I’ve always been skeptical about talk of angels. When the popular television show “Touched by an Angel” aired some time ago, I found myself avoiding it. Angels are too often used to sentimentalize Christianity. The Way becomes a set of grandmotherly clichés about how to live a wholesome life.
And yet, as I read scripture, I am stuck by the relevance of scripture’s picture of angels to those who seek to experience the spiritual reality of God breaking into this world. Carlos Casteneda’s description of native people’s vision quests has nothing on Christianity. For Jesus, too, went on a quest in the desert and there entered into a conversation which gave form to his future.
After Jesus is baptized, the “Spirit” leads him into the wilderness (Mark 1:12, Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1). We, who have seen the heavens torn apart and God’s voice saying “this is my son, with whom I am well pleased,” now journey with Jesus into a desert place. There we enter into a spiritual world which opens the door to Satan (here appearing in an analogous role to that of the trickster in some native American traditions) and to angels (messengers from God).
In Matthew and Luke, using the Jewish imagination, Satan is pictured as intruding upon Jesus’ wilderness prayer. Satan tempts Jesus to be less than who he is and tempts Jesus to make God less than God. Jesus responds to the trickster using words from Deuteronomy. Here’s a summary.
Satan: You’re hungry. Turn these rocks into bread.
Jesus: “It is written man shall not live by bread alone.”
Jesus will not be turned into an animal who lives by instinct. Jesus will not be less than who He is meant to be.
Satan: All these kingdoms can be yours if you will worship me.
Jesus: It is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve. “
Jesus will serve only the one who frees the captives; allowing God to lead.
Satan: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down and let the angels catch you.
Jesus: Again it is written, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”
Jesus will not make God or God’s angels into pet servants.
Scripture is the guide to resisting the trickster’s efforts at taking away our humanity and our God– to resisting the temptation to make either less than they are. Angels aren’t depicted as being an active part of the visionary experience guiding Jesus’ words. They are shown to be there with Jesus on the journey.
With regard to angels Luke, who is not prone to sentimentality, drops out, preferring to point to the time when Satan would seem to get his way in the events that lead to the crucifixion [4:13]. Matthew, however, tells of angels coming to minister to Jesus after the temptation [4:11]. Mark, which didn’t have time to relate a dialogue between Satan and Jesus (simply referring to wild beasts), chooses to slip in a word about the angels who ministered to Jesus [1:13]. So while scripture does not provide a uniform witness, two of the gospel writers believed angels important enough to the Christian experience that they tell of the angels ministering to the Son of God.
Recently, an older man, an engineer, told me with wet eyes how, as he grows older, he feels watched over by a guardian angel. Another friend, when going through a difficult loss, saw her lost loved one driving in the car behind her. She described it as an angel, a sign of her mother’s love. Over my years of serving church I’ve heard many stories of angels, usually told with some trepidation and a desire to know if this really could have happened. The easier stories to tell are of a very real person intervening at the right time. Other times, the stories shared are of a more otherworldly nature. Most angel stories make for wet eyes.
I’m not an expert in angels. I do not wish to try to describe a heavenly hierarchy. But I do want to encourage those of you who have had angelic experiences to believe in– to receive– the gift you have been given. To believe in angels is to believe God acts in our lives. It is to say that they who ministered to Jesus also minister to us.
There are the more familiar stories of angels heard during Christmas. The angel appeared to Mary and told her of the son she carried in her womb; angels appeared to the shepherds on the hills announcing Jesus’ birth. In both cases, angels announced something extraordinary had happened. Yet, even amidst the Hosannas from the heavens, the angels minister to those they meet, saying “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid, for God is here.
It doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility to believe that, after the temptation, the angels whispered into Jesus’ ear these same words: “Do not be afraid.”
The work of an angel is to release us from fear, to allow us to be who we are meant to be, and to allow God access into our lives. Angels welcome us into a spiritual realm where we need not test God by jumping off a cliff. We know intuitively that if we do fall, even if we feel like we are falling right now, there is one who will always catch us–and lead us to new life. If you feel that is just sentimental tripe meant for the weak-hearted, remember: even Jesus, Son of God, needed to hear the angel’s whisper.