Angels in the Desert

“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it. How awesome is this place!” (Genesis 28:16-17)

One of my all-time favorite stories in the Bible is about Jacob in Genesis 28:10-17, running scared in the desert, thirsty, lonely, doubting God’s promise and his own future. He lies down to sleep, with his head on a stone pillow (ouch!), and is given a dream of a stairway connecting God’s Heavenly abode with Jacob’s dry and desolate earthly abode. God’s radiant presence in Heaven suddenly bursts our mistaken notions of his apparent absence from us. 

Angels are seen going up and down, running God’s errands I suppose. What kinds of angel-errands, you ask? I suppose they are busy watching over God’s tired soldiers so weary from the fight, with bodies aching and the light of this earthly life beginning to grow dim. Angels standing guard over God’s faithful children, saved sinners longing for Home, all those beginning to think more about the glories of their future Heavenly body than trying to prolong our life in these old worn out bodies. 

Imagine you are Jacob and this is your dream tonight. Look more closely at those angels and tell me: Are they empty handed as they descend and ascend? I suspect these majestic creatures are capable of carrying heavy loads of God’s love, encouragement, grace and assurance as they come bounding down to earth in search of beleaguered disciples. I bet they are even glowing with the light of Christ’s own divine radiance as they leave His Royal Court, and then use that light to pierce the darkness that someones seems to overwhelm us. (For some reason, I’m thinking of Tinker Bell from Peter Pan right now—all aglow, zipping about leaving a trail of light. Pixie dust may be a Disney fantasy; but Christ’s light is the real light that ignited the stars in the beginning, and now Jesus sends angels on mission to remind you and me of his words: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

If these angels bring God’s light and love down that holy staircase, shining rays of hope into your desert moments and mine, what then do you think they bring back with them as they ascend the staircase into God’s Holy Presence? In running an errand for my dad as a boy, I remember him saying, “Now don’t return empty-handed.” Would our Heavenly Father, then, allow his angels to return empty-handed on their errands? I suspect they return to the father bent over under the weight of our sorrows, our sins, our deepest longings, our most desperate prayers, and our fears of tomorrow and regrets from the past—bringing them all to the loving attention of our Merciful Father. Up they ascend, gladly lifting some of our burden and lightening our load—helping us heed God’s invitation to “Cast all your cares upon the Lord, for he cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7).

But let me ask a more basic question: Do you think much about angels? I think this is one area where my Protestant heritage slighted me a bit. Talk of any “mediators” between us and God sound suspiciously Roman Catholic to many Protestants. “We can go directly to the Throne in prayer!” we boast. “We don’t need guardian angels or the intercession of saints.” Whether or not that’s true, the fact remains that the Bible clearly teaches us that God has populated his Creation with angelic beings. And their chief task is to serve God in his ongoing work of redeeming and protecting his human image bearers, so that His Kingdom continues to advance through the Church, coming against all the powers of evil and darkness that oppose Him and his Kingdom. 

My professor, Scot Mcknight, recently published The Hum of Angels and it did wonders to make up for my serious lack of knowledge and interest in angels, despite all my theological education. I now find the idea of guardian angels totally realistic, though we can’t say much for certain about them. I hope you also will find comfort knowing that God has an angel keeping tabs on each of you these days. Indeed, perhaps we will be meet ing ours sooner than we think, when our day of ascent final arrives. 

So, may I encourage us all to spend some time this week meditating on that stairway from Jacob’s dream. Maybe you feel like Jesus is nowhere present in your life situation right now. Maybe your life feels like a desert wasteland and you are panting for any sign of God’s presence. Jacob thought God was no where to be found in his desert—that he had been abandoned and his future looked bleak. Do you remember what happens next in the story? After his dream of the descending and ascending angels, he awakens to declare these heart-warming words, 

“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen. 28:16-17)

Sometimes God doesn’t remove us from a dry and lonely place, but instead pulls back the curtain and reminds us that He wants to fill it with his loving presence. He doesn’t always take us out of the wilderness and into his house; but rather transforms that place into and “awesome place … none other than the house of God!” 

That’s my prayer for each of you this week. That God will show himself to you. That he will give you supernatural vision to see that your current situation is also a place where the angels are quietly, continuously, descending and ascending, trafficking God’s blessings and promises, and shining his light and love into your dim circumstances. 

Finally, I would be a poor preacher of the gospel if I didn’t close by reminding you that Jesus picked up on this same story in John 1:51 to ‘wow’ the disciples with another mind-blowing realization. He says that all who follow Him will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth.”

That is, all heavenly traffic now goes through Jesus, and all who are “in Christ” find themselves abiding forever at a place of God’s supernatural activity and presence. I  certainly haven’t grasped fully all that that means, but I think the disciples were watching heaven touch earth every time he did a miracle. I think Jesus taught us to pray Heaven down that ladder every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in Heaven.” In Jesus’ day, God’s people believed the Temple in Jerusalem was the place where Heaven and Earth, but now since Christ’s incarnation Heaven and Earth now come together and “kiss” wherever God’s Spirit dwells — and that holy temple is the heart of every believer. 

May God open your eyes to see His presence, and know his angel servants are busy trying to bring more of Heaven down, and carrying our burdens back up and placing at the feet of our loving Savior and merciful Father. Amen.

This is a sermonette given at the nursing home chapel, adapted from a personal letter to a friend experiencing his own desert moment. 

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