure that I can fully embrace the chubby-winged entities of the Renaissance, but this I know: I have just witnessed too much not to believe in angels. The Epistle to the Hebrews chapter 13 talks about those who, by the simple act of hospitality to strangers, have "entertained angels without knowing it." But what if the opposite was true? What if it was possible for you and I to be the angels themselves without realizing it? What would happen if each of us, and each congregation of God's people were the purveyors of God's grace, mercy, and lovingkindness with each act of compassion, mercy, and generosity offered to another in need? What if, by the very way we live in this world of darkness, we were the bearers of God's light, light that the darkness cannot overcome?
What if, by each of these actions, we were, perhaps without realizing it, proclaiming the presence of the Prince of Peace and in so doing, joining our voices with the heavenly host, announcing peace on earth and goodwill to all?
A few months passed from that Sunday afternoon meeting in the study in the church. It was some time after surgery and pathology reports, and I received an email from that young woman, this wife and mother of two young children, where she told me this: "I tried what you said. I kept coming to church, and I just listened, and you were right. There are angels, angels everywhere."
May these seasons of Advent and Christmas be times of comfort and joy for you, and may you know that peace that passes all understanding that only comes from the advent of the Prince of Peace in this realm. May you be a light in this present darkness, even if you flicker, and may your life be an angelic witness to all that can be, through all that you are, and through all that you do.
And may your voice join the multitude of the heavenly host, not limited by time or by space, proclaiming the birth of the one whose name means "God with us," even here, even now.