Entertaining Angels: Open To The Numinous
2Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. — Hebrews 13:2 NIV
Where Were We?
Our return to worship today after two weeks out due to snow reminds me of those old serialized radio shows that were so popular back in the 1930s and 1940s. Before we got our first TV, I remember sitting at the kitchen table listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio. As each new episode began, the voice-over to the action went something like this —
When we last saw our hero, he was trapped in a burning building with no way to escape. Will he survive, or is this the end of the Lone Ranger?
Or something like that. Anyway, the point was to bring the listener up-to-date on the action. So, let me do the same today.
The last time we met, which was January 24, 2010, I had just begun a series of sermons on angels. Here’s what we covered so far:
— On January 3, we started off with the first sermon titled, “Who Are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?”
— On January 10, we looked a “Angels as the Servants of Christ.”
— Then, on January 17, after the earthquake devastated Haiti, I addressed that tragedy with a sermon titled, “Who Sinned? The Problem of Human Suffering.”
— On January, 24, we thought about “Angels as the Messengers and Armies of God.”
So, that’s where we’ve been. We have filled in the gaps from Sundays on Wednesday nights as we shared our own stories of God’s supernatural intervention in our lives. Interestingly, most of us had some kind of story, that either happened to us or someone close to us, of an encounter with angels. Or, at least, that’s how we each interpreted those events.
So, today, we’re back, but I’ve had to do some rearranging of the topics I intended to cover because I want to finish this series before February 28, when we will have the privilege of hearing our Baptist association’s furloughing missionaries, Rev. and Mrs. Ed Ridge, for WMU Focus Sunday. By then we’ll be in the season of Lent, and preparing for Holy Week and the resurrection of Christ on Easter. Time, as they say, waits for no man. Or even angels.
Which brings me to our topic today. This series of sermons on angels is titled, “Entertaining Angels.” Each week the subtitle reveals where we’re going for that Sunday, and today is no exception.
Today, we’re looking at Hebrews 13:2, from which I took the series title, and we’re thinking about being “Open to the Numinous.” What, you might ask, is “the numinous?”
Well, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “numinous” means —
Main Entry: nu·mi·nous
Pronunciation: \ˈnü-mə-nəs, ˈnyü-\
Etymology: Latin numin-, numen numen
1 : supernatural, mysterious
2 : filled with a sense of the presence of divinity : holy
3 : appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense : spiritual
So, that’s what we’re thinking about today, and that was really one of the main reasons I wanted to do this series on angels — to get us to thinking about the fact that God is still active in our world, and that his messengers, God’s holy angels, are still ministering today just as they did before any human beings were around to encounter them. That’s what the numinous is — an encounter with the divine, the holy. Like the stories we told about our encounters with angels.
But too often we treat those “angel stories” as the exception, when in the Bible and in the Hebrew tradition that ranges back over 3500 years, encounters with God and God’s angels were expected, anticipated, and cherished.
Entertaining Angels Unawares
I like the old way the King James Version of our Bible translates the passage we read this morning —
2Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. — Hebrews 13:2 KJV
There’s a quaintness to the King James’ English that is in itself mystical: “…some have entertained angels unawares.”
When Alan Jones, the former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, made a trip to Egypt several years ago, he visited the Coptic Monastery of St. Macarius the Egyptian. Macarius was one of the legendary “Desert Fathers” — Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries after Christ who retreated to the desert to escape the decadence of urban life, and the lack of spiritual vitality in the Church of their day. So, even after 1500 years, some things don’t change!
Jones said that when he arrived at the monastery, he was greeted by an old monk named Father Jeremiah. Father Jeremiah’s long beard and friendly manner captivated Jones. What struck Alan Jones the most was that here he was, an Episcopal priest of some considerable standing, visiting a Coptic monastery, and yet he was welcomed without a word of discussion or debate about the differences between the two traditions.
Father Jeremiah gave him a tour of the grounds, including the tombs of John the Baptist, and the Old Testament prophet Elisha. Ancient tradition said that the two great prophets of God — one of the Old and one of the New Testament — were buried side-by-side. Their remains, called relics, had been venerated for generations, and had been moved to Alexandria at one time. But in 1976, the remains of both had been brought back and re-buried at the monastery.
After Father Jeremiah related that story, he paused for a moment. He smiled and said,
“Of course, it does not matter whether you believe any of this or not. All that matters here is brotherly love.”
Jones said that as his visit concluded, Father Jeremiah presented him with three gifts — a handful of flowers and herbs gathered from the monastery gardens, a meal to refresh and sustain him, and 3 vials of oil for healing. All three gifts were presented without introduction or explanation, as though they could speak for themselves.
When Jones commented on the hospitality of the monastery, Father Jeremiah replied with a laugh —
“We always treat guests as angels, just in case!”
Our Ministry to Angels
And, that’s my point today. When we think of angels, we usually think about what they do. They deliver God’s messages to humankind. They protect us. They deliver us. They watch over us. They do battle for us. They minister to us.
But what about our ministry to the angels? Do we have one? And, if so, what is it? How do we go about ministering to angels? And, how will we know when we have done it?
Well, our scripture today gives us some help. The author of Hebrews is concluding his letter to the band of believers in chapter 13. In the first verse he says —
1Keep on loving each other as brothers.
Then in the verses that follow verse 2, he says —
3Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
And right away, we’re reminded of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus taught the disciples to love each other, so much so that he said to them, “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
But, he also taught them to care for others. In that important passage in Matthew 25, as the angels have come at the end of time to help Christ in the final judgment, Jesus commands the angels to separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep are those who have heard the Good Shepherd, and the goats are those who have not.
And what did the sheep do that pleased Jesus? You know this passage —
35′For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Paul echoes the words of Jesus in his last instructions to these Jewish Christians — love each other, entertain strangers, visit the prisoners, and care for the suffering. And when you do those things, you might be entertaining angels, whether you know it or not.
Receiving Others as God’s Messengers
We most often think of angels making an appearance like the angels who appeared when Jesus was born. Apparently their presence was so dazzling and glorious that the shepherds who were tending their flocks that night were terrified. And so the angels said, “Fear not, for behold we bring you good tidings of great joy!”
And while there are other passages where the first words out of the mouths of angels are “Fear not”, there are also stories of angels appearing to people, but they look like ordinary men. Three angels appear to Abraham and Sarah, telling them that Sarah will have a child. Sarah laughed at that news because she was in her 90s and Abraham was close to 100.
Way back on January 3, when we began this look at angels, we said that angels are the messengers of God. We need to be open to those who might be God’s messengers to us, who might teach us something we need to know about ourselves and about God’s love.
When we lived in Tennessee, we attended a large church whose membership consisted largely of professionals — doctors, lawyers, business executives, university professors, and research scientists. But the church was a warm and welcoming congregation, and there was also an open door for those who were not career professionals.
One of those people was a man named Harrington. Harrington was probably in his 50s, with grey hair and a short grey beard. It was apparent that Harrington had some challenges. His speech pattern was halting and words came with some difficulty. Debbie and I had been asked to host the class for prospective church members, which met for 13-weeks in the church fellowship hall. Harrington was one of our regulars. If he wasn’t there for the entire session, he usually came in toward the end, and he would stick around while we were cleaning up to talk to me.
Frankly, Harrington made me a little nervous. I wasn’t sure about him, and tried to keep my conversations with him as brief as possible. I asked the pastor about Harrington, and was told that he had suffered some difficulty at birth, but that his family had been a wealthy and respected family in the Nashville area. That put me somewhat at ease, but I still wondered about him.
One day, Harrington approached me at church with a pen and his notebook in hand. He handed me both and said, “Write down your address.” That was the sum total of his request, no explanation, no reason given. All sorts of thoughts ran through my mind — Why does he want our address? Is he going to come to our house? How can I not do this?
But, in the 3-seconds it took me to think those thoughts, I couldn’t come up with any way to avoid fulfilling his request. So, reluctantly and with great concern, I wrote our address in his book. I noticed others had done the same, so I figured that Harrington had made the rounds of his church friends with the same request. That was in November.
Nothing happened. No Harrington appeared at our home uninvited, and I forgot about the experience. About a week before Christmas, I went to get the mail, and there were several Christmas cards for us. Not surprising, since Christmas was around the corner.
As we looked at the Christmas cards, there was one with no return address. We opened the envelope, and the card to see who had sent it. Inside, signed in a halting hand, were the words, “Merry Christmas, Harrington.”
And right then I felt like the worst person on earth. Harrington wanted our address to send us a Christmas card. I am sure it must have taken him weeks to prepare and mail the cards to all his friends at church. What came so easily to us, came with great effort to Harrington. Which made the card that much more special.
When we saw Harrington at church the next Sunday, we thanked him for his card. Later, he invited us to have lunch with him at the restaurant where he worked. Harrington became a good friend, one whose conversations I looked forward to. Harrington was God’s angel, delivering a powerful message from God — “I am one of God’s children, too.”
An Ancient Celtic Prayer
There is an ancient Celtic prayer that Debbie and I have read many times. This version appears in the book, Celtic Daily Prayer, and it reads —
Christ, as a light
illumine and guide me.
Christ, as a shield
Christ under me;
Christ over me;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me, lowly and meek, yet all powerful.
The idea that Christ is present in “the mouth of each who speaks unto me” is the idea that God’s messengers, God’s angels, come to us unexpectedly at times. And they may come without us being aware of who they are.
After Father Jeremiah had told Alan Jones that the monks at St. Macarius Monastery always treated guests like angels, “just in case,” Jones later wrote —
“Being willing to explore the possibility of entertaining angels seemed to me to be both compassionate and perceptive, because it challenges the believer to live in a constant state of expectancy, openness, and vulnerability.” — Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality, Alan Jones, pg. 14.
“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Oh, and Harrington, well he’s still at it, delivering God’s messages. This past week in the church newsletter this announcement appeared —
YOU ARE INVITED – Harrington would like to invite all church members, family, and friends to the church on this Wednesday. Harrington will give a talk titled “My New Home,” about the assisted-living home, where he lives now. Everyone is welcome!”