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Confessions of a Small Church Pastor

Sermon: Seeing Greater Things


Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow from John 1:43-51 about Jesus calling Nathanael.  There’s a great story from David Augsburger’s book at the end. I hope you have a wonderful Lord’s day!

Seeing Greater Things

John 1:43-51

43The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

 44Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.45Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

 46“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. 
      “Come and see,” said Philip.

 47When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

 48“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. 
      Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

 49Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

 50Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” 51He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

A Skeptic Gets The Call

In today’s passage, we read the story of the second group of disciples that Jesus calls to follow him.  The first group according to John’s account, consisted of Andrew who immediately found his brother Peter saying, “We have found the Messiah.”  

The next day, Jesus finds Phillip, who like Andrew and Peter is also from the fishing village of Bethsaida.  Phillip in turn runs to find Nathanael.  The exchange goes like this:

Phillip to Nathanael: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Nathanael (with a scowl on his face): “Nazareth! Can any good thing come from there?”

Phillip: “Come and see.”

Nathanael, who is called Bartholomew by the other gospel writers, follows Phillip reluctantly.  When they approach Jesus, Jesus himself calls out so that all around can hear:

“Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing to hide.”  

To Nathanael, this sounds like a sales pitch.  Like someone is trying to butter him up.  Like a very insincere greeting.  It must have because Nathanael doesn’t say, “Thank you.”  Or “Please, don’t go on so. I’m just a fisherman.” Or anything.  Instead he asks Jesus a question that is loaded with skepticism:

“How do you know me?”  Now let me translate this from the original Greek for those of you who might not get the exact meaning.  Nathanael is really saying, “You don’t know anything about me, why are you flattering me?”

For Nathanael it was kind of like meeting someone at a party whom you have never seen, who starts telling you about your house, and your kids, and your job, and what the neighbors are saying about you.  How do you know me?  Where did you get all that?

I am sure Nathanael expected Jesus to be caught off guard.  After all, who doesn’t like a compliment?  And, most people are polite, even if the person praising them is overdoing it a bit.

Not Nathanael.  He puts Jesus on the spot.  But he’s not prepared for Jesus’ answer.  Rather than stumbling around, Jesus says, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Phillip called you.”  

(“Oh.  Oh, wow!”)  Because about that time, Nathanael is remembering that he was stretched out under the shade of a gigantic fig tree, taking a nap when Phillip interrupted him.

Nathanael’s brain is now working overtime.  Quickly he calculates all the people he remembers passing him as he rested under the fig tree:  

(“Well, there was an old woman with a water jar.  A noisy kid with a stick running and hitting rocks on the path.  An old man shuffling back to his home.  That was it!  No one else could have seen me.  How in the world does this Yeshua guy know I was under the fig tree?  My own family didn’t know where I was.  Wait.  No.  Yes.  NO!  YES!  The Holy One, blessed be his name, told him.  Wait.  That makes Jesus…what?….the Messiah!”)  

And all of a sudden without thinking further, Nathanael’s skepticism falls from him like a cast off coat, and he blurts out, “Rabbi….you…you are the Son of God, you…you are the King of Israel!”  

Now the tables are turned.  Jesus is clearly in charge of this conversation now.  He speaks to Nathanael, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.  You shall see greater things that that.”  

Then, after a pause, Jesus adds, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

One Story Leads To Another

End of story.  Except what in the world does it mean?  What could Nathanael see that would be more amazing than Jesus telling him where he had been only a few hours before?  And how had Jesus done that?  It had to be God, so at least Nathanael had settled that question.  

But now Jesus is saying, “You think that was amazing? You haven’t seen anything yet.”  And then Jesus says three very interesting things.  

Jesus could have stopped at any one of these sentences –

  • “You’re going to see heaven opened.”  That would be amazing, but he keeps going.
  • “And angels ascending and descending.” Remember angels?  Every time they appear people are afraid and fall down.  That’s amazing, but he keeps going.
  • “On the Son of Man.”  Jesus here means himself, but how can angels ascend and descend on him?  

Here’s where Nathanael has us beat.  Remember when Jesus said of Nathanael, “Here’s a true Israelite in whom there is nothing to hide?”  

I don’t think Jesus ever calls anybody else an “Israelite.”  There was no Israel anymore.  That was Old Testament.  The northern tribes, gone since 721 BC.   Now they all lived in Judea.  Or Galilee. Or Samaria.  But, not in Israel.  

But, remember where the name “Israel” came from?  God gave it to Jacob after Jacob wrestled with God one night.  Okay, stay with me now because the payoff is coming.

Jacob, remember, was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham.  That’s how God always identified himself.  “I am the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

But Jacob, before he wrestled with God, had a dream one night.  He had cheated his brother, Esau, out of his birthright, and had fled from his homeland to escape Esau’s anger.  Actually, Esau wanted to kill him.  

One night as Jacob is on the run, he stops to make camp.  He takes a stone and using it for a pillow, falls asleep. Which if you used a rock for a pillow might make you have strange dreams, but the dream Jacob had was a doozy.

He dreamed that he saw a stairway, a ladder, with its feet planted on the earth and the top reaching into heaven.  The angels of God were ascending and descending on it in his dream.  Then, God appears standing at the top of the ladder or staircase saying, “I am the God of Abraham and of Isaac.”  But not of Jacob.  

Then God makes the same promise to Jacob that God made to Abraham and Isaac.  “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and I’m going to give you the land on which you are lying.”  Now, at that point, God becomes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because God has now made the same covenant with Jacob that he made with Abraham and Isaac.  

Jacob wisely, and fearfully, recognizes that God is in that place.  He takes the rock that was his pillow and uses it to make an altar.  He pronounces the name of the place, Bethel, which means “house of God.”  And, he worships God there.  

Jacob is so overcome he remarks, “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”  He had seen heaven opened.  

The New Jacob’s Ladder

When we were in the youth department at our church, we sang,

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross.”  

And that’s it.  The new Jacob’s ladder, the new connection between heaven and earth is Jesus.  The angels will ascend or descend based on the word of Jesus.  The will of God will be done “on earth, as it is in heaven” because of the work of Jesus.  The connection between heaven and earth that was severed with man’s disobedience has been restored in Jesus.

No longer is heaven off-limits, or earth a struggling chaotic mass.  Now heaven and earth are again joined.  And they are joined by Jesus.  

The cross that is planted so firmly on Calvary’s hill reaches into the heavens.  God meets his people on that ladder which only Jesus can climb.  God meets his people in person.  Renewing the covenant, embracing the fallen, choosing the scoundrels, the outcasts, the tricksters, all of whom have no chance at seeing into the gates of heaven without someone to bridge the gap.  

The Ladder At Work Today

So, how does this new Jacob’s ladder, a.k.a. Jesus, work today?  Most of us haven’t seen any angels coming and going, or had any dreams of stairways to heaven.  

In his wonderful book, Dissident Discipleship, Dr. David Augsburger tells this story:

David Shank, a pastor in Belgium, followed a translator into a room filled with Greek, Spanish, and Serbian miners.  At a minute’s notice, he was to tell the Christian story. 

“Fellows, would you agree to play a game with me?” he asked. “Let me try to tell you about yourselves.  If I am wrong, you stop me.  But as long as I tell the truth, you let me go on.  Agreed?”  They nodded in skeptical consent.

“You’ve never had a real chance to get ahead in life until now, so every day you risk your lives to go down into these dirty Belgian mines to give your children a better chance, right?”

“Yes, that’s right, go on.”

“So you work like a slave, day after day, so your kids won’t have to do the same.  That’s your ideal. You get paid on Saturday. You stop at the cafe for a drink or two, a few hands of cards and a couple bets, and when you get home your wife looks at what’s left of your pay and says, ‘Not enough for the week.’”

“Yeah, go on.”

“When she criticizes you, what’s even worse, you know she’s right, you get mad at her; and you lose your head and hit her?”

“Right, but how did you know?”

“Then you feel ashamed, and you ask yourself, ‘Why did I do that?”

“True.”

“Then you can’t sleep and you lie there thinking ‘My kids are no better off than before, I’ve failed them,’ And you get mad at yourself, at the filthy job, then at your wife, your kids, the whole world.  After you fume for awhile you say, ‘Next week will be different.’ So you go back to the dirty mine.”

“Yes, that’s about right.”

“And when you’re a mile or two under the earth, you start to wonder, ‘What about all the gases down here? What if there’s an explosion? What about a cave-in? What then? What about the wife and kids? What about me?’ But there’s no one to talk to about this.  You’re alone and you feel rotten.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Do you know how I know all this?”

“No, that’s what we want to know.  You’re no miner. How did you get to know about us?”

“I got it out of this book.”

“What book?”

“It’s called the New Testament.  It tells about our hopes and God’s hopes for us.  Do you want to hear the rest of the story?”

“Yes, tell us the rest.”

“It says that at the very point  where we fail, where we betray our ideals and we are guilty and afraid, God wants to help.  And if we accept that help, there’s hope for our children.”  (Dissident Discipleship, p171-173.)

To see hopeless lives connected to the throne room of heaven by Jesus himself is a far greater thing to see than where some skeptic is taking a nap.

We follow Jesus sometimes because we’re amazed at the mystery of God.  We should follow him because we are amazed at the miracle of God’s love.  

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Categories: John, Lectionary Yr B, sermon, Sermon Illustrations, Sermons, The Story

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4 replies

  1. I really enjoyed your sermon. Thank you. I have been to the point where I betrayed my ideals and my children witnessed the transformation process of the return to blessing. This happened years ago. I was not proud of my turning away, and it stings that it happened, but it was like laying my life down for them, dying a little bit for them…because they witnessed the miracle of God’s restoration and true love for His children. Now, I willingly lay my life down for others, just not in the same way. I die to myself by bringing glory to God. I am so grateful to be His.

    Thank you for your sermon. Your words touched my heart tonight.

    Your sister in Christ Jesus,
    Catherine Mitchell a.k.a StandingFirmCM from twitter.

    “standingfirm” is not a boast. It is my reminder that He is holding me up.

  2. I enjoyed reading tis sermon also. I am currently preaching through John and was on this same passage this past Sunday as well. Its amazing how the Holy Spirit can lead us to different things in a passage and have them be both biblically accurate and relevant.

  3. It is amazing how one passage can yield so many facets of insight and truth. This sermon actually is not the sermon I set out to write, but in the process of writing it went in an entirely different direction! Thanks for your comment.

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