Luke 2:1-5 “Angels Along the Way”
This Advent we have been listening to the voices of the angels. We listened as Gabriel appeared to both Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, mother of Jesus – to announce to them something extraordinary and wonderful. Last week we listened to the angel that appeared to Joseph who brought reassurance and asked for courage. On Thursday, during our Christmas Eve service – we will hear the angels, the great heavenly host, announce to lowly shepherds that God had been born into the world as a newborn infant.
It is the voices of angels that herald in this season of miracles. And there have been two things we have noticed together about these appearances by angels – they are always unexpected and their one consistent message is reassurance: Do not be afraid. While the angels are bringing unexpected and life-changing news, they always offer a reminder that the approaching change comes with God’s blessing: “Do not be afraid, for God is with you.”
But the story we heard today, of a pregnant Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem does not include any appearances by mysterious angels. There are no heavenly hosts in the sky. The angel Gabriel is not recorded as traveling with them. In fact, this journey is not given much space in the Christmas story. We tend to focus more on the end of the journey, when they arrive in Bethlehem and could find no place to stay, so they had to camp in a barn, and when Mary gave birth to Jesus he was placed in a manger. We like that part of the story – though we have idealized it a bit too much I think – because we often find ourselves in awe of the humble beginnings of Jesus’ life. But, this year I want us to wonder together about the journey Mary and Joseph took, the journey that led them to that full inn in Bethlehem.
According a travel company with the best name I have come across: Travelujah, which offers Holy Land tours, the journey likely took four to seven days, maybe longer because Mary was very pregnant. The exact route they took is not known, but Biblical historians can make some educated guesses based on what we know from the time. There were two paths to travel on: either they traveled down from Nazareth trough Jezreel Valley to Samaria and from there to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Judea. Or, because of the ongoing conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans, they may have traveled through the Jordan Valley to avoid Samaria all together. Either way, what we do know is that the journey on foot took several days, crossed rough terrain, traveled roads filled with robbers, in other words, it was a perilous trip. The scriptures don’t tell the story of this journey, but we can use our imaginations to wonder about what and who they encountered along the way.
Because the Roman Emperor had called for a census of the all those in the occupied land, I think we can assume that Mary and Joseph were not traveling entirely on their own. There were likely many others who also had to return to the home of the ancestors so they could be counted as ordered. Maybe they traveled with neighbors, extended family, and old friends – finding comfort in the familiar faces, but also needing to dodge uncomfortable questions about Mary’s advanced pregnancy. Remember, Joseph agreed to take her as his wife despite all cultural expectations that he would not. Did they encounter prejudice or scorn even from those they traveled with? Did they find the need to lie to protect their safety? Did people stop talking as they approached, looking at them with raised eyebrows and assuming expressions? Probably. But, I bet there were also those they encountered on the road who approached not with scorn or assumptions, but rather great care, grace, and even love. In other words, on this perilous trip, did they encounter angels – people who expressed the love of God through their actions and welcome?
The scriptures describe the angels as something extraordinary – an appearance that awes and overwhelms. In fact, in the visions of the prophets, the angels or messengers from God are even fearful – described with many heads, bodies made up of parts from animals. Some glowing so bright that it is impossible to look directly at them. Those are the angels the scriptures like to focus on. The angel Gabriel, who we focus on during the Christmas story isn’t described, but one of the first things he says is “Do not be afraid” – so we can guess that his appearance was striking and even frightening.
Those are the angels of the scriptures. But what about the other angels that traveled with Mary and Joseph? What about those other earthly angels that they encountered on the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem? I am not talking about the heavenly host that fills the sky after Jesus is born, I am talking about everyday people who through their words or actions make clear that they are the hands and feet of God moving among us. These everyday angels, I like to think, walked alongside Mary and Joseph – showing them love and grace, and therefore making safe the way towards Jesus’ life.
We have all encountered people like this. We have all encountered people, either friends or strangers, who by their actions, their words, or their simple presence draw us closer to God. Sometimes they do something extraordinary – sometimes they help in the midst of crisis, showing up just at the right moment. Sometimes they speak words so comforting and true that whatever we are struggling with is given rest, and our spirits find comfort. Sometimes they are those people who just pass us by on the street – giving us a smile when it feels like the entire world has turned away.
We have all encountered these earthly angels before. We all have stories, I am sure of it. I have plenty. What is your story? What was that unexpected moment or interaction in your life, when, as you have thought back on it, you realized that God was in that moment? Perhaps you even heard somewhere in your heart the words of the angels in the scripture: Do not be afraid, for God is with you.
And when have you been that earthly angel for someone else? Because, again, I think you have been. You reached out when no one else did. You walked alongside someone who was feeling afraid and vulnerable. You offered unquestioning grace when the rest of the world was only giving judgement.
Just as I believe that Mary and Joseph encountered earthly angels on their way to give Jesus life, I believe you and I encounter angels on our own journeys, and we can even be that angel for another. I believe this because it’s foundational to how I understand God, how I understand the miracle of Christmas. The miracle is that in the birth of Jesus Christ into this world, God made the choice to mingle alongside us. God filled the world with God’s love and presence, and gave us each the opportunity to experience that love in a myriad of ways. And often, it is through a brief and unexpected encounter when we remember, yet again, that we are never alone. That we are never separated, or isolated, from the love of God.
As we approach the celebration of Christmas, of this promise fulfilled, this miracle made manifest – let us open our eyes and ears and spirits to the ways that God is walking amongst us. Walking amongst us in the form of those we love, and the strangers we encounter. That is one of the ways we usher in the Christmas miracle, one of the ways we experience it. And it is one of the ways we help those around us feel that miraculous presence as well. The angels we encounter along the way are gifts from God. Let us welcome and embrace them.
Let us pray:
Good and gracious God,
we give you thanks for gifts of life,
for gifts of love and joy during this season,
for gifts of comfort when we do not or cannot feel that joy,
for gifts of healing and mercy,
for gifts of patience and serenity,
for gifts of hope as we prepare our hearts for Christmas.
Christ’s presence changes our world,
so we pray that he may indeed be born in us once again,
that we may be continually born anew,
that the whole world would be reshaped and reborn
as your kingdom emerges around us and within us.
May your Spirit stir within us,
and cause us to long for the day
when earth will in fact be like heaven.
It is this radical vision of a new heaven and a new earth
for which we pray,
using the words Jesus taught us.