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Angels, help us!

1 November 2012 | by Gordon Cooke

Angels, help us!

Every Christmas, what I call the one ‘fringe benefit’ of my calling arrives: an invitation to the village school’s nativity play! Even in these post-Christian days, this Christmas tradition is holding its own. Because of that, nativity plays are not normally newsworthy events, but all that changed a couple of years ago, when one such play even made the main news bulletin of the BBC!

Parents had come away from a school horrified at the way the angel Gabriel and the angels who had appeared to the shepherds had been dressed: like soldiers, manly and warlike – like ‘storm-troopers’, as one visibly angry parent described it. What was the school thinking of? A calm and thoughtful teacher, obviously the one responsible for this outrage, was interviewed. He invited those puzzled or concerned to examine the Bible, the only source material we have for what angels might look like and, more importantly, be like! Maybe that teacher had Psalm 29 in mind. In the first two verses, before the thunderstorm has begun, David has the praise of God as his focus. He calls upon the ‘mighty ones’ to glory his God:

Give unto the Lord, O you mighty ones,
Give unto the Lord glory and strength.

Who are these ‘mighty ones’? It seems likely that he is speaking to the angels of heaven, those celestial beings that are usually invisible, who continually worship and praise the God they serve. David surely recognises that he is insufficient for the praise of such a God as the One he is worshipping, and is seeking their company in the mighty work in which he is engaged.

Ministering spirits
Perhaps David is reminding himself of the praise of angels in order to encourage his own praise. In the small fellowship where we worship, we often feel on Sundays our numerical weakness and lack of strength. How good it is to remind ourselves that we are part of a vast company, countless numbers all over the world doing the same thing. How much more encouraging it is to remember that we also add our voices to those of the angels of heaven as they sing their praise! What grand company we are keeping!

When we consider angels today, our first stop tends to be the verse where the writer asks, ‘Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?’ (Heb. 1:14). Some missionary biographies provide us with undeniable evidence that there have been times when God’s servants have owed their lives to the dramatic intervention of ‘mighty ones’ like those in Psalm 29. Take, for instance, the legendary John Paton, pioneer missionary to the New Hebrides. There was a night when he and his wife found themselves surrounded by cannibals. Their only weapon against those who sought their life, and whose cries they could hear nearby, was prayer. At sunrise, however, they found that the savages had retreated into the forest. Their prayers had been answered. Months later, when the tribal chief was converted, Paton asked him about that dreadful night. In reply, the chief asked Paton a question of his own: ‘Who were all those men who were with you? There were hundreds of tall men in shining garments with drawn swords circling about your house, so we could not attack you!’

Angels’ delight
How thrilled must Gabriel have been when he was sent to take that greatest of messages to a humble virgin in Nazareth all those years ago! After centuries of seeing us men and women in our permanent rebellion against God, how eager must the angel have been to bring good news to Mary, and to humanity in general! Is it any wonder that his first word to her is, ‘Rejoice!’? And then to be able to tell her of the baby that she is to bear, that he will be called Jesus, the Saviour, and that, ‘He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (Luke 1:32-33). Isn’t this a moment, above all others, when an angel is obedient to David’s command here in Psalm 29?

And what about the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream? How incomparable is the message that he brings from the throne-room of heaven. That Joseph’s betrothed is to ‘bring forth a Son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21). Isn’t this another moment, surpassing all others, when an angel is obedient to David’s command here in Psalm 29? What glory and strength he ascribes to the unborn King! And, of course, that is not the end. His birth is celebrated by a multitude of the heavenly host, who rush to earth to proclaim the newborn Messiah. They are praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’ (Luke 2:14)

This heavenly concert follows the good news brought to the shepherds by another angelic spokesman: news of a Saviour who has been born, a Saviour for them, a Saviour in Bethlehem, a Saviour who is the Christ, God’s anointed, a Saviour who is Lord! Was there ever a moment when an angel was more obedient to the exhortation of the Psalmist? Here is ascribed such glory and strength!

But there came a time in that Saviour’s life when angelic involvement could not take place. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus wrestled in prayer with his Father, an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him (Luke 22:43). But from that moment He is on His own. Although, as He said Himself in Gethsemane, He could have called upon the Father to provide Him with more than twelve legions of angels for His personal deliverance, He does not do so. For once, the angels are held back. He must go to Calvary alone. He must die alone, even forsaken by His Father. He must endure the curse for us, alone! How wonderful is His love to us!

When death has been submitted to and gloriously defeated, however, the angels return. Nothing can stop their praise of the Lord now. Early that morning on the first day of the week, how these ‘mighty ones’ must have rejoiced to declare the good news of the resurrection to those crestfallen and bewildered women! ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!’ (Luke 24:5-6) These ‘mighty ones’ are also there at the moment he ascends to His Father in heaven, and takes His seat at the right hand of the majesty on high. They will be there too when He returns to this world. The ‘mighty ones’ who accompanied the giving of the law will accompany the return of the One who has saved us from the curse of the law, the One who kept the law in its fullness, and the One to whom, on that day, every knee will bow, and every tongue have to make confession. On that day we might, with surpassing joy, join with the angels as they are faithful to David’s command to:

Give unto the Lord, O you mighty ones,
Give unto the Lord glory and strength.

Gordon Cooke is the pastor of New Inn Congregational Church, Pontypool. This article is an extract taken from his book.