Angels We Have Heard on High


Fellowship Class

Tarrytown United Methodist Church

Dec. 21, 1997

Wayne Danielson

Angels We Have Heard on High

John 1, 1-14. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The same was in the beginning with God.

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was  made.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

The same came for a witness, to bear witness to the Light, that all men through him might believe.

He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

Which were born, not of blood, not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.)

Hebrews 13, 2.  Do not be forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

Angels we have heard on high

Sweetly singing o'er the plain

And the mountains in reply

Echoing the glad refrain.

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Shepherds, why this jubilee?

Why your joyous strains prolong?

What the gladsome tidings be

Which inspire your heavenly song?

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Come to Bethlehem and see

Him whose birth the angels sing;

Come, adore on bended knee

Christ, the Lord, the new-born King.

Last night I spent some time with a favorite old movie — Jimmy Stewart’s A Wonderful Life.

Probably some of you watched it, too, in spite of the fact that you have seen it many times before.

It is the story of a man who needs the help of an angel to come to terms with his own life and realize that it really isn’t so bad —  he has made a contribution after all. In all the little things that he has done for people over the years, he has made a real contribution to his family, his friends, his community. And when he needs help, his friends come to his aid.

It’s a Wonderful  Life is a wonderful story.

It reminds me every year that I can make something worthwhile out of my own life, if I can keep my head screwed on straight and keep on trucking.

I always wonder when I see that film.

Could angels still happen?

Could they still be talking to us?

And if so, what are they saying?

Many people believe that angels don’t  exist.

But others insist that plenty of them are still around.

Take Charles Dickens, for example.  His most famous literary creation, Ebenezer Scrooge, certainly didn’t believe in angels — or much of anything else.  This famous passage at the beginning of the story illustrates his super-realistic point of view, one most of us have heard expressed at West Austin dinner parties:

Two portly gentlemen are calling on Scrooge on Christmas Eve, hoping to get him to give to the poor.

“Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge or Mr. Marley?”

“Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years,” Scrooge replied. “He died seven years ago this very night.”

“We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.

It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality,” Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body in the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to remain anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides – excuse me — I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

That was written in 1843, but it seems to me you might hear something remarkably like it some days over at the Holiday House.

In the course of the story, Scrooge is visited by what he calls spirits.  The spirit of  Christmas past, the spirit of Christmas present, and the spirit of Christmas yet to come.  Now Scrooge calls them spirits, but in terms of what they do to old Scrooge, he could just as well call them angels because an angel is just a spirit until it is sent.  Angels are spirits who are sent to do something, to carry a message.  Their purpose, you see, is to tell Scrooge that he needs to change his ways, or else.  And that’s just what angels usually do.

The angel of Christmas yet to come is especially pointed in his message.  Although he does not speak -- he may not be allowed to speak of things to come -- he can point.  And he does point to the grim future that lies ahead for Scrooge and those for whom he is responsible unless the old man repents and recreates himself.  Scrooge finally does repent and on Christmas morning he opens his shutters to the sound of bells:

No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky, sweet fresh air, merry bells.  Oh, Glorious! Glorious!

What’s to-day!” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

‘What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.

“To-day!” replied the boy. “Why Christmas Day.”

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself.  “I haven’t missed it.  the spirits have done it all in one night.  They can do anything they like.  Of Course they can. Of course they can.”

The man who hears the bells of Christmas and throws open the shutters of his musty bedroom to greet the day is a changed man.  He has been changed by angels. He is now a man who is fit to live in the world, a man of peace  and goodwill.

Do angels still exist?

You walk right by the Salvation Army volunteer ringing his bell in front of Target.

Then something tells you to turn around and go back and throw a few coins into the pot.

“Thank you, thank you,” the man says, “and Merry Christmas to you.”

What made you turn around?

Those insistent voices on television keep reminding you  that thousands of Austin children need coats this winter.  “Please come and put a coat in one of the barrels at Jack Brown’s Cleaners,” the voices beg. “We are 14,000 coats short of where we should be now.”

“This is just ridiculous,” you say. “Surely, most of those folks could get a job at Burger King and buy their own coats.”

But the next morning there you are at Jack Brown’s putting that brown plaid number in the barrel.

Why did you do that?

At the University, Orange Santa collection depots appear in the departmental offices.  The food and toys that miraculously show up  go to help low-paid UT employees have a better Christmas.

“Why don’t the Regents just bite the bullet and pay their employees a decent wage?” you wonder.

But a few days before Christmas, there you are, lugging canned goods up to the departmental office early, so no one will notice.

Why did you do this?

Is it possible that inside your head you heard an angel saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill”? Just because you don’t see an angel doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.  The famous poem by Francis Thompson expressed it this way:

The angels keep their ancient places;

Turn but a stone, and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces,

That miss the many-spendored thing.

Around Christmas time I think people sometimes hear angels telling them what to do. Luke was one of the first to notice this.

Angels figure prominently in his stories about the birth of Jesus. (To pick up on all the angels you have to read the whole story — not just the part beginning “and in the same country.”)

Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah was a priest in the temple, and he was selected by lot to go into the sanctuary one day and burn incense there, while the people prayed outside.  When he went in, he saw an angel standing on the right hand of the altar. The angel spoke to him at length, telling him that Elizabeth would have a son, John, who would be filled with the holy spirit and bring back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God.

Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this?  I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”

You have to agree that this was no way to talk to an angel. The angel identified himself as Gabriel,  an important angel indeed, one who stands in God’s presence.  He was ticked off with Zechariah for not believing his words, and he deprived him of speech until everything came to pass that was supposed to.

Greatly chastened, Zechariah went home to his wife, and she became pregnant by her speechless husband.

In her sixth month, the angel Gabriel appeared to Elizabeth’s cousin Mary in Nazareth and told her that she would bear a son to be named Jesus. Mary, unlike Zechariah, was more believing, but she did ask —  “How can this come about since I am a virgin?”  The angel explained how things would be, and Mary said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me.”

She hurried off to see Elizabeth and found her pregnant as the angel had reported. Mary stayed with her for three months and then went back home.

Elizabeth gave birth to a baby boy and said it was to be called John.  Everybody thought it should be called Zechariah after his father.  But Elizabeth was firm about it.  And Zechariah, not wishing to have any more trouble with angels, wrote on a tablet, “His name is John.”

At that moment his speech came back, and he gave praise to God.

A few months later, Mary and Joseph were over in Bethlehem to pay their taxes. Unable to find a room in the inn, they were lodged in the stable and that is where Jesus was born.

The angel of the Lord appeared to a group of shepherds outside of town and urged them to get over to Bethlehem to see this baby.  As a matter of fact, a whole bunch of angels showed up, and the shepherds, not accustomed to such sights and sounds, thought they had better move it. They remembered what the angels sang,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth among men of goodwill!”

They hurried over to Bethlehem and found the baby just as the angel had promised.

The other Gospel writer who has stories to tell about the birth of Jesus is Matthew.  He says that Joseph, when Mary was found to be pregnant, planned to divorce her informally.  But an angel appeared to him a dream and told him not to reject Mary, but to take her home as his wife and to take care of the holy child she was to bear named Jesus.

Joseph did exactly what he was told, which is a good idea in general when dealing with angels.

Matthew says that wise men from the East were led by a star to the birthplace of Jesus, and they fell down and worshipped him and gave him presents.  Later they were warned in a dream not to tell King Herod where the baby was.  This probably was an angel warning— but at any rate, the wise men got out of town as fast as possible.

Herod was mad about this and started killing boy babies right and left.

An angel appeared again to Joseph in a dream and told him to get Mary and the baby to safety in Egypt where they stayed until Herod was dead.  Then the angel appeared to Joseph again and said it was okay for him to take Mary and the baby back home to Israel.  When he got there, Joseph found that Herod’s son, Archaelaus, had succeeded him, and he was no better than his old man.  The angel advised Joseph to take the boy north to Galilee, and that what Joseph did, and that is why Jesus grew up in Nazareth.

You can see from these stories that around the time of Jesus’s birth angels were all over the place.  They were busy going here and there, telling people what to do -- always things that turned out to be good for them and good for the community.

That’s kind of the way it is with angels.

Around Christmas time they still come around.  They know when we’ve been bad or good.  They know when we’ve been crying and pouting and whining about this and that.  In my opinion, it’s those pesky angels you’ve got to look out for more than Santa Claus.

If you ignore their advice, you can get yourself in a heap of trouble.

So when you walk past the Salvation Army bell ringer without putting anything in the pot and suddenly you feel that you need to turn around and help out, my advice is: do it.  You may be

hearing an angel’s voice.

And when you feel a strong need to donate your old coat to Coats for Kids — don’t fight it.  Do it.  An angel may be talking to you.

And when you feel a tugging at your heart to contribute to Blue Santa, or Orange Santa, or Brown Santa or whatever — heed those angel voices.

I’d like to close with this year’s Christmas poem.  I wrote the words, and LaVonne printed them out in the form of a star.  We invite you to pick one up as you leave.  I wrote the poem after sitting in my favorite chair in the morning and suddenly noticing how deeply the winter light had penetrated our house, illuminating corners that are usually dark. That’s just like Christmas, I thought. It may be an accident, but the last line mentions angels.

The Light in December

The light in December has managed to creep

Into the dark corners of bedroom and hall,

Reflecting on photos that normally sleep

In summertime shadows that cover the walls.

The ancestral clock reembraces the sun,

Its ivory face reawakened by light.

Time’s marathon ticking has finally run

The year to its finish, dispelling the night.

Now everything old is revealed as brand new,

And everything dusty recovers its sheen,

And thoughts long forgotten resurface as do

Old loves, old hopes, old songs and old dreams.

The circle revolves. The pendulum swings.

And light falls like Christmas from bright angel wings.