Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sermon on John 1:43-51, for midweek Advent 3, "From Jacob's Ladder to Jesus"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. So far in our Advent series we’ve looked at two types of Jesus. Types, remember, are Old Testament people, places or events that foreshadowed something later and greater. First we saw how Adam foreshadowed Jesus, who is the Second Adam. Second we saw how the test of sacrificing Isaac was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death. Today, the type isn’t a person but a thing—Jacob’s ladder.

You heard in the Genesis reading about Jacob’s dream when he was fleeing from his twin brother Esau. He slept on a stone, and saw a vision of angels ascending and descending on a ladder that extended from heaven to earth. At the top of the ladder he saw the LORD God who told him, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” God reaffirmed Abraham’s blessings to Jacob his grandson. Promised the inheritance of the land of Canaan; that they would become a great and blessed nation; and that through his offspring all nations would be blessed. We now know that this has come true through Jesus, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s line. But this was an astonishing vision and confirmation for Jacob that God was with him. Life-changing. Though many of his lessons still remained to be learned, he began trusting in God rather than his own schemes. He set up a stone as a pillar there to mark that place, and called it “Bethel” which means “house of God,” because of that vision of the gate of heaven, and there he pledged to give a full tenth of all he had to the Lord.

Now, jump forward about 2,000 years to the time of Jesus Christ, the descendent of Jacob. This powerful vision was now etched in the memory of the Israelites, of God showing His faithfulness to Jacob, later named Israel, the great father of their nation. Jesus is still an unknown rabbi from the backwoods town of Nazareth, and is only just gaining a reputation as a great teacher. Philip, one of the first disciples to follow Jesus, comes to find Nathanael his friend and tells him: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” At first, Nathanael remains skeptical, but after meeting Jesus, his mind is quickly changed. In his encounter with Jesus, Nathanael found, like so many other people who met Jesus, that He read them and knew them like an open book. Jesus saw into people’s hearts and knew their intentions, and didn’t judge by external appearances. Nathanael believed at once that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Israel.

But Jesus explains to Nathanael that this was nothing compared to what he would see. Then we get back to the connection to Jacob’s dream about the ladder. Jesus tells Nathanael, a God-fearing Israelite, that “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” In one quick statement, Jesus borrows language pregnant with meaning from Jacob’s famous dream, and applies it to Himself. Heaven is opened and instead of the angels of God ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder—the ladder is the Son of Man, Jesus Christ! This was certainly a remarkable substitution, and the connection wouldn’t have been lost on Nathanael. Jesus was saying that Jacob’s ladder was actually Him!

What could Jesus have meant? He gives no further explanation. But when Jacob had his dream of that ladder, and named the place “Bethel,” he exclaimed, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” We know that Jesus calls Himself the door or gate for the sheep. Jesus is the gate of heaven, and He alone is the bridge or ladder to heaven. Why is a ladder to heaven needed? The old spiritual “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder” unfortunately gets it quite wrong. The ladder is not a way for us to climb up into heaven (something the people at the Tower of Babel tried and failed at, by the way). But Jacob’s ladder is Jesus Christ, who brings earth and heaven together. The connection from earth to heaven had been severed by Adam and Eve’s sin that broke our relationship with God. But Jesus was to become the reunification of heaven and earth.

Jesus was true God and true man. He had the complete nature of God, divine and holy, eternal and without beginning or end. He was the eternal Word of God that created the heavens and the earth. He was the Son of God who ruled with God from heaven. He commanded the powers of earth and life in His miracles. All-knowing, all-powerful, present everywhere, He was true God in every respect. He truly belonged to heaven. He was God. Yet He also had the complete nature of a human, with flesh and blood, skin and bones. He felt pain and sadness, experienced joy and laughter. He was born, ate, drank, lived, died and rose again. Jesus was truly human in every respect, but without sin. In His conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary and in His birth, He truly belonged to earth. He became one with humanity. In Jesus Christ, heaven and earth were joined, they were bridged. Jesus, the Son of Man became the ladder bridging heaven and earth, on which the angels ascend and descend to God.

Jesus rejoined heaven and earth, which had been separated through Adam’s fall into sin. No longer was God’s relationship with humanity broken through sin. That is what Christmas and the Incarnation is all about. God coming into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, to bring peace to us by setting our relationship right again. Through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection, God opened the way for us to come to heaven. Not by climbing Jacob’s ladder; that is Jesus Christ, by our own works or efforts, but by God descending to us and bringing us up to Him. What Jacob dreamed about as the gate of heaven came to us in Jesus Christ, who becomes the open door to heaven and salvation for us. As true God and true man He brings heaven and earth together. We rejoice for the reconciliation that we now have through Him! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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