Last Sunday, Frank asked me if I would speak to you tonight. I wondered for a little while what I might say. Often at this sort of meeting, somebody might tell the story of how they came to know the Lord as their own Saviour, or some way in which their Christian life has been easy. I want to tell you a little of some of my Christian experience which was not easy. More than that, I find it very difficult to tell, which is why I have such detailed notes before me now.
Just before Frank went away, he preached a sermon in which he asked about angels. I wanted to take some time to talk to him about it then, but I was not able. I was then afraid that I might have left Vanuatu before his return, and missed my chance. Since he came back, however, there still seems to have been little time available, but I now have the chance to share my thoughts with Frank and with you all.
In his sermon about eighteen months ago, he was trying to show that although angels are all around, they are not frequently visible and do not make themselves known very often. To illustrate this, he invited anybody in the congregation who had ever seen an angel to raise their hand. I am often reluctant to admit it, for reasons which I will cover later, but to leave my hand down would have been a betrayal of a great privilege which the Lord gave me in the past. Frank and some of the others in the congregation seemed surprised to see a hand raised. He suggested that I might have a chance to talk about it another time. I believe that time has now come.
First of all, I am sorry that by raising my hand I will have undermined something of what Frank was saying. This is all the more so because I know that angels do generally keep a low profile in this world.
It started quite a long time ago, perhaps around 1980, when I was at a party in Bromborough, a suburb of the town where I grew up, and where my parents now live. The party was attended by many of my friends, both Christian and non-Christian, and as the evening progressed, it became obvious that one of my friends had something he particularly wanted to discuss with me. Because a large party was not an appropriate or quiet place for us to talk, we left temporarily to walk about outside. Many people conduct their best conversations while walking about, and this was to some extent a custom among our friends.
Some areas of Bromborough, however, are not well-suited to walking about late at night, and it was only a few minutes before we saw a crowd of about a dozen youths walking towards us, dressed largely in denim and leather. They gave the impression that they might be looking for a fight. We weren't, but what were two against so many? We had always been taught to avoid trouble, keep on doing what we had been doing, walk determinedly ahead and all such things as survival guides suggest.
Suddenly, we were both aware that we had been joined by a group, larger in number than the youths approaching us, who were similarly dressed, but striking in that they were also swinging heavy metal chains above their heads. The group of youths crossed the road and passed us by without further comment. Shortly after this, the larger group who had joined us left. We don't know where they came from: neither do we know where they went, but we are sure that this second group was composed of angels.
It seems difficult to say this, because often our tradition or imagery sees angels as white, robed, winged creatures with halos, but we are quite sure that these who looked like aggressive youths were really angels. I cannot say how I was sure, except to offer a statement that there was no doubt in either of our minds that we had been protected by angels.
About a month later, a smaller group of people was assembled in the same home. You will need to know that Wirral, the district where I grew up, has something of a reputation for being a place of spiritual warfare. The churches in the area are strong and fully able to proclaim our gospel message. At the same time, there are small areas in the district which then contained witches, satanic temples and other things which I had no desire to investigate.
Sitting above a vacant chair in the room where we were gathered was a demon. Again, I cannot tell how I know that this is what it was. As one of my friends was about to sit down in the chair, I called to him not to do so, and as I did, he was able to see it too. In Jesus's name we banished the spirit from the room, and as he left, the atmosphere in the whole room became clearer and brighter. Angels appeared in the room too, where before I had seen none.
I cannot remember in detail all the times when I saw angels in one particular place. It is about five miles from the place where my Crusaders group met to my home. I usually cycled home after meetings. The area was quite desolate and there were not many houses, as it was an agricultural area. Above the fields, on several occasions, I saw many angels, and this time they did look more like the traditional picture of them. Although I cannot describe in any detail what any of them was doing, I can give you an idea by saying that they were going about their normal business. This certainly gave me some picture of the heavenly host seen by the shepherds outside Bethlehem. On one occasion only, however, these angels were engaged in fierce combat with a group of demons. The angels were winning, but the victory was not easy. The angels outnumbered the demons about two to one, which some theologians suggest is about the same proportion as the rebellion when Lucifer was cast out of heaven. I know that I may be on shaky theological ground if I try to go any further on the numbers.
Occasionally from then on I saw angels, but not regularly. After I had moved to Birmingham, and was training to become a Reader in the Church of England, I had a difficult time at my parish church. A lady deacon whose beliefs are in sharp contrast to mine was preaching a message which I could not support. Her proclamation was that Christianity was one way to heaven, but Hinduism and Buddhism were too, and she was describing some experience she had had in one of their temples. How such people reach high office in the church I will never know, but there it is. As I looked around, wondering what I could do, I saw outside the windows of the church some angels were looking in. And they were crying.
Talking to a Christian work-mate in Birmingham, who was a faithful friend in many ways, we once touched on a large Christian text-book or study guide he had been looking at. He dismissed it straightaway by saying that the first pages at which it had fallen open were "a hierarchy of angels" and it became apparent that he did not believe in the actual existence of these creatures. Many Christians seem to have the same or similar views, and most non-Christians, while prepared to tolerate our beliefs to some part, will write us off as completely unreliable witnesses as soon as we start talking about angels.
Others, coming back to our theme, do not doubt the existence and day- to-day work of angels, but wonder whether I can really have seen them, or whether I am mistaken. I could be wrong, but I do not believe that I was on these occasions. It is now a long time since I have seen either angels or demons, and I count it as a blessing that I have ever seen them. Nevertheless, it is a gift I might have been happy without, for it carries a great responsibility with it.
When you start to stray into the world of spiritual beings, it is difficult to know where it will end. Some people do not believe at all in the power of spiritual beings, whether for good or for evil. I do not understand how this can be, for the power of both is reported so many times in the scriptures. In the first chapter of Saint Luke's gospel, before the birth of John the Baptist, or indeed of Christ himself, Gabriel speaks to Zechariah and he is no longer able to speak. At the end of Saint John's gospel, two angels in white asked Mary why she was crying.
In the 12th chapter of the Acts of he Apostles, an angel appeared to Peter while he was in prison, and the angel told him to get up, get dressed and follow. Verse 10 ends with "When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him" and this message of power echoes my own experience the first time I met with angels.
These angels that I have described, however, are probably not the only type of angels I have ever met. I believe, as Scripture tells me, that many of us have offered hospitality to angels without ever realising it. Sometimes, after strangers have left our home, I am given to wondering whether those were angels or not. I can never know, because Scripture tells us here that we do not know. However, these angels are not the main purpose of my talk.
For the reasons I outlined above, I hope that Frank will think carefully before again asking a congregation whether anybody present has ever seen an angel, but also hope that he will not shy away from mentioning them as appropriate. Angels are important creatures, often described as God's messengers. At the Easter season, it is particularly appropriate to talk of angels, for it was angels who first proclaimed the risen Lord, just as angels had first told the news to the shepherds at Christmas.
On Easter morning, Frank talked about angels with big, cheeky grins on their faces as they rolled the stone away. I can believe this quite easily. Probably you all can too, though I feel it comes easier to me. Angels are not the sombre creatures they are sometimes portrayed to be.
In this land of Vanuatu, as elsewhere, but perhaps especially here, I believe that the power of God and the power of Satan are both very real, and I hope that you all do too. Although many of the things that happen here and are attributed by our ni-Vanuatu brothers and sisters to "kastom" can be explained very easily as natural occurrences, there are still some left which cannot. Similarly, there are many times when things which some Christians look on as miracles have equally rational explanations. I am not trying to say that miracles to not happen. Answers to prayer can be either miraculous or rational.
There was a flood, and a man prayed for the Lord to help him. Soon, he had to stand on the roof of his house to avoid drowning, but as he prayed, a small boat came by. "No, the Lord will rescue me." The boat sailed away, with its owner shaking his head. A second boat was similarly sent away, and eventually helicopter lowered a rope to him. "I will not grab hold of the rope - the Lord alone will rescue me." After the man had drowned and gone to heaven the Lord said, "I sent you two boats and a helicopter - what more could I do?"
I believe that angels, as well as being God's message bearers, are God's special assistants. We learn that each one of us has one or more than one "guardian angel" who helps look after us at all times. Another friend of mine was involved in a road accident some years ago. He described how he felt angels pulling at the back of the car to slow it down. The insurance company report said it "should not have been a survivable accident at that speed".
There we are, I have said it all now. Maybe there are some present who still won't believe that angels are real creatures who we might meet today, or who will look at me and think how sad it is to see such delusions in one so young.