We’ve been thinking about angels recently. Not too surprising given that it’s Christmas, and even breakfast television had a slot this morning retracing the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, in which the presenter talked about angels in the same matter-of-fact way you might talk about traffic jams or the weather.
But it’s not really Christmas angels that got us going on this. In fact, it all started just over a month ago when John was guest preacher at a church in the north-east of Scotland. The title of his sermon was ‘Holy Ground’, based around the story in Exodus 3 of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. At the time, it seemed as conventional a sermon as you could imagine, but in the course of it John shared some of his own experiences of holy ground, including a story of angels. Not just any angels, but a very personal story which was one of the pivotal points in his own spiritual journey, when during a trip to Manila in the Philippines he had an experience that could only be comprehended as an encounter with angels.
So far, so good. The congregation went home, said the usual platitudes as they left (‘loved your sermon today’, ‘deeply moving’, ‘hope you’ll be back’ – you know the sort of thing). Actually, some of them really did seem to have been deeply moved. Until they started thinking about it later that week, and realised that they were supposed to be Dispensationalists and therefore by definition shouldn’t be believing in angels – or at least, not unless they were in the Bible, because the whole point of Dispensationalism is that we now live in some sort of interim stage of God’s relating to this world and what happened in the past can’t be experienced today. So if John was telling the truth and he really had encountered angels, where had they come from? There could be only one possible explanation: he must be in touch with the dark side, inspired not by the divine but by new age hocus-pocus, and therefore to be denounced and certainly not invited back again.
Since that happened, we’ve had lots of reflections on all this. A missional one was first: how can people who so readily dismiss anything mystical or numinous possibly expect to connect with a culture that is desperately searching for help from beyond ourselves? And a theological one: what sort of God do these people believe in, if God can only act according to some theological theory that was only dreamed up in the 19th century? Maybe the answer to that lies in the fact that the individual who stirred up all this strife in the first place is a scientist, and there is a certain sort of scientist who thinks that their PhD makes them higher than God (just think Richard Dawkins – though it has to be said that not all scientists are like him). When you think about it, mixing a materialist science that sees everything in terms of unchangeable laws of nature with a Dispensationalism that says God is no longer active in the world is a pretty strong humanistic brew that puts you in control of most things.
Believing in angels seems remarkably straightforward compared with that sort of contortion. Not to mention the fact that the very first pages of the Bible have quite a lot to say about people thinking they know better than God. Whatever else you might think about the circumstances of the first Christmas, you could never accuse God of doing things our way!