Thursday, September 30, 1999

The Angels and the Incarnation

The Angels and the Incarnation

A Sermon on the Annunciation (Lessons: Daniel 10:1-21; Hebrews 1:1-6, 14; 2:1, 5-10; Luke 1:26-38)

By Stephen F. Noll

ONE OF my goals in writing my book on angels was to call attention to how frequently angels appear in the Bible, and in important places where we learn about God, the creation, Jesus Christ, evil, God’s rule in the world, and the end of all things. Surely the Annunciation is one of these key moments. But in the book I also remark on how surprisingly infrequent angel appearances are as well. There are major gaps in the record as to the activity of angels, in the Old Testament and especially in the Gospels.

Most significantly, there is a major gap between the angels at the end of the Old Testament and their reappearance in the New. Just paging through our Bibles, we might think of the story ending with the prophet Malachi, who promises that God will send his "messenger of the covenant" before the great and terrible Day of the Lord. Most people take this "messenger" as referring to a human forerunner, usually identified with John the Baptist. But the Hebrew for messenger — mal’ak — can also certainly suggest the coming of an angel, and some Jews expected just such a heavenly herald for Messiah; coming.

Today I have added two texts, one from Daniel and one from the Epistle to the Hebrews to heighten our awareness of the significance of the role of the heavenly world in the announcement to the Blessed Virgin: "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you."

A final look

The book of Daniel gives another final look at angels at the end of the Old Testament dispensation. The heart of the book, I believe, is the vision found in chapter 7 of the coming of God, the Ancient of Days, and the coronation of the Son of Man to sit with Him in glory (Daniel 7:9-14). In the visions that follow this chapter, Daniel strains to discover how this vision will take form in history. He is given three further visions, each mediated by the angel Gabriel.

The third and climactic vision begins with Daniel’s overwhelming encounter with an angel whom he describes thus: ". . . behold, a man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with gold of Uphaz. His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the noise of a multitude" (Daniel 10:5-6).

This angel, who is unnamed but is certainly Gabriel, goes on to give him a scenario of the events of the end time, a continual struggle of good and evil culminating in the coming of the archangel Michael and the resurrection of the saints to shine like stars in the firmament. Having imparted this vision of victory through tribulation, Gabriel concludes the whole book of Daniel by saying: "But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the end" (Daniel 12: 5). And so the Old Testament history ends, with a vision sealed by angelic command.

Did you realize that the Hebrew Scriptures contain only two named angels, Gabriel and Michael, and their names are only known only from the end of the book of Daniel? Could there be any significance in this? I am not sure, but let me indulge for a moment in a bit of word play. The name "Gabriel" means "man of God" or perhaps "mighty man of God." He is the only angel we actually see in the book. The name "Michael" means "Who is like God?" He is Israel’s guardian angel, but he never actually appears visibly on Israel’s behalf. He seems to operate up in the heavenly world, contending, for instance, against the Prince of Persia, whom I take to be a corrupt angelic "principality." Gabriel then is a man-like angel, albeit glorious, while Michael is an invisible God-like angel. Gabriel is a messenger of God’s word between the times; Michael is the messenger at the end of times.

The Annunciation scene

With this background, let’s now return to the Annunciation scene. God’s people have been in exile, in the exile of sin and disobedience marked by the internment in Babylon but extending to domination of the other pagan empires right down to the present. Five hundred years later, nothing really has changed, and Luke gives us several portraits of faithful Jews who are "looking for the consolation of Israel." It appears that salvation history has wound down. Perhaps God has scrubbed the day of redemption because of his people’s sin and idolatry. Then, suddenly, salvation history starts up again. For the first time since Daniel’s day, Gabriel appears, this time to Zechariah in the Temple.

Gabriel’s overwhelming appearance to the priest Zechariah intentionally recalls Malachi and Daniel. God has suddenly come to his temple. God is sending the messenger of the covenant, John the Baptist. Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah also foreshadows an even greater moment, the Annunciation itself. The two scenes are similarly recounted, but the differences are striking. Zechariah is "startled" by the looks of the angel; Mary is startled by his greeting: "Hail, O favored one." Both Zechariah and Mary ask "How?" when the angel announces the birth of a son. But Zechariah’s "how?" is full of doubt since he should know that God of old opened barren wombs, whereas Mary’s "how?" is full of faith since never before has God caused the virgin to bear a child.

The deepest difference between Gabriel’s two visitations to Zechariah and Mary is not in the announcement but in the outcome. Zechariah returns home, knows his wife, and she conceives. Mary, who has never known a man, is visited by the Holy Spirit, and conceives a Son who is called "Son of the Most High." In many of the artistic portrayals of the Annunciation, a little dove can be seen heading for Mary’s womb as the angel bends his wand toward her. But in the text, the Mary’s conception seems to happen off-stage, as if it were too mysterious a matter even for Scripture to describe. It reminds me of Philip’s Brooks’s lines: "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given." The most momentous event of history, the secret shut up by Gabriel in his revelation to Daniel, now takes place in utter privacy.

The presence of the angel Gabriel, I am suggesting gives eschatological focus to the conception of Jesus. Yet because Gabriel is the "between the times" angel, the Annunciation also signifies that the Son of God will enter into the normal course of human history. Jesus will live out his life "between the times of rulers like Herod and Pontius Pilate. Where is Michael when we need him? we may ask. If the vision of Revelation 12 is an answer, Michael is not idle but is casting Satan out of heaven during this mighty event. But he is still unseen and will continue to be until the Son of Man returns in glory at the sound of the trumpet (1 Thessalonians 4:16).

Angelic foils

The Old Testament lesson has emphasized the "horizontal" role of the angels in preparing for the Son of Man. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, we see angels functioning in another mode, as foils, if you will, to highlight the "vertical" relationship of Jesus as eternal Son of God and heavenly high priest.

Let me say a word about my understanding of the Epistle. The author makes a distinction between "elementary teaching," the milk of the Christian faith, and the solid food, the key to understanding the mystery of the faith (Hebrews 5:11-6:3). Chapters 1 and 2 form part of the milk, the basic Christian catechism, and part of that basic catechism is to recognize the two natures of Jesus Christ, true Son and true Man. The advanced teaching of Hebrews has to with Jesus’ sacrificial, high priestly ministry when he entered "not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf" (Hebrews 9:24).

In order to understand the sacrificial, priestly ministry of Jesus, it is crucial to establish that he is the true Mediator both as Son of God and Son of Man. What may surprise us is the way the author establishes Christ’s qualification: by comparing Christ’s two natures with the angels. Once we accept seriously the fact that angels are real, immortal, spiritual beings, it is not hard to see why the Christ would be compared with them. Indeed, the major danger in the early Church was not to do Christology from below but from above, and hence to think of Christ as an exalted angel who may only have appeared to be human. Those who were tempted by the "docetism" also were offended at the idea that Jesus was actually and physically born of a woman.

The author of Hebrews establishes right at the beginning that Jesus is the Son of God, that he bears the very stamp of God’s nature (literally the character of his substance), and that he upholds the whole creation by his word of power. Some angel! The author then engages in some very tricky Jewish exegesis to show that Jesus is fundamentally on the "God side" of the Creator/creature divide. Let me ask you to strap on your prayer shawls as we see how he assembles seven proof-texts in which God the Father announces the nature of his divine Son.

In each of these texts, God announces the Son to be one with God, Creator and Lord in a way no angel could possibly be described. So when the chapter closes, the author awards the angels the consolaton prize of noting that they are "ministering (literally "liturgical") spirits sent forth to serve." Must be some around today! Their glory, as Karl Barth says, is their very marginality. But the Son alone is the Lord whom they serve.

Having established the supreme deity of Christ by contrast with the angels, the author now turns in the other direction and identifies Him as a man "a little lower than the angels." In doing this he turns to the mystery pondered by David in Psalm 8: "What is man that thou art mindful of him, the Son of Man that thou visitest him? Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels." How, the Psalmist marvels, can God have over-reached His celestial hierarchy and crowned Man as lord of creation. The answer, according to Hebrews, is that he did so for the sake of His Son, and in so doing He has brought many human sons to glory. Not that Jesus became man for His own sake, but rather He gladly emptied himself of the divine prerogatives and took our mortal nature so that that same human nature might be made perfect through suffering (Hebrews 2:10).

So angels, while they dwell in Heaven, find themselves betwixt and between the natures of Christ, He who is God, exalted above all the heavens, yet He who is "for a little while lower than the angels." The writer to the Hebrews wanted to stir up in his hearers awe at the wonderful act of condescension in Christ taking on our nature, before he went on to lead them to see that that same Son necessarily became sacrificial victim and heavenly high priest for our sake.

The angels in Daniel and the angels in Hebrews, I have suggested, sketch a Cross, the intersection of salvation history and the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. It is fitting therefore that the Annunciation (which is in a real sense the feast of the Virgin birth) should fall one week before Holy Week, which commemorates the Passion. We sense in the simple story of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary the opening of history and the opening of Heaven to a totally unexpected and totally unmerited act of God’s love. And just as the babe is conceived and born, he is lifted up out of our sight.

The sound of angelic chanting may cease. The smell of heavenly incense will fade. But like Mary, we know that we can never be the same. God has spoken, God has acted, God has become Man. Like Mary, we are left in the stillness . . . murmuring "Be it unto me according to Thy Word." Like Mary, we know that that same word will pierce our souls and set us running on the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. This surely is the message of the Annunciation Day collect: "that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel may by his cross and passion be brought into the glory of his resurrection, through the same Jesus Christ," who is the only God, the son of Mary, and the King of angels. To Him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

"The Angels and the Incarnation" was preached in the Trinity School for Ministry Chapel on the feast of the Annunciation, 1999.

Copyright 1999 Stephen F. Noll.

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