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.

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