The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 10/22/95

Text:Luke 1:5-13a, 26-30 (Psalm 91:1-12)

To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Familiar stories. Two of the approximately 300 direct or indirect references in scripture to angels. That is a lot of talk about angels. Lots MORE talk in the world. Best seller lists regularly have popular titles about angels; book stores have whole sections devoted to angels. On TV Patty Duke hosted an NBC special called "Angels: The Mysterious Messengers." Michael Landon starred for five years as an angel sent to earth to assist mortals in "Highway to Heaven," and CBS currently has one in the same vein on Saturday nights' called "Touched by an Angel." Hillary Clinton has a gold angel pin she wears on days she needs help (1). Lots of interest.

According to a Time Magazine/CNN poll, 69% of American adults believe in the existence of angels; 46% believe they have their own Guardian Angel (2); almost one-third (32%) say they have, at one time or another, personally felt an angelic presence in their life (3). If there is such a thing as a universal idea, one that cuts across cultures and religions, common through the centuries, it is this belief in angels. Not only do Christians, Jews, and Muslims (the monotheistic religions) have angels, but Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism do too; winged figures appear in primitive Sumerian carvings, Egyptian tombs and Assyrian reliefs. Angels litter the metaphysical landscape from ancient times to the present.

What should we make of angels? Billy Graham was asked the question a couple of years ago in an interview and answered like this:

Angels belong to a uniquely different dimension of creation we can scarcely comprehend. God has given angels higher knowledge, power and mobility than we. They are God's messengers [and] ministering spirits, whose chief business is to carry out God's orders in the world. God has given them an ambassadorial charge, designated and empowered them as holy deputies. Angels speak. They appear and reappear...(4)
What does the Bible say about angels? (5) First of all, the term: "angel" is derived from the Greek word angelos which means "messenger." Angelos and the Hebrew equivalent, malak (which also means "messenger" [the book of Malachi = My Messenger]), are the two most common terms used to describe this class of beings. In general, in texts where an angel appears, the task is to convey the message or do something on behalf of God. Since the focus of the text is on the message, the messenger is rarely described in detail. Thus, the divine emissary may or may not be some sort of supernatural being.

Another set of terms used to describe angels focuses not on angels as mediators between God and us, but on God's heavenly entourage. Terms such as "sons of God," "holy ones," and "heavenly host" seem to focus on angels as CELESTIAL beings. As such, these variously worship God, attend God's throne, or comprise God's army. These terms are used typically in contexts emphasizing the grandeur, power, and/or mighty acts of God.

A third category of heavenly beings is that of winged angels. Cherubim and seraphim make their most memorable appearances in the visions of Ezekiel (1:4-28; 10:3-22) and Isaiah (6:2-6). Cherubim function primarily as guards or attendants to the divine throne. They were placed as armed guards at the entrance to the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were banished (and those cute cuddly pictures of chubby little cherubs does NOT reflect the Biblical image). Seraphim appear only in Isaiah's vision and there attend God's throne and offer praises. All three categories present us with heavenly beings in service to God. The text may focus on the service done or on the God served but rarely on the servants themselves. As a result we are left with a multitude of questions about the angelic host.

Some scholars suggest that a heavenly "host" (i.e. "army") must have order and that references to archangels (I Thess. 4:16; Jude 9) and a special class of angels which has intimate fellowship with God such as the seraphim of Isaiah 6:2-6, indicate that angels are organized in a rigidly fixed rank system. In the early Middle Ages, a writer who claimed to be Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34), took that idea and produced a ranking of angels. His schema was later adopted by Thomas Aquinas and was not seriously challenged until the Protestant Reformation. According to Dionysius, the angels are arranged in three ranks, each rank having three groups or "choirs." The highest rank (seraphim, cherubim, and "thrones") is closest to God. The second rank is made up of "dominions," "powers," and "authorities." The lowest rank - "principalities," archangels, and angels - has the most direct contact with humanity.

Intriguing. Also several ways. For example, some of the entities named ("powers," "dominions," "principalities") are not clearly identified in the Bible as angels at all. Others (cherubim and archangels) are never compared to one another in terms of rank. Perhaps most importantly, a pecking order which envisions the better angels communing with God and the lesser ones ministering to humanity has no foundation in the Bible. Scripture presents God directly involved with us. Thus, any hierarchy which serves to separate God from humanity by interposing a series of lesser beings should be suspect.

Another question: where did the angels come from? The Bible does not say other than to affirm that since only God is eternal, angels must therefore be created beings. "They are not ghosts nor are they spirits of the dead. They do not spend time trying to `earn their wings" like the sweetly ministering Clarence in the movie, It's a Wonderful Life." (6) No place in Christian theology do we find any reference to humans becoming angels.

What do angels look like? In the Bible, the appearance of angels varies. Only cherubim and seraphim are represented with wings. Often in the Old Testament angels appear as ordinary men. Sometimes, however, their uniqueness is evident as they do things or appear in a fashion clearly non-human. The brilliant white appearance common to the New Testament angel is not a feature of the Old Testament image.

How about gender? Are there boy angels and girl angels? Some point to Jesus words in Mark 12:25 about there not being marriage as we understand it in heaven; instead we will, to use his words, "be like angels;" many have interpreted that as meaning that angels are sexless. But then there is that passage in Genesis 6 which says "the sons of God (or "angels") saw that [the daughters of men] were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose." In other words, I would not bet the ranch on either position - the Bible is not clear here.

One of the biggest questions people have regards Guardian Angels? Do we have them? As I mentioned, lots of folks believe we do. The passage in Psalm 91 suggests YES: "he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone" (11,12). There is Jesus' comment in Matthew 18:10: "Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven."

Amy Grant sings a popular song called "Angels:" (7)

Angels watching over me, every move I make,
Angels watching over me!
Angels watching over me, every step I take,
Angels watching over me!

God only knows the times my life was threatened just today.
A reckless car ran out of gas before it ran my way.
Near misses all around me, accidents unknown,
Though I never see with human eyes
the hands that lead me home.

But I know they're all around me
all day and through the night.
When the enemy is closing in,
I know sometimes they fight
To keep my feet from falling,
I'll never turn away.

If you're asking what's protecting me
then you're gonna hear me say:
Got His angels watching over me, every move I make,
Angels watching over me!
Angels watching over me, every step I take,
Angels watching over me....

What do you think? In the comic strip "Family Circus," Billy comes into the house all tattered and torn. He looks like he has been in a wreck, then a fight, then dragged for a mile or two by a team of runaway horses. He asks, "Do guardian angels take days off?" (8)

There are all sorts of more positive accounts out there. For example, in Billy Graham's book, Angels: God's Secret Agents (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), one of the few books published in recent years that approaches angels from a very literal Biblical perspective, Billy tells the story of Dr. S. W. Mitchell, a celebrated Philadelphia neurologist (9). Dr. Mitchell had gone to bed after an exceptionally tiring day when suddenly he was awakened by someone knocking on his door. Opening it, he found a little girl, poorly dressed and deeply upset. She told him that her mother was very sick and asked him if he would please come with her. It was a bitterly cold, snowy night, and though he was bone tired, Dr. Mitchell dressed and followed the girl.

As the book recounts the story, the doctor found the mother desperately ill with pneumonia. After arranging for medical care, he complimented the sick woman on the intelligence and persistence of her little daughter. The woman looked at him strangely and then said, "My daughter died a month ago." She added, "Her coat and shoes are in the clothes closet there." Dr. Mitchell, amazed and perplexed, went to the closet and opened the door. There hung the very coat worn by the little girl who had brought him to tend to her mother. It was warm and dry and could not have possibly have been out on a wintry night.

Could the doctor have been called in the hour of desperate need by an angel who appeared as this woman's young daughter? Was this the work of God's angels on behalf of this woman? I cannot explain it.

I will say this: I DO have a problem with the concept. As I prepared this sermon, I came across the story (10) of a woman who says she was prevented from going into a certain building at a certain moment because she was held back by an unseen hand on her shoulder. She looked around, but saw no one nearby. She tried again and was stopped again. Whirling around, she still saw no one. But then she heard a clear voice: "It would not be wise for you to go in there just now." Hours later she learned that there was a woman murdered in the building, just after she would have entered. It could have been her - it probably would have been her, she thought. She got down on her knees and gave thanks. But the story raises a disturbing question: if she was actually saved by an angel, why did the other woman have to die? Where was HER angel? Are angels partial to certain humans -- does even God play favorites? Throughout history, similar stories have raised this question time and again, and I have never heard an answer that satisfies me.

Tony Kushner wrote a Pulitzer prize- and Tony award-winning Broadway play called Angels in America - it is about a divine messenger who ministers to a man with AIDS. Kushner is also troubled by the thought that angels appear to and take care of only some people and not others. "I find that horrendously offensive," he says, "The question is, why are you saved with your guardian angel and not the woman who was shot to death shielding her children in Brooklyn three weeks ago?" That suggests a capricious divine force. If there is a God, He can't possibly work that way." (11) I agree.

The biggest hazard in all this fascination with angels is that it can take people's focus off God, the God who created these ministering agents in the first place, the one who loves us and this whole world so much that God's own son Jesus Christ came to redeem us. Twice the angel messenger in Revelation tells John, "Do not [worship me]! I am a fellow servant with you and with your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!" (Rev. 19:10, 22:9)

Angels are a sign of God's interest in us, of God's desire to guide us. In the Bible God uses angels to guide people to begin new ventures, to protect themselves, to wait, to trust. There is no reason to think that God has stopped guiding people that way. "Scripture clearly stands on the side of those who believe that angels move among us - all the cultural fascination is not false." My advice is to keep your eyes open for angels... angels of all kinds. Do not confine yourself to wings and haloes. Just remember that, Biblically, the word we translate as ANGEL is just as correctly translated MESSENGER.

One messenger might be your conscience. "Ah, ah, ah." "Watch it." "Careful." Listen for that inner voice that keeps you from straying from the right path.

A second might be found in your dreams. This has great Biblical precedent - In the Old Testament, Abimelech, Jacob, Laban, Joseph, the Egyptian Pharaoh, Gideon, Solomon. In the New Testament, Joseph, the Wise Men, the wife of Pontius Pilate, to name a few. Analyze your dreams and their symbols (if you remember them), to see what they might be saying to you.

Third (and perhaps related to what we just said), look for angels in the form of loved ones who have died - Billy Graham's story of Dr. Mitchell has too many parallels from too many sources - believers as well as non-believers - to be totally dismissed.

Fourth, look for angels in the people around you every day. Over and over you have heard the story of Christie's challenge to me about my intention to go that church in Kansas instead of coming to St. Paul - that was an angelic message as sure as any I ever heard.

Finally, remain open to the idea of a visit from some celestial being. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy" (I, v, 166).

Angels. The Male Chauvinist husband might say, "My wife is an angel...always up in the air harping about something." No, we do not begin to have all the details available to us. But if you are interested in angels, be glad - it is a sign of a healthy hunger for the answers to the great mysteries. Listen for God's messengers and messages. Angels.

Let us pray.

O God, we are grateful for your ministrations to us from whatever source and in whatever form. Prepare us to accept them as they are sent. Then help us to grow in our faith. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen!

1. "Angels Among Us," Time, 12/27/93, p. 56

2. ibid.

3. ibid., p. 61

4. quoted in a Midwest Today profile, Dec. 1992

5. Much of the following comes from "Angels" by Mike Martin in the Holman Bible Dictionary, Electronic Edition, Parsons Technologies, 1994

6. Time, p. 59

7. Words & Music by Brown Bannister, Gary Chapman, Amy Grant, and Michael W. Smith

8. The Pastor's Story File, Oct. 1991, p. 5

9. pp. 14-15

10. Eileen Elias Freeman, Touched by Angels, (Warner Books)

11. Time, p. 65

The Presbyterian Pulpit Sermon Library

Mail Boxclick and send us mail