Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

We all need words of encouragement- even preachers. An elderly pastor, while announcing his retirement, exclaimed, “I wear two hearing aids and trifocal glasses; I have a partial plate and sometimes walk with a cane. It seems to me,” he concluded, “that the Lord is telling me it’s time to retire.”  After the service a white-haired lady came up and told him, “Reverend, you misinterpreted what the Lord has been saying to you.  He’s not telling you it’s time to retire; he’s telling you that if you keep going, he’ll keep you patched up.”

It is reminiscent of the legendary NBC’s Tonight Show host Johnny Carson reading an item from the lost-and-found column of a Midwestern newspaper: “Lost dog—brown fur, some missing due to mange, blind in one eye, deaf, lame leg due to recent traffic accident, slightly arthritic. Goes by the name of ‘Lucky.’”

Yes, we all need words of encouragement for the challenges of life. Unfortunately, in this year of a global pandemic,  words and gestures of encouragement seem to be in short supply.  But they don’t have to be.  As the English poet George Herbert, once said. “Good words are worth much, and cost little.” To give a word of encouragement to someone who is feeling down or alone is not only kind and gracious, but it is also God like.  That is the message that I would like to share with you on this Festival of St. Michael and All Angels.

In the Middles Ages, the scholastics seriously debated the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin.  If I had added my voice to that discussion, I would have questioned. “And why business do angels have dancing?”  After all, in the richness God’s creative order, angels were assigned to the task of encouragement- nothing as frivolous as dancing.  Of course, angels are to guard and protect us. Scriptures teaches us that angels worship God in heaven, just as we are called worship God here on earth.  But in both the Old and New Testaments, the most important task assigned to the angels is to carry messages from God.  The very name “angel” means “messenger,” and that is their work.  Often the first word spoken was , “Be not afraid.” And  just as we are to mirror the worship of the angels in heaven here on earth,  so we are to mirror the image of angels on earth caring God’s word of encouraging hope to those in need.

In this morning’s gospel, St. John’ reminds us that God’s messengers are always near. One of Jesus’ first disciples, Nathanael, was desperate for encouragement and a complete skeptic of the future.  When his friend Philipp told him about  Jesus of Nazareth, who invited him to “Follow me,” Nathanael responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nonetheless, he accepted Philip’s invitation to meet Jesus.  As Nathanael introduced himself to the rabbi from Nazareth, Jesus said that he saw him under a fig tree.  Nathanael was immediately taken by Jesus’ knowledge, but Jesus dismissed the disciple’s colorful, ingratiating words.  “Do you believe, because I saw under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.  You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  Jesus was warning Nathanael that the journey of discipleship would not always be easy, but that God would strengthen him.  Angels would be a part of Nathanael’s  journey, ascending and descending from heaven offering him encouragement and protection along the way.

Now, you may be wondering, so when can you expect to experience God’s holy messengers?   Let me warn you, lest you be disappointed.  Angels seldom  appear in filmy white gowns and gossamer wings.  Even in the earliest days of the church, the author of the Book of Hebrews, warned, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”   God comes to his servants in times of trial and danger, but it may not be in the dress you are expecting.   You see, God is not simply using his heavenly messengers, but he is using you and me to carry that message of encouragement and hope to those in need as well.

Seldom does God speak in the volume of the crowds, most often, God comes in the still small moments of life following times of great chaos.   So don’t be surprised if you hear God whispering through his holy angels into your hearts in times of uncertainty.  God may also appear in your life when are exhibiting destructive patterns and habits.  God’s word spoken through his messengers may not always make you comfortable. You may awkwardly disagree, but remember, God has come through his messengers to offer you his way of encouragement that change is required.  He knows your need.  Or God’s messenger may appear at a stressful time reminding you to keep at it.  You’re not sure your convictions are working.  So God is saying, don’t worry. Be patient.   Or perhaps God is appearing to you at the crossroads of life giving you a new focus.  He is there to direct you along a new path.

Certainly, it would be easier if all of God’s messengers, both earthly and heavenly, were clear and concise.  Sometimes the words of encouragement they bring  may seem a bit too self- serving. Encouragement is always given so that the receiver becomes a stronger, better servant to their neighbor. That is why a word of encouragement drives us back to the scriptures.  And beware of easy and trite sentiments.  They should not be confused with godly encouragement.  Such words cannot dismiss the pain, or diminish the sorrow that the loved one you know is experiencing.  God’s messengers speak with a confidence of who God is and what God will do.  The words of encouragement are reflected in the great story of God’s love for creation in Jesus Christ, and his special love for you and all humanity.

Of course, when we take our work of encouragement seriously, we can all be a bit too earnest about our own attempts. I am reminded of the young preacher who was contacted by the local funeral director to hold a grave side committal service at a small local cemetery for someone with no family or friends.  The preacher started out early but quickly got himself lost, making several wrong turns. He arrived a half-hour late, the hearse was nowhere in sight, and the workmen were eating lunch.  Just the same, the pastor went to the open grave and found the vault lid already in place. Taking out his book, he read the service. As he was returning proudly to his car, he overheard one of the workmen say: “Finest burial I’ve ever seen- for a septic tank.” No, your successes may not be so great as you imagine. But let me assure, the angels are ascending and descending in your words just the same.  Jesus is near.

My friends, You may be experiencing  difficult circumstances this year, a physical illness, a financial crisis, the heartache of a loved one who has no place for you in their life, or you may feel that no one knows what you’re going through, or you may just be suffering from the fatigue of this pandemic.  Whatever your circumstances, and even if no other human being knows your need,  God knows and cares for you.  That is the message of encouragement that the angels are bringing to you, and that is the message of hope that you and I have been entrusted to share with others.  Remember, God believes in you, even when you cannot believe in yourself . Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.