“What Grounds Our Hope? ‘The Angels’ Point of View,’ a short story by J. B. Phillips”
Sermon for 1st Advent, 11.29.09
Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36.
Please pray with me: May we take heed and watch; for we do not know when the time will come. Amen.
From today’s Gospel: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
On a long drive, who doesn’t remember the inevitable question: “Are we there yet?” And the inevitable answer, “Not yet.” Only a few days ago, I flew to
But it’s not only secular. As the days become shorter and as the cold really sets in, it’s hard to wait for the warmth and wonder of our caroling, of our Christmas Eve service, and of the days that follow, filled with memories and singing, generosity and hope. Once more the airport can provide an analogy: We wait and wait for those connections and finally, if we are blessed, we land where family and friends have also been waiting. And then what celebration, even from dignified grown-ups: hugs, smiles, laughter. If there are children, they may fling themselves at you, with total abandon.
This too is Advent, the longing for the blessing of a savior who comes as a beautiful baby, who is sufficiently like us so that we can believe in his friendship, sufficiently noble, powerful, and humble so that we can depend on his love. What if we ran towards the holy moments of Christmas and the Christ child with the same uncensored trust and love that we receive from the children who love us? What if our joy were so infections that it pulled others along with us? And not just for the celebration of his birth but for all that follows?
There’s even more to Advent. You’ll notice that our Scripture readings this morning don’t tell us about Mary and Joseph or the shepherds or the kings. They come later. Instead the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah won’t let us forget that this world in which we must live is far from perfect. We long for rulers who will execute justice and promote equitable relationships. The Psalmist’s troubles, on the other hand, are personal. He is tortured by memories and longs for a God who will be gracious, who will deliver, who will “remember not” the sins of his youth; a God who will forgive. These writers are looking for the baby who will be born in
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is more complicated, however, because it speaks of the many ways in which Christ comes. How do we respond to the Christ who has already come and who can direct our imperfect ways? Furthermore, Paul reminds his young church in Thessalonica that the risen and ascended Christ will come again. His letter prepares us for the shocking Gospel lesson from Luke that describes universal distress and the shaking of heaven and earth.
Unlike the first Christians and some fundamentalist Christians today, we may not believe that the Second Coming is about to arrive. But it is basic to our faith and a certainty built into every Creed of the Church worth its salt that God has the power to intervene and that Christ’s work is not yet finished. Whether people preach on it or not, the coming of the Son of Man is one of Jesus’ major themes in the Gospels.
We are kidding ourselves, therefore, if we don’t remember that the Church has always understood Advent in at least two ways: God’s gift of mercy in the manger is a wonderful beginning, but it must be balanced by God’s eventual coming in majesty at the end of time. As we rejoice and reflect upon the first so we must reflect and prepare for the second.
There are two important points here: Because everything earthly must come to an end, each new day is precious, not only to each of us as individuals but to us as members of a community that longs to bring God’s kingdom to completion. There is much to do.
That is why it is so important to link the two understandings of Advent: The Lord who will judge is the Jesus whom we have known as a baby and whose teachings we follow. We know he loves us. Continuing to follow him will turn the Day of Judgment—or days of our own tribulations—into times of grace and redemption.
As we begin our Advent journey, it may help to consider “The Angels’ Point of View.” This is the name of a story, written some 50 years ago, by J.B. Phillips, a giant among the translators of the New Testament:
“The Angels’ Point of View” by J.B. Phillips
Once upon a time a very young angel was being shown round the splendours and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. To tell the truth, the little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored. He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns, infinite distances in the deathly cold of interstellar space, and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.
“I want you to watch that one particularly,” said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.
“Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,” said the little angel. “What’s special about that one?”
“That,” replied his senior solemnly, “is the Visited Planet.”
“Visited?” said the little one. “You don’t mean visited by ———?”
“Indeed I do. That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and not perhaps over-clean, has been visited by our young Prince of Glory.” And at these words he bowed his head reverently.
“But how?” queried the younger one. “Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince, with all these wonders and splendours of His Creation, and millions more that I’m sure I haven’t seen yet, went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should He do a thing like that?”
“It isn’t for us,” said his senior a little stiffly, “to question His ‘why’s’, except that I must point out to you that He is not impressed by size and numbers, as you seem to be. But that He really went I know, and all of us in Heaven who know anything know that. As to why He became one of them—how else do you suppose could He visit them?”
The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust.
“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?”
“I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.”
The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.
“Close your eyes for a moment,” said the senior angel, “and we will go back in what they call Time.”
While the little angel’s eyes were closed and the two of them moved nearer to the spinning ball, it stopped its spinning, spun backwards quite fast for a while, and then slowly resumed its usual rotation.
And as the little angel did as he was told, there appeared here and there on the dull surface of the globe little flashes of light, some merely momentary and some persisting for quite a time.
“Well, what am I seeing now?” queried the little angel.
“You are watching this little world as it was some thousands of years ago,” returned his companion. “Every flash and glow of light that you see is something of the Father’s knowledge and wisdom breaking into the minds and hearts of people who live upon the earth. Not many people, you see, can hear His Voice or understand what He says, even though He is speaking gently and quietly to them all the time.”
“Why are they so blind and deaf and stupid?” asked the junior angel rather crossly.
“It is not for us to judge them. We who live in the Splendour have no idea what it is like to live in the dark. We hear the music and the Voice like the sound of many waters every day of our lives, but to them—well, there is much darkness and much noise and much distraction upon the earth. Only a few who are quiet and humble and wise hear His Voice. But watch, for in a moment you will see something truly wonderful.”
The Earth went on turning and circling round the sun, and then quite suddenly, in the upper half of the globe, there appeared a light, tiny but so bright in its intensity that both the angels hid their eyes.
“I think I can guess,” said the little angel in a low voice. “That was the Visit, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, that was the Visit. The Light Himself went down there and lived among them; but in a moment, and you will be able to tell that even with your eyes closed, the light will go out.”
“But why? Could He not bear their darkness and stupidity? Did He have to return here?”
“No, it wasn’t that,” returned the senior angel. His voice was stern and sad. “They failed to recognize Him for Who He was—or at least only a handful knew Him. For the most part they preferred their darkness to His Light, and in the end they killed Him.”
“The fools, the crazy fools! They don’t deserve ———”
“Neither you nor I, nor any other angel, knows why they were so foolish and so wicked. Nor can we say what they deserve or don’t deserve But the fact remains, they killed our Prince of Glory while He was Man amongst them”
“And that I suppose was the end? I see the whole Earth has gone black and dark. All right, I won’t judge them, but surely that is all they could expect?”
“Wait, we are still far from the end of the story of the Visited Planet. Watch now, but be ready to cover your eyes again.”
In utter blackness the earth turned round three times, and then blazed with unbearable radiance a point of light.
What now?” asked the little angel, shielding his eyes.
“They killed Him all right, but He conquered death. The thing most of them dread and fear all their lives He broke and conquered. He rose again, and a few of them saw Him and from then on became His utterly devoted slaves.”
“Thank God for that,” said the little angel.
“Amen. Open your eyes now, the dazzling light has gone. The Prince has returned to His Home of Light. But watch the Earth flow.”
As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated. And then as the Earth turned many times little points of light spread out. A few flickered and died; but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow over many areas.
“You see what is happening?” asked the senior angel. “The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth.’’
“Yes, yes,” said the little angel impatiently, “but how does it end? Will the little lights join up with each other? Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?”
His senior shook his head. “We simply do not know,” he replied. “It is in the Father’s hands. Sometimes it is agony to watch and sometimes it is joy unspeakable. The end is not yet, but now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important. He has visited it; He is working out his plan upon it.”
“Yes, I see, though I don’t understand. I shall never forget that this is the Visited Planet.”
Let us pray: Dearest God, help us remember that we have been visited by the King of Glory who came into the world as an innocent and vulnerable baby. Give us grace to celebrate both his first and his second coming. Give us grace to keep his light burning steadily. May his Advent be as a sanctifying time of both repentance and anticipation. AMEN.