We All Show up Late for Church

We All Show up Late for Church

The earliest the McKenzie family ever made it to church was during the closing stanza of the opening hymn. Every Sunday something delayed them. Little James would spit up his breakfast all over his church clothes as they strapped him in the car seat. Lindsey would hog the bathroom and delay Garrett’s shower. Tom and Cindy would hit snooze one too many times.

A Tattooed Angel

When he opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the wheel, the first thing I looked for was the knife. He had short-cropped hair, gray street clothes, a long scar on his right cheek bone. And tattoos. His body was awash in ink. The hands that toyed with the knobs on the dash had skulls on every finger. Russian script meandered around his neck. And in that language I did not know, he began questioning me. My three-week teaching stint in Novosibirsk, Siberia, was about halfway over. A group of young men studying for the ministry met with me for a few hours every day to learn the little I knew of biblical interpretation. God help them. I was barely older than they were, younger than a couple of them. A wife, a three-year-old daughter, and a soon-to-be-born son awaited me back in Oklahoma. If I made it back.

I had seen the oncoming van. The tires, screaming their black and burning song, foretold the crash. The van, and the half a dozen men in it, hammered my side of the car. By the time we pulled off the side of the road, they had spilled out and surrounded our vehicle. To a man, they looked like they’d just returned from job interviews with the mafia. And been hired. Taking a deep breath, the driver told me, “Stay in the car,” and the lamb stepped out into the pack of wolves. No need to consult my handy-dandy Russian-to-English dictionary to translate the cursing, anger, and threats that erupted as the group ringed round my friend.

Then the driver’s side door opened. And the tattooed stranger sat down. He looked at me, and smiled a crooked smile. And I looked for the knife that never appeared. I figured he was one of the guys from the van; he looked cut from the same cloth. But if there was a storm around us, he was the eye of it. There was no anger or accusation in his tone as he chatted on with me about God knows what. I knew how to say, “I don’t speak Russian,” in Russian, which he must have taken as a cue to speak even more. And so began one of the most memorable conversations I've ever had. He asked me countless questions in Russian, I told him all about myself and my family in English, neither of us having the foggiest idea what the other was saying. And all the while his skulled fingers twisted and turned the car’s controls.

I’m not sure how much time elapsed—five, ten, fifteen minutes. And then he was gone. The door opened, he got out, and my driver got back in. He’d had enough cash on him to pacify the men. “Who was that in the car?” he asked. “I don’t know. I assumed he’d been from the van.” “No, he wasn’t one of them.” “Then I don’t know where he came from.” And we drove on, safe and alive.

To this day, when I read in Hebrews about entertaining angels unaware, my mind goes back to a car wreck in Siberia, in which no one was hurt, to the furious young men, who laid no hand on my friend, and to a stranger who showed such concern and curiosity about me. And I wonder if angels, sometimes, have tattoos.

The Angels Carry a Concealed Weapon: A Sermon on St. Michael and All Angels

Ask about just about anyone to draw a picture of an angel, and about 99.9% of those angels would be sporting those well-known wings. De-wing the angels, and I daresay their popularity in our culture would soon, well, fly out the window. We want angels as long as they’re adorned with wings. And so it is with other things. We want leaders as long as they have warm smiles; we want doctors with jovial personalities; we want pastors with shiny shoes, handsome faces, and—above all—niceness. Like starving men who would rather gorge themselves on paper showing pretty pictures of candy than dine on an ugly steak, so are we, for we suffer from an addiction to The Trivial.

The lion’s share of our lives is wasted in making big things little, and little things big. Every hour of every day demons lurk to snatch us up in their bloody claws, while we fret over wrinkles and graying hair and varicose veins. Within us there is an old Adam that hates God with a passion and who will fight tooth and nail to drag us down to hell with him, but we get all worked up over the neighbor who painted his shutters purple and has two feet high weeds in his yard. Not a single day goes by when we don’t sin enough to deserve ten-thousand lifetimes in that place of unquenchable fire, but we freak out if the A/C quits working in the middle of July. We are pros at making big things little, and little things big. We yearn and long for so many things that do us little or no good, while all the while forgetting about the One who does us nothing but good, who hungers and yearns and longs for us—the Lord of Angels, the God of Redemption, the One who is anything but trivial.

We pray every morning and evening, “Let your holy angel be with us, that the wicked foe have no power over us.” And well we should, for if God’s angel is not with us, the wicked foe has all power over us. Then we are lambs in the midst of wolves. But the holy angels of God, who help and defend us on earth, muzzle the demons’ murderous jaws. But they don’t wield swords and spears. The weapon of the angels is not tucked into a scabbard or holster. It’s in their mouths. Their tongue is our shield, for the weapon of angels is the word of their Lord. Revelation 12 says Michael and his angels fought against the Dragon and his angels. And how did they overcome him? By the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. Words, angelic words, words steeped in divine blood—these words shield you from the fiery lies breathed out of the Dragon’s mouth, for these are not trivial words, but the word as weighty as the Lord whose words they are. It is not wing-ed angels that you need, but word-ed angels who do his word, heeding the voice of his word (Psalm 103).

And it is the same with those whom Scripture often calls angels, messengers from God—the pastors of the church. He whom God has called and placed in your midst is to you as Michael is to the whole church. He is God’s messenger to you, your angelic man, who stands guard over you with the shield of the Father’s word.

So what do you need from him? Do you need a man who will preach to make you happy or who will preach you into hell and back to heaven again? Do you need a man who will say, Thus says my Conscience or Thus says my Experience or Thus says my Church Body, or one who proclaims Thus says the Lord? Do you need a man who will feed you whatever is easy to swallow or who will feed you with the food of God, even when you have to choke it down?

What you need is an angelic man who is outfitted only with the word, the same word of the angels, the word steeped in divine blood, shed for you. That is all he has, for that is all he needs, for the word does it all. This is the word that converts you into little children so that you enter the kingdom of heaven. This is the word breathed into water so that heaven becomes your second womb and you are born from above. This word is the Spirit’s sword by which he cuts off the hand or foot which causes you to sin, that cuts to the heart of the matter, and leads to confession and absolution. This is the word joined with our flesh and blood in Mary the Virgin that we might eat that same flesh and blood in the church our Mother. This is the word that makes each of you greatest in the kingdom of heaven, for it plants you in the King of the Kingdom and makes you a partaker of his never-ending life.

Because what you need is not trivial, what God gives you is anything but trivial. He gives you himself for he gives you his very own word—incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended, all for you. Because the worst of hell is what you have deserved, God has given you the best of heaven which you have not deserved, that his doing of your salvation might be complete and perfect. There is no more to be done—the Serpent’s head has been crushed, the Passover Lamb has been sacrificed, the Red Sea has been parted, the New Joshua has led you into the Promised Land, the temple of his body has been destroyed and rebuilt. Now salvation and strength and the kingdom of our God and the power of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been cast down, and they overcame them by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony.

This is the weighty word you need and the weighty word God provides, speaking into you the word made flesh, that your flesh might forever be one with the word. This is the word your angelic man will preach into your ears that with Michael, the angels, archangels, and all the saints in heaven, you might forever rejoice at the Feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which has no end.