Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Jesus' Ladder" - January 18, 2015

John 1:43-51

            Gestures and posture can mean a lot.  A couple of months ago I heard someone recount an experience that he had many years ago in a church in Mexico.  He’s an American, so he was seeing things as an outsider, and with an outlook very much like what any of us would have.  It came to the point in the service where the scripture was to be read, and everyone stood up, like we do when the gospel is read.  Then the congregation all extended their right arms, elbows straight and fingers flattened, toward the Bible.  Now, maybe they were doing that as a variation of a gesture of blessing, but to him it was a horrible moment because it awoke in him an image of terror and evil, one unintended and apparently absent from the minds of the other worshipers, but frightening enough to have stayed with him for decades.

            On the other hand, there are also moments when a far better message may be shared.  I still recall how one of my counselors when I was a junior high camper at Pocono Plateau was talking with a few of us kids while we were waiting for devotions to start.  He was probably tired, and when he looked down and saw he was leaning on the makeshift cross that was near the campfire, he commented offhandedly something like, “Hey!  Do you realize what standing like this could mean?  I should always be leaning on the cross.”

            When Jesus first saw Nathanael, as John tells of their meeting, Nathanael is in one of those potentially meaningful positions.

“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’” [John 1:47-48]

To us, this sounds just sort of weird, especially the reaction that it gets from Nathanael:

‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’” [John 1:49] 

But in the back of their heads, they probably had an image drawn from the prophet Micah:

“For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 
He shall judge between many peoples,
   and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war anymore; 
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
   and no one shall make them afraid;
   for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”
[Micah 4:2-4] 

When the kingdom would come, every true Israelite would be able to rest peacefully under their own fig trees, as Nathanael was doing when Jesus arrived.

            My guess is that Nathanael was one of those people who see meaning in unexpected places.  For the most part (and this is just my own feeling, probably because I am not one of those people – maybe you are, in which case I ask your pardon here), you have to watch out not to overdo that.  If a black cat runs across your path, it may just mean that there is a dog chasing it or a mouse to catch.  To Nathanael, however, this interchange indicated something deep and Jesus did not let the opportunity pass to enhance his message.

            Nathanael was “a true Israelite”, and Israel was another name used by Jacob.  You remember him, right?  The one who lay down on the ground one night when he had run away from home,

“And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”  [Genesis 28:12]

So Jesus goes with that,

“And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’” [John 1:51]

All of which was an elaborate way of saying that Jesus is the one who provides a pathway for God’s people from earth to heaven.  It’s a long way around to get to that.  On the other hand, though, it shows that Jesus understood the way that Nathanael’s mind worked, and could do what it took to get through to him as the person that he was.

            That, in fact, is what it means for Jesus himself to be that kind of ladder between earth and heaven.  He knows what it takes to reach every human being, wherever they are, and whatever they are like, and to build that link for them between here and there, between life as it is and life as it can become, between what we are now and what we can be in the kingdom of God.  Some people are reached through their hearts and some people are reached through their minds.  Some people are reached through moments of deep struggle and turmoil.  Some people are reached through experiences of joy. 

The life that Jesus led upon earth included all of these things and more, all the variety and depth of human experience, and every single moment, both good and bad, also included the holiness of God.  Every aspect of his life provided a step on the ladder that leads us to heaven, that climbs toward God, in a way that no other life has ever done or could ever do.  He will find a way for you, whether in a straightforward way or in the roundabout sort of way he found with Nathanael, to set your foot upon the ladder that leads to God.

If you go through the bell tower and turn right, or through the lounge and turn left, outside the nursery you will find the coffee and tea that are there every Sunday morning.  Help yourself.  While you’re there, take a look at the framed paper that’s on the wall above it.  It’s an old print of some words that come from a sermon preached in 1926 by a man named James Allan Francis.  He was talking about Jesus.

“Here is a man who was born in an obscure village as the child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in another obscure village.
He worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty and then for three years was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book.
He never held an office.
He never owned a home.
He never had a family.
He never went to college.
He never put his foot inside a big city.
He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born.
He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness.
He had no credentials but himself.
He had nothing to do with this world except the naked power of his divine manhood.
While still a young man the tide of popular opinion turned against him.
His friends ran away.
One of them denied him.
Another betrayed him.
He was turned over to his enemies.
He went through the mockery of a trial.
He was nailed upon the cross between two thieves.
His executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth while he was dying, and that was his coat.
When he was dead, he was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today he is the center of the human race and the leader of the column of progress.
I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that were ever built, and all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon the earth as powerfully as has this one solitary life.”

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