Tuesday, January 16, 2018
The ladder. . .
Ahhh, how the wonderful stories of Scripture come alive in our memories. But I must confess I did not recall the part about Eli being nearly blind and the lamb almost going out in him. Perhaps at my age it becomes a little personal. Yet those are not just stories or details. These all intersect in Christ and they exist to point to Him.
Think of the story of Jacob. So many years ago Jacob left Beersheba, headed toward Haran, and set up camp along the way. And he dreamed. Not a nightmare of spiders or snakes or of a beautiful woman or even of the future. He dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, of angels ascending and descending, and the promise of the Lord. When he woke up he kicked himself because the Lord was in this place and in this dream and he did not know it. The whole thing unsettled him as it would anyone who might have missed something amazing. In the end, he set up an altar and made a vow and sealed that vow with a promise to give back to the Lord a tithe of all that the Lord gave to him.
Fast forward by centuries and what Jacob could only dream, Nathanael saw with his own eyes. It started off as innocently as did Jacob who tired and needed to stop along the way of his journey. Philip was called by Jesus and he just had to tell Nathaniel what happened. The man to whom Moses looked in the Law and the prophet to gave voice to Israel’s hope was now among them. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph.
Nathanael is skeptical. Nazareth? What good comes from Nazareth? It was a Gentile stronghold and notable for nothing. Perhaps Nathanael was guided by a lifetime of hopes broken and dreams unfulfilled. We are. We find it hard to hope for anything and our dreams are held captive by our fears. But Philip was not to be put off. “Come and see.”
And then there is Jesus, the ladder upon which God has descended to man and the only means by which man will ever hope to ascend to God. Jacob’s dream is now flesh and blood. “Behold an Israelite in whom is no guile.” It is less a description of the character of Nathanael than it is an absolution from on high. The God who alone can forgive sins is now standing in front of him. And this God in flesh absolves Nathanael and declares him righteous.
Nathanael is taken aback. How can Jesus know him? How can Jesus absolve him? But this is the God who sees what is in secret, who reads our hearts and minds like an open book, and who exposes what we bury to the light of His countenance. It is shocking to Nathanael and it is to us. We keep secrets for a reason. We don’t want anyone to know our secrets and we presume we can even hide things from God.
Nathanael is stripped bare and he understands who it is who is before him. “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” At one and the same time Nathanael wants to run away and hide and yet he wants to be near the Savior who bridges the great divide between heaven and earth, the One whose mercy is not put off by his secret sins. It is no different for us. We want forgiveness and we are in awe of Him who forgives us so graciously but at the same time we are put off by the God who knows everything about us and all our secrets.
Jesus insists that this is not all Nathanael will see. Heaven will hope. The angels of God will ascend and descend upon the Son of Man. There is much more before him. It is at one and the same time a reminder to us that we come to God for small things while God is determined to do great things. We pray for better health and God is ready to give us life without death. We pray for a little extra money and God has given us the eternal treasure of His grace. We ask for God to help when we cannot go it alone and God is ready to carry us the whole distance to heaven. We want a good life now and God gives us eternal life.
It is also a reminder that angels are not toys or playthings. We put up our nice little images of angels but these messengers of God are largely invisible, doing God’s bidding without drawing any attention to themselves. We think of them as kindly creatures who are over us but they can by terrorizing forces who kill at God’s command. They serve God by serving us and they serve us best when all their work is credited to the Lord.
Jesus is no angel. He is the fulfillment of Jacob’s dream and the mighty Lord who sees into the hearts of men and exposes their secrets. But He does so to forgive us. The ladder of Jacob is not where we make our way to heaven on the steps of good works. No, it is God who descends into the pit of our despair, into the domain of death, and into the darkness of sin and who comes to save us. He opens heaven by His obedience in life and by the sacrifice of that life in death upon the cross. He brings to us the mercy of God and we are reborn in its grace and favor. Only in Christ is heaven opened to sinners like you and me. Only in Christ are our sins forgiven and our lives reborn. Only in Christ are we clothed in righteousness. Only in Christ can we learn again the holy vocation of loving God and loving our neighbor. Only in Christ can we be declared holy and do the bidding of the holy in worship and praise to God.
Nathanael was skeptical. What good comes from Nazareth? We are skeptical. We have been disappointed too many times before and our sins wreck our lives and steal our joy over and over again. What good comes from Nazareth? Jesus. The Son of God who makes us sons of God by baptism and faith. The Son of Man who wears our flesh to save us. In Him mankind finds again the purpose and glory lost to us in one simple action of betrayal in Eden. In Him the angels serve the Lord and rejoice over every sinner who repents. In Him we see the ladder come down from above and as the angels go forth and return to the Father, Jesus is here in our midst, serving us still with the Word that forgives sins and the Supper that feeds us eternity.
You are Nathanael. The Lord has met you under the fig tree of His cross. He has brought out into the light of day your sins. But not to condemn you. To save you. He who knows your soul, grants you His Holy Spirit so that you may know the soul and will and purpose of God. And in this wondrous moment, your sins are forgiven, you are declared righteous and holy, and you are given the new vocation of worship, witness, prayer and service which Adam once lost for you and all of us. Here is heaven’s ladder. Here is Christ come down. Come and see. Go and follow. There is nothing greater in life than this. Amen