Succentor - Revd Rachel Young
I was sitting in a café tent, in a field at Greenbelt, with our eldest child Kathryn, known as Kat.
We were enjoying a cuppa and a catch-up, when we kept hearing, intermittently, a small, high bell ringing…
Once…twice…then again a few minutes later.
“Ah!”, Kat said, reading a notice behind us – “it’s when a new angel gets its wings!”
Perhaps I should explain that a Greenbelt Angel is someone who supports the festival financially by giving regularly; so the bell was rung every time someone signed up!
Angels are everywhere in contemporary culture. We in this building are surrounded by them – over 50 alone on the screen behind the high altar!
Some people say they have seen an angels or angels, including author Lorna Byrne who sees peoples’ guardian angels; We use the term to describe someone who has done something good for someone else;
Some bereaved parents describe their child as now an angel, after death. Believing in angels, in our contemporary culture, doesn’t seem like a unusual thing to do.
I have spent the past four weeks or so reading about and asking people about angels, in order to prepare to preach today. And the reason for this, is because – and some of you may be sorry for me about this – my knowledge of and experience of angels is almost nil.
I’m not someone who has experienced seeing an angel (although I believe I experienced a vision of Jesus, once). I know that there are angels described throughout the Bible; that they live in heaven with God; and that some Christian teaching divide them into varying categories of importance, depending on the angels’ perceived roles.
So, for this sermon, I decided to do what I always do and that is to go back to our Bible readings to see what God might be saying to us through them. This morning we heard three readings which mention angels; but rather than cover all of these, let’s stay with the first – the account in Genesis chapter 28 of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob is on his way to stay with his uncle Laban who lives at Haran, to choose a wife.
On the way, he has a dream in which he sees something described more like a staircase than a ladder, between earth and heaven, with angels moving up and down it between one and the other.
And then God stands beside Jacob and speaks…
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…”,
And God goes on to promise Jacob the land on which he sleeps and offspring which will be “like the dust of the earth” to populate it. God promises never to leave Jacob until what God has promised comes to pass.
What is this passage about?
Well, firstly it’s not really about angels.
It is about the journey of Jacob – in subsequent chapters in Genesis when Jacob hears God speaking to him again, God refers back to this experience. It was obviously a pivotal moment in Jacob’s relationship with God.
And secondly, it was a pivotal moment because it was when God first spoke to him. God promised something to Jacob, and Jacob later (in verses 20-22) promises something back to God. A relationship is formed, a covenant is made.
Calling this the account of ‘Jacob’s ladder’ actually puts the emphasis on the wrong part of the story.
Yes, angels (Jacob would have believed) live in heaven, with God. And angels (Jacob would have believed) herald a message from God.
All through the Bible we see this described – angels –
literally, the Greek word angelos means ‘messanger’ –
bring a message from God.
And it’s the message that is important – not the messenger.
Christian authors Paula Gooder and Peter Stanford both agree that the contemporary Church of England is not doing a good job at engaging with the topic of angels, unlike the church in previous eras.
We seem to believe in angels in theory – we know what theologians of different eras have thought about them (including arguments as to whether they can appear as humans or not), we know what they look like and what their role is – but we’re not very confident when it comes to what we believe in practice for our lives now; and this can be an arena for confusion and embarrassment when we encounter those around us who very definitely seem to have a real, practical and lived experience of angels in their lives.
What do clergy do or say when in conversation with a bereaved family about their child, when described as being in heaven as an angel?
What do any of us say, when we hear that someone has seen and angel, or thinks they have experienced meeting one?
(Or is that person us, and we keep that information hidden, in case of embarrassment?)
I’d like to suggest two things in response.
First, in Jewish and Christian thought, angels are messengers of God.
We might even say that they only exist because God needs a way to speak to humankind – the word angelos defines what an angel is.
Many people down the centuries, including those we hear of in the Bible itself, experience angels bringing them a message from God.
So what I would suggest is that we concentrate more on the message than on the messengers.
In other words, for those of us who cannot identify in our lives ever having seen or met an angel, that doesn’t matter – because what matters is whether we have heard God speaking to us, no matter how we interpret the way we have heard it.
So, for example, in my own experience, whenever I have felt God speaking to me I have interpreted it as the work of the Holy Spirit; it hasn’t occurred to me to interpret it as the work of an angel, more of a voice speaking in my thoughts or a feeling or physical pressure that I have experienced.
Now, someone else – perhaps if they live in a culture which expects angels to appear – may have interpreted the messenger differently.
But either way, it’s the message that’s important.
And it’s important that we’re open to listening out for the voice of God, as God is one who wants to communicate with his people.
And the second thing I would say in response, is to do with how we respond to secular culture’s embracing of angels.
In this case the focus has changed – angels are worshipped for who they are rather than the God who sends them with a message.
The link with God has gone.
Angels have taken the place of something spiritual that fills peoples’ lives.
This, I think, is not surprising, given the number of people who say they are not religious.
However, we have to tread carefully, because we are encroaching on areas to do with death and bereavement.
You may have some ideas about this; but I think it would be helpful if our contemporary theologians and church leaders could address this further – to take up the mantle and give us all some help in understanding the role of angels in the church now, in the twenty-first century.
So, in conclusion, on this Feast of Michael and All Angels, let us celebrate angels who are messengers of God.
Let us celebrate God who wants to communicate with his people, with us.
And let us celebrate the place of all the angels in history who have enabled this to happen, so that we – and all humankind – have been able to know and hear God speaking.