A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Thursday 29 September 2016 by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
A memorable evening this Summer came when I saw the Abba-inspired show Mamma Mia, featuring tonight’s theme song (‘I have a dream’). Can you sing the line 'I believe in angels' with a true heart? And if you can, so what? I believe in black holes, but that belief does not make a difference in my life. ‘Angels dancing on pinheads’ long ago became a shorthand description Christian thinking as something essentially idle, speculation about stuff that is irrelevant or inconsequential.
People talk about angels, mind, and not always in an inconsequential way, but angels that are usually of a metaphorical kind. Take the angel as an exaggerated image of everyday kindness, as in 'Be an angel and put the kettle on.' Interestingly, this phrase is usually spoken by or to women: 'Be an angel and hand me the mole grips,' is never going to be a line you’ll hear in Phil Mitchell's garage in Eastenders.
Angels can (as we have seen) appear in song lyrics. The Abba song is unusual in having a feint echo of one characteristic of angels in the Bible - where sometimes, as in Jacob’s dream, they are signs of unexpected blessing - though in the song it's largely lost in all that splendid Scandi schmaltz. Angelic lyrics usually occur when men sing about women they fancy, Robbie Williams’ 'Angels' being typical and Annie Lennox singing 'Angel' an exception [the chorus of this Eurythmics song supplies this sermon’s title].
More sombre is the appearance of angels in the vocabulary of grief, especially when a child dies, where the angel is an image of purity and innocence.
In all this, angels are essentially passive, screens on to which we project attributes that we most desire in human beings, rather as the angels in some of our Cathedral’s windows are images of undemanding, northern European beauty. For an antidote, look at John Hutton’s etched glass angel above the Consistory Court door.
Hutton’s image is nearer to a biblical view of angels as active creatures who do God's work. Their usual role is as messengers, which is what 'angel' literally means. (Evangelism, a word that gives some liberal Christians a neuralgic twitch, simply means ‘bringing messages of good news’.) Luke’s gospel describes two classic instances: Gabriel brings Mary the news of Jesus’ coming birth, then angels announce his arrival to the shepherds. They begin with news of peace, in words that supply the first line of the Gloria the choir have just sung.
How does any of this make a difference for God in our lives? Two thoughts.
In tonight’s gospel reading Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see ‘angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’, and you cannot picture that without thinking of our other scene, when Jacob sees his ladder, an angelic escalator between earth and heaven. So for John, Jesus is the place where earth and heaven meet.
Nathaniel, a man ‘without guile’, looks very different from Jacob, who’s a liar, a fraudster, a swindler and an impostor. But Nathaniel has his faults too: he has just been very rude about Jesus’ home town: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Neither has his faults held against him, though: Jesus promises Nathaniel that he ain’t seen nothing yet, and God gives Jacob the red carpet treatment, a vision right out of the top draw.
First, then, our readings remind us of what we experience every time we gather round God’s table, that God specialises in giving good things to people who don’t deserve them.
Second, the question of how God acts in our world. Some of the louder Christian voices proclaim a God whose main attribute is the power to rearrange reality for those God favours. Others shrink from this, and understandably - why no rearranging for the people of Aleppo? - but this brings the danger that ‘God’ can come to be little more than a way of saying how very rich and mysterious human life is: God is the ground of my being, but God forbid that God should actually do anything.
Tonight’s pictures of angels suggest a God who is unambiguously active, but active not so much in manipulating reality as in calling, warning, persuading, revealing, encouraging - changing the world through messages more than muscle.
We talk of God 'speaking' to us, and of God 'acting' in our world, but the promptings of God are often - as in the Bible’s stories of angels - mediated; and the activity of God, the prime Cause of everything, bears on us indirectly, through the secondary causes in our world: creatures of God speak for God and act on God's behalf (sometimes without realising it).
Today, then, is a day not for speculation but for attention. In the next few days, when will angels cross my path? Who will speak to me for God? Who will act towards me on God's behalf? Perhaps the unlikely, the despised, the person I usually ignore or dismiss. But if I take notice, then I might receive my own Annunciation. And you might see your ladder, and see the angelic traffic in your life.