Feast of St. Michael & All Angels, DOK Annual Assembly & St. Michael’s, Cookeville

“Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16).

Jacob has gotten more than he bargained for in our reading today, for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. He’s on his way to visit his uncle Laban’s family, ostensibly looking for a bride from among his mother’s family; but he’s also on the run from home, where he’s cheated his brother Esau out of his father Isaac’s blessing. His mother knows that Esau is planning to kill him, so perhaps Jacob had an additional motive for getting out of town quickly.

There’s more going on here than a domestic squabble. We’re dealing here with the family of promise. God’s promise to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham was to raise up descendants from him, and to make from the family of Abraham and his wife Sara a mighty nation. He promised to bring them to live on their own land, the land of promise. He promised to make them a blessing to all the nations of the earth. He promised to make a People and a Land. The promise was passed down through Isaac, Abraham’s son, and then to Jacob, Isaac’s son.

Esau, not Jacob, was the first born, and the natural inheritor of the promise. But in God’s mysterious will, Jacob supplanted Esau, first doing some fast bargaining for his inheritance, and then at the last tricking Esau out of Isaac’s blessing. Some early church writers saw this replacement of Esau by Jacob as a sign of God’s grace, which is given freely and can never be earned. Certainly Jacob never did anything that would suggest he was worthy of inheriting the promise of God! Quite the contrary: he seems like a pretty loose character, not the obvious choice for a blessing. That, of course, is how God works a lot of the time, choosing undeserving people like you and me for a full measure of his grace, to work his perfect will and fulfill his promise.

Today, however, Jacob has gotten more than he bargained for because he has stumbled over the unseen world: a world that is coterminous with our everyday world but not usually revealed to our eyes. The unseen world is a world of spiritual realities, revealed by God to Jacob in a dream. He sees a staircase or ladder set up between earth and heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. He hears again the promise made to his father and grandfather, a promise of offspring and of the land, the same land on which he is now resting his head.

There’s another story from ancient Israel, from the time of Elisha, when the army of the King of Aram is surrounding the city of Dothan where the prophet has taken refuge. Elisha’s servant is intimidated by this army, really scared, as only someone who is surrounded can be; but Elisha prays that God may open the servant’s eyes. God opens his eyes and he sees that an army of horses and chariots, a spiritual army, surrounds Elisha. “Open his eyes” (2 Kgs 6:17), Elisha prays: open his eyes to the unseen world of spiritual realities. Open his eyes to the reality that is shrouded and blocked by our everyday world. Open his eyes to the power of God.

Angels are part of this unseen world: in this case they’re the very symbol of the invisible spiritual realities that are all around us. They act as messengers of God; they defend us from spiritual danger; they stand before the throne of God and praise him without ceasing. That’s the spiritual reality, the unseen world that is all around us if we had the eyes to see it.

The promises that God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the inheritance given to each of us by our baptism, where we became part of the People of God. Our inheritance is the kingdom of God. That’s a spiritual reality. When we gather at the altar to celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist we are in the presence of spiritual realities: the reality of our own call to be the People of God, and the reality of Jesus’ presence among us, crucified and risen. Open our eyes, O Lord: open our eyes to the unseen world of spiritual realities. Open our eyes to the reality of the living water of Baptism. Open our eyes to the reality of Jesus’ presence in the sacrament of his Body and Blood.

As we gather today, we join in the worship of heaven, with angels and archangels, with cherubim and seraphim, with thrones, dominions, and powers, Michael, Gabriel, and all the rest: the whole company of heaven. These are unseen realities but no less real for that. [The Daughters of the King know that prayer and praise to God is a spiritual reality, as well; these are practices that link us to the kingdom of God.] “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16). These realities may be shrouded from us by our circumstances, but if we turn to God in prayer we will learn to perceive them. Open our eyes, O Lord, open our eyes.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee