After doing first person narratives at Christmastime for many years, I was running out of characters—the human variety, anyway. I wasn't about to portray a talking sheep, but what about an angel?
I drew my inspiration from 1 Peter 1:12, "Even angels long to look into these things." I was intrigued by the notion that the heavenly beings are in awe of God's redemptive love and plan for the human race. Telling the story from a heavenly perspective enabled me to explore the cosmic backstory of the incarnation that none of the historical characters could possibly have understood or articulated.
I have often found that first-person narratives are a painless way to cover the historical and cultural background that can sometimes get tedious or esoteric in a typical message. But with this character I found I could cover a lot of theology—the doctrines of angels and demons, the nature of humankind, the sovereignty of God, and, of course, the incarnation.
The challenge in any first-person narrative is staying in character and resisting the tendency to preach in a costume. Since most people have a limited theological understanding of angels, I wanted the congregation to understand that the content they were hearing was grounded in Scripture, so I opted to have the character read from a Bible that had been "left" on the pulpit.
The particular challenge of portraying an angel was to help the listeners identify with a fundamentally non-human character. I wanted to avoid putting human emotions on the character, but needed to have him articulate thoughts and responses that were both intriguing and authentic. It's always important to inject a bit of humor or light-hearted banter into these monologues, to relieve some of the dramatic tension and to make the characters likeable. Our caricatures of angels provided plenty of lighthearted material.
I wasn't about to wear wings, so I opted for simple white pajama-type garment, with some sparkle to give a certain aura. I tried to flatten my features—i.e. wrinkles—with make-up and slicked back hair. A dry ice machine and some ethereal music provided some drama and context as I entered the platform.
I was grateful that listeners seemed to be both moved and informed by the presentation.
So this is your world. I forgot how beautiful it is. Nothing like where I come from, of course, but still beautiful in an earthly sort of way. Take those flowers, for instance. I can see the touch of the Almighty in their color and symmetry. And the music I heard awhile ago, there was something heavenly about it. Then of course there's all of you. I see something of him in each of you. So much has changed in your world since I was last here. You have so many ways of communicating with one another, of traveling from place to place. You've acquired great knowledge and capabilities. There are so many of you now all across the planet. You certainly have fulfilled the "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" part of your mission. Of course there are some things you have not done so well.
I'm sorry. I have you at a disadvantage. You can't see me. You mortals don't do well with things you can't see. Let me help you just this once. [Lights are turned on.]
Fear not! You're not afraid? The last time I was here the mortals were terrified. I'd been practicing that line for months. "Fear not!" It's what we always say. But you're not afraid. Maybe you don't know who I am. They told me it would help if I would dress like this. Though I'm not sure why. They wanted me to wear wings, but that's where I drew the line. It's so cliché. You mortals have such strange ideas about angels. Then again, you have strange ideas about a lot of things. You seem to believe in us. I see our likeness everywhere—on cards and calendars, paintings, even on people's front lawns. I imagine your church will be a pretty popular place if people knew that we were going to make an appearance every Sunday. Not that your pastor doesn't do a good job. But after all, he's only human.
Angels in Creation
Surely you've heard people tell stories of how we rescued them from danger or brought them a message from on high. Some of those stories are true. We do all kinds of things behind the scenes. But there's so much you still don't understand. So I thought it best, actually the Almighty thought it best, that I should come to you just this once and tell you the whole story. Well maybe not the whole story. Your mortal minds could not comprehend the whole story. But the important part, the part about you and him and the visit. He seems eager for you to understand.
Angels are servants of the Almighty. We do his bidding whatever it may be. Some of our number are guardians. They watch over you and this place always. Others are messengers bringing word from on high. I am a singer, a member of the heavenly chorus. We spend our entire existence praising the Almighty. Perhaps that sounds boring to you. You've never heard us sing.
Speaking of boring, don't you ever get tired of this place? They tell me you mortals really like it here on earth. It's all you've ever known, I guess. It's just that it's all so bland. You have colors here, but they're all washed out. You call this red. You have no idea how red red can be. Your music is beautiful, but it's muffled as if under a heavy blanket. You have such amusing pastimes. Those screens you watch all the time, what do you find so fascinating about them? And the games, the athletic contests, you take them so seriously, as if the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. Though I must admit we do like watching this fellow, Tebow. Some of you take your work on earth so seriously. That's good to a point. But don't you ever get tired of it all? Don't you want to see the rest of the universe? If only you knew what was out there. If only you could see the worlds the Almighty has made and is making. That's why we never get tired of singing. There's always something new to sing about.
You really are stuck here, aren't you? You're bound to this planet by space and time. Time. That's a quaint notion. We don't have time where I come from. We have eternity. Can your mortal minds grasp eternity? Probably not. There's so much you can't understand. But you do understand that you are different from us, right? I see your pastor has left the Scriptures out. Let me read to you one of our favorite texts from the Psalms. "Lord, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You have made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor." Did you hear that? Made him lower than the angels. In the order of creation, humans rank beneath angels. You will never become angels, and we will never become human, thanks be to the Almighty.
No, you really are different from us. Angels are pure spirit beings. We can take on material forms, but we do not require bodies for our existence, as you do. Some of our number do have wings. Some have six wings, in fact, covered on both sides with eyes. Does that sound strange to you—a creature with six wings and eyes all over? Have you looked in the mirror lately? You mortals have some odd features. Take these feet, for instance. Have you looked at them lately? I suppose they come in handy down here, but I'll take wings any day. With only two eyes it's no wonder there's so much that you don't see.
The most important thing about angels, the best thing about angels is that we live in perpetual unhindered fellowship with Father, Son, and Spirit. We are forever in his presence. We see and hear the Almighty as clearly as you see and hear me now. But you see him as if looking through a dark glass. Your hearing is hindered by the noise of this planet. You only get fleeting glimpses of his glory. So it's no wonder that you find it hard to believe sometimes. I understand that some of your number do not believe at all. They think that this small and simple world is all there is. How could that be? How could any of your number look at the heavens—the moon, the stars that surround this planet—and think that this is all there is? How can you look at one another and not see the image of a Greater One who gave you life? Don't you ever yearn for more, to know more, to be more than you are? That yearning is from him. It's for him. That's the strange part about all of this—he yearns for you. He made you lower than angels, bound by space and time, limited in your understanding. Yet the Almighty takes such an interest in your race. He always has. Of all the worlds the Almighty has made, yours is the one he visited.
Angels and the Bible's Story
That's when I was here last, at the time of the visit. I see you're celebrating it now with all these little lights and greenery. It's all very quaint. I'm not sure what the man in the red suit has to do with all of it. But I'm glad to see that the world still remembers. Let me tell you how it happened from heaven's side.
One day word came down through the ranks that the Almighty was going to visit the planet called earth. Why earth? we wondered. Isn't that the fallen planet? Why would the Almighty want anything to do with that planet and with the foolish beings who inhabit it? You see, we were there when the Almighty spoke this world of yours into existence. We were witnesses to its original splendor and to that crowning moment when he created you in his image, fashioned you out of the dust of the earth. He gave you bodies like the animals to inhabit this planet, but then he gave you spirits so that you would worship like us. He gave you the capacity to know and choose and relate, as if he wanted to know and be known by you. We praised him for it, of course. What wisdom to conceive of such beings. What power to give them life.
But our worship was short lived. Our wonder turned to horror as we witnessed the rebellion of humankind. Instead of exercising your freedom to worship and serve the One who made you, you chose to worship and serve yourselves. He gave you gifts to enjoy, and you squandered them. You took them for granted as if you got them by your own strength. He gave you laws that would ensure your health and happiness in this world, and you disregarded them, ruining your lives and your world. So this planet of yours became shrouded in darkness, and a stench rose up from it. It was the smell of death, something we had never perceived. Evil multiplied. Suffering and violence and heartache. We wanted nothing to do with this planet. What kind of beings given freedom and life would choose darkness and death? We shuttered to think of the judgment that was certain to befall your race.
Angels understand judgment. Long before the foundation of your world, we were given freedom to choose. Most of us chose to obey and to worship. But some chose to rebel. One of our number, a rogue angel named Lucifer, rebelled against the Almighty, tried to take the Son's throne. Others followed with him. They were immediately judged, cast out of his presence, thrown into outer darkness where they await their final destruction. If the Almighty did not spare angels when they sinned, how much more would he judge those who were made even lower than angels?
But the judgment we expected never fell. When the first man and woman sinned, they did not die. When evil multiplied across the earth and the Almighty sent a flood, we expected him to wipe out the race, but he did not. He spared Noah and his descendants. When they failed, the Almighty began again with other men, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and his twelve sons. He formed them into a nation for himself. He promised to bless them and to bless the whole planet through them. But that nation turned away again and again. He sent kings to lead them, but the kings went bad and so did the people. He sent prophets to warn them, to call them back to himself, but they did not listen. No matter how many times he forgave them, no matter how many chances he gave them, they turned away again and again. Soon the nation itself split into two and was overrun by the surrounding nations. Then there was just a remnant left, a small tribe named Judah. They too proved to be faithless and disobedient. We knew it was only a matter of time before judgment fell.
Angels at the Incarnation
When news came down that the Almighty was going to visit the planet called earth, we prepared ourselves for the worst. Surely the Almighty could bear no more evil. His justice could stand it no longer. We were certain the warrior angels would be summoned. We wondered if there might be a role for us to play, but we're just singers. As it turned out, the first of our number to be sent was a messenger. The chief messenger Gabriel was selected. We knew this must be an important message. But he was not sent to a governor or a priest. He was sent to a young peasant woman named Mary. The message he was to give seemed simple enough: she, though a virgin, would give birth to a child. I know you find that difficult to accept, that a virgin would give birth to a child. It's not difficult for us. The Almighty has done far more wonderful things than that.
What we struggled with was the next part—the Child born to her would be the Son of the Most High. It was very difficult for us to accept that the Almighty would become one of you. That he would lower himself below the ranks of angels and then confine himself to a maiden's womb. That he would enter into your world helpless and vulnerable, giving up the glories of the heavenly realm for your dark and squalid world. This was a mystery to us. Why was he so concerned for you? It's not as if you're the only beings in the universe. He has hosts and hosts of us, ten thousand upon ten thousand heavenly beings of all kinds, who have never resisted his will, never doubted his goodness. Yet he went after you, even to the point of putting on flesh and blood and becoming one of you. This was a wonder to us.
We didn't know if we should hide our eyes and look away or shout it to the highest heaven. It turned out that shouting is what he had in mind. That was to be our assignment. On the night of the visit, when the Son was to enter your world, the heavenly choir was assigned to accompany the messenger angel. He would announce it to the world, and we would celebrate it so it would not be missed. This was a rare privilege for us. We sing his praises forever, and it is our delight to do so. But to sing his praises to those who have not yet understood was a rare privilege. We wondered who our audience would be. Maybe to the kings of the earth gathered in a royal assembly, or maybe to the chosen people in the city of Jerusalem. Maybe we would sing to the whole world so all humankind would hear it together. But when our assignment came down, it was none of these. Our concert would not be in a palace or a temple, not even in a great city, but out in the hills far from anywhere. We would not be singing for the godly or powerful, not to a multitude, but to a handful of the most common people on earth. Human beings in general are not all that impressive, but shepherds? This is not what we expected.
But it is not our nature to resist. Obedience is all we know. So on the appointed night to the appointed audience we made our appearance. It may only have been a handful of commoners, but we were determined to make a show of it. The messenger angel went first, splitting the sky like a bolt of lightning. They may only have been shepherds, but they were smart enough to be afraid, which is more than I can say for some people. "Fear not!" he said. "For behold, I bring you good news of great joy, which shall be for all people. Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ Messiah, the Lord." That was our cue. If you think they were afraid when the one angel was there, you should have seen them when we all showed up. Hosts and hosts filling the sky with sight and sound, and we sang, "Glory to God in the highest." The tenors nailed it. Then the basses kicked in. "And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." Oh, we were good. We're always good, but that night was different. "Glory to God. Glory to God. Glory to God in the highest." We could have sung forever. But soon our work was done.
We disappeared from their sight, but we stayed in the shadows to watch what happened next. Quickly we understood why the Almighty had chosen shepherds. They believed our message. Without a question asked, no sooner had we left than they went down to Bethlehem to see the Child lying in a manger. Along with Mary and Joseph they were the first to welcome the Son into your world. That was a long time ago by your standards, but for us it's as if it just happened. We still marvel at those words: "On earth peace …," not judgment. After all your race had done to dishonor him, all those generations of disobedience, he offered you peace to those on whom his favor rests. To you, not angels.
Angels and our redemption in Christ
It's you. You who were made lower than angels, you who caused him such grief, on you his favor rests. This is a mystery to us. When angels sinned there was no mercy. Swift, severe judgment. But to you he has shown mercy again and again. Those of us who long ago chose obedience have been forever confirmed in that holy, righteous state. So we have never sinned and we never will, and that's to our eternal good and his eternal glory. But having never sinned, we have never experienced forgiveness. Since we have never been lost we don't know what it's like to be pursued. Even though we have seen the farthest reaches of the universe, even though we are always in his presence, you mortals can know the Almighty in a way that we never will.
Let me read to you again from the Scriptures from the book of Hebrews. "Since the children have flesh and blood he too shared in their humanity, for surely it is not angels he helps but Abraham's descendents." The Holy One never became an angel to rescue those who had fallen. The Son never put on wings to live with us, to be with us. You must be very precious to him. He called you "children." Not servants, but children.
You mortals, who by creation are made lower than the angels, by salvation have been raised to a higher place and given a place that we could and never occupy—a place near his heart. There is a word you mortals are fond of. I've heard it mentioned many times already in your singing and speaking. It is a word that we rarely use even in our singing, because we can't fully comprehend it. That word is love. If you read the Scripture you'll notice that word is never used to describe the Almighty's relationship with angels. He created us. He takes delight in us. He accepts our worship and our service. But nowhere will you read that he loves angels. But the Almighty "so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son" to you. It is the Almighty's nature to love, and so in that sense he loves all of creation including the angels. But the love you sing about, the love that saves you, that love is unique to his dealings with mortal men and women like you.
Am I jealous of that? No. I can assure you we are not jealous. It is not our nature to be jealous. We are forever fulfilled praising the Almighty and enjoying his presence. We are not jealous, just amazed. Amazed that of all the worlds the Almighty made, yours is the one he visited. Amazed that after all you have done, he loves you still.
There is one other thing that puzzles us. We were certain that after the visit, after the Son came to be with you your entire race would turn and believe. But that was not been the case at all. Great numbers of you continue to resist him, to disregard him, to go their own way. Why would any being resist love? Why would anyone choose darkness over light? Many of you have believed. I know because on the day you received his love we held a great celebration in heaven. As your name was written in the Book of Life we sang praises to the Almighty. But some of your names I do not recognize. Some of you have never received his love and become his children. Why is that? What are you waiting for? What will it take for you to believe?
That's my cue. I must return to the heavenly ranks. I do hope to see all of you again, if not here then there, where we will sing for you the glories of his Name. And you will sing for us the wonders of his love forever and ever.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.