Second Sunday After The Epiphany – Vicar Schleusener
Grace, mercy, and peace etc.
Jesus says strange things sometimes. Our Gospel reading for today is no exception, as Jesus says something particularly strange in His conversation with Nathanael. After Nathanael’s confession of faith upon hearing that Jesus had seen Him even before Philip talked to him, Jesus addresses Nathanael and tells him that he will see greater things that that. Then it gets strange. Addressing Nathanael further, Jesus, using the plural rather than the singular form of “you” says, “Amen, Amen, I say to you [all], you [all] will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
This statement of course begs us to ask the question. When, exactly, did Nathanael and the other disciples see heaven opened and the angels, the messengers of God ascending and descending on Jesus? Is it at Jesus’ baptism, where the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends, and God speaks? No. John’s account is very clear that Jesus’ baptism had already happened at this point, and even if it hadn’t, it would be a serious heresy to reduce the Holy Spirit to the rank of a mere angel.
Is it at the transfiguration, where heaven came down to earth and Moses and Elijah, two of God’s great messengers appeared to speak with Jesus? No. Nathanael and Philip weren’t present for that glorious event, nor did John bother even mentioning that it happened in his Gospel account. What is it then? When did the heavens open? When did God reveal His angels ascending and descending on Jesus?
To answer that question, we’re going to jump briefly to the only other time in all of Scripture where the angels of God ascend and descend on anything. We’re going to go all the way back to Genesis 28. “Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he 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!”
What does Jacob’s ladder have to do with the likes of Nathanael and Philip seeing the angels of God ascending and descending on Jesus? Lots, actually. You see, this passage is the only place in all of Scripture where this Hebrew word that’s usually translated as “ladder” occurs, and we’re not entirely sure what it means. The only thing that seems to be certain is that it’s a word that refers to a structure that connects two points, which in this case would be earth and heaven. It could be a ladder, but it could also be something else. If we look at the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, while the word used there often means “ladder,” it doesn’t always. In fact, one of the definitions refers to, and I quote, “a frame with cross-bars, on which persons to be tortured were tied.” And when we consider that definition, everything suddenly starts making a lot more sense.
“A frame with crossbars” used to torture people? A structure that connects earth and heaven? Something that disciples like Philip and Nathanael saw? Something that serves as the focal point for all God’s messengers, whether they’re coming to us with His words or going back to Him with ours? All of this sounds like a reference to the cross now, doesn’t it? Jesus was tortured to death on a cross. Through that death on the cross, Jesus, who united God and Man in His person through His two natures, atoned for the sins of the world, reconnecting earth and heaven. Jesus’ death on the cross was witnessed by all the disciples, and the cross is and always will be the focal point of any true messenger of God.
The cross is the focal point for God’s messengers when they point to sin because it’s the cross, and in particular the Person on that cross, that unequivocally shows the true horror of sin. As the hymn puts it so magnificently, “Ye who think of sin but lightly / Nor suppose the evil great / Here may view its nature rightly, / Here its guilt may estimate. / Mark the sacrifice appointed, / See who bears the awful load; / ’Tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed, / Son of Man and Son of God.”
Sin isn’t fun, innocent, or insignificant. If it were, Jesus wouldn’t have bothered coming, much less been willing to suffer torture and death. Instead, sin is so monstrous a thing that nothing less than the bloody sacrifice of the Second Person of the Trinity could possibly atone for it. And anyone who claims to be a messenger of God while denying this truth is a liar. Not a messenger of God.
Likewise, the cross is the focal point for God’s messengers when they point to the solution for sin. Because in His death on that cross, Jesus paid the full price for all of your sin. He made a full atonement for your iniquity. He redeemed you, buying you back from your slavery to sin and death.
Jesus’ death and resurrection wasn’t a partial fix. There’s not some work left that you need to do in order to be saved. There’s no payment He requires from you. All who believe these things are saved, and anyone who claims to be a messenger of God while denying these truths is a liar. Not a messenger of God.
And this brings us to the final point. I mentioned earlier that Jesus uses the plural form of the word “you” at the end. “Amen, Amen, I say to you [all], you [all] will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Is He talking to Nathaniel and Philip? Or is He also talking to you? Yes. Yes He is. “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Right now. Today. Here in the Divine Service, the heavens are opened and the messenger of God comes with God’s own words for you. Saying, “I forgive you all of your sins.” <2nd service> Saying, “I baptize you.” </2nd service> Saying, “The true body of Christ, given for you.” Saying, “The true blood of Christ, shed for you.” And as you hear and believe, your sins are forgiven.
In the holy name of Jesus. Amen.