Angels in the air. That’s a familiar image for this time of year. Advent and Christmas is all about angels, when you stop to think about it. I was reminded about that this week when I read one of my favorite blogs, “A Bite of the Apple,” by Rev. Dr. Nancy Rockwell. She talked about how the fact that all of our advent stories about the coming of the Christ Child have to do with angels.
What do we know about angels? They always bring a message, right? They are messengers from God, come to tell us something important, point us toward the direction God would have us go. They almost always have something surprising, something provoking, something even discomforting to say. Perhaps that’s why the first words out of their mouths is always, “Do not be afraid!” in other words, brace yourself, don’t be afraid, I’ve got something to say that’s going to shake your world!
Nancy Rockwell says, “Angels don’t come to bring us comfort. They come to bring us God’s word and what God asks of us.” And Christmas is all about angels. Just think about it.
As Rockwell writes, “If we are to get to Christmas, we have to get there through an angel. Absolutely everyone involved in Christmas gets there by way of angels. Mary had an angel visitor. Joseph had an angel in his dreams. The Shepherds had an entire host of angels. The Magi, who messed up on star-following, had an angel who got them straightened out.
"And we...well, we have John, the Voice Crying in the Wilderness." (1)
The very first passages of the Gospel of Mark herald Christ’s coming with the words of a prophet and a wild man calling out to us from the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord. Calling us to prepare our hearts, to prepare ourselves.
In the past, I’ve wondered why we don’t typically see a figure of John the Baptist in our mantel piece mangers, because he is an important part of the whole Christmas story. I never thought about John as an angel, our Christmas angel. But now it makes a lot of sense to me.
Here he is, this wild man who lived in the wilderness...imagine here a smelly, intriguing character. A guy with a camel hair and leather belt wardrobe and locust and wild honey diet. A man with a message for any who would hear. John the Baptist was the messenger, the one preparing the way, the voice crying out in the wilderness, an image taken right from the prophet Isaiah. A fitting angel for the rest of us.
Once upon a time, when my sister, Amy, was fifteen years old, she brought a homeless man home for dinner Thanksgiving. It was when I was writing this sermon that I was reminded again about the Thanksgiving we had with Ned. It was unclear how old Ned was, but it was clear he had nowhere else to go that Thanksgiving day. He was a real character and you should have seen the looks behind his back among my other siblings and me. What in the world was Amy thinking? How could she bring this unknown, and somewhat smelly, character into our home?
But my mother was calm and welcoming. Another place was set at the table. Ned sure had some great stories to tell, and I particularly remember that he LOVED singing the Christmas carols around the piano after dinner. He knew all the words as he bellowed away—all the old favorites. “Born is the Kiiiiiiiiing of Israel,!!!” I can still hear his voice, and see him singing away, blissfully, with his eyes closed.
In the kitchen as my other siblings and I washed the dishes, with hushed voices, we wondered who in the world this man was and just how crazy my sister Amy had become.
And I'll never forget it. My mother, channeling the Angel John the Baptist, quietly said, "What if he were Jesus?" Suddenly, we were silent. What if she were right?
You know, in my family, almost 30 years after his visit, if you sing, “Born is the Kiiiiing of Israel,” everybody still bursts out laughing and remembers old Ned. And so, I wonder, why did old Ned come and spend Thanksgiving in our home all those years ago, singing his Christmas carols with such gusto that I still remember so well?
When I remember the voice of this homeless man and how much enjoyment he got out of being welcomed into our home that Thanksgiving so long ago, I feel my heart is cracked open to my own broken places...I confess that too often I take my blessings for granted, that I judge others too quickly, and that, preoccupied with my own concerns, I turn a blind eye to the need and circumstances of others. With a repentence heart, I'm truly sorry, and commit to do better, with God's help.
Each one of us has broken places, a broken song, a quivery voice, a frail pitch. John the Baptist, our Advent angel’s message is that we need to prepare by cracking open and cleaning out the spaces in our hearts. Because one homeless night long ago, in a place called Bethlehem, God came down to rest in a manger and an angel’s wings touched humanity's broken places, wrapped them in the swaddling clothes of healing love.
This Advent, John the Baptist--our Christmas angel--calls us to look into ourselves to prepare the way for Christ’s coming. And to sing our scratchy, scruffy songs of confession and repentance and “Good News” with as much gusto as we can muster, and with as much patience and perseverance as we have to give. In a world that would distract us with its noise and bustle, with its focus on the trappings of this world and all of its temptations, where are the broken places in us yearning for the healing of God’s love?
Are we ready? Are we prepared? Are we listening for the angels?
(1) Nancy Rockwell, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/angel-camel-skin/#SGxlT55vdleTv4Xf.99