Christmas Angels: The Naming Angel
A Sermon by Bill McDonald from Matthew 1:18-25
Christmas Angels have been on our minds and in our sermons since the first Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday of November. Maybe it’s time now to turn to some experts and let the children tell us exactly who and what angels are. These quotes came by way of the Internet, but that’s not a plea for all of you to start forwarding Internet stories to me!
Gregory, 5, says “I only know the names of two angels. Hark and Harold.”
Olive, 9, complains, “Everybody’s got it all wrong. Angels don’t wear halos anymore. I forget why but scientists are working on it.”
Matthew, 9, claims, “It’s not easy to become an angel! First, you die. Then you go to heaven, then there’s still the flight training to go through. And then you got to agree to wear those angel clothes.”
Mitchell, 7, believes “Angels work for God and watch over kids when God has to go do something else.” Hard to imagine that there would be time for anything else!
Henry, 8, says, “My guardian angel helps me with math, but he’s not much good for science.”
Daniel, 9, shares his knowledge, “Angels talk all the way while they’re flying you up to heaven. The main subject is where you went wrong before you got dead.”
Reagan, 10, knows the fearsomeness of angels, explaining, “When an angel gets mad, he takes a deep breath and counts to ten. And when he lets out his breath, somewhere there’s a tornado.”
Sara, 6, shares these angel facts, “Angels have a lot to do and they keep very busy. If you lose a tooth, an angel comes in through your window and leaves money under your pillow. Then when it gets cold, angels fly south for the winter.”
And Tommy, 8, wonders, “What I don’t get about angels is why, when someone is in love, they shoot arrows at them.” Warning shots, Tommy, just warning shots!
But what I don’t get is–what was the angel telling Joseph to name Mary’s baby? Was he to name the baby Jesus or Emmanuel? Maybe it was supposed to be a double name like when my Mississippi relatives call me Billy Harold–Jesus Emmanuel. This angel appearing to Joseph doesn’t even merit a name himself—or herself. Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel visited Mary; Joseph’s angel is nameless, but shows up more often—five times in just the first two chapters of Matthew. I think the answer is that the angel wasn’t so much giving the baby a moniker as it was telling all of us what this baby was going to do. Quoting from Isaiah 7:14, the angel says that this child will be the long-promised Emmanuel, the one who will bring God to us. Bring God to us?? Are you out of your mind, angel? If we want to see the President, we don’t call him on the red phone and say, “Barack, drop by my house this afternoon on your way home.” We don’t expect the Governor to come at our beck and call. The Mayor might grant us a few minutes, but it will be in his office, not in our living room. If we are going to meet with the powers that be, we have to go to them. That is the way it has always been. And that has also been a religious concept for centuries, that we will go and see God after we die and go to heaven, that we will understand it all by and by, that God-encounters are after-life occurrences. But the angel says that Jesus Emmanuel is “God with us.”
I read about a grandfather who found his grandson jumping up and down in his playpen, crying at the top of his voice. When the boy saw his grandfather, he reached up his chubby little hands and cried, “Out, Gramps, out!” It was only natural for the grandfather to reach down to lift him out, but the mother of the child said, “No, Son, you are being punished, so you must stay in there.” The grandfather was at a loss to know what to do. The child’s tears and hands reached deep into his heart. But the mother’s firmness in correcting her son was not to be taken lightly. Here was a problem of love versus law. But love found a way. The grandfather could not take the grandson out of the playpen…so he climbed in with him. And that is what the angel is announcing. In Jesus, God has climbed in with us. Climbed into our earthly struggles, into the routine of our days, climbed into the midst of our humanity, stepped onto dirt and pavement, into homes and hovels, amid the commonness of mortal existence. When you need God, God is here. Even if you don’t believe in God, God is here. The truth is in the name. Jesus/Emmanuel brought God to live with us.
As for the name “Jesus,” Matthew is the only New Testament writer who applies a meaning to the name. St. Paul writes that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Philippians 2:10) But only Matthew tells us what that glorious name means: “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Word scholars tell us that “Jesus” means, “he will save.” And we all need a little saving, especially at this time of year.
“What is your Christmas wish?” I asked her. To my amazement she replied, “My wish is for it to be over.” I knew what she was talking about. Many people have said similar things to me through the years. Some are too sad over the loss of loved ones who had made Christmases past happen for them. To them Christmas can’t be Christmas without those lost loved ones. Others cannot identify with the “happy family” image that commercial Christmas sells us. The huge home, gaily decorated with expensive ornaments. Parents giving new cars to their teenagers. Dad giving Mom a diamond necklace. Mom giving Dad socks and underwear (some things are always true)! And everyone cuddling warmly in front of a blazing hearth. That picture doesn’t fit a lot of the families I know. Broken or strained relationships between spouses or between parents and children make it hard to watch that Merry Christmas image. Empty wallets and tight budgets often cause more guilt than joy in gift-giving. One week a young man came by the church, begging food to stock his family’s fridge. As we made plans for that, he poured out to me the guilt he felt because his son had just turned 17 and he wasn’t able to buy the boy a car. What?? He couldn’t even keep the family in food, but somehow society had convinced him that he was supposed to provide a car for a 17 year old. “My wish is for it to be over,” the woman had said. I knew what she meant. I wish I had said to her back then: “My wish is that you will discover the real Christmas.” Jesus came to save, to heal our broken relationships with God and with each other. His magnetic love can save us by drawing the bitterness out of our hearts and minds. His healing touch can save us from our fears, and from society’s demands, and can calm our souls. Jesus is the real gift at Christmas–the only one that really matters.
But Jesus does enable us to give some really neat gifts to others. He gives us love for others that we can share just for the cost of a phone call or a little paper and ink or a few minutes writing an email. Ask any adult what was the greatest Christmas gift that they ever received. The majority will say a special note or letter, a day or an experience with loved ones, a bit of paste and glue and paper put together by a child. All a far cry from the $350 slacks I saw at the men’s store last week. Three hundred and fifty bucks for a pair of pants! No offense meant to those of you out there who are wearing those slacks today! But my prayer for all of us is that we may find the ultimate thrill by unwrapping this gift from God named Jesus. Nothing that society can produce will make Christmas or life mean more.
The poet Francis Thompson wrote, “The angels keep their ancient places; turn but a stone and start a wing.” I hope you will take time in the remaining eight days of Christmas to listen for the angels. Perhaps they might even have a new name for you: Faithful Believer, Trusted Servant, Child of God. Merry Christmas.