“The Secret Life of Angels”
Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry
October 1, 2013
Mark Lloyd Taylor, Ph.D.
Some Christian churches sometime over the past three or four days have celebrated the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. We hear an echo of that occasion in this morning’s reading from Genesis (28:10-17): the story of Jacob’s ladder.
Jacob was not simply weary with travel. He was running for his life, trying to escape his twin brother Esau’s vow to kill him in revenge. Jacob’s story unfolds a family drama as old as Cain and Abel and as contemporary as Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn in “A River Runs Through It” or Amir and Hassan in The Kite Runner. Hatred between siblings and competition for parental approval. A parent who favors one child over another. Spouses who settle their own scores through the children. Running away from home to start over. Staying at home to pick up the pieces. Marrying the wrong person. Spending, or committing to spend, an inheritance before the parent has died. Familiar themes, aren’t they?
Born grasping at his brother’s heel, Jacob later preyed upon Esau’s vulnerability to cheat him out of his birthright. Then, colluding with his mother Rebekah, Jacob impersonated Esau, deceived old father Isaac, extorted the patriarch’s blessing, and in a single instant stole from Esau both his position as eldest son and the inheritance meant to secure Esau’s well-being. Esau is understandably furious. He plots to kill Jacob the deceiver. But Rebekah, always on the lookout for her favorite son’s interests, warns Jacob of Esau’s intent. Jacob leaves home immediately, hoping to flee through the wilderness to the ancestral land Abraham and Sarah inhabited two generations earlier. Jacob finds himself all alone, in a strange and desolate place, with the ground for a bed and a stone for his pillow.
I imagine that despite his weariness, Jacob could not get to sleep right away; or, having fallen asleep, might have awakened in the middle of the night. I imagine sleepless Jacob reliving and regretting the past, the deceptive ways he had exploited Esau’s weakness, Isaac’s blindness, and Rebekah’s preferential treatment. I imagine sleepless Jacob terrified of the future. Would he survive the wilderness journey? What sort of welcome would he receive from his mother’s kin? Having given up everything to go into exile, how would he make a life for himself? Where could he acquire flocks and land? What about children? A wife? How worthless now his inheritance and birthright back home!
Finally sleep comes and Jacob dreams. He dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. The angels of God ascend and descend on the ladder. But the angels do not come to help and defend Jacob; they go about their own God-given tasks quite independent of Jacob’s plight. Nevertheless – and this is what I take away from the story – his glimpse of the secret life of angels enables Jacob to survive. God suddenly stands beside Jacob and speaks reassuring words. Jacob awakes fully in the present. “Surely God is in this place – and I did not know it,” he says. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17). For once Jacob the heel-grasper forgets about himself. He sees through the fog of deceit, regret, and fear to the reality of the world around him. He discovers he is not alone; the wilderness teems with the angels of God. The house of God in a strange and desolate place; a stony pillow the gate of heaven.
Of course, this is not the end of Jacob’s story. He has a long, long road to travel. No, Jacob’s ladder is just the beginning – a small, almost imperceptible turn one night from despair to recovery, the first dawning light of transformation.
This morning as you glimpse the secret life of angels on Jacob’s ladder, or the next time you cannot sleep at night, look at yourself differently. In the angels’ ascent from earth to heaven, see your human journey to God. Climb the ladder. You desire connection to God and separation from all that holds you down. Ascending with the angels, be assured of God’s accessibility. Your bed of regret and fear is the gate of heaven. Then descend with the angels. You do not strive in vain. The ladder reaches all the way down to earth. God is gracious. God reaches out to you. In the wilderness of your life God makes a house.
We are not alone. All around us unseen minds and hearts are ceaselessly active. Beyond exile and return, despair and recovery, the world teems with God’s angels. Dreams of their secret life promise to lift our eyes up from loneliness. The problems that cast such giant shadows during sleepless nights shrink and resume their true proportions in the light of morning. Surely God is in this place and we did not know it!