Sermon Notes 2019 09 29 Rev David Howells St Michael & All Angels.
The story of Jacob’s ladder of angels really begins with his Mum and Dad chatting one afternoon. They are living far from home, they’re refugee immigrants and with all that that implies. Rebecca, pausing from darning a sock, says to her husband Isaac, whose sock it is, “I am weary to death of Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like those who live here, my life will not be worth living.”
Now, Jacob is on the run. He had stolen Esau’s right as firstborn, and Esau has been sharpening daggers and breathing dark threats. His Dad has told him to go and stay with relatives. “For heaven’s sake, go and marry one of your mother’s brother’s daughters, or we’ll never hear the end of this!”
On the journey he sleeps rough, a stone for a pillow, and that’s where the reading begins. In the clarity of sleep, when the analytical mind is off, and the deeper, intuitive being is uncluttered and aware, he sees angels coming and going from on high. It ends with a promise! Children! and that God will bring him back, no matter where he goes, back to here. To this land. Jacob takes his pillow stone and leaves it standing as a marker, a danger warning. “How fearsome is this place! It is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.” Angels walk here. Beware!
What are angels? We have a rich artistic history from old Europe of men, mostly, but women too, all young and good-looking, wrapped in large sheets of white cloth with huge wings, swooping about. And angels looking like full military warriors complete with armour and swords...and wings too! (Myself, I think these ones were propaganda sculptures implying that God was fighting on the side of the people with enough money to wage war and commission sculptures, but I may be a little left-wing here.)
Angel, in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written is angelos. The Gospel is, in greek, eu-angelion . Angelos means message bearer. The prefix eu means good, and Angelion means message or news.
So in our Christian Biblical roots an angel is a bringer of news, good news. Add to this, that in pre-email times, and pre-literate times, a king might send a message to another king. The delivery system was a messenger trained to memorise a speech and deliver it to the recipient, as if he were the author. The messenger was an embodiment of the sending king, and to mistreat a messenger was to mistreat the king who sent him. The messenger, the message and the sender were, in a way, one. This is not far from how angels were once understood.
When Nathaniel meets Jesus, he’s unimpressed by Jesus’s nice words to him. “Yeah, like, how do you know who I am?” Jesus mentions seeing him under a fig tree and Nate switches and suddenly declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
What happened to Nate when Jesus mentioned the fig tree? And why, when Nate names Jesus as Son of God and King, does Jesus refer to Jacob’s vision of the message bearers of God? The angels?
I want to step out of Biblical time and back into ours.
Angels seem so few in this time and place. But perhaps what is rare, to the point of extinction, is the Classical Greek and Roman fantasy angel. 18 feet tall and glued onto the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel. There are few sightings. But remember an angel is a messenger, or sometimes just the message.
How many of you have had a moment, when busy with ordinary things, you have suddenly thought of your mother, or a friend or someone of value to you, and you have, instinctively called them up? “How are you Mum? I was suddenly thinking of you.” And she says, “Oh, my dear! I’m so glad you called...I need to tell you....”
Has it not happened that mid-sentence, your inner attention shifts, you lost your train of thought and were far away for a moment? And why were you there? And was it not, in a way, important?
And have you perhaps found, when reading, that a sentence, or an idea catches your heart as well as your mind, and it is ... as if it were ...spoken to you? It “jumps out”!
For me, most clearly, that this happens when I read the Bible. We call it “the Word of God”. But that is not because, as some believe, God dictated it. But because the Word, the message, the messenger-angels of God, are thick upon the ground here. God puts “words of the Lord”, God’s messages to you, into that book, for you to stumble on, to be attracted to, to feel a phrase stand out for you. The church fathers compiled our “books of the Bible” out of a pile of many more, because they knew that these texts “spoke”.
To receive the message is your work. Whatever little sentence, phrase or word catches in your mind, like a burr attaches to your sweater walking in the woods, you need to honour it. You need to carefully detach it, turn it over in your mind, in your heart, in your imagination. This is an art, not a science, it is felt, like following, with your finger-tips, a wall in the darkness.
Two weeks ago I was sitting with a coffee in my back yard, it was warm and calm. A sudden gust of wind battered the young maple tree in front of me, sweeping through the leaves roughly, from right to left, and I knew the word “death” had been said to me. Is it the same word that Greta Thunberg is speaking? The death of our ecosystem? Is it the ending of a phase, or part of my life? Is it my bodily death or that of another? I am pondering this, without anxiety, but with curiosity. It was “spoken” in the leaves without malice, just as news I needed to hear. It was the brush of an angel’s wing.
It is tempting to pass over the feast of St Michael and all Angels as an embarrassment to modern minds. But I think that our ways and God’s ways are pulled apart by modern rationality and the mythology of scientific thought. Spirituality, though, is an art, and it is the art of listening to angels.