Summary: Following Jesus as his disciple brings us into God’s presence in ways that are not otherwise possible, and we get “glimpses of glory,” experiences of heaven right here on earth.
There is a story from way back in the book of Genesis. It is about a man who would eventually be called Israel, but at the time of this story, he is called Jacob. Jacob was quite the schemer. He spent much of his early life plotting, looking for every way possible to get one up on his older twin, Esau. In fact, even the story of how they were born included a telling detail: as they came out of the womb, Jacob was holding on to his brother’s heel. Jacob was always trying to trip him up, even in the womb! And the habit stuck, lasting into adulthood. Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright, and out of his father’s blessing. It was a daring move, and as you can imagine, it was met with much reproach. Eventually the tables turned and Esau tried to kill Jacob. It was time for Jacob to leave in a hurry, and that’s exactly what he did.
So Jacob ran away with not a penny to his name, and nothing but the clothes on his back. And as he was on the run, Jacob had a dream. He saw a ladder with its foot on the ground and its top reaching to heaven. God’s angels were going up and down on it. The Lord himself stood beside him, and promised him that he would bring him back to his land in peace and prosperity. Jacob’s dream of the ladder come to mind in this passage we heard a few moments ago. Jesus paints for Nathanael a scene in which heaven is opened and angels are going up to heaven and down to earth on the Son of Man, the Human One. This is a very strange picture, and it’s hard to know exactly what to make of it, and yet by this reference, John has introduced into his gospel one of his great themes. But in order to understand fully the message being sent here, we need to look more closely at Jacob’s dream.
The point about Jacob’s ladder was that it showed Jacob that God was there with him, in that place. Jacob called the place, “Bethel,” which means “God’s house.” Many generations later, when Jacob’s descendents, the Israelites, had come back to that land and were established there, Bethel became one of the great sanctuaries of Israel, one of the places where the early Israelites held their worship. And so the tradition of Jacob’s dream, of the angels going up and down on the ladder, came to be connected with the belief that when you worshipped God in his house, God was really present, with his angels coming and going to link heaven and earth. This is what John wanted his readers to pick up on when he recounts for us Jesus’ words to Nathanael.
A great deal of John’s gospel has to do with the way in which Jesus fulfills the promises to the Israelites concerning the Temple, but how Jesus also goes beyond these promises, pioneering the new way in which the living God will be present with his people. And that brings us to our lesson for today; following Jesus as his disciple brings us into God’s presence in ways that are not otherwise possible, and we get “glimpses of glory,” experiences of heaven, even right here on earth.
Jesus’ conversation with Nathanael concludes the first chapter of John’s gospel, but it also immediately follows the calling of the first disciples. Jesus summoned Peter and Andrew first, and then we heard this morning of the calling of Philip and Nathanael. As I look at Jesus’ words to Nathanael in this context, I feel that Jesus is making a strong connection between discipleship and our experience of heaven. And it seems that there is no one better than Nathanael to help Jesus make the connection.
Immediately upon being called by Christ, Philip sought out Nathanael, telling him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophet: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.” And do you remember how Nathanael responded with his quick retort? “Nazareth? Can anything from Nazareth be good?” Nathanael’s skepticism is clear. If there’s anybody who will have trouble encountering God in a new way through Jesus, Nathanael is the one. Still, even for all of Nathanael’s preconceptions and skepticism, when Christ identifies Nathanael as “a genuine Israelite…the one standing under a fig tree,” Nathanael’s eyes are opened, and he makes a profession of faith. “Rabbi, you are God’s son. You are the king of Israel.”
Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.” It’s as if in this single verse Jesus is saying, “Don’t think that all you will see is one or two prophecies, one or two remarkable acts of insight, such as you witnessed when I showed you that I knew about you before you even appeared. What you’ll see from now on is the reality towards which Jacob’s ladder, and even the Temple itself, was pointing. If you follow me, you’ll be watching what it looks like when heaven and earth are open to each other. It may not necessarily be that you see angels themselves, but you’ll certainly see things happening which show that they’re there all right.”