It's fall. You are already noticing the Christmas catalogues showing up in your mailbox. Though school has barely begun, your calendar tells you it is time to plan for Advent and Christmas. And the very thought of it makes you tremble just a little.
You are a conscientious pastor or worship leader involved in planning worship in your church. You know how easily the meaning and magnificence of the incarnation of our Lord can be trivialized. You know how slowly your own heart warms up to its radiance, how dull your own mind can be to its meaning. But still, each year that holy jealousy for the glory of Christmas is stirred within you. The hope begins to build again within your heart that once more this year no one in your congregation will leave the manger unclear about what happened, unmoved by its magnitude, or unchanged by its message. You want so much more for them than mere amazement or a touch of "the Christmas spirit," meaningful as such emotions may be. You want them to experience what people under Nazi occupation and oppression during World War II felt when they heard the news that D-Day had come: a sudden and solid hope that liberation is imminent, hope that quickly crescen-doed into inextinguishable joy.
One doorway into such a vision of Christmas is opened for us by, of all creatures, the angels. Angels are everywhere during the advent of Christ. The largest concentration of angels anywhere in the Bible occurs right here—rebuking, informing, encouraging, guiding, protecting, advising, and most of all, worshiping. Moreover, their presence and message did precisely then what we desire now for ourselves and our people: they transformed the vision of ordinary folks going about their ordinary routines by revealing to them that the living God was in fact entering their world—that he was, as in the case of the shepherds, right in the neighborhood. A rigid priest, a baffled young virgin, a strict fiance, common shepherds—all were met with messages by angels. The impact on each of them was profoundly life-changing. If our people can be led to see the incarnation through angels' eyes, should we expect anything less?
Moreover, if ever people were open to messages from angels, they are open now. Angels have been making quite a stir in the popular imagination. In fact, in the last two years there has been a tidal wave of fascination with angels. Harvard Divinity School now offers a course on angels. Boston College offers two. The most celebrated play on Broadway recently was Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in Ameiica, the story of a divine messenger who ministers to a man with AIDS. There are angels-only boutiques, angel newsletters, angel seminars, angels on Sonja Live.
Especially at Christmas there are angels everywhere. We make them in snowdrifts, hang them on trees, bake them in cookies, play them in pageants.
â€¢ Billy Graham's book on angels has been republished. The first edition sold over 3 million copies.
â€¢ Hillary Clinton wears a gold pin on days she needs special help. "Angel's wings," she explains.
â€¢ Time magazine devoted its 1993 Christmas issue cover story to angels.
Angels are in the media and cultural air. You can even buy books on angels at the local warehouse supermarket outlet!
Given these realities, we are presenting the themes and formats of the following five services in the hope that the angelic light once shed upon the birth of Christ will illuminate minds and brighten hearts still today.
FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT
"THE HOLY ANGELS"
Old Testament Reading: Numbers 22:21-35
New Testament Reading: Luke 1:5-25
The Christmas story begins with a strange character: an old priest dutifully preparing to perform his religious rituals. On the outside his piety appears to be perfectly in place. On the inside, however, it is a different story. Given the long drought of barrenness he and his wife have suffered, his actual faith has shriveled down to mere religiosity. This old man dreams no more dreams. He expects little from God. He's merely going through the motions of faith. He lives in quiet defeat. Life will soon wind down to just a whimper and then be over.
Zechariah's condition is not some private, isolated spiritual disease. It was a symbol of the condition of the entire Jewish nation. And many of us today find his flat spirit and numb faith a chronic condition in our own souls. We struggle with our own spiritual barrenness.
It is into this desert that God dispatches the angel Gabriel. And a veteran priest who stands in the presence of people (v. 21) is confronted by an archangel who stands in the presence of God (v. 19)! The "holy" man meets a holy angel. The electrifying effect is both revealing and redeeming. It reveals the priest's seasoned unbelief; but it also redeems his home from the barrenness not only of childlessness, but also of doubt and hopelessness.
It takes a powerful angel to root out such stubborn skepticism. Meet the angels of the Bible! They bear very little resemblance to the angels in the gift shops. Today's angels are "luscious creatures, plump and dimpled, all ruffled and improvised," says Nancy Gibbs of Time magazine (Dec. 23, 1995, p. 56). They are "little Kewpie doll cherubs ... all fluff and meringue, kind and nonjudgmental." Then meet Gabriel. His presence so terrified Daniel that he collapsed and fell into a deep sleep (Dan. 8:17). When Balaam's eyes were finally opened, he saw a fearsome apparition with a drawn sword (Num. 22:31) and he fell facedown. Zechariah himself was "gripped with fear" (v. 12).
These are the angels of the Bible: awesome, powerful, terrifying, holy. And a message carried by such couriers cannot be ignored—either then or now. As Advent begins, Gabriel speaks, challenging the cynicism or despair under our veneer of piety with the bold assertion that no matter how dry and barren our world (or our soul) may feel today, salvation is in the works. So wait. Wordlessly. Wonderful things are surely coming.
Suggestions for the Service
Opening Hymn: "Holy God, We Praise Your Name"
PsH 504, PH 460, RL 619, TH 103
Hymn of Preparation: "O Come, O Come, Immanuel" P5H 328, PH 9, RL 184, SFL l23, TH 194
Hymn of Application: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" PsH 329, PH 1, RL 183, SFL 122, TH 196
Closing Hymn: "Praise God, You Angel Hosts Above" PsH 628
SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT
"ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON EARTH"
Old Testament Reading: Genesis 18:1-15
New Testament Reading: Luke 1:26-38
The title of this message, borrowed from a chapter heading in Timothy Jones's Celebration of Angels, helps to capture the central idea of this service: at Christmas, heaven visited earth. And the advance party, preparing the way, were the holy angels. Their warm and wondrous presence opened doors and prepared hearts for the miraculous event about to happen. The use of angels signals the momentous nature of what was about to occur, a fact that even Abraham, centuries earlier, had not failed to see.
If ever Marshall McLuhan's often-quoted maxim, "The medium is the message," were true, it is here. The fact that the news came by means of angels changes the nature of the news itself: it becomes a word "made more certain" (2 Pet. 1:19), a message so binding that it cannot be ignored without serious repercussions (Heb. 2:2). It is news of the impossible (Luke 1:37) about to happen. Angels make the incredible news of the incarnation credible.
Their awesome presence quickens the faith of a young girl . . . and ours. God graciously moves her and us to welcome his news by presenting it to us in ways too compelling to dismiss or disbelieve.
When God really wants to make a point, expect angels to make it. Both biblical and contemporary evidence bear this out. Throughout the years God has graciously sent "angel visitants" to take away the dimness of our souls and prod the slowness of our faith. Some of us have our own stories, and this is the time to tell them.
But beware. For angels, though they enhance the message, are still mere couriers. It's the message itself that counts. And that message is this: the Son of God has become human so that humans might become children of God. The possibility of our total transformation singularly achieved by the living God, creating new birth in the human heart and forming Christ within us (see Gal. 4:19), is what needs to capture the imaginations and hearts of our people. May they leave this service echoing the submissive words of Mary: "May it be to me as you have said."
Suggestions for the Service
Call to Worship: Psalm 148:1-6 or Psalm 104:1-4
Song of Praise: "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" PH 464, RL 521
Song of Consolation: (during the service of confession) "Blessed Assurance" PH 341, RL 453, TH 693
Song of Preparation for the Word: "O Christ! Come Back to Save Your Folk" PsH 330
Song of Application: "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" PsH 341, PH 5, RL 188, TH 193
THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT
"ANGELS WATCHING OVER ME"
Old Testament Reading: Psalm 91:9-13; 121
New Testament Reading: Matthew 1:18-25; 2: 1-23
From the moment of his conception and birth, Jesus was in perilous danger at the hands of the prince of this world. That enormous red dragon was poised to crush him as soon as he appeared (Rev. 12). Enter the guardian angels. Indeed, even before Jesus was born, it was the work of an angel to make sure there was an earthly father on hand to care for him and his mother. Every step of the way this fragile child and his vulnerable parents were shielded by guardian angels. The escape to Egypt, the cue for the return, and perhaps even the decision to settle in distant Galilee were all coached and monitored by these heavenly beings.
The safeguarding of the infant Christ is far from insignificant. Though he was bom to die, his time, even here, has not yet come. Yet Satan, working through a conscientious Joseph or a jealous Herod, immediately begins the attack, attempting to castigate the Christ as a socially outcast bastard, or, failing that, to reduce him to a lifeless corpse before he's even two years old. But the vigilant protection of the Christ, administered through angels, reminds us that God's plan will never be thwarted, his purposes never frustrated, our salvation never jeopardized. Indeed, the invulnerability of this babe is a hint of who is really here: one who, at his second coming will ride a white horse, his eyes blazing fire, his head multi-layered with crowns and armies in his train (Rev. 19:11-16). Moreover, the security of the helpless infant is a picture of our own.
In this regard, it would not be inappropriate to paint a compelling picture of the cherubim, those awesome angelic beings who guard the heavenly throne (Ezek. 1 and 10; Rev. 4). For the protection of the infant Christ reminds us of their ever-vigilant care of those who belong to Christ... and of all that is holy and pure, beginning with the Tree of Life itself (Gen. 3:24). Nor would it be untimely to tell stories of the protecting ministry of angels today. There are many credible reports that illustrate the constant service of angels to "those who will inherit salvation" (Heb. 1:14), comforting us in our vulnerability, sheltering us in our insecurity, assuring us of our own ultimate immunity from the one who still roams the earth, looking for someone to devour.
Suggestions for the Service
Call to Worship: Isaiah 51:1-6; Revelation 15:1-4
Opening Hymn: "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light" PsH 343, PH 26
Hymn of Preparation: "To the Hills I Lift My Eyes" PsH 121
Hymn of Application: "All Night, All Day" SFL 199
Children's Hymn: "Safe Am I" (Source unknown)
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
"THOSE CELEBRATING ANGELS"
Old Testament Reading: Psalm 103, especially w. 19-22
New Testament Reading: Luke 2:1-20; Luke 15:8-10, Revelation 5:11-14
Something can easily be missed in this overly familiar Christmas story: the transformation of the shepherds. These folks were poor, despised, and very, very ordinary. Their job had to be boring. All they did, day after day, was to care for stubborn, dumb sheep. Nomads, they had no real home. Every day they faced the raw elements of life: a beating sun, cold nights, bone- chilling winds, soaking rains. It was a hard life of sameness, dullness, dreariness. Life was difficult for them, as it is for us. There wasn't much to be happy about.
Yet at the end of the story joy exudes from every pore of their being. They are caught up in a holy ecstasy. Yes, ecstasy. It literally means to "stand outside of." They have stepped out of their world and worldview, and see life through angels' eyes and angels' praise.
The announcement, the worshiping company, and then the confirming sight of the baby in the manger spiritually lifted them into seeing life in a whole new dimension. They not only saw the Savior. They saw the way angels see the Savior. They beheld his glory through the angels. They looked at it all from the angels' point of view. They saw that at the very core of reality, everything was quite all right. And after that, nothing was ever quite the same.
If we could see our lives and circumstances from the perspective of the celebrating angels into whose joyful assembly we have already come through Christ (see Heb. 12:22), nothing here would be ordinary anymore. Ever. That song is being sung every day of our lives, and if we discipline ourselves to hear it, we can celebrate the presence of Jesus in all our circumstances. If only we would hear the victory song of the angels, we'd live with a sense of the favor of our God upon us, even in life's flattest or saddest moments.
For the angels are not just organized into a fighting force; they are arranged into a choir. Their music never ceases. Nor will ours if we remember theirs.
Suggestions for the Service
Call to Worship: Hebrews 12:22-24
Music for the Opening of Worship
"Angels We Have Heard On High"PsH 347, PH 23, RL 206, SFL 133, TH 214
"Holy, Holy, Holy, Angel Hosts Are Singing" 626
"Praise God, You Angel Hosts Above" PsH 628
Hymn of Preparation: "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" PsH 341, PH 5, RL 188, TH 193
Hymn of Response
"Let All Things Now Living" PsH 453, PH 554, TH 12S
"Heavenly Hosts in Ceaseless Worship" PsH 233
"THE WARRING ANGELS"
Old Testament Reading: Daniel 12:l-4a
New Testament Reading: Revelation 12:1-12
We've all heard the Christmas story. But there's more than meets the eye; there's another dimension, behind the familiar scenes of babe and manger, shepherds, and wisemen.
The birth of the Christ, through the eyes of the angels, reveals another dimension of the incarnation, described only in the final book of the New Testament. In Revelation 12 we learn that the glory of Christmas lies in the fact that it began the final war and represents the ultimate solution to the awesome problem of evil.
What a picture! A brilliant woman in labor, and right next to her this ugly, huge, powerful, red dragon waiting to devour the child the moment it was born. Whoever thinks of that on Christmas Day? Where is the Christmas card with that scene on the cover?
Yet it was on Christmas Day that God, in effect, said, "Let the war begin!" And it did. It was a pitched battle between angelic beings and heavenly armies. It was spiritual warfare. Michael and his angels vs. the Destroyer and his angels. And the great Satan is defeated. Apollyon, the deceiver, is demoted. Stripped of power, he is expelled from heaven and reduced to a guerilla on earth, causing plenty of trouble, but never again posing a real threat to the Kingdom of the Newborn King.
The good angels continue to fight as they once fought. There are more of them for us than there are among the forces against us (2 Kings 6:16), Even now they "regard our safety, undertake our defense, direct our ways and exercise a constant solicitude that no evil befall us" (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. I, p. 166). Again, it is time to tell some stories, from Scripture and from the experiences of people.
But Christmas Day reminds us that he will surely come again. And the warrior angels will accompany Christ (Luke 9:26) when he returns to wage the final battle. They wield sickles (Rev. 14:14-20), and they will judge the earth with Christ and us (Matt. 13:24-30; 36-40). And then the righteous will shine like stars!
Sometimes I hardly dare to say "Merry Christmas" to some of my parishioners. For I know their lot. Their hearts are heavy, their life is hellish in places, and they are just glad to have an extra day off. But I say it anyway, because the birth of Christ means that power on earth has shifted, and the prince of this world is about to be cast out of here just as he already has been from heaven. So, God rest ye merry men and women! Let nothing you dismay!
Suggestions for the Service
Call to Worship: Revelation 19:11-16
"O Come, All Ye Faithful" PsH 340, PH 41, RL 195, TH 208
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" PsH 345, PH 31, RL 196, TH 203
Hymn of Preparation: "Joy to the World!" PsH 337, PH 40, RL 198, SFL 137, TH 195
Hymn of Application: "O Christ, Come Back To Save Your Folk" PsH 330
ABOUT THE ARTWORK
Julie Uken, art teacher at Lynden Christian High School, created the artwork accompanying this article. Her models were pictures from the book Angels by Billy Graham. She describes the process of making the banners this way: Photocopy illustration onto a transparency. Hang butcher or kraft paper on a wall and project the image onto it using an overhead projector. With a black marker go over all areas that will be solid black on the banner. Color in the other areas white. Paint over black areas with India ink. After it dries, fill in open areas with pastels.
Blend colors by smearing with your hand. When complete, spray with fixative to prevent further smearing. To hang, staple a casing at both ends and insert dowels.
Julie Uken's banners were 3' x 6'. They were hung from the ceiling of the chapel at different heights and places to give the sense of "angels hovering 'round us," faithfully performing their various ministries. For our readers' use, these designs have been incorporated into bulletin covers for Advent and Christmas.