“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” was a cry that we heard during the Advent season, as we identified with those “who mourn in lonely exile here.” (That, at times, includes all of us.) In fact, they were the first words of the first reading of the first Sunday in Advent. That is the cry of those whose lives may border on despair, but it is the cry of those who have not given up hope.
We’ve now moved beyond advent. We identify now, not just with those who look to the future to a God who has made promises to us, but to the God who has fulfilled those promises. The Letter to the Hebrews begins, in the NIV translation, ‘In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old by the prophets. Now in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.” What God had spoken in the past was about to be fulfilled. John the Baptizer had come to prepare the way for the Lord, as promised in Isaiah chapter 40, and that Lord was now here.
Our cry in time of distress may still be, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” But the message we hear from John the Baptist is, “He’s here! He’s kept that promise! See that man there? He is the fulfilment. He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Before we even get to our reading for the day, the apostle John (who most likely was the “other disciple” with Andrew that day), notes the testimony of John the Baptizer, saying that he knew this at Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens were torn open and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and remained on Jesus. John repeated the statement, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” in front of those two disciples, and those two immediately went after Jesus. Their call to apostleship would come later, but John the Baptizer, in pointing them to Jesus, was saying, “My work here is through.” The one for whom he was to prepare the way has come and has been pointed out. As he had said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Now we see how important that was to those two men. They followed after Jesus, and Jesus then asked them a question. “What are you seeking?” They could only say, “We want to know where you are staying.” Why? They simply wanted to learn more about this one who is called the Lamb of God. So they went and stayed with Jesus. They knew that if this indeed is the Lamb of God, what He has to say to them, what He has to teach them, is of utmost importance. We are told then that the first thing Andrew did was to call his own brother, his brother by the same mother, we might say, and tells him, we have found “Messiah.” John notes that the title “Messiah” means “Christ.” This is the one who has been anointed by God with the Holy Spirit, the one to whom all power and authority has been given. If God’s promise from ages past has now been fulfilled in their sight, then these men are eyewitnesses to the most significant event in the history of the universe. Andrew knew this and couldn’t wait to tell his brother about it. Simon in turn was received by Jesus and given the Aramaic name Cephas, which translated into the Greek becomes Peter. Though no explanation for the name is given here, in Matthew 16 when Simon makes his great confession of Jesus as the Son of the Living God, Jesus affirms the name and declares that Peter the rock has confessed the truth, the rock upon which the Church is to be built.
Jesus goes on then to gather a core group around Himself. Jesus specifically calls Philip, who actually receives the invitation eventually given to all of the apostles: “Follow Me!” Philip in turn finds Nathanael. (The church has generally thought that he who is named Nathanael here is the one the other Gospels call Bartholomew, both because Bartholomew is closely associated with Philip in the other Gospels, and later on in John 21 we see Nathanael specifically named among those who saw the risen Christ in Galilee. Though Nathanael questions if this could be so, Jesus’ answer echoes God’s words to His chosen prophets. To Nathanael he said, “Before Philip called you . . . I saw you.” Those words convince him. To the prophet Jeremiah God said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Through the prophet Isaiah, God tells the nation of Israel, the people of Jacob: “I have called you by your name, you are mine!” Unlike Jacob (whom God later names Israel), whose original name means “supplanter,” because he with guile took the birthright from his brother), Nathanael is said to be an Israelite without guile.
And the promise that Jesus gives to Nathanael takes us back to the cry, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!” Jesus promises that he will see “the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Remember the story of Jacob, when he was fleeing for his life from his brother Esau? This is in Genesis 28. Asleep, using a rock for a pillow, he had a vision of the heavens being opened, and angels ascending and descending on a ladder upon Jacob. There Jacob heard a voice promising him that he would be the father of a great nation, the same word of promise given to his grandfather and father, Abraham and Isaac. Jacob therefore declared that place to be the “gate of heaven,” and named it Bethel, that is, the house of God. Here, Jesus promises Nathanael a similar vision, thereby declaring Himself to be the gate of heaven.
When did Nathanael see these things? Certainly at Christ’s ascension into heaven, as that event was accompanied by the message of the angels present that they would see Jesus return in the same way that He departed from them. When He returns it will be with His angels and with all His saints, including Nathanael. When God called Isaiah into ministry, he saw a vision of the throne room of God, and heard the seraphim crying “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Other places where the heavens were opened include a vision to Ezekiel, the chariot of the Lord that took Elijah to heaven in the sight of Elisha, and others as well.
When Jesus tells Nathanael, “You will see the heavens opened,” there are two interesting things we should note. The first is the use of the term “Truly, truly.” That phrase is recorded frequently in John’s Gospel account. The word is “amen,” meaning, this is truly so (or, as we Lutherans like to say, “This is most certainly true.” Whenever we read those words, we know Jesus is expressing things of utmost importance. He is investing His words with divine authority, coming from His own person. The words Jesus spoke to Nathanael are words that we can all take to ourselves. “Before you saw me, I saw you.” “Before you met me, I knew you.” These words echo those words to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” This is all done, and all of these followers chosen, by a deliberate choice of Christ. This is what we call “election.” Later in John’s Gospel account, on the night when Jesus was delivered up for our sins, He told the disciples in the upper room, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16).
The second thing is that His words mean, “You will see the heavens opened and remain open.” Since Jesus has come, the heavens that opened at His baptism have remained open for us. When you were baptized, the words spoken about Jesus are spoken about us as well: “This is my beloved child.” When the good news of great joy which was spoken to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem (really the first time we actually see
angels “ascending and descending on the Son of Man”) the heavens were opened and the sky was filled with the angelic host. When that news is spoken to you in the form of the preached word or of absolution, the heavens are opened for you and you see those words not as human words, but as Christ’s words to you. When Christ’s words are spoken over the bread and wine, the heavens are opened as Christ sees to it that the bread and wine are His body and blood just as He has promised. In this celebration we join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven in praise and thanks to Christ for His gifts to us.
The victory in Christ has been won, but the time of testing for us remains. There are still battles and skirmishes to be fought, and we are still under attack by the principalities and powers of this present age. For now, we walk by faith and not by sight. The apostles saw things with their physical eyes that we have not been privileged to see. But they have relayed what they have seen and heard to us, and they remind us that the
promises given to them are given to us as well. Just as they participated in the call to each other and the finding of each other, relaying the word that they had heard, so that same word comes to us to give us the good news that Messiah, Christ, has come and has something for us. We can and do receive that gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation, and rejoice that it is ours forever. Amen.