St Michael & All Angels (Michaelmas)
Sunday 29 September 2019 | The Rev’d Clare Barrie
Jacob is fleeing in fear from his brother Esau – he is alone, hungry, and tired. He is in deep trouble, and rightfully so. He has lied and stolen from his own family, partly because, as it turned out, his family is kinda screwed up. The great and faithful Abraham was his grandfather, and Isaac his father – but Isaac was dying, and Jacob’s mother had encouraged him to steal his father’s blessing from his first-born twin brother Esau. Jacob had succeeded in this plan, but Esau was so angry that he was chasing Jacob down in order to kill him.
And in a world where one’s family and community is so intrinsic to one’s identity and sense of self, to be cut off from family and cast out is the worst fate imaginable. Jacob is now a non-person, with no rights, no claim to safety or refuge. He is in crisis.
So Jacob is on the run, in the middle of nowhere, in every sense, and at the end of the day he makes the best of things and settles down to sleep, using a sunwarmed stone as a pillow. He wasn’t looking for the holy, and he would not have expected the holy to be looking for him. On that dark and lonely night, all Jacob was interested in was survival.
But this story is more about God than it is about Jacob. And God takes the initiative, and comes to Jacob in his dreaming, that night in the middle of nowhere, in the midst of crisis.
In his dreaming, God gives Jacob the eyes to see the reality of his situation – what’s right there around him – and the reality is that heaven is touching earth, and there’s a ramp or ladder on which Jacob can see angels – messengers of God’s blessing and presence – ascending and descending, going about their ordinary business. And suddenly, without warning, God is present with Jacob, giving him extraordinary assurances: God will be with Jacob, and Jacob will (one day) have the land – a home and an identity – once more. “Know that I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go…”
When Jacob wakes up he can’t stop talking! In Hebrew, the great joke of the story is that Jacob really has no idea what’s going on… and the notion of Jacob using a rock for a pillow (for his head) becomes a wordplay on Jacob having a rock for a head. He is in such a state that he doesn’t recognise that God has not blessed the place – God has in fact blessed and called him.
And the scandal of this story is that God came to Jacob, the trickster, and dwelt with him. In so doing, God moved outside the box – God didn’t choose or call the firstborn son, the one that did well, the ‘right’ one, the well-behaved one, the appropriate one… Instead, God chose Jacob.
The Christian story, from beginning to end, isn’t primarily about humans seeking God – it’s the other way around – it’s about God seeking us. Like Jacob, Nathanael is also surprised by Jesus. He asks Jesus how Jesus got to know him, and Jesus tells him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” I saw you – I knew you – before you ever came looking for me.
…Remember that the ancient world imagined a three-story universe with earth sandwiched between a heavenly zone up there where God existed, and a zone below—where the dead were imagined to be. So, if you wanted to understand how God in the heavens communicated with those of us on this earthly plane, you needed a way to get messages through and that was the ministry of angels.
But what if we imagine God, not so much as a being in the sky but rather as an energy or power that’s always moving in and through us and through all of creation? What if angels are not so much winged cherubs but rather those instincts or messages that we receive when we’re most open to the presence and power of the divine? Then, our vocations, our callings, draw us toward the one who is already and always seeking us out, inviting us into relationship. Then spirituality becomes about attending to the one who knows us deeply and wants to engage us in the work of healing and restoring the world, God’s creation. A work that is urgently needed.
The life of faith is not so much a matter of each of us getting into heaven after we die as it is about living fully and completely in response to the one who is the source of life itself. Christian spirituality isn’t about choosing religious elements that “work for us”—a consumer model—it’s about attending to the voice of God that is even now speaking deeply within you, calling you into fullness of life. Attending to how God is calling you means to struggle deeply, as Jacob did that night at Haran, to discern how you are being called to be part of God’s work in the world.
Our forebears in faith had a much greater sense of realities that could not be seen, and that could not be measured in scientific ways. Our rational minds today struggle, I think, to comprehend the possibility of messengers of God that might be described as angels, as impulses of God’s love and blessing. In Jacob’s dreaming in the middle of nowhere, that awareness came to him and he had no other language, no other way of understanding what he glimpsed of God at work than to say he saw angels ascending and descending.
However we understand God’s ways of working in our world today, we surely have need of God’s energies of grace and love. The Hebrew name Michael means ‘who is like God?’ In the book of Daniel, Michael appears as the protector of Israel and in Revelation, Michael and the angels vanquish the dragon. In the face of the climate crisis, we have a great need today to fight against the powers of ignorance and apathy, the powers of inequality, the powers of unfettered corporate greed that are destroying God’s creation. These are dragons in a metaphoric sense, but no less powerful for that.
But in our prayers, in our daily living, we can call on the power of Christ, the firstborn of all creation. We can call on the powers of God at work in the world, always and everywhere working for good. There is an old Catholic prayer to St Michael that for many decades was prayed towards the end of most services, before the people were sent out into the world. It asked Michael to defend us in battle, to be our protection against the wickeness and snares of the devil, and called on him to cast down Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
We struggle with this language today, I think – discomforted by the notions of the life of faith as in any sense a battle, and by images of Satan and evil spirits. But perhaps it is worth pausing, and considering the kind of steely resolve and fierceness of faith such images call into being. As we face into the work before us as followers of Christ, we surely have need of these things.
Today, on this feast of St. Michael and All Angels, may you hear in a new way the invitation to be part of God’s work in the world.
May you be inspired to attend to the better angels of your own nature, and the great angels that somehow bring heaven and earth closer.
May you begin again to marvel at how God’s power is at work invisibly in your hoping and dreaming, and like Jacob, awake from sleep in amazement.