Steps Up To Heaven – October 1, 2017
Christ, the glory of the holy angels,
Maker of all things,
Ruler of all nations,
Grant of thy mercy
Unto us thy servants
Steps up to heaven.
When is the last time you felt close to God? Scholars of religious experience from William James on have noted that people disproportionately sense the presence of God when they are facing pronounced distress in their lives—when they are scared, overwhelmed, or in physical danger, or when they are presented any other kind of challenge. To cynics, this timing is suspiciously convenient; religious experiences, they think, are illusions, defense mechanisms that shield us from the fear and anxiety typically felt during a crisis by offering us an artificial connection to a fabricated benevolent protector . To true believers, however, there is no reason to assume such experiences are not genuine. In fact, for them, the connection between a religious experience and something distressing actually serves as evidence—not only of God’s existence but also of God’s goodness. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing and God truly cares about the welfare of all of God’s people, then why wouldn’t God make an effort to visit us when we are at our worst?
Whether it was just a fantasy or a bona fide experience of the divine, Jacob’s dream certainly occurred during a time of particular distress for him. Immediately before Jacob left Beersheba, Jacob had stolen his father’s blessing from his older brother Esau, having previously stolen Esau’s birthright as a child. Indignant about his brother’s latest act of theft and trickery, Esau had vowed to kill Jacob in revenge. So when Jacob stopped to sleep at the place he later called Bethel, Jacob was running away from his misdeeds, his pride, and the brother who sought to kill him. He had left the only home he ever knew and the mother who loved him dearly and set out alone for a vague and uncertain future. No wonder he had a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder up to heaven and of God promising an astonishing outcome for him and his offspring! How else would he have mustered the strength to keep moving forward?
Religion is often born out of necessity. When we read the stories of our ancestors, we can easily forget how harsh their realities were, separated from them by a vast gulf of time and space and consumed as we are by our own privilege and ignorance. To many of us, the “war in heaven” fought by Michael and the other angels sounds unenlightened, backwards and grotesque. As twenty-first century Americans who have the luxury (at least for now) of distancing ourselves from the full reality of war, we’d like to think that right can prosper peacefully, without violence, simply on account of its self-evident virtue. We’d prefer to scrub Revelation of its violent imagery and extreme rhetoric or perhaps even chuck it from the Bible altogether. But the early Christians who wrote and received consolation from Revelation couldn’t ignore conflict; they either knew violence and persecution firsthand or were aware that violence and persecution were distinct possibilities. Revelation spoke to them in terms they could understand. Michael and the angels did not incite them into a gratuitous war but offered them comfort and assistance in a battle they could not avoid. And there are many people in our world and even in our country who are at risk of violence on a daily basis. To them, the idea that angels stand ready to fight for their cause might be quite reassuring indeed.
The purpose of the angels is to navigate the immense distance between God and human beings, to travel the long ladder between heaven and earth; they promise to make God accessible to us. I’m not sure it matters, then, whether angels are concrete, physical creatures, solely figments of the human imagination, or something in between. Whatever angels are, they demonstrate God’s solidarity with us and tend to our needs as representatives of heaven; whatever angels are, they bring us closer to the divine and the divine closer to us. The angels’ benefits to us are no less real if their nature is intangible. Remember that Jacob saw angels in a dream and the author of Revelation described angels in a vision. God spoke to each of them, but by embracing—not rejecting—human creativity and imagination; God sought to communicate with them in their times of trouble through their own capacities.
We face our times of trouble, too, of course, whether in our lives as individuals or in the lives of our nation and the world. In such times, attending to practical concerns and searching for practical solutions can seem like the most sensible routes for combating our demons. Yet at a difficult moment in his life, Jacob stopped for a rest and fell asleep; when the author of Revelation encountered the opposition of others, he shut his eyes and saw a vision. We should use all of the resources at our disposal and pursue every just and reasonable solution; to do otherwise would be foolish and irresponsible. But when all of our other resources flounder, when every other solution appears to be impossible, creativity may fuel us forward. In our dreams and in our visions, we can witness angels, hear the voice of God, and find steps up to heaven.
 Think, for example, Sigmund Freud.  See Rob Bell’s What is the Bible?: “John uses a number of graphic, violent images and scenes
in his letter because that’s how life is.”