John 1:43-51 (Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Series B)
“Seeing the Greater Things”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
January 14, 2018
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text this morning is the Gospel Lesson recorded in John 1:
43The next day [Jesus] wanted to go away into Galilee and He found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, from the village of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We found the one whom Moses wrote about in the Law and [whom] the Prophets [wrote], Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Is anything good able to come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him and He said concerning him, “Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” 48Nathanael said to Him, “From where do you know me? Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel.” 50Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you beneath the fig tree, you believe? Greater things than this you will see.” 51And He said to him, “Truly, truly I say to all of you, you all will see heaven having been opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
He was told that they had found the One. They had found the very Messiah-Savior whom Moses and the Prophets both had written about in the Scriptures. The whole revealed Word of God in what we know as the Old Testament pointed to this individual—Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth. But Nathanael wasn’t buying it. He was wondering if anything good could actually come from Nazareth. After all, nothing great and glorious is ever found so close to home. No Messiah-Savior would come to their little backwater of Galilee.
She grew up singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.” But she had trouble believing that now. Her husband had become addicted to alcohol after the plant let him go. He wasn’t able to hold a job for very long. The man she loved had become angry and abusive toward her and the children. He refused help. Yet, the mortgage needed to be paid, the bills were piling up. One day, she simply started yelling at Jesus. “I was told You loved me. I was told You cared. Why aren’t You acting to help me? You’re not interested in my life at all, are You? Why would You come and help me anyway, a nobody with an alcoholic husband and a near-zero bank account?”
Would God dare to come to our “Nazareth,” to the backwaters of our lives? Even though we are Christians, there is suffering in our life. There are hardships and heartaches. There are times in life where we go through our own personal “hells” when our feelings and experiences convince us that we truly must be in the place where God is not.
If only there was a way to experience God’s presence, a way to know that He was actually around and on our side. Nathanael was duly impressed when he heard Jesus’ divine knowledge of him. “You must be the Son of God, the King of Israel, the Messiah-Savior, if you know me personally without ever having met me! Wow, something good and glorious has come to my backwater life.” Wouldn’t we, in our doubting and troubled times even take just a simple recognition from the Lord, “I see you. I know who you are”? But as great as that was for Nathanael, as maybe helpful as it might be for us, it’s really not “all that” in the big picture. “Jesus answered and said to [Nathanael], ‘Because I said to you that I saw you beneath the fig tree, you believe? Greater things than this you will see.’” Don’t we want to see the greater things, too?
I think we’d be very foolish to say “No.” Seeing the greater things would be such a boost to our faith and confidence in times of temptation and trial and suffering. Seeing the greater things would be such a help even when life is going well, giving us the assurance that we need to stay the course in faithful living. The good news is that Jesus has promised that His disciples will indeed see the greater things. “Truly, truly I say to all of you, you all will see heaven having been opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jesus wasn’t just talking to Nathanael. He spoke to Philip and Andrew and Peter, and by extension, those who would become Jesus’ disciples in the future. That’s you and me.
Now, when Jesus talked about seeing the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, He was referencing what is called “Jacob’s ladder.” We read in Genesis 28, “And [Jacob] came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, Yahweh stood above it and said, “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Gen. 28:11-13). In Jacob’s dream, a ladder reached from the earth to heaven. Jesus doesn’t mention a ladder, but something better: heaven is already standing open! The stage curtain, if you will, is already pulled back revealing Jesus, true God and true Man, attended by His angels who are ministering around the His throne. Jesus promises that His disciples will have a vision directly into heaven where they will see Him, the very God who once spoke to Jacob, the Son of Man who is the Second Person of the Trinity, God Himself, the heavenly and divine Word.
Oh, we could only hope for such a vision, perhaps like the vision given to St. Stephen moments before his death, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56 ESV). Yes, for Stephen, he saw the heavens already opened. He saw Jesus, the Son of Man, the Crucified and Risen Lord, standing in the throne room with the Father and Spirit, one God, now and forever. Stephen saw the “greater things.”
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the promise of Jesus was not just for His first-century followers. It was not just for Nathanael and Stephen. Jesus’ promise is for you also. What does it take, then, to see these greater things? A miracle, a burning bush, fire and smoke on the mountain? No, it simply takes what you have already been given—saving faith. That’s right, heaven stands already opened to you and it is by faith that you see heaven open because Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth is the divine Son of God, the Second Person of the Godhead, who became flesh and dwelt among us as the divine Son of Man.
In the person of Jesus, heaven and earth, God and humanity meet. In Jesus, you receive an epiphany, a “making known,” of who God is. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6 ESV). In Jesus, who has opened heaven for us by revealing Himself to us in the Gospel Word, you have seen the glory of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. For to see and know Jesus the Christ by faith is to see and to know the Triune God who loved sinners beyond measure. To see and know Jesus by faith is to know and to trust the God who cares about the sufferings of His people and to be assured that God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is for us and not against us.
The proof is in the cross and the empty tomb. In John’s Gospel, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ is revealed at the cross—in the suffering and death of Jesus for the sins of the whole world. That is where, by faith, we see Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us in human flesh, suffering for us the punishment of death and hell and shedding His holy, precious blood to cleanse us from all our sins. It is at the cross and the empty tomb where we see Jesus, true God and true Man, as the Savior who has won the victory over sin, death, and hell for all people. It is this same Jesus who has ascended into heaven and is reigning as King and Lord especially for the benefit of His holy Church.
These are the greater things that you are privileged to see by faith as you read and hear the Word of Truth in the Bible. The vision of the greater things is mediated by the Word until that day when Jesus comes again and we will see the Triune God in all His glory as we, the redeemed of the Lord, enter into the new creation with Him.
Even though we suffer many things in our life—sin and the effects of sin, disease and hardship—God is ever-present with us. Because you see Jesus by faith and know Him to be true God and true Man, the Savior, you can have the confidence of faith that your sins are forgiven, that His Spirit is upon you through your Baptism, and that His promise to work for good in all situations is true. The Lord Jesus, true God and true Man, is with you, alongside you. Today, He feeds you with His own Body that once suffered on the cross for you; He gives you His own Blood to drink that He once, for all time, poured out for you on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. The Lord Christ strengthens your faith so that you can lift up your eyes and see, by faith, heaven standing open to you. The Psalmist says it this way, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Ps. 121:1-8 ESV).
Jesus is your God and Lord, who took on flesh as the Son of Man, so that you might see His glory, the glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). In the Word of Christ, by faith alone, you do see the greater things—your Savior, your Helper, your God. You see and know the God who made you, who loves you, who redeemed you from sin and death, indeed, the very God who calls you by name and prepares a place for you in His new creation. As you daily receive this epiphany of the glory of God in Christ through His Word and Sacrament, know that He is faithful in fulfilling His promise to you. He comes to you through the Means of Grace right to the very backwaters of your life and stands there with you in trouble, forgiving your sins, and strengthening your faith in order to give you comfort and peace, hope and joy. Amen.