Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ
This morning’s gospel describes the beginning of the training in faith that Jesus gave to the apostle Nathaniel. Martin Luther suggested in an old sermon that Nathaniel had been passing through a rough time and that Philip was concerned about his friend’s spiritual well-being – the same kind of concern we sometimes have for family or neighbors. Philip knew that his own resources were limited, but thanks to Christ, he had something to offer his friend. “Come and see.” What could be simpler. We may say the same to someone we have a concern for. “Come to church with me. Read part of the Gospels. Ask Jesus for help. Try it out for yourself. Come and see.” People appreciate friendly invitations. It may be that our friend will respond with yes.
Now, as concerned with Nathaniel as Philip was. Jesus was even more concerned, and he has great power to help. He knew that Nathaniel was a student of the Bible, and that he had a direct, straightforward character without twists or hidden motives. He was the sort of man who lets you know what he’s thinking and feeling. Jesus was pleased with his openness.
The Lord knows everyone thoroughly; he cares about each one of us. As Psalm 139 puts it, “O Lord, you searched me and you know me.” Years ago, I used to walk past an antique shop in the city I come from and on the wall by the window was an old piece of embroidery that said, “Thou, Lord, seest me.” I must have passed it hundreds of times on my way home from work. That statement might be alarming to non-believers. It’s a comfort for Christians. Jesus sees us and knows us. His love sustains us. We repent of our sins, of course, but we do not run ourselves down or despair of life. Jesus sees the best in us, as he saw the best in Nathaniel. Picture him coming to you with words of encouragement and love, a promise to guide and sustain you and keep you safe with him until his return.
So Jesus knew about Nathaniel’s spiritual condition. When Nathaniel asked what good could come from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, he meant that he didn’t know anything in the Scriptures that foretold the Messiah would come from there. The way he expressed his thought showed as well that he was burnt out, discouraged. Jesus knew this, too. Nathaniel had had a lot of experience. Life had knocked him around. His hopes and dreams were tarnished. He was suffering from the blues. Jesus didn’t judge him. He offered to be Nathaniel’s God. He lifted him up. He gave him something substantial that his thoughts and feelings could cling to. He awakened Nathaniel’s zest for life by showing him that God intended to heal his wounded soul.
Nathaniel wasn’t bitter or faithless. He didn’t bear grudges or claim that the world was out to get him. He believed as soon as Jesus came to him. He accepted the Lord. He trusted his promises. He knew that he was in the presence of God and that God would make all things right. “I know that my redeemer lives,” Job said in the middle of his terrible suffering. This is what Nathaniel believed. The Redeemer who would make all things right had come.
The presence of Christ lifted him up. Jesus knew there would be times when Nathaniel would not be so lifted up. He would become discouraged again, and so Jesus gave him something to hold onto that would work for him no matter what was waiting for him on the road ahead. He said that Nathaniel would see heaven’s angels ascending and descending on the Son of man.
This is not the way we usually think or speak, and so we ask what Jesus meant. He was referring to the time Jacob dreamed about a stairway between earth and heaven on which angels moved up and down. The Lord stood at the top of the staircase and said to Jacob: “Your descendants will spread out to the west and the east. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” What a wonderful gift to Jacob’s spirit. Wherever he went, he could trust that the Lord would be right beside him, carrying him through the rough spots and rejoicing in his good days, and all the time he would be drawing him to an eternal destiny that Jacob could see only in part but that God could see clearly.
When Jesus met Nathaniel, he applied the story of Jacob’s dream to himself and to Nathaniel. Angels rose up from Jesus to Heaven and came down from heaven to him. He would pull Nathaniel out of his slump and give him a new lease on life. Martin Luther said that heaven was open to everyone when Christ became man. It’s open now and will remain open. It hasn’t been closed even for half a minute since Jesus baptism. It will never be closed again, even though we perceive the gates of heaven by faith and not with our physical sight. With the eyes of faith, God’s children see heaven opened, and by faith we hear the voice of our heavenly Father and see his holy angels ascending and descending on us.
When we were baptized or when we receive the Lord’s Supper or take the forgiveness of sins into our hearts or read the Gospels or hear God’s word, heaven is open, and we know that God is speaking. No matter what challenges may come at us, we hear by faith that Jesus is speaking to us through his Word. We call to him. We cry out with our hearts. Heaven is open and it will stay open.
Jesus teaches us that we live in two places at once – on the earth with its troubles and passing joys and in heaven, too, which is our true home. Paul wrote that our lives are hidden in Christ. We’re still on earth, of course, when suffering and death chasten us, while our true existence is with God, which we experience by prayer and faith, by reading Scriptures and in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus promised that Nathaniel would see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. These angels serve te members of God's kingdom. We treasure assurances about their presence in our lives because the world is full of trouble. The devil torments us and clouds our thinking; sins of the flesh vex us; unbelievers can bring us distress. Even so, we joyfully thank God for bringing us into his kingdom and for his promise that we ourselves will see the angels of heaven.
We lift our souls to Jesus. He encourages us to remember that we aren’t eternally dependent on things of earth, for we are guests here. Our true citizenship is with the kingdom of God, who won’t forget us. His angels surround each of us, so that no permanent harm will come to us. He sends his angels up and down to carry our prayers to him and to come back to us with the message that he has heard us and will fulfill our requests in his own way and in his own time.
So when he went to Nathaniel, Jesus offered him hope instead of despair and fulness in the place of emptiness. He wanted Nathaniel to trust that good things do exist in the world and they can even come from a place like Nazareth.
Jesus wanted Nathaniel to have a deeper understanding of his nature. You’ll remember that Nathaniel called him the Son of God and the King of Israel. Both these statements are true. Jesus also referred to himself as the Son of man, a title with a lot of mystery in it and that he used on eighty other occasions. It calls our attention to Jesus’ human nature and to the fact that he has this nature the way no one else does. He is truly a man and yet more than a man – the Son of the living God, infinitely greater than man, the word made flesh, who joined our human nature to his divine nature. The name “Son of Man” reminds us of the humility that Jesus took on and also his greatness and power, which he especially showed when he rose from the grave and ascended into heaven to be with his Father forever with his human nature.
As man, then, Jesus understood Nathaniel’s troubles and questions, and he understands the troubles and questions we all have. As God, he has the power and wisdom and love to solve Nathaniel’s problems and the challenges the rest of us face. He began by taking the sinfulness of the human race upon himself and dying in our place and then, as we said, rising again.
Jesus is the kind of savior we need. His Word is strong and powerful. He protects his church and blesses us with an abundance of hope. If anyone asks us, we tell them about the good things we receive from our Lord. His Word opens the gates of heaven. He brings us into the company of the angels. He makes us fellow citizens with them of his kingdom. Our faith, our love, our Christian ways of thinking and our prayers bring us into heaven already, where in times to come our praises of God will ring out in a heavenly chorus. Our worship, our hymns, our Christian fellowship are hints now of what the life to come will be like. We thank Jesus for preparing a place for us in his kingdom and knowing how to bring us there and keep us there. In his Name we rejoice. AMEN.
The peace of God...