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Reflection December 15, 2019
"Time to Listen to Angels" by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Advent is the time to listen to angels! We see this both in Matthew’s Gospel and in Luke’s Gospel. Let’s imagine ourselves in Joseph’s place. We’re engaged to a lovely young woman and we’re anxiously awaiting the marriage.
But suddenly the young woman is found to be with child. What sorrow must have filled Joseph’s broken heart! What sadness must have come to him as he heard the gossip that always accompanies such disclosures!
Of course, scandal should not have been entirely new to Joseph. In Matthew, we read the genealogy of Joseph and Jesus. As the theologian Jack Shea notes in Starlight: “(This genealogy becomes) strange when we notice the women who are included. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba) are all women who are sexually suspect. ‘All…had a…history that contained elements of scandal and scorn; they were…instruments, however, of God…in continuing the sacred line of the Messiah.’…The divine purposes are worked out through all sorts of people…Even the family tree of the Messiah has a few horse thieves.”
The realization that scandal exists in the Messiah’s genealogy should not surprise us. Our world is not easily divided between saints and sinners. I’d imagine most of us have some scandal in our bloodlines. I know this to be the case with me.
My father was involved with the Irish Republican Army – the IRA – during the time of the troubles in Ireland when the Irish rose in rebellion against the British. My father would have been classified in those troubled times as a terrorist by the British authorities.
I’m not sure we really understand the scandal surrounding Jesus’ birth. We’ve become so familiar with the Christmas story that we fail to be unsettled by its inherent scandal. What happened when it was learned that Mary was pregnant?
As Abbie Jane Wells wonders in The Gospel According to Abbie Jane Wells: “I wonder how much shunning Mary and Joseph got? After all, they weren’t married yet and Mary was pregnant. I wonder how much company they had, or if they had any, from their religious community and from family and old friends? … I wonder if Mary gradually learned how to be alone as people turned away – first one and then another – so that she was used to being alone before she got to Egypt.”
This is important for us to ponder because we know that babies growing in the womb can feel many things – including perhaps the psyche of the mother. I’d like to suggest that perhaps Jesus in Mary’s womb began to sense the reality of rejection. Jesus, as we know, was born into a world that would reject him and crucify him before eventually embracing him and his message after he had gone back to God. There are tears everywhere in the birth, life and death of Jesus.
I imagine Joseph probably shed tears when he heard Mary was with child. Joseph knew the child could not be his. How could this news not fall upon Joseph as a profound betrayal at the hands of his betrothed? How could it possibly enter the mind of Joseph that God was intimately involved in the whole scandalous affair? But just as Joseph was getting ready to divorce and dismiss Mary, an angel comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.
Now what are we to make of this strange account of an angel coming to Joseph? What are we to make of angels? Angels, as we know, are well represented in the books of the Bible. According to my limited research I found angels mentioned in 33 books of the Bible, ranging from Genesis to Revelation. In other words, fully half of the 66 books of the Bible have angels in them.
It might help us to know that the word angel in Hebrew is mal’ak and in Greek the word is angelos. Hebrews 1:14 tells us: “Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?”
We know from the Gospel of Matthew that angels speak to Joseph on three occasions: first to tell Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife; secondly, to flee from Bethlehem to Egypt because of the murderous rage of King Herod; thirdly, to return from Egypt to Israel after the death of Herod.
In the Gospel of Luke, the archangel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to announce the conception of John the Baptist. Then Gabriel comes to Mary with the astonishing news that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, the Son of God, if she will answer yes to the divine invitation. And, of course, we have an angel announcing the good news to shepherds after Jesus is born who is then joined by a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.
I write this today not to convince us of the reality of angels. I don’t know much more than what I find in Scripture. When I was growing up in the Catholic Church, in grade school, we were told to move over on our desk seats so our guardian angels could have a place to sit.
I personally harbor an appreciation for the place of angels in Scripture. Who are we to tell God who or what God can create? And, to tell the truth, I’d be happy to be visited by an angel – in my waking life or in my dreams. Of course, we should keep in mind the awareness that since the first words out of an angel’s mouth are usually “Fear not” – we know something important about what angels must look like.
I add one aside: Most of us have seen the classic 1946 Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. In the movie, an angel second-class named Clarence shows up to reveal to George Bailey all the people he has touched during his life. Clarence is a second-class angel because he hasn’t yet earned his wings which he does by the end of the movie.
In other words, Clarence is a dead person who is in the process of becoming an angel. Now while there are many people who serve an angelic role to others, humans cannot become angels in any theological sense. Humans are humans. Angels are angels.
In Advent texts from Matthew’s Gospel, we see how Joseph listens to angels. It’s this process of listening to angels that is a most important message from Joseph. Deep listening may well be the most important function of the human person. One of the most loving acts we can provide for another is to truly listen to them.
Here are important words from Wayne Teasdale’s The Mystic Heart: “Deep spirituality also gives us the capacity to listen. The nature of this deep listening is much more subtle and comprehensive that the ordinary mode practiced by most people. It is a complete inner attention, a devout listening with one’s whole heart. It does not matter whether we are listening to the divine, to the earth, to other people, to members of other species, or to ourselves. Everything is an avenue to the divine. Ultimate reality expresses itself and speaks through all things in each moment. All we have to do is listen. We all love people who really listen to us. When we find a good listener, we cherish that person. This rare gift tells us something substantial about the inner depth of such a person.”
I’m not sure how good of a listener I am. To listen sounds easy but it may be one of the hardest disciplines we can achieve. As the theologian Paul Tillich stated: “The first duty of love is to listen.”
We know that we’re commissioned to listen. In the 4th Chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells and explains the parable of the sower and the seed. Those who listen to God’s word are those with good soil in whom the seed bears fruit – thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. We must listen if we are to bear fruit.
I believe it’s hard for us to truly listen. There is so much noise-clutter surrounding us that we tend to turn off our deep listening faculties. I’ve seen this over the years of my teaching at Moraine Valley Community College. My students often seem to not really be listening to what I have to say. And, of course, I realize that not everything I say in my lectures is worth listening to. And surely some parts of my sermons are less essential than other parts.
It was the famous German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who said that true listening is worship. We worship when we truly listen. We worship when we truly listen to our music and songs. We worship when we truly listen to our joys and concerns. We worship when we truly listen to the prayers and the Scripture readings. We worship when we truly listen to the sermon. We worship when we truly listen to each other.
We really don’t know very much about Joseph. There isn’t much about him in the Gospels but he’s declared a “righteous man.” I believe his righteousness may well have resided in his ability to listen deeply. This is an ability we need to develop.
God often speaks to us in silence. This is a vital truth in our faith life, in our faith journey. As the Trappist monk, Thomas Keating, so well stated it: “Silence is God’s language, and it’s a very difficult language to learn.”
One way to begin to learn God’s language is to learn how to listen deeply. This demands that we discipline our incessant desire to speak. This demands that we listen with our hearts as well as our ears. This demands that we allow ourselves the possibility of listening to angels. As that prolific writer, Anonymous, so well phrased it: “When hearts listen, angels sing!” Good advice for the rest of our Advent Season!
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth, Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister