Exodus 3:1-14; Luke 1:8-20
Rev. Ginger Taylor
Sometimes the voice from beyond comes with flashing lights (as in the Moses incident), sometimes with the fragrance of burning incense (as in the case of Zachariah and Elizabeth). According to Biblical testimony, at least, even when pyrotechnics are involved, we human creatures are still inclined to prudently resist the voice from beyond. In the Moses incident, he wants the credentialing secret name. In the case of Zachariah, he just cannot get into the extraordinary announcement and memorable consequences result. Mary, you may remember, when greeted by an angel during her adolescence, “ponders these things in her heart,” she hesitates before accepting the news of the voice from beyond.
Angels are not unique to Jewish and Christian legends- they appear in Muslim literature, folk lore from diverse cultures, modern pop media too. Angels are reported to guard you, to guide you, to companion you during life’s journey. Sometimes they appear in quasi-human form, sometimes as animals- a raven, for instance. Often they are portrayed as strangers- you might think of them as undocumented immigrants…Sometimes they are invisible. Mostly they are mysterious visitors who bring an unexpected message of not entirely welcomed good news. Freedom from enslavement for instance or the announcement of a child to a barren couple. Maybe news that is too good to be true, so why get up your hopes again?
Given that messengers from beyond are famous for disguises, how do you distinguish the true voice from the false? Which messages do we trust and what, pray tell, might be the criteria?
Though fanciful, angels stories provide an opportunity for discernment- what announcement shall we take to heart? Take to be so trustworthy that we invest in it? Zachariah was not ready to head out to Target’s to invest in a crib and stroller, that’s for sure. He was asked to trust that something new, something beyond his past experiences, that something new would intrude into his settled domestic life. That announcement stunned him, but not Elizabeth, apparently.
Angel stories provide an opportunity to ask: “Is there anything new under the sun?” “Should we invest in the announcement that a new dawn might actually bring a new day? Angel stories also ask us to consider: Does the “act of history” as President Obama has said, ” bend towards a peace and justice and wholeness in which we are invited to participate? Or are we wedded to “same ole, same ole”?
This is not the same as “do you believe in magic”. Rather it is a call to an orientation, a life choice, to be open to something new under the sum and resist the urges to shut down on voices that come out of nowhere to challenge pre-conceptions. I think of our past human assumptions about animals, for instance: that they do not communicate (wrong); that they do not use tools (wrong); that they do not use logic (wrong): that they do not experience emotions (wrong)…
When push comes to shove for me- I ask: what will we teach our children on these accounts? Which legends, parables, poems, fairy tales? Which voices are narratives to live by? Do fishes come to listen to unperturbed stones at the river bottom? Could it be true that there is something new under the sun?
I tend to be more of a “know one when I see one” type than the kind who catalogues abstract attributes of angels. Let me introduce you to an angel who appeared (in all places!) in the New York Times on August 7, 2016. Maybe you read about him? An angel in disguise (no feathery wings, no white robe). Nevertheless, one who brings good news from beyond in the face of enslavement…whether psychological, spiritual or political…and in the face of barrenness, not restricted to childlessness. I think this particular angel is true to type, at least Biblical typology. He’s more the kind described to us as “you have entertained angels, unawares.” His voice calls people out of hopelessness into expectancy.
The angel featured in the New York Times has a name- Mr. Aeham Amad- and he is a musician. What he lacks in training, he makes up for in passion. He comes as a stranger, a refugee from Syria, to Wiesbaden, Germany, where he brings a message from beyond, with a piano and a voice of wailing, as he performs “in a quiet German town with fairy tale spires.” He remembers “his pulverized, starving neighborhood” from which he “embarked on a strange career by playing concerts in the rubble” of Syria.
“In a Germany deeply torn between embracing and fearing the million immigrants, who have arrived in the past year, Mr. Ahmed, 27, has set himself the task of putting a human face on his fellow refugees…The mission has become more urgent lately, after Germany was shocked by two separate attacks in which refugees linked to the Islamic State tried to kill civilians.”
“Onstage Mr. Ahmad flatters his listeners, reassures them, owns them. He tells of his flight from bombs,, hunger and repression. He sings of minarets and church bells calling for peace…He declares: terrorism has no religion’ and that refugees come to build Germany, not to harm it.” In other words, this foreign voice from beyond declares that there is something new under the sun- minarets and church bells can ring in peace. ”Before the Syrian catastrophe Mr. Amad, a 3rd generation Palestinian refugee and a song of a blind violinist (now how promising a resume is that, I ask you?), he was a piano teacher and a music shop salesman. Now his message of resilience (against any reasonable predictions) has made him Germany’s most popular refugee. What he wants is (to give people) a beautiful dream.”
“Many of Mr. Ahmad’s enthusiastic helpers see aiding refugees as a part of Germany’s moral burden, atoning for it’s Nazi past. When the local newspaper reported that he needed a piano, he was offered 30. An illustration of that old saw about “our better angels” I’d say. An illustration of the voice from beyond who calls for transformation of the ugly past into a goodness not within easy reach. Mr. Ahmad confessed, “I failed to change anything in Syria, but here I might have a chance. Echoes of the Beatles’ lyric, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”
For Koinonia, a place of spiritual yearnings, existential questions appear. Will we? Despite evidence to the contrary, will we respond to a voice from beyond, disguise perhaps as a double refugee? How will we invest ourselves, despite evident frailties, despite any misgivings? How will we respond to the voice that beckons to discover something new under the sun? Will we receive good news as does Zachariah? Or as does Elizabeth- who welcomes fruitfulness after a long barren journey.
There will be angels, Koinonia. There will be angels.
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