Love of the strange (Horizons 4)

Horizons Bible Study 2017-2018
“Cloud of Witnesses: The Community of Christ in Hebrews”
Lesson 4: In community with God’s messengers (Hebrews 13:1-6)

“All night, all day,
angels watching over me, my Lord.
All night, all day, angels watching over me.
Now I lay me down to sleep, O Lordy,
angels watching over me, my Lord.
Pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Angels watching over me.” 

I sang that song to my son and my grandsons as I rocked them or before bed. It’s comforting to think of God’s angels with us in the darkness when we are small and God keeping and guarding our souls throughout life.

Angels are God’s messengers in the Bible. Gabriel frightens Mary half to death when he tells her that she will have a son. In a dream, an angel speaks to Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, and lets him know that he is to have no anxiety in marrying Mary. Shepherds out in the field hear the message of peace and the good news of the baby being born who will be a savior.

Good news is brought to Jacob in a dream. Having tricked his father and cheated his brother, Jacob is on the run from his brother, Esau, who swears to kill him. Exhausted, Jacob sleeps and he dreams that angels bridge the chasm between heaven and earth (Genesis 28:10-22). The angels move up and down a ladder with God. God speaks, promising Jacob that God will bring him back to his homeland and that God will be with him. Jacob awakens and marks the spot, saying, “God is surely in this place and I was not aware of it.” What difference would it make in our lives if we looked for God or angels in the ordinary places?

Three Jewish men in exile, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, refuse to worship the gods of the Babylonians and reject bowing down to the gold statue of the king. The penalty is death by fire. Brought before the king, the three affirm that whether they are delivered from the fire or not delivered by God, they will not worship any other god or bow down to him. The king is not pleased, not pleased at all. King Nebuchadnezzar orders a furnace to be stoked up seven times its normal temperature and has the three men thrown in. Yet, a fourth man appears in the furnace with them. This angel shields Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the scorching flames. Such a story would encourage those who are subject to violence because they have kept their faith.

Peasants living in Nicaragua under a brutal dictatorship of the Somosa family were reflecting on the story of Peter being let out of prison by an angel (Acts 12). For them, the angel could have been a friend of the jailer who secretly obtained the keys and released the prisoners. For these suffering, poverty-stricken Christians who knew many people wrongfully imprisoned, an angel could be anyone who helped those crowded into standing-room-only jails. Like the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the story of Peter’s deliverance was a story of reassurance and a call to action.

Angels can come disguised as ordinary people, as they do to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). Hospitality was a sacred trust in which the host fed, sheltered and provided protection. In Hebrews 13:1-2, Christians are urged to show hospitality to strangers, for in so doing they may entertain angels without knowing it.

Christians are to practice an “open door” policy, welcoming any and all. The Greek word translated in English as “hospitality” literally means “love of the strange,” according to biblical studies professor Erik Heen. “Love of the strange” connotes curiosity, interest and openness to those who are different. This openness to the stranger stands in stark contrast to the ugly rhetoric often heard about immigrants and Muslims.

Hospitality to strangers is a radical idea. We are used to reciprocal relationships. You invite friends for a meal and then one of your friends invites you to the next cookout. When I visited Central America with a mission team, we stayed with local families in Guatemala. I was embarrassed that my host family cooked a chicken for me when I knew that their normal meal was beans and rice. I did not want to be a burden to them. Yet the mission worker, who led us, told us that we would dishonor their gift and them if we did not eat the specially prepared meal. The family’s sacrificial hospitality meant giving their best to me, the stranger.

Ultimately, we are called to live out Christ’s sacrificial love given for all humanity. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we mirror Christ’s love to others, even strangers who may even be messengers from God.