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“Ascending and Descending Angels,” Second Sunday after Epiphany 2012 at Shepherd by the Sea, Gualala, CA

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Shepherd of the Sea Episcopal/Lutheran Mission

Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 15, 2012

1 Samuel 3:1-20 Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 John1:43-51

Ascending and Descending Angels

The lessons today are mostly about being called and being sent out on the great mission of Christ. (At the end this sermon will take the call in a different direction.) We are all called by Christ by dint of our baptism and thus we should not give ourselves short shrift no matter our vocation. We often narrow down the call only to clergy, which violates the recognition that we are the royal priesthood of all believers and just because we are not clergy, does not get us off the hook. On NPR’s Forum Friday, they were extending the call for farmers, because in California 20% are over 70 years old and a far greater percentage are over 60. What an opportunity to make a moral witness to Christ. In the pastors’ Bible Study this week we heard the story of a little girl, who saw an injured bird in a puddle, took it home, mended its broken wing, and right there felt the call to be a doctor.

The Old Testament figure, Samuel, is also called as a young boy and he is called in a time when “the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread.” (Call the name: “Samuel, Samuel!”) The boy slept in the nave of the church, where God called him even though he “did not yet know the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” On top of that, it is a very hard message that the Lord reveals to him. But by his call Samuel overcomes the corruption of Eli’s sons, who while ruling were fleecing their flocks, that is, taking for themselves the first-fruits of the offerings of the people, and Samuel becomes trustworthy and “none of his words fall to the ground.” His words, carried by the Spirit of God, lift the people up in a very difficult time. Was there any judge of Israel greater than God’s gift, Samuel, her firstborn son, to Hannah, who had been barren and infertile so many years?

The One who stood before Samuel is the very same one we call Jesus, now calling his disciples and also calling us. Jesus does not sleep near the Arc of the Covenant, like Samuel, but he himself is the Christ Candle burning for God’s rule of Israel. On the dusty roads between Bethany, east of the River Jordan and Bethsaida, beside the Sea of Galilee, [in a bodily, outdoor temple] he is worshiping God in Spirit and in truth.

According to Huston Smith, a scholar of the religions of the world, Jesus had the spirit world at his beck and call. “What made [Jesus] outlive his time and place was the way he used the Spirit that coursed through him, not just to heal individuals – this was his aspiration: to heal humanity, beginning with his own people.”[1] (That’s why Jesus reaches you people in Gualala even today.) Now Smith is looking at Jesus from a human point of view. But Jesus still baptizes his followers today with fire and spirit, because he is burning with love, healing, and fresh life and ushering in the new order of things caught up and sustained by the Holy Spirit. When he calls Philip, Philip feels sent to call Nathaniel. The healing spirit is contagious and whether we are Lutheran or Episcopal or other, we have to catch it like Philip did. He tells Nathaniel, “We’ve found him about whom Moses in the law and all the prophets wrote: Jesus the son of Joseph, from Nazareth.”

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asks. It was a town in the boondocks that was too insignificant to have even a rabbi.

Philip says, “Come and See!”

Upon their meeting, Jesus encounters Nathaniel with the truth about himself. He saw him under a fig tree, which might have been a place of meditation. Of course, Nathaniel has come to check out this fellow, who he thinks is a false Messiah. But he hears Christ referring to him as an Israelite in whom there is no deceit and it happens that Nathaniel wanted to be as authentic as our Psalm 139 for today requires. He also struggles with the fact that Israel was Jacob, the liar and deceiver, who cheated his brother out of his birthright and deceived his father. As much as Samuel was overcoming corruption, Nathaniel wanted to overcome how we deceive each other.

My father used to say, “We all like to deceive each other, but most of all we love to deceive ourselves.”

Nathaniel encounters Jesus who is into the truth and the love that truth brings into the world, the new life that truth brings out. Truth gives birth to love. Lies and deceit parent hate, conflict, killing, and war. A person who is truthful, genuine, and authentic to his or her inner core is a healing presence and refreshing life. So don’t listen to the debates; I mean really do listen, but with a critical ear, because they tear each other up and in some kind of a misguided way, they tear everybody down. Is that genuine democracy? I wonder.

What Nathaniel also heard from Jesus was his allusion to Jacob’s ladder, where the heavens open with “the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

We often obliterate the spirit world because we are blinded by scientific materialism and naturalism. More and more we understand that now it is not a “God of the gaps,” but a science filled with gaps, where 90% of the universe is made out of dark matter and dark energy that we cannot understand. Jesus was very much in touch with the spiritual dimension of reality, which we have often learned to filter out completely. Huston Smiths writes that Jesus saw the heavens open, when he was baptized and the Spirit diving down on him like a dove and driving him into the wilderness forty days and nights of prayer and fasting and tempting by the devil.[2] That was quite a spiritual boot-camp!

My brother Philip and I have published a book called Luther’s Spirituality, in the series called the “Classics in Western Spirituality,” where Luther has a whole piece on the angels ascending and descending upon Jesus. Luther’s writing, “Freedom of a Christian,” which I’ll be referring to, is also in our book.[3]

Luther understands the angels ascending and descending [in and out of space and time] at the wonder of the incarnation. That heavenly God had come into the world in this Jesus and was spreading a new creation and an overflowing redemption among the people of the world.

The angels flutter up and down from the spirit world into ours with utter amazement, not knowing what to make of the Creator of the whole universe, which cannot even contain God, who has suddenly become a human being, plagued by the devil down here in the depths, just like all of us sinners. The angels go up and down, first gazing at God on high and then descending in utter astonishment at the sight of Jesus, who became one of us, God among and with us in human flesh. (I really don’t do justice to Luther’s words. You may want to read them yourselves.)[4]

The angels ascended and descended especially at Jesus’ birth over the shepherds in Bethlehem’s hills, because the One who created the whole universe was a little babe lying in a manger. This is the Creator, who is high beyond what even the angels can grasp, and he is now held in the arms of a woman and being nurtured at her breasts, fitting into a tiny crib. The angels look up at God and then down at this little baby and they cannot marvel enough that God has become a human being and this lowly infant is God in the flesh.

Luther sees the mystery of the incarnation as the union between God and a human being in Jesus Christ in the open heavens, that is, the spirit world, from which the angels descend and ascend in wonder.

One handsome and illustrious angel was offended, Luther tells, citing St. Bernard, because he thought God should have become an angel and not a lowly human being. He was angry and envious that God bypassed him to become flesh. (For the Hebrew language, the term “flesh” means human beings.) Thereupon, the angelic revolt was cast out of heaven and these fallen angels have become the devil and the demons that ravage the people of the earth.

Luther notes that Jesus does not mention the ladder in his allusion to Jacob’s dream and, of course, the angels don’t need one. But it is interesting to consider the significance of the rungs running up and down the ladder. (Perhaps my hymn for the day should have been: “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, Every rung goes higher higher, Soldiers of the cross!”)

When I studied and translated Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian,” I noticed that Luther presents a tension of opposites, which propels human growth and maturity. We know about his opposition of faith and love, law and gospel, and the tension he depicts in the great opposition between being human and divine. He also claims that we are sinners and saints at one and the same time. If that is not enough, he claims that Christian persons are free sovereigns over all things and subject to no one, through faith, let me I add; and they are complete slaves under all things, subject to everyone, because of love. The opposition between faith and love is crucial here.

This tension propels those who are called and sent up the rungs of the ladder with higher and higher angel power, as I like to say. A person called by Christ becomes a firstborn, no matter their actual birth order in a family. I am the eleventh child and my wife is a firstborn and I like this promise a lot, while she cannot understand it. But whatever your earthly birth order, first, last, or middle, you become a firstborn child of God. Imagine having a place at the table of the family of God!

On the next rung of the ladder, you receive the nobility of the spirit. You become a king or queen, a sovereign before God. You can not only take care of yourself, but of your spouse, your children, your church, your community. You could become a dynamite mayor, governor, and president and actually make good times come here again,

“Happy days are here again, the skies above are clear again, so let’s sing a song of cheer again, Happy days are here again!”

You will govern the whole country in the powerful spirit and light of God. Like Max Weber says, politics is a vocation. It’s a wonderful calling to set policies in place to lift up people.

The next rung lifts you into God’s royal priesthood, where you intercede for others before God and none of your words fall to the ground, but rise up to heaven and God listens to you and carries out the prayers on your lips that help and save God’s people.

Then in faith the angels lift you up to the next rung, where you become a Christ to your neighbors. Because of your love and your hunger and thirst for justice, you become persecuted and tortured and you suffer and die for your love and concern for others. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we celebrate tomorrow, was on this rung. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down your life for your friends and as we know, we are asked to love even our enemies. From that rung, the angels lift you up into the life of God, the source of all life and continuous creation. In God you experience what eyes have not seen, nor ears heard, nor anything a heart can imagine, so wonderful are the things that God prepares for those who love him.

But that whole ascent in faith goes down the same rungs, when you are in the free fall of love. Down from God to being a Christ, a priest, a sovereign, a firstborn, like when “The Price is Right” used to say, “Come on down!” And we go down, down, down, even under the lowliest sinner. Christ even descended into hell, died like a criminal on the cross, saving sinners that even suffer from the worst addictions and are driven by many a devil. Christ even died for the murderer, Barabbas, by being executed in his place.

And the great mystery, that astonishes all the angels, for which we really don’t need a ladder either, is that the ascent in faith provides us with the strength for the descent in love. And in the great mystery, the heights and the depths are one and we are never outside of God and the love of God, to quote Luther from the “Freedom of a Christian” again.[5]

Will you answer your call, when Jesus calls you? Growing up is painful. But there is no gain without pain. Will you follow the better angels of your nature and become the person that Christ sends out to save all the sorry people that God loves so much? Will you get carried away in the Holy Spirit and continue the mission of Christ? It is a cop-out to say, “I don’t have a call, because I am not a pastor!” If you are baptized, you have the call of Christ. You too are called to be an “I am!” and a healing presence to your neighbor like Jesus and be a Christ to others no matter what your vocation. Imagine the self-esteem, better yet Christ-esteem that is yours when you straighten out, stand upright, and realize all the strength that God’s angels offer you from on high! You often want a car with more horse power, but have you considered being a person with more angel power?  So knowing our high calling, we stoop down out of that strength to help the lowliest, the very most wretched human beings, indeed, all of God’s creatures that have a claim on our love. Let us answer the call of Christ, whatever our God-given vocation and fill it with Jesus’ loving, gracious, angel power from on high. Amen.

[1] Huston Smith, The World’s Religions: Completely Revised and Updated Edition of the Religions of Man, (Harper San Francisco: a Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1991), page 321.

[2] Ibid., page 320.

[3] In Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), pages 69-90 and see Dr. Peter Krey,  “Notes on Another Reading of the ‘Freedom of a Christian’” (1520)

[4] Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, pages 172-181.

[5] Ibid., page 90.


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