Rev Sue preached this sermon on Wednesday 29 September. You can access it again here.
Angels have been a source of fascination for people for millennia, and over the years traditions have developed and evolved which have taken us well away from their Biblical roots. Generally speaking, in the Bible, there are two sorts of angels, the ones in visions of the throne of God, and the ones the act as messengers. The first sort includes the cherubim and seraphim who can have 2, 4 or 6 wings, and can be very peculiar indeed – Ezekiel saw one with four faces. The second sort are much more ordinary and are often mistaken for people. They are male, come and go mysteriously, and definitely do not have wings. Gabriel is one of the few named and takes the traditional angel role of telling Mary about God’s plans for her as she learns that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. There are many ways of hearing messages from God. Angels are more matter of fact than a vision, and more concrete than an inner voice. Mary was in no doubt that the angel had spoken the truth.
Angels are spiritual beings. Although they appear in a form that people can see, but they have no bodies and are not mortal. Their home is in heaven. They remind us that the creation is bigger than people and our preoccupations, bigger than the fragile planet earth, and bigger even than the whole universe. We are only a small corner of all that God has made, and there is much that we do not understand. Week by week we hear the words “Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name, for ever praising you and saying: Holy, holy, holy”. Here in this very church angels and archangels join our work of praise. It reminds us of our proper place as mere feeble humans, but also as a part of something amazing.
Jacob was not an especially holy person. On the contrary, he was a very tricky customer. Having impersonated his brother Esau to get their father’s blessing, he had made himself scarce to avoid Esau’s wrath. He had no companions and nowhere to stay. When it came to sunset, he simply lay down where he was and slept. He dreamt of a ladder with angels going up and down and heard the voice of God promising him the land for his descendants. He reacted by saying ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ He believed he was in a holy place, a thin place, where heaven could break through to earth. He called it Bethel, the House of God.
For Nathaniel, too, it had not started off as a particularly remarkable day. He had been sitting under his fig tree – a tree which in the Bible signifies a time of peace and prosperity. He may have been thinking or praying or studying the law there – we do not know. Philip came to him and told him about Jesus – the Messiah, the one who was foretold in the Old Testament. Nathaniel was not easily impressed, but joked that Nazareth, a rival village, was far too small and insignificant to produce such a man. But nevertheless, he went with Philip to meet Jesus. As he approached, Jesus greets him as “an Israelite in whom there is no guile” in complete contrast to our earlier character, the trickster Jacob. Jesus has seen Nathaniel under his tree and saw everything that was in his heart. Nathaniel knew himself to be understood through and through, and willingly accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus was a little amused by this complete turnaround and replied that there were far more impressive things to follow. Nathaniel would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. This time the focus was not on a special place, but on Jesus himself who opens the gateway between earth and heaven. The promise of God has become, not about a particular people in a particular place, but focused on Jesus who gives every place the potential of connection with God.
Ascending and descending happens here too. The lines between earth and heaven are blurred in what we do this morning. We lift up our hearts to the heavens, and we see how Christ comes among us in bread and in wine. We can raise our voices to share the Good News with the whole world, and we can speak humbly in a way that all might hear. Like the angels, we can be messengers for God.