There is a store near my home that sells nothing but angels:
old angels, young angels, big angels, small angels, cheap angels, very expensive
angels. Today’s readings appear to be about those angels, until we
remember that angels are God’s creatures and God’s messengers, and are nothing
without God. The more profound, and to me more comforting, message
of today’s texts lies hidden beneath the representations of angels.
That message is the one God delivered to Moses all those years ago: “I will
be with you.”
The crucial biblical text about angels is not included in today’s
readings, and more’s the pity, for it clarifies the readings, as one biblical
text frequently clarifies another. Earlier in the book of Exodus
before today’s selection, the story that every schoolboy and schoolgirl
knows is told, the story of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush.
These days, to our discredit, however, few schoolboys and schoolgirls seem
to know what the text actually says. They all know that in the image
of the bush that burned without being consumed Moses and God began a conversation
that led to the great adventure of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt.
What they don’t know is that the biblical text says that at “Horeb,
the mountain of God...the angel of the Lord appeared to him [Moses] in
the flame of a burning bush.” (Ex 3:1-2) That has
always seemed to me significant.
The text opens by saying that the angel of the Lord appeared
to Moses, and then goes on to say that the Lord himself called to Moses out
of the bush. At the very most, angels are representations of the God
who cannot fully be represented in either angelic or human form, messengers
of the God on whom they, along with every other creature, depend. It
would be a great tragedy to allow ourselves to be deflected from God’s presence
in our contemporary burning bushes by allowing our attention to stop at
representations. It is God who creates us, who sustains us in life,
who watches over us, who raises us again when we fall. It is God,
today’s Psalm says, who is our safe retreat, “the fastness in which I trust.”
It is God who covers us beneath his pinions so that we need not fear “the
hunter’s trap by night or the arrow that flies by day.” Though today’s
gospel invites us to become “like children,” it does not invite us to become
The children of Jesus’ day, who had to be the children who provided
the analogy for his call to be “like children,” had no rights. They
took their place alongside the other property of their father. With
no rights, they had to come before their father with empty hands outstretched
for whatever he was willing to give them. Those are the children
we are invited to be like. We are invited to come before our Father
in heaven with empty hands outstretched for the gracious bounty He offers.
The really good news in today’s readings is not that we have angels to
look out for us, but that we have a gracious Father to look out for us,
a God who promises to be with us always and lives up to that promise.
God may send messengers to carry out what he has appointed, but it is always
God who sustains the messengers, as he sustained Moses so long ago, and as
he sustains us today. It is in that endless fidelity I rejoice today,
even as I welcome the messengers.