July 23, 2017

Angels Ascending and Descending in the House of God – July 23, 2017

Passage: Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 139, Romans 8:12-27

Bible Text: Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 139, Romans 8:12-27 | Preacher: The Rev. Dr. James R. Wheeler

Jacob had to get out of town and fast. Jacob was the younger of two twin sons. He was born with his right hand clutching his older brother Esau’s foot. His very name meant “usurper” and boy had he lived up to it. His brother Esau was after him. First, he had bought his elder twin brother’s birthright from him for some red lentil stew, and then he tricked Esau out of his father’s blessing. Esau began to look for ways to kill him. So, Jacob had to leave town and fast. His mother Rebecca packed him up and sent him away to her family across the dessert to her home country of Haran. On the way, Jacob camped near a town named Luz, made a stone for a pillow and slept. But while he slept he dreamed there was a ladder set up on the earth that reached up to heaven and angels were ascending and descending up and down that ladder. Even while Jacob slept and dreamed God stood beside him and blessed him and extended the promise to him that God had made to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac – that God would make a great nation of them and they would possess this Promised Land. Jacob awoke in awe and terror. The presence of the living God can be a powerful and scary thing. He renamed the place “Bethel,” the house of God, offered a sacrifice upon the rock that had been his pillow and vowed to make God his god and to give back to God a tenth of all God gave him.


This past Tuesday evening I was lying down and breathing deeply, letting my body relax as I lay outside on the grass in the oval garden as we began our Yoga class when Ronnie our instructor read a poem that struck me as being similar in tone to the experience of Jacob at Bethel. There is a copy of it in your bulletins.




I awoke
this morning
in the gold light
turning this way
and that

thinking for
a moment
it was one
like any other.

the veil had gone
from my
darkened heart
I thought

it must have been the quiet
that filled my room.

it must have been
the first
easy rhythm
with which I breathed
myself to sleep,

it must have been
the prayer I said
speaking to the otherness
of the night.

I thought
this is the good day
you could
meet your love

this is the black day
someone close
to you could die.

This Is the day
you realize
how easily the thread
is broken
between this world
and the next

and I found myself
sitting up
in the quiet pathway
of light,

the tawny
close-grained cedar
burning round
me like fire
and all the angels of this housely
heaven ascending

through the first
roof of light
the sun has made.

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask
my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.

This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

David Whyte
© 1996

shared from On Being, with Krista Tippett, August 26, 2016



The poet starts out thinking this day was like any other day, but then somehow saw how transcendent and full of possibilities this day was. It was a holy day. Wonderful or terrible things might happen on this day. This day, his very life was his for the taking. And here he was lying in bed thinking this was a day just like any other!


Have you ever been to a holy place? Twice I have been to Iona, a rugged wind-swept island off the Western coast of Scotland. It has been a sacred place for 1500 years from when the Irish Monk Columba landed there and established one of the most important monasteries in Great Britain in the 6th century. The Celts call it “a thin place.” It is one of those places where the distance between heaven and earth feels thinner. There is still an active interdenominational monastery there today. It takes half a day by bus and ferry across the Isle of Mull with many stops for wandering sheep and a second ferry across the narrow straight to get to the tiny Island of Iona. When I finally arrived on both my short visits I had a sense of being in a holy place, a place alive with the prayers of 1500 years of Christians, a place where God was specially present, a place as Jacob experienced it so long ago, where the angels of God were ascending and descending.


Have you ever experienced a particular place that draws you into the grandeur of God? Perhaps a still, peaceful lake reflecting the hills and trees around it, perhaps atop a rugged mountain, or perhaps by the ocean, or in a beautiful garden. Maybe it’s a majestic Gothic Cathedral lifting up to the sky or a ruin of an ancient church or a simple country church, or this majestic sanctuary of St. John’s Church? Where have you been that for you is a sacred place? That place is Bethel for you, the house of God. God is in that place and you experience his presence there.


God is not only in a place; God is sometimes known in an action. Maybe God for you is experienced in song. An old proverb is the one who sings prays twice. Maybe sacred song or contemporary Christian music on K-Love is the place you most experience those angels ascending and descending. I hope that when we come together in this place and worship God, in the music, in our fellow worshippers, in the words of Scripture, in the prayers and in the sacred rituals, that God is present in real and palpable ways for you. I hope that your daily prayer time is a thin place where God is always on the brink of breaking through into your heart and your consciousness. Service of others: when we volunteer in a helping capacity – whether feeding the homeless or helping at your child’s school or building houses with Habitat for Humanity or wherever way you volunteer to help others – that you are aware of the sacredness of what you are doing and sense God’s real and living presence in the act of service for others.


Psalm 139 tells us that God is not just distant and far off. God is also near. Indeed God is always searching us out. God knows us intimately. God knows us even better than we know ourselves. Is there anywhere we can go that takes away from God’s presence? We can go to hell and back; we can hide in the deepest darkest cave and God is still right there with us.


In our passage from Romans 8 today, Paul reminds us as we receive God in Christ the Holy Spirit of God lives in us. We literally become God’s own children through adoption. Our connection with God is so deep that he goes on to write in verses 26 & 27 that

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that the very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And thank God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)


In other words, we don’t need to go to Bethel or any of those holy places in order to find the living God. God is right here wherever we are. God lives with you. God is searching you out and knowing you. God is acquainted with all your ways. God is indeed praying for you with sighs and utterances too deep for words. God has already made you his own and welcomed you into his family. God is not distant and far off. God is right here. God is with you, now!


I’m not saying this to discourage you in any way from visiting sacred places, or from worship or from practices that draw you into God’s presence. I’m inviting you – I’m inviting myself too – like Jacob, like the poet David Whyte, to wake up to a new reality. May the veil lift from our minds and hearts and may we awake in fear and terror to realize that God is in this place. God is in your heart; God lives even in the midst of your day-to-day world. Angels are ascending and descending all around us. God is by your bed whispering to you as you sleep. God is seeking you out even in the midst of those places where you try to get away from him. When you are alone and confused and afraid God is groaning prayers on your behalf with sighs too deep for words. Awake to the reality that God is in this place. God is in your place. God is with you. God is for you. You are living in the house of Bethel, the house of God. As the Psalmist prayed:


Search me out O God, and know my heart; try me and know my restless thoughts. Look well whether there be any wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting. (Psalm 139:22-23)



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