We’re not accustomed to thinking of the angels as scary. Think about the way some of our beloved Christmas carols present them:
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell
Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled
All my heart again rejoices as I hear far and near sweetest angel voices
Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains.
We think of angels as these peaceful, feminine figures in flowing white dresses, with downy wings, and golden harps. What is there to fear?
But in sharp contrast is what Scripture says about people encountering angels, especially in St. Luke’s record of the events leading up to Our Lord’s birth:
An angel of the Lord appeared to [Zacharias], standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled and fear fell upon him.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. … When she saw [Gabriel], she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
Why is there fear of the angels? They factor in prominently at Christmas and Easter as heralds of the good news of great joy, but that’s not always the case. Consider the first time an angel appears in Scripture: “The Lord God sent [Adam and Eve] out of the Garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the Garden of Even, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the tree of life.” The angels’ first appearance is as a messenger of God’s condemnation. The cherubim prevented Adam and Eve from ever setting foot in paradise again. They were an ever-present reminder of the sin and death our first parents had ushered into the world so newly made.
So, it’s only natural that Zacharias was troubled and fear fell upon him. It’s only natural that Mary is troubled at the sudden appearance and greeting of an angel. It’s only natural that the shepherds are sore afraid when an angel speaks to them, let alone the whole heavenly choir bursting into song. They were aware of their sin. They were like Isaiah, who saw the seraphim in his vision of heaven and knew that he was in God’s presence. They knew that they were unworthy to receive anything from God. They knew they were as good as dead.
And so it is with you and me. We are sinners. We deserve but grief and shame. Like Adam and Eve we have done exactly what God commanded us not to do. We are like grass and flowers that wither and fade. Like the shepherds, Zacharias, and Mary, we should be sore afraid. We should be troubled at the angelic greeting. We know that we are as good as dead because of our sin.
But this time, the angels did not come to remind the world of the divine decree of punishment, of banishment from God’s presence.
The angel who spoke to Zacharias told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive and bear a son who would be the fulfillment of God’s last prophetic word, that He would send one final prophet “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Gabriel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus,” which means Savior.
The choir of angels exclaimed to the shepherds, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
The angel bars the way no more to blessed Paradise. Now they proclaim the coming of the One who has come to heal the malady of our corruption and all the wounds of our scarred souls. They proclaim that there is no longer any reason for Zacharias, for Mary, for the Shepherds, for you and for me to be sore afraid. The Savior has come. He has come to live a perfect life, to taste death in your place, to pay the price your sin and the sin of the world demanded. He has come to free you from your captivity to sin and death, to adopt you into the family of your heavenly Father, to bestow upon you the gifts of His kingdom bright and fair.
The angels are nothing to fear now because they rejoice. They rejoice at the salvation of lost mankind. They rejoice at the salvation of one sinner who repents. They rejoice at the unfathomable depth of the love of God that takes on His people’s sin to give them His righteousness. They rejoice at the condescension of a God who leaves His throne to be born in the squalor and indignity of a borrowed barn.
So tonight we join in their heavenly hymns of praise. The Sun of Righteousness has risen with healing in His wings, and He comes to you to give you songs for sighing, darkness turned to light, condemnation and death exchanged for eternal life and bliss. Our heart for very joy must leap—Glory to God in highest heaven who unto us His Son has given!