It's interesting to me that the Christmas story is chock full o' angels. An angel appears to Mary to give her the news that she's about to be pregnant with the savior of the world. An angel appears in a dream to Joseph, letting him know that Mary's story is on the up-and-up. An angel appears to Zechariah to let him know that his wife, way beyond the age women are usually able to have babies, is about to give birth to the one who will testify to the coming of the Messiah. And, of course, angels, scores of them appear to shepherds inviting them into a cosmic celebration of Jesus, who will bring peace and goodwill from the Lord to all.
The appearance of angels in the Christmas story is interesting to me because in each case we have an interaction between the living God and humanity through an intermediary. A middle man. A messenger, or messengers, who are created by and from God... but not God.
And the angels all proclaim the same thing... that the one who will make the Lord's will complete on earth is coming and be present with humanity. One who is created by and from God.... as well as being God himself. One who will need no intermediary. No messengers. For he will use his own intellect, heart, and tongue to do his own work.
Bringing peace and goodwill.
I blogged about something interesting to me last week. It was a news story about a 92 year old woman who was accosted in a WalMart by a guy who wanted to take her money. He took a gun, pointed it at her, and demanded all her cash. But the woman refused to hand it over, not once, but three times she told the man she would not do what he wanted. And, then, the woman said something very peculiar. Something that must have sounded so dramatic, that the robber, stunned, stopped what he was doing.
The woman said, "As you quickly as you kill me, I'll go to heaven, and you'll go to hell."
Now maybe some people out there might be offended by this. I mean, most Christians are taught that a person goes to hell because they haven't asked Jesus into their heart. They haven't said the sinner's prayer. They haven't intellectually assented to choose Christ. Which isn't where this woman is coming from at all. She is connecting the man's actions to a sense of God's justice. To her, if a person would be so brazen to rob a weak, helpless, woman in broad daylight, there can be no possible way he truly knows Jesus. She judges the man by his actions, which is something, quite frankly, most of us have been taught God doesn't do because none of us are holy enough to judged worthy to be in God's eternal presence. That only happens if we ask for forgiveness from Christ for our sins. To ask him to take our place on that cross. To accept God's wrath that should have been ours. We are saved by grace... the grace of God.
But in this moment, that's not what this woman is preaching. Oh, maybe that's what she's saying for herself. She's asked Jesus into heart, been active in a church all her life, and reads her Bible every day. She has not only asked for forgiveness, but taken seriously the commitment she made. She didn't leave her promise to Jesus at the alter in some prayer, but then turned away, repented of her sin, to live differently. And her life, at least in her own mind, has proved this out. She truly has been saved.
But the robber... well, she never asks him if he went to a revival, or church camp, or an Emmaus walk, or if he laid his hand on the TV while Pat Robertson prayed. He's about to sin, and the woman believes in God's justice, so she tells him he follows through on this thing here... if he follows through on this thing, he's going to be condemned to an eternity in Hell.
An... eternity... in... Hell.
I don't talk about Hell much, largely because I think there are people out there who have talked, and will continue to talk, about it enough for the both of us. But that's not because I don't believe in it. I do. This liberal, hippy, United Methodist pastor believes in Hell. The reality of judgment. The sense that God has a will when it comes to how we live our life together, and that we need to take His will seriously.
And what is his will? Ask the prophets. They'll tell you what the Lord requires of you: To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
I mean I hear the argument that a God who is truly good would never throw a person into a lake of burning fire for all eternity because the punishment, it seems, far outweighs the crime.
But I hear that, and I wonder.... doesn't God care about the life people are living now? Doesn't he care about the pain and misery inflicted by one group of folks on another group of folks? Doesn't he care about our priorities?
What did the angels say? Peace and goodwill to all people. Wouldn't a God who loves justice want to do something when his justice is perverted, or ignored?
I don't doubt we're saved by grace, but the Bible is clear... we are judged by our works. And our God finds it reprehensible that an elderly widow would get shot and killed for her pocketbook.
(All elderly widows in the house, and all who love them, say "Amen").
But here's the other thing about this story about this 92 year old woman in the Dyersville, Tennesee WalMart parking lot... as soon as she realizes that she has this guy's attention, she encourages him to pray, and she assures him that if he does pray he'll be heard because Jesus is in the car with them, right now. Another startling statement. Jesus is present here with us. The robber is so surprised the he began looking in the backseat of the car, I suspect for a guy with long hair, holes in this hands, who was wearing a robe.
He's not there... not in the flesh, anyway but for the woman, Jesus is powerfully real none-the-less. His presence has not only shaped her behavior, but given meaning to her prayer and study, as well as strengthened her, even in times of great peril... like being robbed and threatened with death.
Here's the thing... in all of history, the threat of God's condemnation has been levied by religious and political icons in their own name for their own purposes. Egyptian Pharaohs were promised paradise, slowly others were told they could come along, if only they did the Pharaoh's bidding. The all-powerful ruler in whatever dynasty you want to bring up, sees cosmic wrath in terms of what has happened to his enemies, and as a promise as to what will happen to anyone who stands against him.
And you can be certain that his concern wasn't with the welfare of elderly widows.
But the angels tell us the truth. The baby who is coming, is coming to bring peace and good will to ALL, and we get an idea of what this means when Mary sings, if you remember from a couple of weeks ago, that the Lord has... performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
This is a God who cares about justice, in this life. A God who cares about the choices we make, or don't make. A God hears the cries of those in need, and is angered when his children are the root of those tears. But God's son will not, as the Pharisees do, use Hell to bully people into adopting his agenda. God's son won't use the threat of retribution, as the Romans, to scare people into become passive and docile, doing what he asks so that he might become more powerful, or rich, or famous, or more dominant.
Hell is promised for those who believe in the power of their own mystique and ability to force their intentions on others, while not caring about peace and good will for all people.
And the most amazing thing about the angels message, which is told again by this woman in this car to this robber, is the way God's son is going to teach us how to live God's way... how to love justice, offer mercy, and walk humbly knowing God is God and we are not, is to do it personally. One on one. Not through groups projects, or meetings, or demonstrations, or grand plans for grand schemes for changing the world... those will be a part of God's process, you can be sure. But that's not where it will begin.
No. It will happen one heart at a time. Hearts set on fire by God being real, caring about our tears, our fears, our weaknesses, the way we hurt others. A God with no middle men or messengers, but rather, through the power of the Holy Spirit, his own intellect, his own tongue. He will teach us peace, and how to bring good will.