For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
We’ve all got one. Or at least we know someone who’s got one. To the unbelieving world, they’re the stories that can make the sanest people you know sound completely crazy. To those of the family of faith, they make the hairs on our neck stand up and send goose bumps down our arms. I’m talking about “angel stories;” stories in which there’s some kind of unexplainable assistance in a crisis situation or miraculous outcome against all odds. My sister is a woman I would describe as a level headed and capable person. But those qualities were put to the test when she found herself in an emergency room in a third world country watching her toddler son being bombarded by seizure after seizure. At this hospital on that particular night, there didn’t seem to be any doctors on duty, but only a handful of nurses desperately trying to stop the seizures and keep my nephew stable. But the attempts weren’t working. He started turning colors that no healthy child should turn and then the heart monitor flat lined. Defibrillator paddles were out of the question, because the power in the hospital had gone out and the generators couldn’t work up enough electricity to use them anyways.
The people in the room were in a frenzy. The nurses tried anything they could, but their attempts to revive the child weren’t working. In the midst of the chaos my sister looked toward the entrance to the room and saw a man calmly standing in a white coat who wasn’t there before. With all the love a mother’s heart could hold she reached out to this man and in the best Spanish she could muster cried out, “Please, make him breathe!” The man calmly walked over and after a few chest compressions, the heart monitor started beeping again. Relief and rejoicing quickly followed, but when my sister looked around to thank the man, you guessed it, he was gone. Now years later, my nephew is alive and well. “So,” I asked my sister, “Do you think it was an angel?”
I tell you that story not to encourage you to go looking for things that God has determined to keep hidden or to try to find God’s presence outside of where he promises it to be in his Word and Sacraments. I tell you that story because, as Christians living in 2018, we tend to forget that there really are such things as angels. The Bible calls them ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation. They serve God day and night by serving and protecting you. To borrow the Psalmist’s words, how many times in your life has your foot not dashed against a stone or how many times have the mouths of the lions been shut – probably without you even knowing you were in danger in the first place? God loves you enough to guard you in all our ways – and part of this work, he chooses to do through the ministry of angels. As we contemplate the great and important work of angels, we think about it in the framework of the words our Savior Jesus spoke to his disciples, Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid. Simply put: Trust in the peace and protection he promises through his Holy Spirit and his assurance to be with us in every situation – even situations like danger, temptation, or the brink of death. But when those dark days come, we rarely find it easy to trust in our God’s promised protection. This struggle is nothing new for God’s people.
Did you pick up on that common thread that ran through all three of our Scripture lessons today – finding God’s people in dire straits? The Apostle Paul had brought the gospel to the world and what thanks did he receive? A few shipwrecks, a barrage of beatings, constant opposition from friends and foreigners, and finally, a damp dark dungeon, cold, clasped chains and a witness stand vacant of anyone who would stand up for him on trial for his freedom. Paul was alone, and he knew that soon enough he’d lose even more than his freedom, being poured out like a drink offering. Or how about the disciples in our gospel lesson? Struggling for hours and straining at the oars, but getting nowhere. Those seem like pretty hopeless situations – abandoned and alone in prison, stuck in the inky black darkness of an angry sea. But then, Jesus showed up, and it changes everything. Paul didn’t find his confidence in his situation, but in his Savior. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. The disciples, buffeted by water and wave, learned pretty quickly that the One who created H2O was on their side, leaving behind his liquid footprints all the way up to their boat, calming the angry sea, and taking away their fear. The Lord preserves and protects his people!
But maybe things were different for Elisha’s servant. He got up early that morning, looked outside, and his heart sank. Illuminated by the bright morning rays of sunshine, the servant of Elisha saw what he could only assume was his death squad. All around them, literally surrounding the entire city, was the mighty army of Aram – chariots, horses, and armed soldiers, a full scale military maneuver with one special target in mind: the prophet Elisha. Our Old Testament lesson says, 8 Now the king of Aram was at war with Israel. After conferring with his officers, he said, “I will set up my camp in such and such a place.” 9 The man of God sent word to the king of Israel: “Beware of passing that place, because the Arameans are going down there.” 10 So the king of Israel checked on the place indicated by the man of God. Time and again Elisha warned the king, so that he was on his guard in such places. 11 This enraged the king of Aram. He summoned his officers and demanded of them, “Will you not tell me which of us is on the side of the king of Israel?” 12 “None of us, my lord the king,” said one of his officers, “but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom.” 13 “Go, find out where he is,” the king ordered, “so I can send men and capture him.” The report came back: “He is in Dothan.” 14 Then he sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city.
Few things can frustrate a sovereign ruler bent on conquest more than having every one of his military maneuvers become common knowledge to his enemies. And that’s exactly what happened. The LORD knows all things, and gave some precious information to Elisha who proceeded to give it to the king of Israel so the Israelite army could dodge and evade the Arameans over and over again, and in the whole process the LORD protected and preserved his people. But now things were different, right? The jig was up, the news was out, they’d finally found him, and they weren’t going to let Elisha or his servant get away. Just to be sure, the Arameans engaged in a bit of operational overkill and sent an army of trained men to capture one prophet. It was the ancient military equivalent using a cannon to kill a mosquito. Elisha was done for, and his servant wouldn’t fare any better.
For Elisha’s servant, that promise of the Savior God to preserve his people was put to the test. Surrounded by a hostile army and put face to face with an impossible situation, the servant’s reaction mirrors what’s often in our hearts when we face trouble, “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” Have you ever said that? Oh, my lord, what shall we do? When the obstacle is insurmountable, Oh, my lord, what shall we do? When the shortfall is unprecedented, Oh, my lord, what shall we do? When the diagnosis is terminal, Oh, my lord, what shall we do? When the sin seems unforgivable; when the situation seems unredeemable, Oh, my lord, what shall we do? Where in the world is God when I need him? And maybe we think we’re justified in thinking that way, because we’ve been bitten before and it stings. An accident set you back or your child got sick or death came calling for your loved one and you just weren’t ready for it. So what about all the times when it doesn’t seem like the Lord is preserving his people? Where in the world is God when it’s my health that’s shot? Where in the world was the water-walking Son of God when that boat sank in Branson? Doesn’t he care? Too readily we see the impossibility or we feel the pain, but we just can’t see God’s purpose and we forget his promise – In all things, God works for the good of those who love him.
In response to his servant’s frenzied question, Elisha said, Don’t be afraid…Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 And Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. Elisha and his servant were surrounded by the mighty army of Aram, but they were no match for the host of heaven sent by God to protect his prophet. That was Elisha’s simple prayer for his servant, open his eyes – not there was anything wrong with his eyes, but they were clouded by fear and the hopelessness of his situation. Open his eyes of faith, Lord, to see that you make a promise and you keep it. Open his eyes, Lord, to know that nothing can come his way that’s not under your gracious control for his eternal good. Open his eyes, Lord to trust that even though he can’t see what you’re doing, you’re keeping your promise to him. And sure enough, God opened the servant’s eyes to see what was really going on and who was really in control.
That’s where God does his best work – in what looks like weakness and defeat. Think of it. In the ugliness of the cross, the Son of God was nailed to a tree, shedding his divine blood to redeem a world full of sinners. What is God doing? Giving up? Hardly. He’s saving you. And with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, he is able to keep his promise to continue to protect and preserve his people. See how that turns things around? Lord, open my eyes to see! He opened Paul’s eyes. Paul the prisoner was abandoned and alone in prison, but he rejoiced in his chains, because he knew the God who saved him, and that this God would bring [him] safely into his heavenly kingdom – whether that meant deliverance to keep living life on this earth or perfect deliverance in heaven. Lord, open my eyes to see! He opened the disciples’ eyes. The disciples trembled with fear at this Son of God who was Almighty to walk on water and certainly could crush them in judgment, yet he came to them in gentleness and grace, taking away their fear. In his grace, God pulls back the blindfold for us, too. To my knowledge, I’ve never seen an army of angels ready to attack, but I know the angels rejoiced today as one more child was brought into God’s family through the waters of baptism. We see water and we hear words, but what we don’t see is God taking Madylan into his loving embrace, writing her name in the book of life, and committing himself to her. How do I know? In the waters of your baptism, that’s his promise to you. Lord, open my eyes to see!
There’s no shortage of hardships in life that can cloud our eyes of faith, but when those things come, our Savior calms our hearts and opens our eyes through his word of promise and reminds us, Those who are with us are more than those who are with them. The army of heaven stands ready to do the bidding of their Master, your Savior God. You have a God who knows the perils and pitfalls you’ll face even before you do, and he’s already there with his help before you know you need it. Lord, open my eyes to see! That you are good, even when life seems so very bad. Lord, open my eyes to see! Since you loved me enough to send your one and only Son to take away all my sins, how would you, how could you not give me absolutely everything else I need? Lord, open my eyes to see! That there is nothing, not one thing in all creation that can separate me from your love. Lord, open my eyes to see!