Each candle in the Advent Wreath has a special name and significance. During Advent this year we’ve been using these candles to help us prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.
We lit the Prophecy Candle and talked about some of the prophecies that described what our Savior would be like. We lit the Bethlehem Candle and talked about how God used Jewish history to foreshadow how He would free sinners from the slavery of sin. Last Sunday we lit the Shepherds’ Candle and reviewed some of the Old Testament sacrifices God commanded to be offered. God used these sacrifices to get the idea of “one for another” into the heads of mankind. The Savior of the world was coming to be a “substitute sacrifice”. The innocent for the guilty.
God used all of these things: prophecy, History, sacrifices, to prepare sinners to receive their Savior. To see Him. To recognize Him. To trust in Him.
Today we light the Angels’ Candle and talk about how God used angels to make the final “last minute” preparations for His Son to be born.
Luke 2:5-20 (NIV)
5In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
8Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
The prophecies about the Savior, the history of Israel, the sacrifices offered in the Old Testament – all of these things are old. But angels are older.
In the Bible, God tells us that the angels are created beings. We assume that God must have been created them when God spoke the rest of our universe into being, during those first six days.
When we read the Christmas story, we hear about plenty of angel activity. The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that his son would prepare the people of Israel for their Savior. Gabriel told Mary that she would be the mother of that Savior. Another angel, possibly Gabriel, later reassured Joseph that Mary’s unborn child was the product of a miracle, not of infidelity. And who can forget how the glory of the Lord surrounded an army of angels when they announced the birth of the Savior to a group of shepherds.
What do we think when we hear about angels appearing to people? How seriously do we take it? We believe it’s true, but perhaps we pass over their presence a bit too quickly. Perhaps we’ve heard the story so many times that we miss the weighty significance that these spirit beings carry.
The Bible tells us that angels are immensely powerful.
They are spirits, but not like the spirits we see in movies and books. They aren’t wispy shades who have no substance. They are more than “ghosts”. They are powerful creatures who can affect the tangible world.
So much about the angels is a mystery to us. God only reveals so much about them.
In Matthew 18, Jesus says…
“See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:10 NIV).Does this mean that angels can be in more than one place at one time? That they are not limited by space and location like we are? Some believe so.
Angels are spirits. They have no bodies. But, they have the ability to take human form (Genesis 18). And when they appear in human form, they can appear “incognito”, or they can appear “awesome”. They can dial up their intimidation and glory, or they can turn it down and appear like just another guy. (Hebrews 13:2, Luke 2:12).
The angels who appear in connection with Christ’s birth have the dial set on “full awesome”. They’re serving as God’s messengers, and they want to get people’s attention.
When Gabriel appears to Zechariah, Zechariah is terrified. Gabriel has to tell him, “Don’t be afraid”. When Gabriel appears to Mary, Mary is terrified. Again, Gabriel has to say, “Don’t be afraid.” When the angel appears to the shepherds, same thing. He’s got their attention, but he’s got to calm them down a bit before they’re ready to hear the message of peace that God has for them. (Luke 1:13, 1:130, 2:10)
Now, we know from the Old Testament that angels aren’t just good at LOOKING powerful, they actually are incredibly powerful. It only took ONE ANGEL to close the mouths of the lions when Daniel was thrown in their lair. When the king of Assyria surrounded Jerusalem and mocked God, it only took ONE ANGEL to kill 185,000 soldiers and send king Sennacharib packing. And that single angel accomplished this terrifying display of judgment in a single night.
And who can forget the first good angel mentioned in scripture? Remember? After Adam and Eve sinned against God, they were banished from the Garden of Eden. And God stationed a single angel with a flaming sword at the east gate of the garden. He was put there to ensure that mankind didn’t eat from the Tree of Life, thus sealing himself in a state of eternal sinfulness.
Angels are immensely powerful. But for all this power, God’s holy angels are limited. They have no power to remove our sins. They can do nothing to make sinners acceptable to the Holy God. Their power can’t expunge our guilt, and secure our happiness by giving us a clean conscience before God. The strength and power of the angels can’t change what God thinks about sin.
As we’ve mentioned, God’s angels are often the messengers of His wrath and judgment. They are his executioners, his hitmen, his warriors. Maybe it wasn’t just the way Gabriel LOOKED that frightened people. Maybe they remembered some stories from Sunday School.
Maybe they remembered how one angel cut down those 185,000 soldiers of Assyria and thought Gabriel had come to them a messenger of death. Let’s face it, if a brilliant messenger from God appears in your living room or cubicle, your first thought probably isn’t going to be, “Oh, hey, I’ve been expecting you. I guess God is finally getting around to rewarding me for all the good stuff I’ve been doing lately.”
Maybe fear of God’s judgment is a pretty good response when a soldier from God’s army makes an unannounced visit.
But in the Christmas accounts, we don’t see angels appearing to bring the pain. They don’t hold swords, but trumpets! (Okay, the Bible doesn’t actually say any of the Christmas angels were holding trumpets, but you get the idea.) They’ve got their dial on “full awesome”, but that’s just to get the people’s attention. They’ve come to deliver the most longed for message of all time – the promised Savior is about to be born! God’s plan to save sinners from sin and hell is about to hit high gear!
You know, God must have been smiling when He sent ANGELS to deliver the message of forgiveness and peace. It’s like sending Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Lee as our UPS guy.
And what better way to point out that the Christ Child brings peace with God? God’s DEATH DEALERS are sent, not to deal death, but to shout praises and direct sinners to the manger!
Now, involving such powerful and glorious beings in the Christmas story could distract people from the main point of Christmas. But if we know something about the history of angels, their presence only serves to highlight THE GIFT that God was giving by sending his Son.
You see, when God created the angels He created them perfect and sinless. But He also created them free. Some of the angels left God. They rebelled against Him with satan as their leader. When they turned away from God, that was it for them. There was no way back into God’s presence FOR THEM. No escape hatch. No second chance. There is no savior for the angels who sinned.
But for the children of Adam and Eve, things are different. We have a second chance in God’s Son. He was born into the human race to take all our sin on Himself. When He suffered and died, our punishment was used up on Him. Like it says in Romans 8, verse 1…
“…there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1 NIV).We ought to see every angel of God or every demon as a stark reminder of the GIFT we have been given in the Christ Child. God wasn’t required to rescue us from our own foolishness. He didn’t owe sinners anything. But out of his compassion He promised so send us forgiveness. And when Jesus came, He kept that promise.
This Baby would crush the power of satan. This Baby would win forgiveness for all sinners, and offer it to us as a gift. A real gift. Nothing from us is required. We have complete release and freedom because of God’s grace.
So, are you ready to celebrate Christmas? I mean, are you really ready? All Advent we’ve been talking about getting ready. Preparing for Christ. But really, we don’t need a Christmas tree. We don’t need stockings, or presents, or cookies, or cider, or red bows. We don’t need candles or programs or carols to be ready for Christ. What we need is sin.
I didn’t want to say that at the beginning of Advent. It would have sounded a bit odd: What we need to be ready for the Christ Child is sin. But that’s really what we need. If we’ve got sins that need God’s forgiveness. Sins that keep staining our lives. Sins that keep dragging us down. Sins that weigh heavy on our consciences. If we know we’ve got those and that we can’t do a thing to wash those off ourselves, THEN we’re ready for the Christ Child. He came to take our sins AWAY.
God’s mighty angels can’t carry our sins away.
God’s mighty angels can only TELL us of the peace God gives, only CHRIST can give it.
Prayer: Dear Father in Heaven, we’ve got sins. Sometimes we’ve tried to stop. Sometimes we’ve rushed headfirst into those sins. We’ve got sins. If this whole Christmas thing is about us getting ready alone, then we’ll never be ready. But if this is about grace. If this is about YOU giving us what we could never get on our own, then we’re ready. Cover us Lord, with the true Christmas spirit. The spirit of repentance and trust in that little Baby. Then we can celebrate Lord. No matter what circumstances surround us, with peace between You and us, we can celebrate Your Son. Amen.