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The First Words from Every Christmas Angel
Christmas Eve, 1999
Larry Reimer and Sandy Reimer

Larry: About the time that country music really caught on, there was a song called, "I Was Country, When Country Wasn’t Cool." I realize that there is probably a significant portion of the population out there that doesn’t believe that country music is cool, even now. But for the sake of my example, just trust me that once upon a time, country was alternative music. And early country fans can take a certain pride that one often feels in liking something before it became a trend.

Our claim here at the United Church of Gainesville is that we did sermons on angels before angels were cool. Today there are angel calendars, angel cards, angel meditations, even television shows about angels and John Travolta as an angel. But I have computer-documented proof that we did sermons on angels all the way back in the early 1980’s before angels were a popular trend!

Just to catch up, angels are God’s messengers who come to us most often when we are feeling too tired, too weary, too lost, too confused, too unaware, or too far from God to even ask or pray for help. Sometimes angels are real live flesh and blood people. Sometimes they are spiritual friends. Some times angels are heavenly beings who touch us with blinding flashes of energy. Sometimes they are part of our dreams. Sometimes angels are so invisible that we only recognize their presence by the trail they leave behind. George Garrett says, "Years and scars later, I finally learn that all angels travel under assumed names."

Angels seem to be most present to us during times of upheaval and change. This change may be a time of great struggle or loss, illness or death. We see examples of this in the Biblical stories of Jesus being ministered to by an angel after his 40 day fast in the wilderness and, near the end of his life, when he is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. The other times of upheaval and change in our lives center around experiences of new beginnings and new birth. It is into this kind of situation that the angels in the Christmas story enter.

Sandy - Now, while we often think that we would like to have a vivid encounter with the holy, an angel perhaps who would stand right in front of us, clear and distinct, it is also true that such a visitation would be frightening. Remember the people of Israel who heard God’s voice speak the Ten Commandments and who turned to Moses and said "Moses, you speak to us and we will listen; but do not let God speak directly to us or we might die." Remember that the angels of the Christmas story are not sweet soft little cherubs. No, we’re talking about angels like Gabriel, who blow trumpets right in our ears, angels who are riven with light, angels whose appearance is, at the least, startling.

Which brings us to tonight’s sermon title, "The first words of the Christmas angels." Do you know what the first four words of the angels are in their Christmas appearances?

"Do not be afraid," each angel says, coming with a message during a time of upheaval and change in the lives of these ordinary people.

First there is Mary – a young woman, probably in her teens, getting ready to set out on her adult life, getting ready to be married. And suddenly her life is thrown into an upheaval by this angel messenger. She receives startling news, news that will completely change what she had planned and expected for the next year of her life. As a teenager, have you ever heard some news that suddenly changed your life? Those who are older, can you remember a time in your youth when a dramatic announcement came – a letter, a phone call, a voice – and suddenly the path you had envisioned was altered. In that kind of moment, we tremble, we fear for what this may mean. And so the angel says to Mary, "Do not be afraid."

Larry - Then there’s Joseph, who is an older man, engaged to Mary. I imagine Joseph thinking that he has finally got his life together, that he has found a relationship, a partner he can count on. He has made a commitment and is looking forward to a home and to children. Suddenly, Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father. His dream collapses. This relationship he thought he could trust seems to be broken. Has there been a time like that in your life – a time when someone you thought you could count on disappointed you, a time when a relationship fell apart? If you are in mid-life, have you faced a crisis of trust and spirit like Joseph? And the angel comes to him and says, "Do not be afraid!"

Finally, there are the shepherds out in fields. The night is dark and cold; they are doing their job, a boring job requiring a lot of patience. I imagine them spread out across the field, each one alone, tired and trying to stay awake. I imagine them wishing for something to happen to break up the night. Have you ever felt like that – a faithful conscientious worker, doing your share of the job, reliable even on the nightshift, unappreciated, secretly worried that perhaps this uninteresting job is making you dull. Suddenly the sky lights up, filled with angels singing, and the shepherds are terrified. And what are the first words of the angels? You’ve got it. "Do not be afraid."

Sandy - I would like you to think of the most important change you face in your life right now, or perhaps one you have faced in the last year. Is it the challenge of a new life, new birth, a new call? Is it the effort of being patient and faithful? Is it the struggle or crisis of dealing with loss, with illness, with endings?

Think of how in each of these places, this Christmas Eve, an angel comes to you – and know that the first words of that angel are always "Do not be afraid." Hear those words echo in your heart. In fact, let’s repeat them out loud so we can hear them spoken. What are the first words of the angel? "Do not be afraid."

Larry - These angels do not arrive to give us a friendly little pat on the head. Their words, "Do not be afraid", do not mean that our lives will go on as usual, that we will be always prosperous and happy. Instead the angels’ words deliver to us a promise that, through all the joy and sorrow of the change that inevitably lies ahead, we are not alone. The promise of the angels to Mary, to Joseph, to the shepherds, and later even to Jesus, is that "You are not alone." Barbara Brown Taylor writes this refrain: When God offers hope, when God says "Do not Be Afraid", God is not promising that bad things will not happen to us. What God promises is to be with us through it all; what God promises is strength and grace to sustain us.

I know that each person here faces tough times ahead in some way; I know as well that each person here carries pain and wounds within. I know that it is not an easy time to be – and you can fill in the blank - a child, a teenager, a young adult, a parent, a couple, a single, in mid-life or an elder. The new millennium, aside from the pros and cons of Y2K bugs, is at the very least, a symbol of a new age, an age in which much will be required of us and in which we will need both faith and vision.

And just at this moment, an angel appears to us tonight with a completely unexpected announcement, and has the gall to add, "Do not be afraid." Why shouldn’t we? Because on this Christmas season, we are reminded of God’s gift. And that gift is this: that the Spirit of the Holy is born within us, a precious spark, an assurance that says to us "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the ends of the earth."

Sandy - If we listen to that angel voice and follow, as did Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, we will discover we do not travel alone, and that is the reason we need not fear.

Take this gift, this promise through your Christmas, into the new century. God is born again in humankind tonight. God lights up the darkened corners of our lives, and there is nowhere God cannot be.

It is not over, this birth of the Holy.
There are always newer skies
Into which God can throw stars.
When we begin to think
That we can predict the coming of God
That we can lock the Christ into a stable in Bethlehem
That’s just the time that God will be born
In a place we cannot imagine and will not believe.
Those who wait for God
Watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
Listening, always listening
For the angel words: "Do not be afraid." Amen.