Monday, January 15, 2024

Angels ascending and descending. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (B), preached on Sunday, January 14, 2024.

We seem destined to take what is powerful and render it impotent by making it cute and cuddly.  Or we take what is of no consequence, and bestow upon it all power and authority.  Consider angels.  We have rendered these mighty workers of God into the chubby little cherubs who on their worst day can only shoot an arrow of infatuation into a unsuspecting heart.  Meanwhile, we have given demons a holiday and joke about knowing more people and maybe being more comfortable in hell.  Who do we think we are?

Long ago Jacob set out on a journey.  When it got dark, he set up camp.  He laid his head on a stone and slept.  In the dream that tormented his rest, Jacob saw a stair way or ladder reaching all the way from earth to heaven.  It was a busy place. On it the angels of God ascended and descended and the Lord watched from on high.  When Jacob awoke, he realized he had been a fool.  The Lord was in this place and he did not even notice.  His lapse turned to fear.  He would not forget again.  “This is none other than the house of God and this the gate of heaven.”

The dream took on new life when Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under the fig tree.  The man without deceit in his heart was given a promise.  He would see what Jacob dreamed.  He would behold in life what Jacob saw in a dream.  “You will see heaven open, the angels of God ascend and descend, upon the Son of Man.”  Just in case this was not enough of a miracle, what Jesus promised, Nathanael believed.  He was to behold the house of God and the gate of heaven.  He would see angels ascending and descending.  He would behold the Father in heaven, presiding over this bridge between earth and heaven.  

In Scripture, angels often seem to have something to do with worship.  From the Old Testament to Revelation, the angels serve the Lord.  Even those who do not believe in Jesus seem to believe in angels and heavenly beings.  What God has disclosed to us is the surprise of who they serve and why.  Angels serve God by serving us – you and me!  And they attend to the Son of Man who is Himself the bridge that brings heaven down to where we are.

You would do well to note that neither in Jacob’s dream nor in Jesus’s words of promise are we told that we will walk up the grand staircase to eternity.  The ladder is not give for us to climb up to behold God.  The surprise is this.  God descends the ladder, the angels serving Him, in His purpose of bringing down to us the gift of salvation.  Christ is the one who comes down from heaven as one of us in flesh and blood yet without sin and He is come to bestow upon us the riches of His grace, mercy for our sins, rescue from death and the devil, and life in the presence of God forevermore.  The angels attend Him in His work.

The angels attended Him at His birth with the song of glory, announcing to the shepherds to come and see.  They visited our Lord in the wilderness, binding Him up after His fast and temptation by the devil.  They attended to Him in the garden where He prayed before His betrayal.  Then they turned their attention to you and to me, serving Jesus by serving us and serving us by turning our attention to Jesus.

As the angels were created by God for the heavenly worship, so are we created for the earthly worship that believes His Word and rejoices to receive the salvation He gives.  We began with Jacob’s vision and then with the promise Jesus gave to Nathanael.  Now it turns to you and to me. For the promise is fulfilled in our midst.  We are brought into the House of God and here God reveals to us the gate of heaven.  Here the angels ascend and descend to deliver to us the Gospel God has appointed for our salvation.  Here in the Word of God and in His Sacraments God gives what Christ paid so dearly to win.  Here is salvation full and free.

The House of God is not made sacred by our blessing or even by what we do in it.  It is the House of God and the gate of heaven because God has made this place sacred with His presence in Word and Sacrament and because of what He does in this place – speaking to us with the voice of His Word, washing us clean with baptismal water, restoring us through absolution when we sin, and feeding us the food of heaven in the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  God does not win us with argument nor is faith a matter of being convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt.  God comes to where we are and bestows upon us that which we thought we would never know, to see what we could not see without faith, and to live here and now new life and the eternal life in glorious flesh and blood.  This is what overwhelms our fears and gives us delight.

The angels were meant by God to serve Him in the worship of the heavenly places and we were created to serve Him in the worship of earthly places.  When sin prevented this, God took upon Himself the burden of our sin and death.  Through Jesus Christ, we are restored to our purpose and called into His presence.  

By Jesus Christ we are made partners in the Gospel and called forth into the world.  We are no more enamored by the fleeting treasures of the moment and yearn  instead for the eternal treasures of God.  In so doing, we become, like the angels, the messengers of salvation bringing to a lost and darkened world the rescue and light of Christ.  In this way, Jacob is jealous of what Jesus saw in Nathanael and Nathanael saw in Jesus.  It was the Word made flesh, the temple made not with hands but by the Holy Spirit.  But Jacob is also jealous of you and what you see every Sunday.  It is the Word made flesh in water, bread, and wine.  Angels of God ascending and descending, doing the bidding of the Father on our behalf.  If you are here for less than this, you are missing the fullness of God’s gift and blessing.  And if you count it less than the highest privilege to stand upon the holy ground of God’s presence here, you are missing the blessing that the prophets longed to see and that God gave to Nathanael and He has given to you today.  This is the House of God and this the Gate of Heaven.  Amen.

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