TITLE: Seeing Heaven Opened
SCRIPTURE: John 1:43-51
We don't know much about Nathanael. Besides this story, we know only that he was privileged to see the risen Christ. In this first encounter with Nathanael, Jesus said, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." In other words, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"
Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened -- and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." That might seem like strange language to you, but it would not have been strange to Nathanael -- not at all.
Way back in the beginnings of the Jewish people, God made a covenant with Abraham. God promised to make a great nation of Abraham's descendents and to bless the whole world through him (Gen 12:1-3). Then later, God renewed that covenant through Jacob -- Abraham's grandson. God gave Jacob a vision -- a vision of angels ascending and descending on a ladder from heaven to earth.
A ladder from heaven might seem like strange to us, but Jacob understood it. He knew that the ladder meant that the heavens, where God dwelled, had broken open so that God could visit earth. Jacob named the place Bethel, which means, "dwelling place of God." Later God changed Jacob’s name to Israel and he gave his name to the people.
When Jesus told Nathanael that he would see angels ascending and descending, Nathanael would think immediately of Jacob's ladder. Nathanael would know that Jesus was promising that, just as Jacob experienced God's presence, so Nathanael would also experience God's presence.
But there is an odd thing about this story. In the original Greek:
-- When Jesus says, "You will see greater things than these," he uses "you" singular, indicating that he is talking to Nathanael.
-- However, when he says, "You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man," Jesus uses "you" plural.
In other words, Jesus was talking to Nathanael, but then he begins to talk to the disciples -- perhaps to all disciples -- even to us. It is not just Nathanael, but all of us who will see great things -- heaven opened -- angels ascending and descending -- the treasure-house of God spilled out upon the earth.
And indeed that happened. After the resurrection, the disciples gathered at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. There, amidst tongues of fire and sounds of a windstorm, Peter preached and three thousand people walked down the aisle to be baptized. It was an amazing day! Heaven opened! Angels of God ascending and descending!
And then a crippled beggar asked Peter for alms. Peter said, "I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give to you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk." And the man got up and started walking. He would walk a little bit -- and then he was so excited that he would jump -- and then he would praise God! Amazing! Heaven opened! Angels of God ascending and descending!
And then Saul went to Damascus to persecute Christians, but Jesus blinded him with a great light -- and dropped him to his knees -- and Saul became Paul, the great Christian missionary. How amazing! Heaven opened! Angels of God ascending and descending!
You might say, That's all well and good, but it was two thousand years ago. We haven't seen heaven or angels for a long time now.
But we have! The heavens that opened when Jesus came have been open ever since. Some people couldn't see it while Jesus was here on earth, and some still can't. But eyes of faith see wondrous things happen all the time. Heaven opened! Angels of God ascending and descending!
When I was talking with a friend of mine about this sermon, he remembered an article that he had read some months ago -- an article that contrasted the brutality of Jesus' day with the kinder and gentler world of our day.
Oh, the world isn't always kind and gentle. There are places in the world today that are every bit as brutal as in Jesus' day:
-- There are still places where they still amputate a thief's hand.
-- There are still places where they put women to death for adultery. It is interesting that, in places where they do that, men usually get off scot-free. I thought that it took two to tango! But, in some places, they still execute women for adultery.
-- And there is no place in the world where good people are not in danger from bad.
But in those places where Christ has had the greatest influence, there has been a softening of justice. In those places where Christ has had the greatest influence, women enjoy freedom and respect. In those places where Christ reigns, lives are changed -- neighborhoods are transformed -- even whole nations become better. Heaven opened! Angels ascending and descending!
There are stories nearly everywhere about people who have been healed by prayer. I consider myself to be one of them. Some of the stories cannot be more than personal witness, but some healings take place in situations where doctors and nurses note the absence of a killing tumor that was there yesterday but gone today. Heaven opened! Angels ascending and descending!
And not all Christian healing is simply the result of prayer. I have noticed in the news that the new Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, is a physician who has spent time in Africa dispensing surgical care to desperate people. He doesn't say much about that -- I couldn't find it mentioned on his official website -- but the site does mention that he is Presbyterian. I thought that was significant. It is often Christian faith that motivates physicians and others to spend time helping less fortunate people. People being served! People being healed! Amazing things! Heaven opened! Angels ascending and descending!
There was a time when there was no money to be made running hospitals in this country, and so we have lots of hospitals from that era with Christian names -- St. Luke's, St. Vincent's, Methodist Hospital, Baptist Hospital -- you name it! (NOTE: Use names of Christian hospitals in your area.) Christian people, motivated by their love of Christ, gave sacrificially to establish and run those hospitals in a time when they could expect no financial payback. Even today, there are many places around the world where there is no money to be made running hospitals, and in those places the church is still active in delivering medical care -- doing so in the name of the Christ who promised that we would see amazing things! And we do see amazing things -- people being healed, lives being saved! Heaven opened! Angels ascending and descending!
We see those things even in this community -- even in this church; Jesse being baptized, almost every member participating in bible study seeking God in you lives. Heaven opened! Angels ascending and descending!
God breaks through even in the most unlikely places. When former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died, the first George Bush represented the United States at his funeral. There, in that citadel of atheism, Bush witnessed the most amazing thing. At the end, Brezhnev's widow came to stand before the coffin. Then, as soldiers reached up to close the lid, Brezhnev's widow reached down to make the sign of the cross on her husband's chest. The sign of the cross! In that simple gesture, with no words spoken, that woman told us that she hoped her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was still hope for him. She hoped that the one who died on the cross would be able to reach down far enough in the well of mercy to find grace even for this old man who would have scoffed at the idea. It was an amazing moment -- a grace-filled moment! Heaven opened! Angels ascending and descending!
But it is only eyes of faith that can see the angels and the heavens. Nathanael had been a skeptic. When first told of Jesus, he asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" But Philip didn’t argue, he invited him to come and see.
"Not very many people have ever been argued into Christianity.... The only way to convince a man of the supremacy of Christ is to confront him with Christ" Ontological and cosmological arguments can never have as much effect as our personal witness and our invitation to "Come and see."
And with that Nathanael came. Then, when he met Jesus, he realized that this, indeed, was the one. "Rabbi," he said, "you are the Son of God." And Jesus blessed him for his willingness to see.
Jesus hopes to bless us too. He asks only that we come and see -- that we deal with him honestly -- that we give him a chance -- that we step out in faith. If we will do that, he promises that we will see wondrous things. Heaven opened! Angels ascending and descending! And so, by the grace of God, we will.