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Sunday December 28, 1998
Matthew 2:13-23


Focus Text: "Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." [2:13]


Touched by an Angel

A British newspaper ran a story reported by the staff members of Dorsett County Hospital. It concerned a little boy's personal account of his recent tonsillectomy at the hospital. He said, "When I went into the big room it was very bright there were two lady angels dressed in white. Then two men angels looked down my throat and one said, 'God! Look at that child's tonsils.' Then God looked and said, 'I'll take them out at once'."

The lad obviously mistook a doctor for an angel. And yet, it seemed perfectly natural to him that angels should be in the operating room watching out for him. Are angels just a figment of a child's imagination?  Or, is there something to the whole ideal of angels with whom it is possible for human beings to experience a close encounter of the spiritual kind?  The popularity of the CBS show, "Touched by an Angel" has brought many to the question, "Is this stuff for real -- could I be touched by an angel?"

How are we to treat our scripture this morning where Joseph has another encounter with an angel? This is one of 305 references to angels in the bible. That's 35 more references than there are to the word faith.

During the Advent and Christmas season we've all heard and sung the traditional songs:

"'Hark the herald angels sing..."
"Angels from the realms of glory..."
"Angels we have heard on high..."
"'While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground..,
       the angel of the Lord came down..."
"It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old..,
      from angels bending near the earth..."
"Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation..."
"The first noel, the angels did say... "

And... all of our traditional Christmas stories speak of:

     An angel who brought news to Mary that she would be with child by the Holy Spirit...
     An angel who told Joseph not to break it off with Mary...
     An angel who broke through the heavens to tell shepherds that the
        Savior had been born...

And then there is our scripture reading for today where an angel of the Lord tells Joseph to flee to Egypt and later that it was safe to leave Egypt.   Finally, an angel warns him to stay away from Judea and the town of Nazareth becomes home for the holy family.

In our modern, sophisticated, scientific, rational world, is there a place for all this singing and reading and discussion of angels?

In many quarters of the modern church there is a distinct prejudice against all things supernatural. Morton Kelsey, in a book called, Dreams, A Way to Listen to God, asks the question, "Why has the modern church, for the most part, ceased to become a channel for humankind to experience the power of Christ?" Answering the question, Kelsey says, "The sad answer to this question is that the Christie; philosophies of the past three hundred years have overlooked the fact that God wants to come into contact with men and women and that they can actually know and experience God."

I would add to Kelsey's comments that Christian theology in this century developed along the lines of a strong anti-supernatural bias and many, have dismissed miracle stories, healing accounts and reports of angels as "myth". The fact is however, that it has been some theologians and clergy who are out of touch.  In various surveys, as many as 39% of people interviewed have reported having spiritual or mystical experiences where they experienced God in a personal way. (Guess who the last person many of these people say they would tell about their experience?  You got it -- their parish pastor or priest. Why?  One woman answered, "They (the clergy) don't believe in that kind of thing."

What I want to do today is to briefly answer three questions:

1. Are there really angels?
2. What are the angels in today's scripture all about?
3. What does the subject of angels have to do with you?

I. ARE THERE REALLY ANGELS?

* The short form answer -- in my opinion -- "Yes!"

* By angels, I do not necessarily mean beings with long silky white hair, white robes and sprouting a large pair of wings.  I would simply suggest that the possibility that besides human beings, there might well be spiritual beings in this universe - not of the human kind.

* In Hebrews 1:14, the bible says, "Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?" There is an example of this in Matthew 4:11 when Matthew says angels came to Jesus at the end of his period of temptation to minister to him.

* It seems to me to be important to say we must not go further than scripture goes with this topic even as we resist outright rejection of angel stories.  The bible tells us all we need to know for our relationship with God, but it does not tell us all we may want to know.

II. THE ANGELS IN JOSEPH'S DREAMS

* Give Guidance:  Joseph had gone through some of the toughest times of his life beginning with the discovery of Mary's pregnancy. It is in this context that an angel comes to give guidance.

* Speak to Joseph's Fear: "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife"

* Give Direction: "Call him Jesus."   "Flee to Egypt."  "It's okay to leave Egypt."   "Settle in Nazareth"

* Bring God's Message:  The key in most stories regarding angels in the bible is that they bring a message from God.  A dream might have an angelic (message bearing) function without the actual appearance of a supernatural being.

III. WHAT DOES THE SUBJECT OF ANGELS HAVE TO DO WITH YOU?

*  Remember the function... To bring a message from God - To bring strength, hope, peace - that is to minister to you in your inward spirit.

* You may not ever be aware of an angelic presence.., but the whole subject can keep you open spiritually. The lesson for us is that we can expect to hear from God... inwardly ... in our spirits.

* You may also trust that God is with you no matter what the circumstance... There may be times when you wonder, but God is there and it is very possible that the Lord may have a personal representative at your side during your toughest times.

***

This is a very personal message in some ways.  Some folks are mistrusting of "angel" stories because the evidence is almost always anecdotal.  If Joseph himself could speak with us today, he would tell his experience of hearing from an angel.  And we might say how.  Joseph would reply, "Well, I had this dream and..."  We might say, "Oh, no wonder -- he was dreaming." I have to tell you that I emerged from seminary 30 years ago with a distinct prejudice against things of this sort.  It is thirty years of ministry -- especially in times of life threatening crisis and even death -- that has opened me up to the reality and the importance of this topic. At the same time, I need to affirm that this topic opens up the possibility of all kinds of foolishness -- or in a less kind word -- craziness!

Yet, being closed to the topic may render us just as foolish in the end.  Of course, angel stories are anecdotal -- and some folks probably make them up, but if you are open to the spiritual world, there will be a story at one time or another that will ring true with your spirit -- or you might even yourself be "Touched by an Angel."

[You might close with your own "angel story" -- this one is from a woman in our parish whose experience I genuinely trust.   Her name is Patti and she writes:]

On that morning, I knew my brother’s time was very short. After sitting with him for four hours of very difficult breathing, I decided to call a chaplain. If not for Steve, then for myself. He had been incoherent all morning. I knew this was the end. His breaths were getting farther apart.

The chaplain arrived within an hour. She was a great comfort. Her own brother was dying of cancer. She understood my pain. I told her about Steve's' religious background, including his interest in the Bible the last few days.

We went to Steve's room encircled his bed and said a prayer. ! had told the chaplain earlier of a conversation I'd had with my cousin about how God could let this go on and on. It had been weeks of pain and suffering. Steve was totally disoriented during this time. It seemed so unfair.

I asked the chaplain to pray for God to help him, and get rid of anything holding him here. She did this. She asked the Angels to come and protect him, and to show him his way to Heaven. I asked her to please read some verses from the Bible about Heaven and it's beauty so Steve would not be afraid. I whispered in his ear to go with the Angels.

As we sat with him, I looked out the window and saw five white birds flying above us. Always staying together, two small and three large. They were beautiful. They looked like egrets, which are water birds. This was odd, since we were in the middle of a huge city with no water around.

By now we had realized the birds were not out there before the chaplain had arrived. They never left for the next two hours until Steve passed away. It was then that we realized they were gone. We never saw them again.

When I returned home, I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom looking through some pictures. I looked up at the picture my brother had just recently bought and had framed for me. There in the picture were the white birds.

***

As you enter the new year, may you discover the grace and guidance of God and may you be touched by an angel!

 


Notes On The Text

The lectonary readings for this Sunday are among the more diverse for communions who normally follow the Revised Common Lectionary. The Revised Common and Roman Catholic lectionaries use - Matthew 2:13-23 for the RCL and 2:13-15, 19-23 for the Roman Catholic. The Episcopal uses John 1:1-18 for today.

The Epistle is different for RCL: Heb. 2:10-18; Roman Catholic: Col. 3:12-21 and Episcopal: Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:4-7

The O.T. lesson is RCL: Isaiah 63:7-9; Roman Catholic: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 and Episcopal Isaiah 61: 10 - 62:3

The Revised Common Lectionary readings (including the Psalm 148) are linked by the mention of angels in each passage. There are also some links among all the readings with the issue of family seen as the family of God or family of faith in Isaiah, Hebrews and John (1:9-13). See alternate sermon ideas for suggestions along the line of family -- especially for communions which observe this family as The Holy Family.

***

v.13 Some make a distinction between "an" angel of the Lord and "the" angel of the Lord. There is some legitimacy to this in that "The" angel of the Lord as in Exodus 3:2 is a manifestation of God, or theophany ("appearance or showing" of God).   "An" angel of the Lord as in the Matthew text is a messenger of God.   Yet, the linguistic analysis doesn't always hold true as in Acts 7:30-31 when Stephen refers to Moses experience at the burning bush and says, "...there appeared to him {Moses} in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush..."   The function of the angels in the Luke and Matthean birth accounts is that of messengers from God.

"escape to Egypt"  Travel to Egypt was a common occurrence for Jews.  According to Philo in about AD 40 there were close to a million Jews living in Egypt. In Gen. 46 Jacob and his family flee to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan.  The trip was about 75 miles from Jerusalem to the border.

v.15 "This was to fulfill what had been spoken..."  This along with other Matthean fulfillment themes can only be properly understood in terms of the larger sense in which N.T. writers see Jesus as fulfilling the whole messianic expectation of Israel.  The actual text of Hosea 11:1 "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt" refers to the whole nation of Israel.  This is the sense used in the N.T. letter to the Hebrews when the whole sacraficial system is seen as coming to fulfillment in the sacrafice of Christ.  It will not work to attempt an precise parallel between Matthew's fulfillment affirmations and specific references to messiah in O.T. texts referred to.

v.16 D.A. Carson notes that most modern commentators discount the story of the slaughter of the innocents, believing Matthew made the story up to draw an analogy between Jesus and Moses or as an initial sign of God's iompending judgment on Israel for rejecting messiah.  Carson and Barclay reject this with the proposition that this act would be very much within the character of Herod.  The fact that the incident is not mentioned in non-Christian literature would not be exceptional in that Bethlehem was as  small town and the murder of what would have been about 12 children would not have drawn much attention in such violent times.

v.17 There is some support for Carson and Barclay (among others) in the construction of "thus was fulfilled".   The construction lacks the greek "ina" -- or "in order that... it might be fulfilled."  The action referred to as fulfillment is so horrible that the writer puts the fulfillment action in a passive mode instead of the more active -- "This happened so that it might be fulfilled..."  Inclusion of the story seems to argue more for its authenticity than the reverse.

v.19 Joseph's fourth dream and third mention of "an angel of the Lord"

v.22 A fifth and final dream in Joseph's protection of the Christ child.  There is an interesting parallel with the Joseph (son of Jacob / Israel) in the Genesis story.  Joseph is the one who protects and saves Israel.  It is his dreams that got him into Egypt.  In Genesis 50:20 Joseph tells his brothers that even though they intended harm for him -- "God intended it for good..."  The story of both Josephs gives an amazing account of the providence of God working through persons. One Joseph saved Israel and the other saved the One who would be for the salvation of Israel.

v.23 There is no such verse in the O.T.  Matthew's construction once again does not include the "ina" -- "in order that it might be fulfilled".  Several possibilities are suggested as Matthew's intent and most of them are tortured.   Carson suggests a more interesting concept.  As Nazareth was a "despised" place even to Galileans, so also messiah would be "despised of men." This is not fulfillment of a specific O.T. verse, but of an O.T. concept.


Alternate Sermon Ideas

The Holy Family and Our Family  
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 (Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 with Col.3:12-21 for Roman Catholic)

The role of Joseph as protector of the Holy Family is highlighted in the Matthew passage. Joseph is the one who receives guidance from the Lord and uses this guidance to protect and lead his family. The essential ingredient for Joseph is the fact that he is obedient to the guidance God gives. All of the messages in the world from angels of the Lord are pointless unless we actualize them with the energy of obedience.

Roman Catholic hometicians may bring in the passage from Sirach to show the role of the children in receiving the authority of the parents.  God blesses those who receive this authority.  (Not an autonomous or arbitrary authority, but one grounded in parents who are receiving guidance from and being obedient to God's direction for them.)

The Colossians passage contains the most wonderful ingredients for the functioning of any family. The last few verses, however will energize your listeners when you come to, "Wives, be subject to your husband..."   Yet, when you add, "And husbands love your wives and NEVER treat them harshly..."  Actually, there is no subjection of one person to another person anywhere in the N.T. unless there is first subjection to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

No matter how you treat this, we need to make it clear that in the family of faith and in our personal families it is the Lord who is head of the household. We can not translate the experience of Christian families to the experience of families at large in the world around us. Democracy, for instance, is great -- but the church is not a democracy -- even the Congregational church.  There is no genuine Christian Church that does not confess the Lordship/Headship of Jesus Christ.   This notion of "Lordship" or "Headship" doesn't fly in the secular world.

One of the most powerful messages in all of scripture when it comes to family living, is the fact that once Joseph's protective, guiding, saving role is completed, we do not hear from him again except for the very brief episode in Luke's gospel when Jesus was separated from Joseph and Mary when he was 12.

John 1:1-18  Episcopal Gospel

Just a brief suggestion here that those using the John gospel lesson might explore the issue of family / the Holy Family and center on John 1:9-13. These verses speak of God's family -- the family of faith which derives its identity from belief in the Son of God.  It is this family identity that gives shape to our identity as earthly families. There is a uniquenes to a Christian family (earthly) that derives from the Christian family (spiritual).

This is an identity worth strengthening in a crumbling world.


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 148)

L:  Praise the Lord!
P: Praise the Lord all over heaven;
L: Praise God all over the earth!
P: Praise the Lord, all you angels!

L: Let every creature everywhere praise the Lord!
P: For the Lord our God has given us a Savior!
L: We have received the amazing gifts,
P: Of love and life and joy forevermore!  Amen!

A Prayer of Dedication

You, O Lord, are the source of every good and wonderful blessing in our lives. In Jesus you have given us all you could possibly give. Teach us, gracious Lord, to give in a way that will bring glory to you and joy to the world.  Amen.

A Benediction

Go in the name of the Lord with thanksgiving in your heart. Share the gifts of love and joy with all you meet. Let the overflowing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ set your course and guide your steps until we meet again!   Amen!