We are standing on holy ground.
Today we are celebrating the Feast of St Michael and All Angels – also known as Michaelmas. It’s a time for the church to pause and to reflect on a subject that is often mentioned among us but rarely paid attention to – the existence of a whole spiritual realm, populated by angels, archangels, fallen angels, and as our Revelation reading tells, the dragon who is also known as Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. St. Michael the Archangel is the hero of the day, the greatest of all known angels, the mighty warrior who defeats Satan and casts him out of heaven to the earth. St. Michael is often depicted as he is in the image on the front of our bulletin this morning – triumphantly standing on the dragon, with his spear piercing its head. Listen again to this drama.
“And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” (Rev. 12:7ff)
Well, if you had never heard this story before, and I were to ask you where it came from, you might guess that it came from a fantasy novel or perhaps a fairy tale, one that begins with “Once upon a time.” Once upon a time there was a dragon, and there was a war. It sounds incredulous – the kind of thing that may have hidden meaning for us, perhaps – there must be a reason it’s included in the bible, after all – but not something we’re meant to take too seriously.
After all, I think it’s fair to say that those who do admit to believing in literal angels and demons are often tarred with the same skeptical brush as believers in crystal balls, tarot cards, and astrology. Their existence seems to fit into mythological realms of fantasy – a make-believe world that may be fine for children and quacks to inhabit, but not for sane, responsible adults. To actually speak seriously about angels would cause some side glances, and maybe a quick change of topic. Either they are ignored, or they are minimized into cute little cherubs on Valentine’s Day, or they are relegated to the realm of the fantastic and unbelievable.
But these are all shields and safeguards that we have put up to protect us from acknowledging that these great beings are indisputably real, belonging to this very creation that includes the Milky Way and DNA, and far too wondrous for us to fully understand. Over and over in the Bible angels show up, often causing fear and even terror. “Do not be afraid” are usually the first words in any speech given by an angel, and “Do not worship me” is another common phrase. Their names, as one Old Testament man is told very bluntly when he asks, are simply too wonderful for us to know. (Judges 13)
Armies of angels appear all over our Bible, worshipping God by the thousands, delivering messages, and even fighting spiritual battles on our behalf. The word “angel” comes from the Greek word meaning ‘messenger’: these are God’s messengers, with access to his throne room and the ability to travel between heaven and earth. Our liturgy acknowledges them openly – “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify thy glorious name, evermore praising thee and saying, ‘holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.” These are wondrous matters indeed.
And yet – I speak for myself here – we’ve lost not only our wonder, but our ability to believe. The awe that children are naturally born with, the beautiful believing nature that accepts the miraculous and the supernatural as a matter of course, is drummed out of us as we mature, either by fear that grows with age and experience, or by the scorn of our fellow human beings, as we are taught that skepticism and cynicism are cool. We are taught to protect ourselves against derision and disappointment, and in doing so, we let our sense of the marvelous slip away. We’re too mature to show excitement, too sophisticated to show wonder at the incredible universe we find ourselves in, one far beyond even the most intelligent scientist’s understanding. And so the world dims and grows strangely a little less vibrant and miraculous as we age.
But this wonderful dimension to creation doesn’t stop existing just because we’ve learned so well to ignore it. We can try to block it out, to close our ears and eyes to the things that “don’t make sense”, to the things that just don’t fit with our rational western understanding of cause and effect.
But still sometimes, sometimes we can be woken to the presence of angels in our midst.
Jacob fell asleep, and in his sleep he dreamed, because awake he might have been too guarded, too protected, too secure or too defensive to be open to the wonderful place that he was in. But asleep, he was relaxed enough to let go of these guards, and to see a deeper reality – to see “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” And yes it was “just a dream”, as we might so easily dismiss it, but at the same time it was also more – it showed a glimpse of reality, and Jacob was somehow able to accept that he had been allowed to see, asleep, what he was blind to, awake. And so his jaw drops, because he knows now that the place that he was taking for granted before he fell asleep is so, so much more than appeared to his naked eyes. And so he exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! It is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven.”
How awesome is this place!
Jacob was given a mighty gift that day – the ability to not only see deeper, but to believe in what he saw. The lines between heaven and earth blurred that night, and Jacob’s spiritual sight was sharpened, until he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was in that very place with him, at that very moment, and he worshipped.
It must have been a spectacular vision of angels ascending and descending from heaven. And we know that it was a life-changing experience for him – right after this moment he dedicates himself to God in a whole new way. But more than a vision of seeing angels, Jacob was given the gift of being aware – deeply aware – of God’s presence in his midst: that he was standing on holy ground.
Thousands of years later, but not that many miles from the place where Jacob fell asleep that night, angels were once again descending to earth, shouting out their praise and glory at the birth of a newborn King, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
And if the shepherds who saw that sight were capable of speech at all, they must have sounded a lot like Jacob: “Surely the Lord is in this place – and we did not know it! How awesome is this place! It is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven.” The Gospel of John opens with the marvelous declaration that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – that God in Jesus literally set up camp among us, moving the house of God right into our midst. And then God did something equally as radical, and sent his Holy Spirit to live in each one of us, so that we – the Church, the body of Christ here on earth – have become the Temple of the Lord. We are standing on holy ground.
In a few minutes we will move to the altar, where we will eat and drink the holy food, the most precious body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ. And we know that we have been given the same gift as Jacob so long ago: the knowledge that God is in this place, that we too are standing on holy ground. Jesus is present, and he meets us – the members of his Body – here, in this place.
And maybe, just maybe, we will be given the gift of childlike wonder again, and with eyes and hearts wide open we may just, with Jacob, catch a glimpse of angels ascending and descending. Because as the old Gaither hymn goes,
“We are standing on holy ground
And I know there are angels all around
Let us praise Jesus now
We are standing in His presence on holy ground.”
(Bill & Gloria Gaither)