Frederick Buechner is one of my favorite writers. I don’t know of any contemporary writer who says anything clearer or more creative than Buechner, He has one book entitled “Wishful Thinking” which he subtitles “Theological ABC”. In this book he defines words, words that are common in our Christian vocabulary. He defines glory as “what God looks like when for the time being all that you have to look at him with is a pair of eyes.” He defines a glutton as “one who raids the icebox for a cure for spiritual malnutrition.”
Well I could spend the whole morning talking about definitions, but I simply do all this to share with you what Buechner says about angels. Listen to him: “Slight-of-hand magic is based on the demonstrable fact that as a rule, people see only what they expect to see. Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world to wish us well. Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t. An angel spreads his glittering wings over us, and we say things like “it was one of those days that made you feel good just to be alive”, or “I had a hunch every thing was going to turn out alright,” or “I don’t know where I ever found the courage.” (“Wishful Thinking,” Frederick Buechner, Harper & Rowe, Publishers, New York, 1973, P. 1-2)
We don’t talk about angels very much – do we? When was the last time you talked seriously about angels? When we do talk about them, we do so very vaguely. We think about them far more than we talk about them. Today, I want to talk about angels, because that’s what our scripture lesson is about. I’m not going to argue their nature and existence. I’m simply going to accept our text today. The Bible never debates that angels do work in our lives. God said to the Hebrews, “Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared.” (Exodus 23:20)
How do angels minister to us?
Note first, the purpose of the angel, God sent to Israel. “I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared.” The purpose of the angel was to guard and to guide. He was to guard them on the way and lead them to the place which God had prepared for them.
I think it’s easy for us to think in terms of guidance.
There have been those times in all our lives when we’re certain that we were being guided by a power not our own.
The confusion comes, however, at the point of the function of the angel to guard us. Now to be sure, there is the aspect of protection in this. God protected the Israelites against all their enemies, blessed their bread and their water. And as the scripture says, “He took sickness away from the midst of them.”
Many of us can testify to the protecting hand of God in our lives and in the lives of our family. But, that’s not always the case. Christians die tragic deaths. Trouble intervenes in a Christian family, and rips the fabric of that family, sometimes to shreds. The rain is always falling on the just as well as the unjust.
So, what is the truth of this guarding, this protecting work of the angel of God in our lives?
I think the protection is at the point of our integrity of commitment, our steadfastness in the faith. There is a hint of it in verse 21 of our text: “You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces.” Then verse 25: “You shall serve the Lord your God.”
The promise is not that we would be safe but that we would be faithful. The angel of God does not always spare us from tragedy or troubles, but enables us to look at tragedy troubles through different eyes.
There’s the story about the three-year-old child who was visiting his aunt, and at night, he begged for the hall light to be left on and his bedroom door to be kept ajar. His aunt reminded him that he was never afraid of the dark when he was at home. To which he responded, “Yes, but there, it’s my dark.”
That’s the protection, the guarding, that the angel of God provides for us. He makes the dark our dark because He’s with us in it.
Sometimes in our pain and misery, in our trials and tribulations, we get to thinking that if God’s angels are there they certainly are not active. If they’re in the midst of our trouble and tribulation, we want to know, what good are they? We don’t see them, they don’t do anything.
Again, we need to remember that we are not protected in the sense of being safe. All the saints have agreed to this. Simone Weil said, “If you want a love that will protect the soul from wounds, we must love something other than God.”
So, the guarding, guiding ministry of God’s angels is the ministry of keeping us faithful, giving us a new way of seeing things that enable us to be courageous, and joyful, to know inner peace even in the midst of trouble and turmoil.
Do you remember Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”? Atticus was a wise and generous man in that novel. He tells his son, Jem, about an old woman who was dying of cancer. Her name is Mrs. Dubose. She’s been a bitter critic of Atticus for his insistence on equal rights for Blacks in that small Southern town. So Jem hates the old woman for criticizing his father. But Atticus wants Jem to see the greatness of this cantankerous old woman. For years, she’d taken morphine at her doctor’s orders, to ease her pain; eventually, she became a morphine addict. As it became clear that her days were numbered, she became determined to end her addiction to morphine before she died so that according to her, would die beholden to nothing, to nobody. Jem reads to her day by day as she endures the pain of not taking the morphine. After her death, Atticus says to Jem: “I want you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand, courage is when you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway, and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all 98 pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.” (p. 105, quoted by Robert A. Rains, To Kiss the Joy, pp. 111-112)
That’s what God was saying to the Israelites. They would have nothing between them and him. They would be beholden to nothing and to nobody. That’s what verse 24 says: “You shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do according to their works.”
But not only making us courageous, the angel of God makes us joyously courageous. That’s the reason we can talk about weeping for joy. Joy lies between tears and laughter. Someone has said that the soul would have no rainbows had the eyes no tears. Did you get that? It’s the great gift of the angel of God, who enables us to sing with Paul and Silas at midnight in prison; and to claim with Paul amongst his prison chains, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
So, the guiding ministry of God’s angels is the ministry of keeping us faithful, giving us a new way of seeing things which enables us to be courageous and joyful, and that leads to inner peace even in the midst of trouble and turmoil- God’s angel gives inner peace even in the midst of trouble and turmoil.
Note a third fact. God sends his angels to guide and guard us, to undergird and comfort us, to minister to us at the point of our need. Here it is in a story. A minister tells it, and it will be more effective if I tell it in his own words:
This morning I was awakened by the telephone. The anguished voice of a parishioner informed me of the sudden death of his only child, seven years old. He begged me to come as quickly as possible, for his wife had closed herself off in a bedroom in a speechless state of total despair. I dressed and, before leaving I prayed. What did this woman need? Peace! I prayed that God would give her peace.
When I arrived at the house I was met at the door by the husband, the look on his face telling the grief which consumed him. With a motion of his hand, he pointed out the bedroom I went in. The blinds were closed. I could vaguely distinguish the form of a woman lying fully clothed on the bed. Her eyes were closed and her face expressed no emotion. I leaned over and took her hand, but she made no movement. I mumbled a few words of sympathy and sat down beside the bed.
I remained there without a word, immobile as she, and the phrase kept tumbling over in my mind, “I am here to bring you peace,” but I could not speak a word.
The time passed painfully, interminably, and each time I found myself mentally formulating a sentence that would wreak the silence, something said to me gently but inescapably, “Be quiet!” So I continued to be silent. I didn’t even know if the woman was aware of my presence. I had no idea how long the silence was lasting. Then, fifteen…twenty minutes…maybe longer, I’ll never know.
Suddenly her eyes opened and her face turned towards me. Her hand motioned to me. And then I heard…yes, I heard these words coming from the depth of her sorrow:
“Pastor, give me peace.” I had not said a word. Now I replied, “Yes, that is why I have come.” I knelt down beside her bed and placed my hands on her forehead and said, “I give you peace in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
I had given the gift of peace to one who was dying for lack of it. Some months later we met again, and she said to me, “I shall never forget how you gave me peace. I remember the moment and the peace returns…thank you!” (Quoted by Dr. Robert C. Brubaker, First United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan)
Somewhere Henry Drummonds tells the story of two artists who were commissioned to paint pictures that would express peace.
The first artist painted a peaceful environment: a mountain lake that was calm, quiet, tranquil, serene. Green hills, ringed with tall pine trees, served as background as well as reflection in the mirror-like surface of the lake. This is the picture of peace for those who believe peace comes from the outside in.
The second artist painted a very turbulent scene with violent waterfall crashing down jagged chunks of granite rock. Sound like home or the place where you work? But he added something. Alongside the waterfall was a slender birch tree with its fragile branches reaching just above the crashing foam. And in the fork of one of the branches was a bird’s nest. In the nest lying calmly was a bird. The bird was not oblivious to the fragile nature of its security – in this case a slim branch – but knew that if the branch breaks, it had wings.
That is the picture of the inner peace God’s angel gives us. Knowing that even in a turbulent environment we have options. “When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take that step into the darkness of the unknown,” wrote Patrick Overton, “we just believe that one of two things will happen: There will be something solid for us to stand on, or, we will be taught how to fly.”
Remember that in the presence of Christ – here in bread and wine, we have something to stand on – but also – the power to fly.
There’s a marvelous story about Teresa of Avila, one of the great saints of the church. She was journeying in her wagon with the curtain topped, and was determined to get to Burgos even though it meant crossing the flooded Arlanzon River on an improvised bridge of pontoon floats that were swimming in water. When the carriage toppled over and forced her to wade to shore in water halfway up her legs, she cried out, “Lord, amid so many ills, this comes on top of all the rest,” and then she heard the Lord say to her. “That is how I treat my friends.” And the message drew from her the tart reply, “Ah, my God, that is why you have so few of them!”
And, we’re like that aren’t we? With friends like God’s angels, we sometimes wonder who needs any enemies. But if we stay with it, if we stay open to that guiding and guarding ministry of the angel of God, then we’ll be back in the groove again, as was Theresa of Avila, who could later pray, “Oh God, we thank you for the bad roads, and thank you, dear Lord, for the fleas.”
(This story recalled by Douglas B. Steere, “Together in Solitude,” The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1982, p. 191)
So, we are not protected in the sense of being safe. All the saints have agreed to this. Simone Weil put it well, “If you want a love that will protect the soul from wounds, we must love something other than God.” (“Gravity and Grace,” London: Routledge and Keegan, Paul, 1952, p. 22).
What then is the nature of this guarding, guiding ministry of angels? Again, as I said earlier, it is the ministry of keeping us faithful, giving us a new way of seeing things that enables us to remain courageous and joyous, even in the midst of trouble and turmoil.