Our three Advent Breathing Space reflections this year are all linked to our Daily Advent Angel reflections, at least in the fact that they will all feature angels.
Angels represent God in the Biblical stories in which they appear. Whatever else they communicate, whatever their specific message is, they tell people “God is here, God has seen you, God is with you”. In many Old Testament stories, indeed, it’s not always absolutely clear whether the figure that people encounter is an Angel or God himself. Sometimes the language shifts halfway through the story – what started out as the words of an angel become those of God himself. That’s not surprising. They speak and do what God has commanded them, and like human messengers in the ancient world were far more than mere postmen. They stood in for the person who had sent the message.
So in the Angelic stories we’ll be looking at over this next three Thursdays, the theme will be the proclamation that “God is here – in this place, in this time, in this person.”
And maybe – though I’m not expecting an angel to show up here – it might help to remind us that God is in the places, times and people we encounter too.
The readings we heard tonight are both about people who meet God in a place where they never expected he would be.
Jacob is on the run from his home, having cheated his brother out of the birthright that should have been his, the blessing of his father on the future head of the household. I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time, but having got what he wanted, Jacob realised that if his brother was going to be angry with him for the rest of his life, then it wasn’t a prize worth having. He’d end up looking over his shoulder forever. So he ran away to relatives in a distant city. And on the way he stopped in the middle of nowhere, and lay down on the bare earth, with a stone for a pillow, because there was nowhere else to stay. And during the night he had his famous dream of angels coming and going up and down a ladder fixed between earth and heaven.
In the morning he declared in awe “‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ … This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ It’s as if you stumbled into what you thought was a cheap hotel late at night and woke up to find it was Buckingham Palace. God was here, even here, right where Jacob was. He might have run away from Esau, but he couldn’t run away from God. God seemed to be content to run right along with him.
The shepherds in the Gospel story, equally, did not expect God to show up on their hillside. Why should he? And yet, it was the sky above their heads which was filled with angels – heaven opened all around them. And not only had God’s glory come to them in the glory of the angels, he was present, they were told, in flesh and blood in a child in their town, a child not lying on silken sheets, but in a manger, in an ordinary house, squashed in with the animals. That the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem wasn’t a surprise – if he was going to be born anywhere surely it would be in the place King David had grown up – but to be born into such humble circumstances, in a home like their own, amazed them.
We are perhaps so familiar with these stories, that we forget the shock of them, but for Jacob and for the shepherds, where they were was the last place they expected to find God. And I suspect we are the same. Our little village of Seal isn’t particularly famous. Nothing much that is noteworthy on a national or global scale has happened here. William the Conqueror’s soldiers apparently camped here on their way up to London after the battle of Hastings. A friend of Jane Austen’s lived in the Grey House when Jane was a teenager – the friend was the daughter of the vicar - so I choose to believe she might have worshipped here at some point, but even that is stretching the evidence somewhat. Apart from it being the start – or end – of the traffic jam that is the A25 through Sevenoaks, it doesn’t really seem to register on most people’s consciousness at all. People tend to say “Oh yes, I’ve driven through Seal many times…” and that’s about it.
But the good news is that that puts it absolutely into the same category as Jacob’s late night resting place, and that Bethlehem hillside, because they were places where nothing much had happened or was expected to happen, and yet the best thing of all did – God was found in them. These ordinary places were the ‘the house of God, the gate of heaven.’ And, if we open our eyes, so can the ordinary places we inhabit be. Our homes, our workplaces, the back streets and housing estates, the skanky bits of towns and cities where no one goes after dark if they can help it. God is there. God is here, in this place, and in all places. If we don’t believe that, then we don’t believe in God at all, because the earth is his and everything in it, according to the Bible.
So this week, as we go about the business of whatever it is we need to do – work, shopping, caring for our families – let’s pause now and then and say to ourselves “This is the house of God and the gate of heaven” and see how that changes those places for us, or changes us within them.