On Guardian Angels

Psalm 91, Matthew 18:10-14, May 11, 2014

This morning’s sermon arose from a question a member of this congregation asked me several months ago. “What do you know about guardian angels?” At that point my answer was, “Not a lot. Why do you ask?” It turns out that someone very close her had experienced being protected by a guardian angel and she wanted to know more. Maybe she asked, “What do Presbyterians believe about guardian angels?”

This is a great question. But I think most questions are great, especially if I haven’t thought to ask them yet. I have preached close to 800 sermons and I’ve found that the sermons that people comment on most, the sermons that people think about more, the sermons that spur the greatest reaction, are the ones on topics that someone has suggested. If you’ve ever been a teacher you know that for every student who raises his hand and asks a question there are at least five who have the same question, but are too timid to ask—and probably ten more who haven’t yet thought of the question, but are curious about the answer once they hear it. OK, this is a long way of inviting and encouraging you to ask questions, to request sermons on topics you’re curious about. Your curiosity is a gift, not just to you, but to all of us. So ask, please, ask your questions.

It’s funny for me, seeing how I respond to questions of faith and requests for sermons now. I love them, I welcome them, but I imagine if someone had asked me 20 years ago, “Would you preach a sermon on guardian angels?” I would have thought, “Oh, no! I’m not preaching on guardian angels enough! I’m in trouble!!” Now I think, “This is going to be interesting!”

About 6 years ago we started having Brown Bag Bible Exploration here. We meet for 90 minutes on a Tuesday. People are asked to bring their lunches, their Bibles and their curiosity. When you see “BBBE” on the calendar, that’s what it means. The most interesting sermons emerge when people sit together, hear the Bible read out loud and react to what they have heard. All someone needs to contribute is a perspective. These conversations are very, very helpful for me because they give me extra sets of eyes through which to see the texts that I’ll be preaching on, so please give Brown Bag Bible Exploration a try.

OK, now on to angels. In their most basic way angels are God’s messengers. In fact the word “angel” could be understood as “news.” In the English word “evangelist” you see the word “angel.” The “ev” at the front is a prefix meaning “good.” So an evangelist is someone who carries good news, which means every one of us could be an evangelist, every one of us should be an evangelist because we all can carry the good news that Christ is risen.

Angels, as they appear in scripture are often frightening. Really, the first time an angel appears in the Bible is in the 3rd chapter of Genesis. After Adam had been driven from Eden--and this is interesting, Eve was not driven from Eden—“the Lord placed a cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.” [Genesis 3:24b] I don’t think Adam was going to turn back for seconds on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil if it was guarded by a flaming sword and angel.

In the 6th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, there’s a description of an angel with a different name, this one was a “seraph.” [When you sing about cherubim and seraphim, those are the plural form of cherub and seraph.] The seraphim are attending God in the temple and each had six wings and they flew around God in the temple and called to one another “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Jump to the New Testament. In the first chapter of Matthew, when Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant “with a child from the Holy Spirit” [Matthew 1:18] Joseph decided to divorce Mary privately. “But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary for your wife…’ [1:20] In Luke’s gospel, there’s another story of Jesus’ birth that begins with an angel appearing to shepherds. “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.’” [Luke 2:9-10]

Angels work for God, carry God’s news—and they’re pretty scary. That’s a summary of how angels are presented in scripture.

Next, I turned to the Book of Confessions—the Presbyterian Church’s collection of statements of faith from about the 3rd century to today. I found this wonderful quote about angels in the Larger Catechism. Catechisms are collections of questions and answers that were designed to teach the Christian faith. Some of you may have had to memorize catechism questions and answers when you were in Sunday school years ago. Here’s Question 16, and its answer:

How did God create angels?

God created all angels, spirits, immortal, holy, excelling in knowledge, mighty in power, to execute his commandments, and to praise his name, yet subject to change.

The term guardian cherub only appears once in scripture, in a little remembered prophesy in the book of Ezekiel, a reference to the cherub that guarded Eden after Adam was driven out. But the idea of guardian angels is all through the Bible. We find it most memorably in Psalm 91. You sang the refrain of “On Eagle’s Wings” a few minutes ago, a very familiar and very comforting message. As you read the psalm responsively, did you notice how many dangerous things were mentioned? Snakes, lions, tripping on a stone. Pestilence that comes at night. Destruction that comes in the day time. Arrows. Terror. The writer of the psalm is described as being in the middle of a military battle, surrounded by dangerous, perilous things. And yet the psalmist affirms that he is protected by God, finding refuge and protection from all these dangerous things, as a baby bird is shielded and protected by its mother.

For he will command angels

concerning you

to guard you in all your ways.

These are strong, comforting words. But we need to bring a depth of understanding to them. We know that these words are reminders of God’s sovereign love and protection. They are not a magical shield or guarantee that nothing bad will happen to us, or to anyone who loves the Lord, or who has made the Lord his refuge. When Jesus was being tempted by the devil in Luke’s gospel, the devil quotes this psalm challenging Jesus to demonstrate his confidence that God would protect him. Jesus resists this temptation by citing a different passage of scripture [Deuteronomy 6:16] when he says, “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

In the Matthew text we get more of a sense of each person having a guardian angel. And perhaps more importantly, Jesus points out that children are valuable and worthy of being protected and cared for—and cared about. He tells his disciples, “Do not think these children are worth nothing. Each of them is protected by an angel in heaven.”

Now I want to go back to the question I started with, “What do we know about guardian angels?”

It was Pat Shugars’ grand daughter’s husband who had this experience. He’s a tow truck driver and he was hit by a car while he was assisting with a tow during a snowstorm last winter. He was thrown into the air and described the experience this way:

My father definitely was holding my back as I felt hands when I was hit. I honestly had thought my brother pushed me at first. I then felt someone swoop my legs and slow my head from hitting. In a blink of an eye my life changed forever.

This man’s father died when he was 12 years old. Yet in this moment he felt his father’s hands cradle and protect him. I’ve talked to other people in the past few weeks about guardian angels. Some have described feeling a physical touch. Others have said it was a feeling, maybe one could say an intuition that she was not alone, that a loved one was present in a real way. In a way that many people do not want to talk about too openly, because it sounds irrational, many, many of us have experienced being touched by angels or spirits. I have felt this myself. A few days after my older son was born, I was on parental leave, holding Peter while he was sleeping, sitting in a rocking chair. I had this overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by what I can only call “Holy Protection.” I felt like I was cradled in a blanket of prayer. Maybe that was Peter’s Guardian Angel checking in. It was not just an unforgettable feeling, it was also life-changing. Feeling that touch, that care, that protection made me feel safe, calm and humble all at the same time. Another situation that makes me feel surrounded by God’s love is when we ordain and install new officers and there’s a group of people at the front of the sanctuary and there are voices all around praying for these new leaders. The feeling of being surrounded is really, really special.

I’ll conclude by pointing out one more thing about sermons that have been based on suggestions—they are usually the beginning of dialog. I’ve talked for about 15 minutes about guardian angels, and I hope you’ve all got something to think about, some news way to imagine how the Living God is present in your life and times when you have felt that very strongly. And keeping talking about how God is present in your life. At coffee hour, during the coming days…every one of us has life experience. Every one of us is cherished and protected by the Living God. Amen.