Genesis 28:10-17; Psalm 103:19-22; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
Years ago now, I served as a musician on staff for an Episcopal youth retreat in North Carolina. It was a spirit-filled week, spanning the time between Christmas and the New Year, and on New Year’s Eve we had planned a festival Eucharist to be followed by the most-anticipated event of all youth retreats – the big dance.
The chapel was buzzing with excitement that evening, and I assumed most of the young people had their minds on the party to follow. But as the last few received communion and moved back to their seats, and we launched into a song, it became startlingly clear that the real celebration would happen right then and there.
The kids sang for all they were worth, and their music was so moving to me that I could not sing at all. I couldn’t imagine such a sound coming from them.
Later, one of the kids whom I had known for years to be troubled came up to me and asked, hardly able to contain himself, “Did you hear them?” I told him I wasn’t sure what he meant. “Did you hear the angels singing in there?” he asked.
Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!
Angels have a mixed reputation these days, having filled the imagination of popular spirituality with visions of cherubs, flowing white robes, and enormous wingspans. Angels increasingly appear in popular religion as an army of great warriors, fighting against demons and devils that threaten to steal us away from God.
The truth is, in our scriptures, angels only rarely appear to comfort us or to fight our spiritual battles. Much more often, angels appear to guide and warn the people of God, to be fellow-travelers on the journey of faith that is full of crossroads and crosses. The Reverend Herbert O’Driscoll observes, “Angels encounter us for an infinite number of reasons. They come in order to warn, to admonish, to guide, to rescue, to announce, to open prison doors, to sing anthems. They enter our lives at the most unexpected moments.”
Jacob surely didn’t expect angels to join him on the journey that took him away from his home and his family following his father’s death. Jacob had just cheated his older brother, Esau, out of the blessing reserved for first-born sons, and so he inherited responsibility for the covenant God had made with Abraham. The hope of land, the promise of offspring, the assurance of being God’s chosen people in the world.
We are told that Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching from heaven to earth, upon which angels were ascending and descending. It is a time in Jacob’s life when not only will he need guidance in reconciling with his brother (he will encounter another angels before this happens) but also in leading the people of Israel forward in their relationship with God. Jacob’s vision of angels moving between heaven and earth accompanies God’s promise to him for the difficult journey that lies ahead, Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.
My guess is that most of us have never seen a vision of angels, and we have never heard them singing in the rafters. And yet our own journeys of faith are filled with dangers and doubts and decisions, just like all those women and men in scripture who were visited by angels. Again, Herbert O’Driscoll suggests that for most of us, “Angels’ wings and their glory are hidden, their voices are familiar, and they speak of everyday things.”
The deepest mystery of the Incarnation is that God takes the most secular things of this earth – including human beings – and makes them sacred. For we are called to minister to one another as fellow travelers on faith’s journey. It may be a sister or brother or a complete stranger who appears to warn or admonish, to guide or rescue, to open prison doors or sing anthems. We have then been no less graced by God than Jacob was. The presence of angels – the presence of God – is often not clear to us until we look back on the dangers and doubts and decisions and realize that it was by grace we made it through. Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!
So what about the angels my young friend heard that night in the chapel? The words to the song we were singing were simple: Thuma mina nkosium, which is South African for “Lord, send me.” At the end of the song is the refrain, “Lord, I wanna go, I wanna go with you.” If anyone in that room meant, really meant what they were singing, then of course there were angels there. A journey of faith was beginning. Amen.