Wide-eyed for angels

December 21 — Luke 2:8-20; December 28 — Matthew 14:22-36

Dec 8, 2014 by

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I teach the preschool Sunday school class at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina, and every year I am amazed by what they teach me about the Bible stories I share with them — stories I’ve read so many times I overlook their strangeness.

Florian

Florian

With the children, I get to experience these stories as if for the first time. They don’t know the plot twists. They don’t know how things will end. And when the starry sky opens up and angels descend in blinding glory, the children’s eye grow wide.

“How do you think the shepherds felt?” I ask them. Happy, excited, confused, afraid — this last word whispered in awe.

And really, can you blame them? Wouldn’t you be afraid if you witnessed such a spectacle?

The children heed the angel’s words though, as do the shepherds in our story: “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Joy is a word the children know, and if the angel is bringing joy, angels must be more exciting than scary.

For the rest of the school year the children remembered the angels from our Bible story, bringing them up again and again. I don’t know what else stuck in their memories from last year’s Sunday school lessons, but if at age 4 they know one thing, they know this: God came and dwelt among us, a tiny baby in a manger with parents not unlike their own.

And when that baby arrived, it was good news. So good that the news needed to be proclaimed by the most spectacular beings in heaven and earth.
Angels mean good news — good news for everyone.

Shepherds and children are not the only ones who experience fear in the face of God’s glory, though. When God moves in unexpected ways, anyone can be caught off guard. In Matthew, it is the disciples — Jesus’ inner circle — who experience surprise at his arrival. This time he shows up not as a baby but as a grown man walking on water.

Walking on water! The disciples were perhaps already on edge, their boat battered by the waves and pushed out to sea. Now their teacher comes striding out to meet them.

Surely they must be hallucinating, or it must a ghost — anything but what it looked like. A flesh-and-blood person cannot stand atop crashing waves.
Again, we hear words of comfort, words meant to calm people’s confusion and fear: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Like the angel heralding his birth, Jesus tells them not to fear. And Peter, trying to be brave, asks his teacher to prove himself by calling him to follow him out onto the choppy sea. He does, and Peter goes. Yet his awe wears off, and his fear returns. He starts to sink.

Jesus reprimands him, asks him why he doubts. Yet what strikes me most is Peter’s reaction in that moment of doubt: He calls out, “Lord, save me!” The wind and waves roar, but Peter knows who can save him when he cannot save himself.

Back on land, word about Jesus spreads. People heard the good news and recognized him, just as the disciples recognized him walking toward them across the waves.

Back on land, people came to him, pleading like Peter to be saved, in this case from illness. Jesus, who reached out his hand to Peter in his moment of doubt, allows the people of Gennesaret to reach out to him. They reach out, and they are healed.

Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., works in the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.


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