One Angel Short
Text: Luke 2:1-20
I grew up with parents who loved Christmas. And I am married to someone who loves Christmas. Yet, the way that Jennell and I experienced Christmas morning as children were light years apart. I was the youngest of two sons and inexplicably while my older brother slept and snored on the night of Christmas Eve, I stood on Christmas watch. Finally, after several false starts when I was summarily sent back to my room until a decent hour, Dad’s blinding bright movie lights would signal that Dale and I could dive into Christmas. And, dive we did. Meanwhile, Jennell and her family gathered for a far more civil Christmas celebration. Before the first gift was opened, the eldest in the family would read the Christmas story from Luke, and only from the King James Version in the lovely cadence of Elizabethan English. The Christmas reading would be followed by a prayer that lasted longer than most Christmas sermons. Then, over the next few hours, each family member would take turns opening a gift. A turtle race would have gone faster. While the way our two families celebrated Christmas differed, both families loved the stories of this season, from Scrooge screeching “bah, humbug,” to the Grinch trying to steal it. Of all the great stories of the season, no story compares to the one read tonight and on each Christmas morning by Jennell’s family and now by our family. When I read the story again this week, what leapt off the page was the role of angels. An angeltells Zechariah that he’s going to be a dad in his old age. An angel tells Mary that she will bear God’s child, but “not to worry.” Later a choir of angels serenades shepherds who are getting ready for bed. You don’t need to look far in Luke’s Christmas story to find an angel. The late Fred Craddock, a wonderful preaching professor at Emory, suggests, though, that our family Christmas story is “one angel short.” He says, “Even . . . amid angelic choirs and excited shepherds there is a sad silence. At the annunciation that she would bear the Christ Child, Mary had an angel visitor, and in the home of Elizabeth, Mary had her place in God’s purpose confirmed. But now, away from home, in a stable, in the pain of labor and birth, there is no angel, no heavenly confirmation. She hears of heaven’s shout from the shepherds, to be sure, but one still would have wished for her that night one angel of her own, just for reassurance. But faith is usually one angel short” (see Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year - A, pp. 34-35). That may be the greatest one line about faith I have ever heard – “faith is usually one angel short.” Luke’s Christmas story refuses to make faith something we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Faith is something that you and I must ponder, along with Mary, in our hearts and our minds. Faith is the bold confidence in the good and sure purposes of God, but it is not certainty born from the blast of trumpets announcing a company of angels who will answer all our questions and explain away all our doubts. Craddock is right. Even the Christmas story is one angel short. Mary’s faith begins with a visit from an angel, but it relies on the goodness of Joseph, the spunk of shepherds, and her own resolve to trust an angel’s word that seems far beyond belief. When Mary “ponders these things in her heart,” she does not do so alone. She is surrounded by family then and ever since who also must make sense of this birth when the light show is over and the angels no longer make house calls. If faith were not “one angel short,” Christianity would be a solo act. You and I would each have our own private faith in God. While faith is personal for sure, it is never private and it still requires assembly by a community of believers. When our lives descend into the abyss of suffering and all the angels have gone on break, the community sings us back to faith using the psalmist’s words: “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Ps. 30:5) When despair chokes hope out of us and the heavenly chorus has already finished their evening set, the community sings us back to faith using the words of Paul: “We [I] are [am] convinced that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38) When our lives are gripped with grief and the heavenly chorus has packed up for the night, the community sings us back to faith with the assurance of Isaiah: “Those who wait on the Lord will mount up with wings like eagles; they will walk and not be weary; they will run and not faint” (Isa. 40).
On this Christmas Eve night and on every day and night of the years ahead, we hone our faith, “one angel short.” We rely on God’s grace found in each other as we strain to hear the angels’ song until every broken heart is healed, every painful division erased, every sorry excuse to hate is cast aside by the power of God’s love.
So, on this holy night may faith be born – or reborn – in us all, knowing that by God’s abiding grace and astounding love and surrounded by the love and devotion of this community of faith, you and I are, finally, never really “one angel short.”