I haven’t thought much about angels. Maybe I did when I was younger. I remember a book my mother gave me sometime during junior high school, something about an angel in my backpack. It gave me a lot of comfort in those awkward adolescent years, but that’s part of the problem now, I suspect – I’ve probably associated ‘angel’ with ‘adolescence’, as if these are kinds of beliefs someone grows out of.
But ask me about moments in the bible, or in our worship life as a Christian community which continue, year after year, to reveal God’s truth to me, and generally there’s an angel somewhere in that story. Christmas? A whole host of them. Easter? “He is risen.”
One of my favorite biblical characters is Jacob. I could go on and on about Jacob, himself, and there’s so much liveliness in Genesis chapters 26 through 36. Within that cycle of stories, I’ve always returned to the famous tale of Jacob’s ladder, Genesis 28:10-22. The heart of the story is a dream in which Jacob sees “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (v.12) The astonishing thing, however, is that this is a dream, a moment of rest in the midst of real anxiety for Jacob. He’s on the run from his brother, Esau, whom he cheated out of his birthright and inheritance. Plus, he’s lying on a stone as a pillow – which I’ve always thought would be the least restful thing! Jacob is at a turning point in his life, but he doesn’t really recognize it as much of a turning point because, frankly, he’s running for his life, fearful and probably despondent about any hope of a future. If he can just make it through the night, Jacob thinks, he can wake up tomorrow and run again. Maybe he’ll do the same thing the next day and the day after, the literal definition of a rat race.
In that moment, he receives not only rest but a promise: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac,” God says, “…Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (vv.13-17) When Jacob wakes up, his life’s direction is fundamentally changed. No longer is he a nervous fugitive, a criminal on the run, but a man who is relatively confident that whatever happens he is, nevertheless, kept in the love of God. “If God will be with me,” Jacob says that next morning, “and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.” (vv.20-22) The very next day what does he find? Water, a well, which leads him to family and the creation of a new, abundant chapter in his life.
I heard an echo of Jacob’s ladder while we read in church the story of Jesus’ call to Nathanael (John 1:47-51), the gospel lesson appointed for today. Nathanael is shocked that Jesus knows about him, even more so because Jesus got all that from noticing him under a fig tree. So Jesus says, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. …You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (vv.50-51)
We don’t know all that much about Nathanael, except that he has “no deceit,” as Jesus says (v.47), and that’s obviously the antithesis of Jacob who goes on to wrestle with God, getting re-named Israel. But Nathanael, like Jacob, is at some kind of a turning point in his life, even though, also like Jacob, he probably doesn’t recognize it as such. His friend Philip finds him and points him to Jesus. Nathanael doesn’t seem to jump at the chance to ditch his old life and follow this itinerant teacher but, still, he is drawn closer and closer to Christ. Maybe he was starting to question his old life; he and Philip seem awfully inquisitive, searching. But maybe he wasn’t entirely sure what he was supposed to be doing in the future.
Let’s face it: we are always, at all times at a turning point in our life. Every decision we make in the course of a day can and does impact our future. Sometimes it’s a simple thing. What should we have for dinner tonight? Where will we celebrate Thanksgiving this year? Sometimes it’s a big thing. Where should I go to college? What should I do after retirement? And most of the time we don’t really know how something that seems so simple might turn out so big, though we often know in retrospect that our most impactful decision started with a small seed – a conversation, an article, a thought, a wrong turn into a new town.
The truth is that God’s preferred future doesn’t require a grand vision on my part. God’s future doesn’t require much except my willingness to go into it, sometimes boldly, sometimes anxiously, sometimes with calculated steps, but to go nevertheless.
And because we are, at times, fearful and anxious, not always so bold and courageous, we get reminded, looking back, that in those moments there was what we might call this ‘angelic host’ – this ladder of messengers, going up to heaven from earth, and touching earth from heaven. There are always messengers and messages from God, all around us, every moment of every day. These messengers are what the bible calls ‘angels’ and God surrounds us with the economy of salvation at every moment, waking and sleeping. This is what we celebrate today, Sept. 29, which in the life of the church is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, the prayer which reminds us that “…as [God’s] holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth.”
No, we don’t ‘grow up’ so much that angels no longer matter, becoming a theological holdover from our Sunday School past. But it’s also true we probably don’t notice until we look back on those big moments, seeing later, sometimes much later that that small thing became a life transition, or a conversation turned into a new vocation, or a seemingly insignificant seed transformed in the ground of our life to become a great abundant tree.