Angel wings rustle everywhere

Peter Seal, 29 September 2019

Genesis 28: 10–17; John 1: 47–51

We’re on the cusp of something momentous. After so many years of planning, our building project at St Paul’s begins a week tomorrow. This means that our Harvest celebrations next Sunday will be the last service in St Paul’s as we currently know it.

I want to assure and to reassure you that it’s all going to be okay. Together we will look out for, and care for, one another. There’s no doubt, moving to Western Church School for our Sunday 9.30 Eucharist will be both a challenge and an opportunity.

Today’s theme of Michael and all angels offers encouragement and vision. Today, we can be taken in our imaginations into the realms of the angels, where we experience all that is mystical and mysterious. If we listen carefully today we may well hear an unfamiliar sound, a sound that our everyday lives tend to drum out. If we listen carefully, we may be able to hear the gentle rustling of angels’ wings. Or, if that feels too close, then the echo of God’s angels, praising him in heaven.

From the book of Genesis we heard how ‘Jacob left Beer-sheba’. It wasn’t quite as simple as that. The bald fact is that he had to leave home, because he had swindled his brother Esau. He had despicably deceived his father into giving him his brother’s inheritance. So Jacob runs. He’s very alone.

We hear how, at the end of the day, Jacob takes a stone and puts it under his head. This sounds strange, but people in the desert still do this, using their head covering as a sort of pillow. And then Jacob had a dream – a very famous dream. In Jacob’s dream, earth and heaven are connected by a great ladder. The angels of God are moving up and down on it.

You could say it’s a dream of harmony and unity. This dream is showing us a much bigger reality than we often allow ourselves to become engaged with. This dream does something important for Jacob. It gives him a sense of the presence of God – something he badly needs in the loneliness of that night; something that stays with him for the rest of his wandering.

In this dream, the Lord himself stands beside Jacob and makes him an extraordinary promise. It’s not just a promise for him, or his family, or the peoples around him. This dream embraces the whole world! Jacob is told, ‘All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you’. The promise of this dream is universal. In our darker, troubled moments we ask, does this include me?

You could say it’s a dream of harmony and unity … The promise of this dream is universal.

The answer is in the text. God says, ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go … for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you’.

It’s at that moment perhaps that there’s a breakthrough for Jacob, and there can be for each of us too. We find ourselves thinking, ‘God is saying this to me, today’; and perhaps adding, ‘I need to remember those words. I must write them down, so that I don’t forget them. I need to learn them by heart, and repeat them to myself, again and again, so that I really, really believe them.’

God says, ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go’.

And then the dream comes sharply to an end, as all good dreams do. Jacob wakes up and says, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!’

This is powerful stuff. Isn’t this our experience? We’re in some place, or conversation, or relationship – and, possibly at the time, but more often when we look back, we find ourselves saying with Jacob, ‘God was really with me then, even though I didn’t realise it at the time’.

Being in church together heightens our sensitivity to the presence of God everywhere. When we’re worshiping at Western in two weeks’ time, God really will be there with us. It will feel different, certainly, but God will surely be there. Even now he’s going ahead to prepare that place.

Jacob, waking up in the great outdoors, cries out in amazement, ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’.

You and I may not use the words of Jacob, but there are moments when something in us cries out this truth. It’s moments like these that keep us going when life is tough and the ambience for weekly worship is initially less conducive.

The story continues: ‘So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it’. Jacob could not leave without marking the spot. For the rest of his life it would be a holy place, because there he had encountered, and been encountered by, God. In all of our lives, there are without doubt holy places, holy times and holy people. It’s good to take time to acknowledge them and mark them – if only in our minds.

Next week we will acknowledge the holiness of St Paul’s as we hand it over to our builders for the coming year.

There isn’t time to explore today’s gospel reading in detail. In summary, Philip finds Nathanael and says to him, come and meet Jesus. Nathanael realises who Jesus is, but he can’t believe that Jesus knows or cares about who he is. Jesus makes it clear that he does know who Nathanael is and, what’s more, that he does care about him.

And Jesus makes Nathanael a great promise: ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’. The ladder of Jacob’s dream has been replaced by the presence of God in his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

In conclusion: to this day, the messenger angels of God continue their work of helping us to see what reality really looks like. Angel wings rustle everywhere.