(Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55)
Today’s scripture passage from Luke 1:26-38 is an early Christmas present from God to us. It tells the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. The story is called the Annunciation. Annunciation means “announcement.” Gabriel visits Mary to announce to her that she will become pregnant with the Son of God. She is to name him Jesus. Not surprisingly, Mary is perplexed, since she is a virgin. How can she conceive if she is a virgin? Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. In this way, the child she conceives will be holy; he will be the Son of God.
This story is an early Christmas present from God to us because it contains many gifts for us. This sermon will unwrap and explore each gift. The first gift is the visit from Gabriel to Mary.
Gabriel is an angel. Angels are pure spirits created by God. The word “angel” comes from the Greek word “angelos” and means “messenger.” Angels are often messengers from God. But the Bible tells of other things angels do. They worship and praise, guide, provide for physical needs, protect from danger, deliver out of danger, strengthen and encourage, answer prayer, care for people at death, and, in the Old Testament, they execute humans at God’s command. Essentially, they are emissaries between God and humans. There are different types of angels and there is a hierarchy of angles, but there is disagreement about the types and the hierarchy. For the sake of this sermon, I will provide you with one version of the types and hierarchy.
First are the Seraphim. These are the highest order or “choir of angels.” They are attendants or guardians before God's throne. They praise God, calling, "Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts.” Seraphim have six wings: two cover their faces, two cover their feet, and two are for flying.
Second are the Cherubim. They are manlike in appearance, are double-winged, and are guardians of God's glory. They have intimate knowledge of God and continually praise Him.
Third are the Thrones. Thrones are angels of pure humility, peace and submission. They reside in the area of the cosmos where material form begins to take shape.
Fourth are the Dominions. Dominions are angels of leadership. They regulate the duties of the angels, making known the commands of God.
Fifth are the Virtues. Virtues are known as the spirits of motion and control the elements. They are sometimes referred to as "the shining ones." They govern all nature. They have control over seasons, stars, and moon; even the sun is subject to their command. They are also in charge of miracles and provide courage, grace, and valor.
Sixth are the Powers. Powers are warrior angels who defend the cosmos and humans against evil. They are known as potentates. They fight against evil spirits who attempt to wreak chaos through human beings.
Seventh are the Archangels. They are the most frequently mentioned throughout the Bible. The Archangels have a unique role as God's messengers to the people at critical times in history and salvation. The Archangels include Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
Eighth are the Principalities. In the New Testament, Principalities refers to one type of spiritual being which are now quite hostile to God and human beings. The New Testament states that these beings were created through Christ and for Him. Given their hostility to God and humans due to sin, Christ's ultimate rule over them expresses the reign of the Lord over all in the cosmos.
Ninth are the Angels. Angels are closest to the material world and human begins. They deliver the prayers to God and God's answers and other messages to humans. Angels have the capacity to access any and all other Angels at any time. They are the most caring and social so that they can assist those who ask for help.
So, why share all of this information about angels? The existence of angels tells us that the spiritual world is real and accessible to us. I think of angels as passing back and forth between the spiritual and material realms. They bring God and Spirit to us, thus making God and Spirit accessible to us.
I first became interested in angels when I saw and bought this book, by Sophy Burnham: A Book of Angels. Burnham writes,
“This book began as a kind of personal history, written for myself and for my friends, because it occurred to me around the age of forty-three that many curious and mysterious things had happened that could not be passed off anymore or explained away as logical. I just wanted to set them down, all in one place, where I could look at them, turn them like stones in my hands, and see what truth they made.
Because the fact is this: I did not grow up believing in the paranormal, and by the time I reached midlife, I felt confused. How could I ignore the fact that my own life had been saved in a miraculous fashion? Or that strange coincidences and meetings seemed to occur?
This book began, then, as a series of stories strung like pearls on a necklace – stories of things that had either happened to me personally or to friends so close that I could attest to their sanity. Each encounter is true.”
The existence of angels lets us know that we are not alone, nor is God far away. He is as close as the person standing next to us, who may, in fact, be an angel in disguise. Remember, Hebrews 13:2 tells us not to forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. After all, Mary was just a young woman hanging out at home when Gabriel came to her. Sophy Burnham, at the conclusion of the Forward to her book, asks a searching question of us: “Some people insist that angels don’t exist, never having seen one. And other people ask why they appear only to certain humans, though others still say that angels come to everyone. The question to ask is: Who will recognize them when they come?” Will we?
Angles are spirit beings who are able to pass the boundary between the spiritual and material worlds. They come as emissaries from God. They are like life lines thrown to us as we struggle in the sea of life. But Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her – and us, by extension – that that is not enough. It is not enough that God’s emissaries come to us. God, Himself, must come. Life lines are not enough; God, as human, must come to rescue us as we drown in the sea of life. He must come, not as a being full of power and of might, but as an embryo, as the beginnings of a human being, as vulnerable as a being can be. God must come as a tiny spark of life, growing inside of a woman, nurtured by her body and blood, growing as does any other embryo, slowly becoming a being that can be born and exist outside of his mother’s body.
This is the second gift of this scripture passage: God in human form in the material world; God incarnate; Emmanuel, which means “God-with-us”. God pierces through the veil between the spiritual and material worlds and lands on our Earth as one of us. All of the holiness of God comes to redeem and sanctify us and our world.
Which brings us to the third gift of this passage: Nothing is as it appears, for all has been touched by God. Mary was a normal, young woman, engaged to be married and expecting the kind of life that any young woman in her position in her society could expect. And, then, one day, an angel appeared to her and she found out that she was more than even she knew she was! She was not just Mary, engaged to Joseph; she was Mary, the mother of the Son of God! Why was she chosen for this honor? Gabriel merely states that she has found favor with God! He doesn’t state that she was perfect, and so found favor with God. He doesn’t state that she was extraordinary, and so found favor with God. He doesn’t state that she was above average, and so found favor with God. He merely states that she found favor with God.
Mary appeared normal, but because God chose her, and because she said yes to God, she became extraordinary. You see, with God, nothing is impossible. Nothing is as it appears to be. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. Which means that even we can be extraordinary. To be so, we need only say “yes” to God. We need only say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to God’s word.” At that moment, we become extraordinary because we allow God’s Spirit to work in and through us, as it did with Mary.
The fourth, and final, gift of this passage is at hand: Mary is not the only one who gives birth to Christ in the world. We do, too, all these years later, long after Jesus lived, died, rose, and ascended. We have the opportunity to give birth to Christ in the world every day, as his disciples. When Jesus prayed for the disciples before his arrest, he stated that he had sent his disciples into the world just as God had sent Jesus into the world. He prayed, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (Jn 17:18-19). We are sanctified – made holy – by Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and we are to go into the world to sanctify it as Jesus did.
Recently, I had a “God-with-us” experience. I wrote about it on FB, but not all of you are on FB, so I’m going to tell you about it now, too. As you know, for their final project in their baptism class, the youth in our church made backpacks full of supplies for the homeless and people in need. Bella and RJ Johnson gave their backpacks to the Canton social services office. My children decided to keep their backpacks in our car for those times when we see someone by the side of the street asking for money or food. A few weeks ago, on my way home from seeing a doctor in New Haven, there was a man on the side of the street with a sign saying he was hungry and needed food. I put the car in park, put on the hazard lights, opened up the back, gave him one of the backpacks, gave him a hug, said God bless, and then got back in the car. As I was waiting at the light, he came up to the window to show me the ratty backpack he had. He said that he had been hoping to get a new backpack and now he had one. I said, "God is alive!" the light changed, and I drove off. It was one of those “God-with-us” moments. I experienced God alive in our world. We can have those experiences every day as we give birth to Christ.
One scripture passage; four gifts:
1) There are angels among us who minister to us in various ways.
2) God walked among us as Jesus Christ.
3) We become extraordinary when we say yes to God.
4) We can give birth to Christ in our world just as Mary did.
All four of these gifts remind us that God is Emmanuel: with us here on Earth. The spiritual and material worlds have intermingled and intermingle even now. Nothing is as it appears. All has been touched with glory. May we embrace these gifts and this truth as we do our final preparations for Christmas. May we be prepared to do as Mary did, and give birth to Emmanuel, God-with-us. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, on Sunday, December 20, 2015, the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
 Information about what angels do is from http://christiananswers.net/q-acb/acb-t005.html#1
 Information about the types and hierarchy of angels is from http://www.catholic.org/saints/angels/angelchoir.php
 New York, NY: The Balantine Publishing Group, 1990, xi.