Sunday, January 15, 2012

Heaven's True Gate

 Texts:    Genesis 28:10-17; John 1:43-51

    WITHIN EVERY HUMAN BEING rises the question, "How do I get to heaven?"  "Heaven" means different things to different people.  For one man, "heaven" might mean eternal unity with the Uncreated Source of all majesty and bliss.  For another, "heaven" could mean having a belly full of good food for now and the foreseeable future.  Some say heaven is a state we enter after this physical life is over; others say it'll come about on this earth when social justice and equal prosperity are granted to all.

    But one thing is common: when we human creatures ask the question, "How do I get to heaven?" we mean, "What do I have to do to get there?"  What good work must I perform, what god must I appease, what pleasure must I give up, what plan must I follow, what cause must I join, what gate must I locate and go through, what ladder must I climb, what must I do to get to heaven?

    But our readings from Holy Scripture turn this common human assumption on its head.  The whole of Scripture teaches us that the principle of us getting into heaven by our own efforts is junk, like a bad GPS that'll send us down a dead-end road.  No, the key to heaven is found in Jesus' statement in John 1:51: "I tell you the truth, you shall see the heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

    But how do we use this key?  What is Jesus talking about?

    Jesus is talking about the ladder or stairway seen in a dream by the patriarch Jacob in ancient times, as we read in our passage from Genesis.  As we look at that passage and then link it to what is happening in our reading from St. John, let's ask ourselves: Is it our job to get ourselves into heaven, or does the effort and initiative all belong to God?

    In Genesis chapter 28 Jacob son of Isaac is headed to his uncle Laban's in Haran, in Syria.  Officially he's leaving Canaan to find himself a bride among his cousins there.  The real reason is that he's pulled a low-down, sneaky trick and cheated his older twin brother Esau out of the family birthright.  After a day's journey he camps out under the stars, using a stone for a pillow.  And there Jacob has a dream.  Not just any dream, but a true dream, a vision, actually, given to him directly from the Lord, the God of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. 

    In his dream, Jacob saw a great stairway or ladder with its foot rested on the earth near where he lay.  Its head reached up to heaven.  On this stairway the angels of God were going up and down, pursuing their business between heaven and earth. 

    The Bible tells us in various places about the business of angels.  In the Gospel of Luke and elsewhere they are God's messengers, bringing His commands to His people.  They're ministering spirits, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, appointed to serve those who will inherit salvation.  St. Paul writing to the Galatians tells us that angels assisted some way when God gave the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai.  In Revelation we read  how angels will be God's agents in carrying out His judgment on the sinful earth.  And always and at all times, the angels of God praise Him and give Him glory.  By their activity we see the Lord God's activity and involvement in this world, never ceasing, continually going to and fro, carrying out His plans for creation.

    Jacob saw all this in his dream, but he saw more.  Above the stairway or ladder--above it, notice, not merely at the top of it-- Jacob could perceive a Being that he knew was the Lord God Almighty.  But Jacob doesn't recognize the Lord by His appearance, any more than we do.  He knew Him by His word.  The Lord said, "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac."  The Lord repeats to Jacob the covenant promises He made and confirmed to Abraham.  But now the Lord grants and applies the covenant promises to him, Jacob.  Jacob, the deceiver, the cheater, the sneak.  The one who deserved nothing from God's hand but judgment and could do nothing to earn His favor.  He wasn't even Isaac's firstborn son!  Out of the Lord's free grace it is Jacob and his descendants who will inherit the land.  His descendants will be like the dust of the earth.  It is through him that all the peoples on earth shall be blessed. 

    Jacob awakes, and he knows he has dreamed true.  He has seen the Lord Almighty standing in heaven above the top of the ladder of the angels.  But now he says, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it."  The Lord is in heaven, and He is here on the earth below.  He is present with us whether we're searching for Him or not, even when we're totally unaware of His presence.

    Jacob is now awake in more ways than one.  His eyes have been opened.  God has chosen to reveal Himself to him, and he exclaims, "How awesome is this place!"

    It's really too bad that the word "awesome" is so worn out by slang use these days.  What word can we use to express the combination of fear, joy, wonder, and reverence that surely flooded through Jacob at that time?  He says, "This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven."  Right there in that barren, lonely place, near a village too small even to have a caravan stop, that was the house where God was to be worshipped.  That was the gate through which the Lord had come down and called an unworthy man like Jacob into covenant life with Him.

    The life of the covenant is central to the revelation Jacob receives at Bethel.  Over the years and centuries since then, God revealed to His prophets that the covenant blessings would be focussed in and brought to reality by the Anointed One, the Christ.  The hope and cry of God's people was that soon the King, the Son of David, would come.  He would reclaim the land; He'd grant life and hope to the descendants of Jacob; He'd be the One through whom all nations would be blessed.

    And in God's good time, John the Baptist appeared, preaching that people should repent for the time of the Messiah was soon.  So be baptised!  Get ready!  Finally, one day, Jesus from Nazareth came to be baptised.   The time had come!  John recognized Him and declared,  "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!"  He tells two of his disciples, Andrew and probably Philip, that Jesus is the One Israel has been waiting for.  Immediately they approach Jesus to spend time with Him to find out more about Him.  We see in John 1:41 that they are convinced that John has spoken truly, for Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus, saying, "We have found the Messiah!"

    All this takes place in Judea, east of Jerusalem on the other side of the Jordan River.  The next day, as we pick up our Gospel reading, Jesus has decided to go back to Galilee.  Before He goes, He extends a special invitation to Philip to be His permanent disciple:  "Follow Me!" Jesus commands.

    Why does Jesus call Philip in particular?  Maybe because of what Philip does next.  In his excitement, he seeks out a friend of his, a man named Nathanael.  Before he leaves for the north he wants Nathanael to hear the good news.  "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, the one the prophets wrote about!"

    Imagine Nathanael's wonder and hope when he heard this!  Most likely he, too, was a disciple of John, not on the scene when Jesus was baptised, but now how joyful he would be at hearing this good news!

    And how disappointed he must have felt when Philip told him the Messiah was from Nazareth.

    Nazareth?  That hick town?  That barren place half-overrun with Gentiles?  What good could come out of Nazareth?  He's like Jacob outside of Bethel, aware only of the stones and the hardness of the ground.  Nathanael may be looking for the Messiah, but certainly not there.

    But Philip isn't deterred.  "Come and see!" he says.

    When Jesus sees Nathanael coming, He exclaims, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false!"

    What a reversal!  Deceitful Jacob was the original Israelite, you might say.  But God was forging a new Israel, a true Israel, who would deal openly and without guile.  And such a one was this Nathanael.

    This stranger from Nazareth has him pegged.  It's possible Nathanael prided himself on his honesty and straightforwardness.  In a land and a time when it was safer to play things close to the vest, this quality was unusual, and he's amazed that Jesus recognizes it in him before He can actually look him in the face.  "How do you know me?" he asks.

    "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you."

    We've all heard of so-called clairvoyants and psychics who claim to be able to see from afar.  But Nathanael knows that the true ability to see into men's hearts, the real far-seeing where the spirit of a man can go with another and see what he is doing belongs only to a great prophet of God, like Elisha in ancient times.  So Nathanael draws his immediate and forthright conclusion: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel."

    Could he have said such a thing unless God had revealed it to him?  Not at all, no more than Peter later on could confess Jesus as Lord on his own initiative.  It is God's revelation and doing.  Nathanael recognises the presence of God in that place; that is, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and he does so because the Lord God has granted it. 

    Jesus accepts Nathanael's perception of Him, but He knows very well that the man's eyes aren't fully opened as yet.  Nathanael, as well as Philip, Simon Peter, and Andrew, still has a limited grasp of Jesus' identity as the Messiah, the Son of God and the King of Israel.  Angels were called sons of God; kings were referred to as sons of God; prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed ones: how could a Man born of woman, let alone a Man from Nazareth, be the Son of God in the most literal and fundamental way?

    But this is what Jesus promises to reveal Himself to be.  He tells Nathanael and the others that "you," plural, "will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."  They will come to realize that it is by Him that the angels pursue their ministry of command, comfort, and judgment.  Jesus and Jesus alone will show Himself to be Immanuel, God with us, exalted in the heavens yet present with us on earth.  He will be revealed as the one Mediator between heaven and earth and heaven's true gate.

    Human beings of all religions and no religion at all are eager to make it into some kind of heaven.  But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals by His word that heaven is where He is, where He rules and reigns in His glory amidst angels and archangels.  It is a state that He offers to us through Jesus Christ, not one that we can earn.  It is all God's doing, offered to us through His sovereign grace in Christ Jesus.  He gives us even the faith to see and believe and the will to persevere.

    But the desire to exert our human will and effort dies hard. Even as Christians, we don't fully understand that it all depends on God.  Think of the song "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder."  It's in this hymnal.  But we aren't called upon to climb Jacob's ladder, at least not by our good works and service, for Christ Himself has come down to us.  And despite what it says in the Led Zeppelin song, no one can buy the stairway to heaven.  No, the gift of God in Jesus Christ is given to us freely.  He paid our admission to the presence of God by His death on the cross and brought us to the life of heaven by His resurrection. 

      Hear what St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans.  He is quoting Moses: 

    "Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down)  "or ‘Who will descend into the deep?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart," that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming:  That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

    The Lord God is present in Jesus Christ, and there are many in this world who are not aware of it. But to you it is given to know and to see who He is and what He has done for you.  Receive the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ your Lord, and worship Him and serve Him in loving gratitude.  For He is the eternal house where we meet and enjoy God, He is the true gathe of heaven.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

How Did You Get Here?

 Texts:    Ephesians 3:1-19; Matthew 2:1-12

    YOU KNOW HOW IT goes.  You can't find something, you're looking all over the house for it, you find it at last, and it's in some out-of-the-way place you never could have imagined.  And you think, "How did that get here?" 
    Or maybe you're not looking for whatever it is at all.  But you come across it, where you never expected it to be.  Same reaction: "How did that come to be here?"  Well, it's a mystery.  You shake your head and move on.

    Sometimes it's people who turn up in expected places.  You think a friend is at the other end of the country, or tied up doing something else, but here they are at some event you're attending.  You're happy to see them, but still it's a bit of a shock.  How did they get there?  Again, it's a mystery. 

    But sometimes somebody shows up like that, all unexpectedly, and you feel they shouldn't be there at all.  By all rights, they're intruding.  They don't belong.  It's still a mystery how they dared to come, but the question "How did you get here?" takes on a whole different tone.  It becomes a challenge and even a threat. 

    That's how Herod and "all Jerusalem" felt about the Wise Men when they showed up at Herod's palace one fine day in the reign of Caesar Augustus.  Magi they were: philosophers, sages, advisors to kings, come all the way from Persia with their pack animals and all their entourage, inquiring "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  We have seen His star at its rising and we have come to worship Him."  Imagine the shock of it!  Foreigners!  Uncircumcised Gentiles!  Come all that way, to ask such a question!  O Magi, how did you get here?  And with such an intention!?  No wonder, as Matthew puts it in chapter 2 of his gospel, "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him."

    To Herod and the officials in Jerusalem, Jewish or Roman, the Magi weren't expected and they weren't wanted.  The political situation was unsettled enough  without strangers talking about rival kings being born in the province of Judea.  You've heard what sort of tyrant Herod the Great was.  Several of his sons and one or two of his wives he'd already put to death because he thought they were conspiring to take over his throne.  His youngest surviving son was about sixteen at the time and Herod wasn't in the way of producing any more rivals-- I mean, heirs.  Now he has to deal with these Magi and their shocking news.  "Looking for the one born King of the Jews, indeed!  You intruding foreigners, how did you get here!?"

    And what business did the Wise Men have with the long-awaited King of the Jews at all?  The priests and scribes in Jerusalem, Herod himself, knew the Magi weren't seeking any ordinary newborn heir to a human throne.  This was no routine diplomatic mission.  No, they understood totally that the Wise Men had come to pay homage to the great everlasting King who was to come, the Messiah, the Anointed One promised by God's prophets since days of old.  But how could it be that these foreign, alien, uncircumcised strangers should be the first ones to show up and announce His birth?  And why should they want to worship Him?  The Christ belonged to the Jews!  How then did these easterners get here?

    What a shock that would have been for all Jerusalem!  In many places in the Psalms and the writings of the prophets, it is written that the time would come when Gentiles would bow down and worship the God of Israel.  But the general Jewish interpretation was that they'd worship Him by force, out of compulsion, thrown down on their faces before Israel's promised King, the way a war captive would be.  But now these strangers-- uncircumcised Gentiles!-- have arrived willingly, eagerly, come hundreds of miles across the desert to worship and adore Israel's Messiah. It was an intolerable mystery.  No wonder the whole city was thrown into confusion!  Men of the East, how did you get here?

     But there they were.  And we know the rest of the story, how the Wise Men heard the word of the prophet Micah and learned that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.  How with joy they saw the star rest over the house where Mary, Joseph, and the young Child Jesus-- no longer an infant, but a fine Boy one or two years of age-- were now living in that town.  How they entered and bowed before Him and offered Him kingly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

    Christian brothers and sisters, let's not take their presence with the Baby Jesus for granted.  Because it's still a valid question, how did they get there?  Because the Jewish authorities to a great extent were right.  The promised Christ was to be the King and Ruler of God's chosen people Israel.  As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, to the Jews belong "the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.  Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!"  By traditional rights, Jesus belonged to the Jews! How could any Gentile foreigner have a share in Him and His blessings?  First and foremost, as Jesus said Himself, Christ was born for the Jews.  Yet here are the Gentile Wise Men, in at the front of the line.  "O Magi, how did you get here?"  But as we ask that question about the Wise Men, let's also ask it about ourselves.

    For here we are, on this first Sunday after Christmas, gathered together to celebrate,  worship, and adore Jesus who is born King of the Jews.  Here we are, Gentiles, likely without a drop of Jewish blood in our veins, bowing the knee before Him who is the Messiah and God of Israel.  In wonder and joy, let us inquire, "How did we get here?"

    It's a mystery, but it's a mystery that's been revealed.  For hear what St. Paul says in Ephesians chapter 3 about the mystery of Christ that God had revealed to him.  He writes:

    This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

How did we get here?  We got here through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that the Man Jesus was God in human flesh.  That He died for our sins and was raised on the third day for our justification.  That through faith in Him we can have eternal life with God.  As Paul writes in Ephesians 2, it is Christ who has made peace between Jew and Gentile; it is His shed blood that has broken down the dividing wall between us and made it possible for us, too, to belong to God's chosen people and share in all the blessings of His covenant with them.

    Paul writes in Ephesians 3:5 that this mystery of grace had not been made known to men in previous generations.  Up to the time of Jesus' earthly life, death, and resurrection, no one could even have imagined that Gentiles could have any part in the Messiah who was to come.  The mystery was kept hidden in God, as Paul says in verse 9.  Only in God's good time would it be revealed. 

    And God began to reveal it by bringing the Wise Men to worship the Child Jesus Christ.  They didn't arrive in Bethlehem out of their own human initiative or ingenuity; it was God's work from first to last.  The credit and the glory all goes to God the Father, who gave the Magi the knowledge of the expected King, who gave them the yearning to find Him, who raised up the star to lead them out of their faraway homes, who brought them at last to bow the knee in the humble home of their Saviour and Lord, the young King of the Jews.

    And it is solely God and His power that brings us to the feet of Jesus to worship Him as our Saviour and receive the blessings of His love.  For in all justice we don't belong there in His presence, any more than the Magi did.  It's not just that we're Gentiles, it's that all of us, ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles, are unworthy sinners.  We had no share in the blessings of heaven!  How did you get here, how did I, when we were rebels against the God and King of the universe and deserved only His wrath?

    Brothers and sisters, it is grace alone that has brought us here, and that grace comes to us by the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.  We read in Matthew how the authorities of Jerusalem were astonished at the arrival of the Wise Men.  Here in Ephesians we see that our inclusion in God's people is a sign and a testimony to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.  By the grace of God you and I are included in the Church of Jesus Christ, and the very fact that we are here, worshipping Him and enjoying His life and His gifts, that very fact makes known to angels and archangels the wonderful and manifold wisdom of God.  Did you know that your salvation causes the angels to rejoice and give praise to God?  Who could have thought it?  How could it have been possible?  We who were foreigners and outcasts from the people of God, now share in the unsearchable riches of Christ!

    From all eternity, God made it His purpose and goal to bring a people to Himself, not identified by any human bloodline, but by the blood of His only-begotten Son.  He accomplished that purpose through the holy life, atoning death, and glorious resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  Now, as Paul says in verse 12, in Christ and through faith in Him we--even we!-- can approach God with freedom and confidence.  How did we get here, how did you, how did I?  We got here through God's grace shown to us in Christ Jesus our Lord!  We belong here, we are His, and no sufferings and discouragements we experience on this earth can change that fact.

    Never, ever, let us take our position in Christ, our membership in His Church, for granted!  Paul yearns that our brothers and sisters at Ephesus might understand the wonder of what God the Holy Spirit had done in them and for them.  By the same Holy Spirit, his yearning and prayer is for us as well.  Now, at the beginning of this new year, may you be strengthened with power through the Spirit in your inner being, that Christ may dwell in your heart by faith.  May we, in our deepest thoughts, wills, motivations, and desires know fully that Christ is ours and we are His.  He is our beloved King and Lord, not because we decided to love Him, but because He first loved us and brought us to His side.  We are rooted and established in His love, as it is written in verse 17, and there can be nothing more wonderful than for us to have the power, with all the saints,

    [T]o grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

    How did you get here to the feet of Christ, to worship Him and call Him King and Lord?  It's no longer a mystery!  You got here by the grace of God, through His eternal purpose, by His love shown to you in the salvation won for you in Jesus' death and resurrection.  He has bought you, He has brought you, and you are His.  With the apostles and prophets, with the Wise Men, with ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles and all He has called to belong to him by faith, let us worship Him with our lives, our lips, and our love, ascribing to Him all honor and glory:

        Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.