II Kings 6:8-23
English can be a playful language sometimes. One of those ways shows up in our collective terms. Here’s a little game to demonstrate. What do you call a group of…
Continuing on those lines, I know that a group of angels may be a choir, but I want to propose that the better term might be “an ambush”.
This morning’s reading presents part of my reasoning. It comes from the time when the original kingdom of David and Solomon had split into two countries. The southern kingdom, Judah, had Jerusalem for its capital. Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom, Israel. When we pick up the story today, we find the Israelite city of Dothan waking up to find itself surrounded by the armies of the King of Aram. Inside the walls of Dothan was the prophet Elisha who had been targeted for capture. One of Elisha’s servants panicked as they looked out at the hostile army.
“’Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” [II Kings 6:15-17]
Thus began one of the oddest battles recorded in the Bible. The hostile army was struck blind, not dead. Elisha offered to lead them to safety, and he took them straight to Samaria, where they regained their sight, now surrounded by Israelite soldiers and standing in front of the Israelite king.
The king’s first instinct was what you would expect, but this was Elisha’s battle, and
“he said, ‘Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?’ He answered, ‘No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.’” [II Kings 6:21-22]
If they were killed, this would have been just another battle, and just another reason for revenge. Feeding them put them under obligation as guests who could not lift up a weapon against their host. Sending them home would let them tell the story – not just one of them, but the whole group – about how Israel’s God was fighting for his people and why you don’t want to mess with him. That would be effective defense for at least a generation or two.
The angels had got the jump on them, and they never saw it coming.
All too often, we believe that we have to fight our own fights alone, and don’t realize that God has placed allies of all sorts at our side. First and foremost is his own Holy Spirit, who moved across the face of the deep at creation, and by whose presence in the life of a girl named Mary the Son of God came to take on human flesh, and who works in and through all who live by faith in the Son. But there are others who help, under the Spirit’s guidance.
The word “angel” simply means “messenger”. An angel is one who brings us a message from God, whether it’s a word of challenge or comfort or courage. An angel might be some heavenly creature, some being sent from God directly. That’s what John Wesley was thinking when he wrote his sermon “Of Good Angels”, where he points out that, as was the experience of Elisha’s servant, God’s help for us is very real and direct but not always visible or simple to identify unless someone opens our eyes to it. Of such messengers, he says,
“Is it not their first care to minister to our souls? But we must not expect this will be done with observation; in such a manner, as that we may clearly distinguish their working from the workings of our own minds. We have no more reason to look for this, than for their appearing in a visible shape. Without this, they can, in a thousand ways, apply to our understanding. They may assist us in our search after truth, remove many doubts and difficulties, throw light on what was before dark and obscure, and confirm us in the truth that is after godliness. They may warn us of evil in disguise; and place what is good, in a clear, strong light. They may gently move our will to embrace what is good, and fly from that which is evil. They may, many times, quicken our dull affections, increase our holy hope or filial fear, and assist us more ardently to love Him who has first loved us.”
In this he stresses, as I would also, that what matters is not so much the messenger, but the message.
There are people who pay way too much attention to things which are not central to faith. There is such a thing as superstition, and if someone is surrounding herself or himself with magic medallions or candles or suchlike, and emphasizing angelic presences or heavenly visions or spirits, that is probably walking way too close to idolatry. In the book of Revelation, John gets a message from God in a vision where an angel speaks to him. John bows down at his feet and the angel cuts that sort of thing off right away.
“You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!” [Revelation 19:10]
A lot of outright pagan practices disguise themselves by claiming connection to angels or saints. A real angel, instead, will call as little possible attention to itself and as much as possible to God.
That’s why it isn’t just the armies that confront us that may be ambushed. We ourselves may be suddenly and unexpectedly shocked by the hidden grace of God that surrounds our lives at even the least dramatic moments, although those may turn out to be the ones that wear us down and where we need backup the most. A poem written by Gail White is entitled, “Written on the Head of a Pin”.
“The car breaks down with appalling
regularity. If I have bronchitis,
three credit cards overdrawn and no love
affair going and the white cat died,
it breaks down just the same. The
clutch goes, the linkages slip,
it blows a gasket, runs a piston
rod through the engine block.
Today it’s the brakes, so I’ve done
the shopping on foot. And feeling
slightly suicidal, I look
around me for signs of hope.
Now is the time for a messenger.
Time for a drink and sitting
in the backyard; a good time for any
passing dragonfly, mockingbird, fieldmouse,
or calico cat to say, ‘I am Gabriel.
I stand in the presence of God.’”
I remember reading that poem in The Christian Century sometime many years ago and cutting it out, not quite sure why. I stuck it in a book where I found it this past week and something tells me … Or maybe I’m just being silly, but …
“The Lord opened the eyes of the servant and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire.” [II Kings 6:17]
 John Wesley, Sermon 71: “Of Good Angels”, II. 2. http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-71-of-good-angels/