Sermon: The Stairway to Heaven

Text: John 1:43-51
Gospel for the Second Sunday After Epiphany, Series B
Preacher: Vicar Matthew Fenn

In the name of Jesus Amen.

Have you had a chance to go into a Christian bookstore recently? It is quite an enlightening experience. You’re bound to see books like “Ten Steps Towards Christ”, “Six Ways to Empower Your Prayer life”, “14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family” “30 Thoughts for Victorious Living”. (Yes, those are real book titles). And they sell. Some of them may even be beneficial. But, it seems we’re obsessed with breaking Christianity down into manageable chunks. It’s a self-help society we live in and we want to be able to do it ourselves. We want a sense of accomplishment. We want to enjoy feelings of progress. We realize that getting to heaven is a difficult task, and so we want God to provide us with a stairway to heaven. We want God to break the Christian faith into manageable chunks which we can do on our own.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus refers to the story about Jacob’s stairway to heaven. Jacob was a schemer and trickster. He tricked Esau out of his birthright and even swindled him out of his father’s blessing. But Jacob’s trickery came back to bite him: Esau was going to kill him. Jacob left

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in a hurry, with not a penny to his name and nothing but the clothes on his back. One night, while on the run, he had a dream. He saw a staircaise with its foot on the ground and its top reaching up to heaven. God’s angels were going up and down on it. The Lord God himself stood beside him, and promised him that he would bring him back to his land in peace and prosperity.

So, is that what Jacob’s stairway to heaven is all about? Is the way into heaven a matter of “Ten steps”, “Six ways”, “14 Principles” or “30 Thoughts”? Is Christ breaking down the way to heaven into manageable chunks which we can achieve if we really put our minds to it?

In Jesus God Seeks Us.

Sometimes we hear people say, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” Or sometimes you’ll hear preachers or evangelists ask, “Have you found Jesus? Have you made Jesus your personal Lord and Saviour?” Many times, people think that we need to show the initiative, to take the first step, to get out of the boat! “You just need to take the first step, then God will take the rest!” However, this is not the case of Phillip and Nathaniel, and it’s not the case for us either.

The question is, in our text who found who? “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee and he found Phillip.” Jesus decided. He found. It was Jesus choice. Jesus decision. Jesus found Phillip. Phillip was not looking for Jesus. Phillip did not “make a decision to follow Jesus” either. Phillip did not go up to Jesus and say, “Hey, can I follow you?” Remember, Jesus is the same one who was in the Beginning with God. When he speaks, things happen. “Let there be light.” Boom! Light. Philip simply hears the call “Follow Me” and he does exactly that. When, Phillip runs off to tell Nathaniel, he says, “We have found the guy the whole Old Testament was talking about!” Wait a second, who found who? Jesus found Phillip. We want to climb the stairway to heaven, and that usually starts with taking the credit for something that God did.

Nevertheless, Phillip is confessing his faith that Jesus is the foretold Messiah. That faith is present only because the Holy Spirit worked in his heart by the powerful Word of Jesus. Nathanael at first does not believe that Jesus could be the Messiah. He’s a skeptic. To him, the son of an average joe carpenter in a small and unimportant village can’t be the Messiah. It’s just too ordinary for a Messiah. Messiah will be from an important family and from an important city! We want to climb the stairway to heaven, and that means that we sometimes have the same problem. We think God works in ways that are too ordinary. We want miracles and excitement. We want God to show up and do tricks for us. We want God to work on our terms. But what we get is ordinary things: Word, water, bread and wine.

It was Nathaniel’s encounter with Jesus that changed his mind. Phillip didn’t win him over with fancy arguments. He didn’t pull out the newest evangelism gimmick or a more profound apologetic method. Neither does he subject him to a long lecture of Messianic proofs. He simply said, “Come and see.” We want to climb the stairway to heaven by thinking that all we need is the latest music and the newest method and we’ll be bursting at the seams with new converts! But Phillip just brought him to Jesus. Sometimes when you have a skeptic, all you can do is bring them to Jesus. When we bring skeptics, or anyone to Jesus, he will always go above and beyond our expectations.

Before Nathaniel can do or say anything. Jesus does something striking. He praises Nathaniel. He says that Nathaniel is without guile. He’s not like Jacob who was a scheming, deceitful, trickster, who wrestled with God. Nathanael wears his heart on his sleeve. You always knew what he’s thinking. He would make a terrible poker player but a wonderful friend. His response shows his personality, “We’ve just met. How could you know anything about me?” Jesus answers “How could you know?” with “I saw.” Nathanael had been alone, maybe off in a secluded place for prayer and meditation, a custom of pious Jews in that day. Jesus uses his divine attributes of knowing all and seeing all to reveal his true identity to Nathanael. The powerful word of Jesus convinces Nathanael of this important truth. Notice, nothing happened when he saw Jesus. No, only when he heard him speak, only when Jesus revealed himself through his Word did Nathaniel get it. And we have that Word. We have the factual and eyewitness accounts of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. We have that in words, and those words are Jesus own Words, where he reveals himself to us.

So far, there’s no hint of “Ten steps”, “Six ways”, “14 Principles” or “30 Thoughts”. There’s no hint of making a decision for Jesus. God is the one who sought out Adam in the Garden when he was hiding. In the Old Testament Lesson, Samuel was just going about his daily tasks in the Tabernacle. He wasn’t waiting or expecting some mystical experience. God is the one who was seeking Samuel. We see in John’s Gospel that God had taken human flesh and decided to go and find Phillip. It is the words of Jesus which convince Nathaniel. God does the seeking. God does the deciding. God does the saving. Jesus’ call to follow him is still found in the Word. It is an invitation for sinners like us to trusting in Jesus as the Savior.

In Jesus we ascend to our God

That’s the point about Jacob’s stairway also. Jacob’s dream showed him that God had come to him, in that place. Jacob called the place ‘Bethel’, that is, ‘God’s house’. Bethel became one of the great sanctuaries of Israel, one of the places where early Israelite worship was carried on. The tradition of Jacob’s dream, of the angels going up and down on the stairway, would then be connected with the belief that when you worshipped God in his house, God was really present, with his angels coming and going to link heaven and earth. We have the same idea each Divine Service where we confess that we worship, “with angels and archangels and all the hosts of heaven.”

The Stairway isn’t a way for us to earn our own salvation. It’s not about making the pathway to God a series of manageable and achievable chunks. When Jesus refers to the story of Jacob’s Ladder, did you catch the important new detail? “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see haven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Jesus is the stairway to heaven! God doesn’t dwell in a house, he dwells in Jesus. God is really present in Jesus. He is the place of worship. In Jesus the gap between heaven and earth has been bridged perfectly and completely. Jesus is the point of contact between the finite and the infinite, the joining of time and eternity.

It’s the season of Epiphany. Epiphany means “showing forth,” “making known.” The Epiphany message is that Jesus of Nazareth, by his words and deeds, showed himself to be the Christ, the true and eternal Son of God, the Savior of the world. In Jesus we see the very face of God. Jesus is the answer to all of our God questions. That is why John writes his gospel, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Jesus didn’t just come to do one or two nice tricks. No, God has shown his Glory in Jesus. We see God’s divine glory fully at the crucifixion and resurrection. It’s not about what we do! The call of Philip and Nathanael is about Jesus and who he is. Jesus of Nazareth is the one whom all of the Old Testament was talking about and pointing to. Jesus of Nazareth is the Word made flesh, and as such, he knows everything and sees everything. He’s the Son of God, the promised King of Israel. In Jesus heaven is brought down to earth and sinners are promised that they will be taken to eternal glory, where there will be perfect, endless communion with God.

And may the peace of God which passes all understanding guard and keep our hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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