Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Heavenly Warriors with Burning Swords - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
-Luke 2:9-14

Of all the feeling of Christmastime – cheerfulness and hope and warmth – terror is not usually on the list. For the shepherds, though, it was definitely on the menu when the skies were split and the angels appeared.

“Do not be afraid.” It's right there, the first thing the angel says. Why start off that way, if not for the fact that the shepherds are afraid? I don't walk in from a hard day's work and tell my children, “Do not be afraid. I'm home!”

So what is so scary about this familiar story?

In the first place, angels are terrifying. They aren't cute little cherubs or church ladies with wings. They're giant, glowing warriors of God's army with flaming swords in their hands. When “an angel of the Lord appeared” to the shepherds, presumably they weren't expecting holiday greetings. Most likely, they thought it was judgment day and their time had come.

Even worse, that angel was accompanied by the “glory of the Lord.” This is not some soft, golden glow or shaft of sunlight. In Exodus, when God shows His glory to Israel, it looks like this: “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” (Exodus 24:17)

A devouring fire. Have you seen those pictures of forest fires, with walls of white-hot flame? Imagine that imagine being in the middle of that. That is the glory of the Lord that the shepherds find shining around them.

Oh, and we must not forget the “great company of the heavenly host.” For some reason, as a child I pictured that as a church choir. Perhaps because the Christmas carols picture them as singing – which they aren't. They are shouting. And a “host” – that's really not a helpful translation. Nowadays that words means either “a person who invited you over” or “a whole bunch.” But in English it used to have another meaning – it meant an army arrayed for battle. And that's the word Luke is using. An army of angels, in full battle array, ready to go to war, show up and shout this proclamation.

So yeah, the shepherds are pretty afraid. Of course, the proclamation the angels are bringing is good news. Jesus coming is a beautiful thing, and the shepherds are ultimately caught up in celebrating this beauty. But before the good news comes a moment of fear, and I think there is a lesson for us in all of this.

We have a tendency, in our world, to summarize Christianity's message as “God loves us.” Which isn't wrong – He really does. But we tend to put the emphasis on the wrong place. We focus on us and how lovable we must be, or on that ever-amorphous idea of “love” and the romanticism it engenders. But for Christianity to make sense, we first need an appreciation of the God who is that sentence's subject.

In our world, we tend to have this picture of God as sort of needy and desperate. He really wants our love. He's begging us for our worship. But the God of Scripture is not some sniveling sycophant. He isn't longing for us to love Him – our love is what He is due. He does not beg our worship – His very existence demands it. Angel armies are at His call. Holy fire leaps around Him. The mountains melt at His presence.

God does love us. He loves us so much He becomes one of us and dies and rises for our salvation. Yet He isn't any less that God as He does it. The proclamation of His love should draw us to wonder because the higher our view is of that God, the more we recognize the incredible character that love. The Christmas story is the story of God drawing near to us, but we cannot in that story lose the fact that it is God drawing near. The terrifying, glory-like-consuming-fire, commanding-an-army-of-angels God of Scripture who is coming to us in Jesus. The God who makes the mountains quake is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Angels, from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o'er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation's story,
Now proclaim Messiah's birth;
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.

Shepherds in the fields abiding,
Watching o'er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing,
Yonder shines the infant light:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.

All creation, join in praising
God the Father, Spirit, Son;
Evermore your voices raising
To th'eternal Three in One:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.

James Montgomery, Angels from the Realms of Glory

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