I’ve been working on Christmas sermons and chasing references about angels throughout my Bible. Seeing few references to wings and flight. Or to halos. Or to sweet singing. Apart from apocalyptic literature (Daniel, Revelation), it is rare in Biblical storytelling that the angels perform extraordinary deeds of great power. Angels are often standing. They appear as humans. They bring powerful messages. Indeed, that’s what angel means – messenger. And their message is often surrounded by an awe-inspiring, even terrifying, experience of God’s glory.
I get that angels are divine-ish beings. That’s what Scripture seems to describe. Angels seem to occupy a different spiritual space than we humans do. But I can’t help but imagine – I want to think – that angels are simply ordinary people who show up at the right time, speak the right message, sent by God however briefly, to bring Good News to people who really, really need some Good News. And in that encounter the ordinary people involved in the telling and the hearing of Good News are surrounded by the extraordinary glory of God.
Speaking of angels … Scripture says remarkably little about the devil, often thought of as a fallen angel. Satan as a fallen angel is described in 2 Enoch, a pseudepigraphal text that no Christian group considers canon. The idea that Satan is a fallen angel developed within early Christianity as a way of explaining the existence of the devil in Scripture. If God created all things, surely God created the devil we read of in the Gospels … right? So, where did the devil come from? Got to come up with an answer. (Or do we?)
In the Book of Job Satan is an accuser in God’s heavenly court, but not the evil fiend of popular thought. In the Gospels Satan is an evil adversary of Jesus. In Acts and the epistles, Satan is a tempter and troublemaker. In Revelation Satan is “the deceiver of the whole world,” a personification of evil in a wild spiritual warfare seen as characterizing Christian living until the Time to Come. But that’s about it for the Bible and Satan. Indeed, most of what we think of as the devil comes from Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” not the Bible itself.
Biblical descriptions of Satan are not consistent, and there is no systematic theology of Satan in the Bible (or even in the Christian tradition). Christians have variously feared, mocked, given credence to or all but ignored the idea of an evil being named Satan over the centuries.
But this much is clear: evil is real. Evil and brokenness and sin exist in the world – writ large, in societies and groups of people, and in individuals. Indeed, it is in response to such evil that God sent Jesus into the world, to show us a better way. The Bible, at times, calls this evil Satan and describes it as a quasi-heavenly being at work in the world. Demons, too, have been described as Satan’s emissaries, evil forces at work in the world. But efforts to explain the devil’s origins or to clearly describe the devil’s nature go beyond the Bible’s scope, and lead us into some unBiblical directions.
But the work attributed to Satan and his legion of demons – the corruption of creation and the tempting of humanity to defy God’s intent for the world – is clearly a reality. To face the reality of evil we need neither to accept nor deny that a “devil” exists.
I don’t know how I feel about “spiritual forces” – angels, demons, and so forth – but I certainly acknowledge that what they often stand for exists. Evil lurks in this world. But so does goodness. Love is more powerful than hatred. Healing is more powerful than brokenness. Our faith, as Christians, is in one who comes as Love incarnate, looks sin and death and the devil in the eye, and tells it to screw off. The stone is rolled away. Death is defeated.
And so in this season of angels bearing Good News, let us listen for their news once again. Let us resist evil, be it the devil or ill will of any form. Let us listen and look for angels in our daily lives. Let us be angels to one another, messengers bearing good news for all people.
Angels may we be, angels may we receive, in this season of Good News.