The thing about real angels is, that when they show up, people fall down. Usually.
At the very least, as reported in the Bible, fear and trembling happens.
Like, for example, when the shepherds were confronted:
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear” (Luke 2:8-9, ESV).
The angel, Gabriel, had, just a few verses prior, popped in on Zechariah, the father of Jesus’ cousin John. When Zechariah saw Gabriel, he was overcome -- conquered, you might say -- by fear (Luke 1:10-23, ESV).
It seems this was par for the course with biblical angelic sightings.
They came from outer space, more or less
When Gabriel visited Mary, while her reaction was slightly more subdued (“she was greatly troubled at the saying”), Gabriel still had to reassure her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:26-38, ESV).
Angels definitely have presence. They make an impact when they show up. They aren’t cute, fat little babies.
In the Old Testament, many, many years before visiting Zechariah and Mary, Gabriel was sent to help Daniel make sense of his visions.
Daniel confesses that when he first saw Gabriel, he “was terrified and fell facedown.”
Gideon, visited by the angel of the Lord, feared for his life until the angel assured him he would not die.
Long after the birth and death of Jesus, more than once John, an Apostle, as he reports in Revelation, wanted to worship the angel who was instructing him. The angel each time rebuffs him saying, “Don’t do that!”
With rare exception, whenever the Bible reports about someone coming face-to-face with an angel, or who had a close encounter with God, it more or less knocked them off their feet.
Often, they felt as if they would not survive the encounter. In other words, it was a breath-taking experience, literally.
The Doctor will mislead you now
I like science fiction, aka sci-fi. I get a kick out of Dr. Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, and similar TV series, books, and movies.
In most sci-fi, something interesting happens when humanoids or quasi-humanoids, whether earthlings or Time Lords, encounter an entity that blatantly is intended to represent God.
The god-like alien creature is inevitably portrayed as a problem, a bully, a sinister presence, a hinderer of free expression, someone to be vanquished.
Clearly, deleting this god-like alien creature is a job for the Doctor! Or some other galactic savior.
While you would think it’s all-powerful since, you know, it’s a metaphor for “God,” instead, the god-like alien creature is ultimately revealed to be limited.
In other words, this sci-fi, writer-crafted being is really a less-than-God, god-like alien creature.
It’s a “god” cut down to size, belittled to make him manageable. And easily done away with.
Kind of like what we tend to do when we think about or “deal with” God.
Just make mine a small, to go -- away
We like our “God” the way we like our coffee -- to order.
Or, not at all, if you prefer tea.
Richard Dawkins is well-known for his bluster of an answer about what he’d do if he meets God when he dies. He said, “If I met God in the unlikely event after I die, I think the first thing I'd say is well, which one are you? Are you Zeus? Are you Thor? Are you Baal? Are you Mithras? Are you Yahweh? Which God are you?”
Really? He’s going to question God? And, yes, there will be a meeting.
What Dawkins, the sci-fi writers, and many others really mean when they refer to “God” is a diminished deity, a de-capped (lowercase) god fashioned mostly in their own image.
It’s easier to make fun of, dismiss, or manage a little, or belittled, God.
Belittle is an interesting word.
It means, “To represent or speak of as contemptibly small or unimportant; disparage. To cause to seem less than another or little” (American Heritage Dictionary).
It’s only by making God small -- belittling (beheading?) Him -- at least in our own minds, that we are able to dismiss Him.
God is thus reduced to nothing more than part of an excited exclamation or a swear word.
Being constantly exposed to this level of minimizing of the name of our all-powerful, all-knowing, infinite Creator tends to shrink and warp our thinking of who He really is.
And He is kind of a big deal.
He’s got the whole world & then some in His hands
When I was a kid, I’d lay out in the backyard at night and stare up at the stars trying to imagine the vastness of space. You know, contemplating as well as a little boy could the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.
It made me feel tiny and gave me a headache. But it also gave me a small appreciation for who God really is.
As author Douglas Adams exclaims, “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s [pharmacy], but that’s just peanuts to space.”
God is bigger than space as well as its Creator!
More, God not only created everything we can see (and can’t), He sustains it all with His will.
One of my favorite Bible passages is in Colossians:
“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17, ESV).
Writing about this passage in Christianity Today, David Wilkinson says, “The Bible’s discussions of Creation always have a larger purpose: to inspire worship, to encourage the weak, to call for holiness, and to offer reassurance in times of trouble.”
Wilkinson adds, “In addition, God is not merely the sole creator, but also the sole sustainer of what he has created. As an astrophysicist, this has always been an important insight for me. The simplicity of the physical laws underlying the complexity of the universe is one of the striking features of modern science. In Colossians, Paul proclaims that in Jesus, ‘all things hold together’ (1:17). The universe ‘coheres’ in such an amazing way, not through impersonal physical ‘laws’ alone, but through the sustaining activity of God. Science is only possible because of the ongoing work of Jesus.”
The point is that God is big. Bigger and more amazing than anything -- anyone -- we can fully grasp.
He created the universe. He sustains the universe. He is actively involved in your life and my life in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.
And when He sends one of His representatives with a message, it’s a pretty big deal.
Mary had a little Lamb & a close encounter with an angel
Daniel, Gideon, Zechariah, Mary, and John all grasped, as well as they could, the greatness and bigness of God.
They also understood that a visit from one of His representatives -- beings who lived in the very presence of God -- was a big, big deal. These visitations offered a close-up, nearly unfiltered glimpse of the true awesomeness of God.
It was more than enough to knock their socks off.
Or knock them over. Or unsettle them enough that the heavenly visitor had to immediately reassure them.
What’s interesting is what happened to these people after their visitation. They, generally, gave glory to God and then acted on what they had heard, transformed.
Gideon built an altar of remembrance to the Lord and then destroyed the altar of Baal and defeated the Midianites with only 300 men (read more in Judges 6 & 7).
Daniel received prophetic visions and interpreted dreams for a king (read his story in Daniel).
Zechariah, against custom, named his son John as directed and, with his wife, raised him to be a godly man (read Luke 1).
The shepherds returned to their flocks, praising the Lord, and telling everyone they met what had happened, probably retelling the events year after year after year (read Luke 2:8-20)
John authored the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation, spreading the Gospel during times of tremendous persecution and died in exile (read John and Revelation).
And then along comes Mary.
Keeping Christmas & Christ in her heart
Mary provides what may be the best template for how to properly respond to being truly touched by a genuine angel, or when encountering God:
- Reverencing: As with other visitations, Mary was “troubled.” The initial reactions of fear were primarily motivated by awe. Mary and others visited knew and understood who God was and how truly holy and awesome He was. Their response was as much reverential as it was fearful.
- Accepting: Immediately the heavenly messengers reassure those being visited and speak peace to them. In an instant Mary and the others knew they were accepted by God. Mary is told she is “favored.” She is honored, humbled, and peacefully ready to hear the message being delivered.
- Interacting: With humility and peace flooding her heart, she turns he attention to the message of Gabriel, even having a conversation with him. She listens carefully, asks clarifying questions, and acknowledges she understands. This is similar to how we, today, can engage with God through Bible study, prayer, and mediation.
- Obeying: Once the heavenly messenger exits, Mary, as well as the others, turn their efforts to following the instructions they’ve been given. Gideon “tested” his message through the fleece exercise. God, without judgment, provided Gideon, the introvert, with the additional reassurance he needed and Gideon followed through faithfully.
- Praising: In every instance, the post-visitation response is some sort of praise or worship, even if not immediately. Zechariah’s response came months later, after the birth of his son John, when, “immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God” and then he prophesied (Luke 1:57-80, ESV). Mary’s response is known as “The Magnificat” and came when she was visiting Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife (Luke 1:46-56, ESV).
- Remembering: Each person was changed by their visitation. And as a result, they paid attention to what happened afterward, contemplating all that unfolded. More than once, Luke tells us, “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19 & 51, ESV).
It’s believed that Luke knew Mary personally, that she was alive when he was writing the Gospel of Luke. That means she told him directly about her responses to all that happened surrounding the birth, life, and death of Christ -- all those things she “treasured” and “pondered” in her heart.
Angels we have heard on high & ignored down low
Hearing about angels referenced in Christmas carols year in and year out, seeing them trivialized in movies, wearing lingerie in TV specials, and knowing some view them as a kind of mystical walking-talking-flying invisible friend living in a crystal, it’s easy to dismiss them.
We often minimize what they really are. We shouldn’t.
They are amazing divine creatures who live in the very presence of God. They are powerful, intelligent, and more fascinating than any sci-fi creature you could ever imagine.
Most importantly, they are representatives of the most Holy God, and when they show up, they offer a peek into heaven, a sense of His glory, and a glimpse of the face of God.
They are not God and are not to be worshiped. But angels were and are a big deal.
However, my aspirations as a kid when it came to the Christmas pageant in our church was to be at least a shepherd, hopefully a wiseman, and most certainly Joseph.
I pooh-poohed the role of angel. Being an angel was for the little kids. It didn’t seem as significant of a part.
Knowing what I understand now, I’d reconsider.
They weren’t cute. They weren’t charming. They weren’t superfluous.
Next to Jesus, angels are the only ones in the Christmas story who were truly close to God.
Think about that the next time you hear or sing a Christmas carol that references angels.
If you ever meet a real heavenly angel, be prepared to have the wind knocked out of you, and your life changed forever.
And pay very close attention to what they say. Odds are it will be “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
Have you ever had an encounter with an angel? If so, what was it like? If not, would you want to see a real angel? See God face-to-face? How do you think you would respond? How do you generally think about angels? About God? Is God big or small in your life? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
Real angels are not cute! Cherubim, a detail from the Madonna di San Sisto by Raphael Sanzio.
Two takes on God: A popular view followed by a more traditional view:
Sorry, but the first video seems to no longer be available.
However, you can read about it here:
Jimmy Kimmel Talks to God, and God Is None Too Happy.
And here is the traditional view:
However, you can read about it here:
Jimmy Kimmel Talks to God, and God Is None Too Happy.
And here is the traditional view: