Pastors are supposed to bring the finished carving into the pulpit not the woodchips. They are to bring the completed sermon not all the material, notes, and research that went into it. The woodchips distract from the carving. When it comes to angels, however, there are a lot of chips that could be carvings in their own right.
The first chip is that you don't become an angel when you die. You will find few Lutherans and no Confessional Lutherans who believe this. This is the stuff of Hollywood, the unchurched, the sentimental. One, it's contrary to Scripture. Angels are supernatural, created beings. Their number is uncountable, but no more are being made. Hebrews 12:22 says there are "an innumerable company of angels." That's the Greek word myriad. Singular it means 10,000; plural it means uncountable. Unlike humans they aren't created in the image of God and they don't reproduce.
If when the Christian dies he became an angel, that would be a demotion. Hebrew 1 says angels serve Christians. Hebrews 2 says it is to the redeemed that God has subjected the world to come, and that includes angels. Hear Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:3: "Do you not know that we will judge angels?" Finally, God didn't take on angelic nature but human nature. God the Son descended into the Virgin Mary not to become an angel but a man.
So angels aren't former people, and angels aren't anemic or feminine. There are several 19th century paintings titled "Guardian Angel." They're in different settings but all of them show not just an angel female in form but one anemic and chalk faced. First, the only named angels in Scripture are male names: Michael and Gabriel. Second, whenever angels appear in Scripture they are male in form. Third, whenever Scripture mentions them the pronouns are masculine. Fourth, Jesus doesn't say angels are neither male nor female but that they don't marry.
"Every angel is terrifying" that's what Austrian poet Rainer Rilke wrote in a 1923 poem, and he's right. When angels appear in Scripture, it's a repeat of the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. People are "sore afraid." The angel of death that didn't pass over Egypt, the angel that killed 185,000 Assyrians, the angel that flipped the stone away from Jesus' tomb weren't anemic in look or feminine in form. They were more like the angel on the cover of the order of service. Angels don't need to take on human form to serve and protect, but when they do they are hail and hearty.
One important woodchip that too often gets left on the study floor is that angels are all about Jesus. Our world happily talks about angels. Every 20 years or so they come back in vogue. Angel pins, angel posters, angel pictures, angels in art, in song, in TV shows. But when Hollywood or Americana gets hold of them they are always detached from Jesus, and what do you call an angel apart from Jesus? A devil, a demon.
We know angels are all about Jesus because we find Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear Jesus. We find in Luke 2 first one angel then literally an army of angels announcing the birth of the Christ-child. Fast-forward 30 years and we find angels ministering to Jesus in the wilderness. Go about 3 more years and we find Jesus assuring His disciples in Gethsemane that He could call upon the Father and He would send to His rescue 12 legions of angels; that's 60,000 of them. And who first proclaims Christ is risen? Angels. Who proclaims that Christ will come again bodily on the Last Day? Angels. And who does Scripture make a point of saying will accompany Him? Angels. Mark, 2 Thessalonians, and Jude say Christ returns gloriously, with myriads of powerful angels.
We tend to think of angels as blind forces like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Released from the Ark of the Covenant it thoughtlessly drifts through the Nazis melting them. But angels are personal, individual beings. Here is a big woodchip that shows this. It's 1 Peter 1:10-12: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spiritin them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you.Even angels long to look into these things."
Here you have the prophets searching their own writings to come to a better understanding of Christ's sufferings and the glory that would follow. That's quite a picture in itself, but then almost casually Peter adds, "Even angels long to look into these things." "Look into" is the Greek word to "stoop." It's translated that way all 3 times someone stoops to look into the empty tomb of Jesus. Here's the picture: see angels bent over at the waist, hands on knees, peering down from heaven, transfixed by what lengths God is going to redeem the fallen children of humanity.
Hear the angels exclaim: "What? He's taking on flesh and blood!" "What? He's being born under the Law taking on all the obligations of mortal men!" "What? His Father is handing Him the cup of wrath against the sins of the world!" "What? He's drinking it!" "What? He's being hailed as King of the Jews one moment and being nailed to a cross the next because He is!" "What? The Father is turning away from Him on the cross abandoning Him to face all the powers of hell and bear all God's wrath against sinners till none is left!" "What? He's dying! What? He's being buried in a stone cold tomb!" The angels wonder at the lengths God went to in order to redeem fallen mankind. And it wasn't even done for them but for us!
The ministry of angels that we take for granted, ignore, or don't believe in was won for us drop by bloody drop, lash by painful lash, sigh by wretched cry. And the angels are complicit in it. It's like in a movie or novel where one gives his life for others. But this is not a case where the hero knocks the other one unconscious so he can save him; this is where someone stands by and lets the other take the fall.
I know this because the angels do nothing for 40 days and nights while Jesus is tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. Once Jesus had resisted the temptations of the Devil in our place, as a Man, then Scripture says, "The angels came and ministered to Him." And every year we sing about what happened on Palm Sunday. "The angel armies of the sky/ Look down with sad and wondering eyes/ To see the approaching Sacrifice." The next time an angel appears is in Gethsemane where he strengthens Jesus so He's able to drink all of God's wrath, suffer for all sins, pay the last full measure in our place. It was like the State making a person well so it can execute him.
The endgame of angels was not to protect Jesus from suffering but our salvation. Likewise their endgame for us is not to protect us from danger; that's not their ultimate goal. Their ultimate goal is our salvation. Hebrews 1:14 says that angels are ministering spirits sent to help those who will inherit salvation. They never work against our inheritance. Jesus says in Luke 15 that what rejoices the angels in heaven is when a sinner repents.
We have the ministry of angels only in connection with the Jesus who saves us. Here the woodchips fly fast and many. Jesus in John 1 says that the angels of God ascend and descend on Him alone. There's no other pathway from the realm of God to the realm of men, from eternal heaven to temporal earth. And Jesus assures us in Matthew 18 that our angel who stands guard, keeps watch, never sleeps always beholds the face of His Father. Just what does that angel see? You know. Jesus says, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father." And Paul says that we have "the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God." Where? "in the face of Christ."
So wherever Jesus is there His angels are doing not our bidding, but His. They are serving the endgame of our eternal salvation not necessarily giving us "a peaceful easy feeling", not promising us a rose garden but leading us always toward the Rose of Sharon. And where He is according to His promises, there we know the angels are.
Galatians 3 says that as many of you who have been baptized you have been clothed by Christ. Baptismal water is on your skin; Christ is as close to you as water is to skin. That's how close His angels are. In Ezekiel angels are sent to mark those who belong to God. That mark is the Hebrew letter tau which is an X-shaped cross. In Baptism you have been so marked with the sign of the cross. As people cross their fingers for luck or use them to express their college football allegiance, so the people of God have used the sign of the cross to remind themselves that they have been baptized, and if baptized into Christ then protected and served by His angels.
You use the Word. Hear it, read it, study it, pray it, sing it. One of the things demons do is snatch God's Word from the hearts of people so they don't believe it. That's what Jesus says in the parable of the sower. If demons attend to the Word how much more so do angels of the Word made flesh? Whether hearing, reading, studying, praying, or singing the Word we are not alone. The angels of God are with us.
We confess as much every week in the celebration of Communion where our Lord Jesus returns to us in Bread and Wine. Since the earliest times of Christianity, the Church has confessed that She is worshipping with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. In the Sacrament heaven and earth touch as we - people, angels, and the saints of heaven - gather round the same Jesus singing: "Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord Hosanna!" "Hosanna" means "O save now!" And save He does giving us His Body and Blood for forgiveness of sins now, life today, and salvation forever. And the angels shout for joy once more.
That's more than woodchips. That's comfort on the cold, dark nights of doubt and fear. Woodchips you know are good for kindling warm, bright fires. Hebrews 1 says that the Lord makes his angels flames of fire. Angelic woodchips then make brilliant, toasty, fires. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Michael and All Angels (20150927)