February 15, 2015
I suspect that some of us here this morning probably have a favorite Bible character. There’s probably some man or some woman in the Bible with whom we have a special affinity. Perhaps its someone whom we admire and aspire to be like ourselves. Perhaps its someone in the Scriptures whose life struggles mirror our own, and we can identify with them in that way. Or maybe its just someone who has a personality that is something like our own, and we feel a kindred spirit with them. My favorite Bible character changes from time to time depending on my spiritual journey, my level of faithfulness, and sometimes just because of my mood and attitude. But sometimes it changes because of certain circumstances that come into my life, some good and encouraging and joyful, and others not so good, and not so encouraging, and not so joyful. And that’s why its so good that there are so many people with so many stories in the Bible. All of us have a life story, and those stories have multiple chapters, some of which are glorious and wonderful, and others, well, we’d just as soon hurry up and get to the end of them. It’s what being human is all about: it is a combination of the bitter and the sweet, the struggle and the soaring high with elation, and the disappointment and the joy. Human life is a mystery; it is an enigma, because we cannot predict what we will experience next. Anxiety can overpower peace, grief can smother joy, fear can replace contentment. But it can happen the other way around too! The power and the glory of Almighty God can swoop down upon us, and lift us suddenly and unexpectedly up out of any miry pit that we may have fallen into or crawled into. And that is why we have an unshakable hope in eternity. The promise of eternal life is that one day, this up and down, crazy, unpredictable life that we now must live will be replaced with a life that is forever characterized by peace and joy and unimaginable contentment. The mountains will be leveled, the valleys will be filled in and the rough places will be made smooth. This process began, of course, when Jesus arrived on this earth and ushered in the visible presence of heaven on earth, but it will find its complete fulfillment when he returns to this earth in power and glory.
So you’re probably wondering who my favorite Bible character is, after all of that. As I’ve already mentioned, it changes from time to time depending on circumstances, but for the most part, I think its Peter. Peter is rash, unpredictable, given to speaking before he’s done thinking, but he’s also fiercely loyal and deeply committed to the proclamation of the Gospel. And he is also painfully conscious of the fact that in spite of his loyalty to Jesus, he can throw it all away at a moment’s notice. And that’s exactly what he did once. We know his story. That is the tension in which I live.
But this morning I bring this business of the favorite Bible character up for a couple of reasons. The first is that we all need to be spending enough time in our bibles to familiarize ourselves with the wide variety of characters and personalities who play a role in our Scriptures, so that we can not only identify with them as kindred spirits, but also so that we can learn from them. And the second reason that I bring this stuff up is because of a fellow named Jacob.
Jacob plays a significant role in this passage in spite of the fact that he is never mentioned. This is one of those passages of Scripture that is so chockablock overloaded with stuff that we could never hope to unpack it in the space of one sermon. On the surface, it tells the story about the call of Phillip and Nathaniel to be the disciples of Jesus. Which is interesting because we know almost nothing about these two guys, except what we read right here. And poor Nathaniel, even though it certainly appears that he becomes a disciple of Jesus, and is called by Jesus to be what seems to be a disciple, he never appears in any of the lists of the disciples. After this, he’s forgotten.
On another level, this passage contains a whole slew of different names for Jesus that run the gamut from the “son of Joseph” to “the Son of God”, to Jesus’ own favorite self-designation, “the Son of Man.” But there’s lots of other names in there, too, that we won’t have time to unpack this morning. And they’re really significant names, too. They’re the stuff of an intensive Bible study. And so, instead let’s think about Jacob.
Here’s the sort of wild leap to Jacob: Jacob is very likely Nathaniel’s favorite Bible character. For some reason, Nathaniel resonates with Jacob. And we know that because of a couple of things that Jesus says to Nathaniel. The first is rather cryptic. When Phillip first brings Nathaniel to Jesus, Jesus says to Nathaniel, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Now I suppose that we could jump right past that and say well, gee, Nathaniel must have been a pretty decent guy, a really good Jew, and what Jesus is doing is acknowledging that. He’s paying Nathaniel a compliment. But Nathaniel is too taken aback by what Jesus says to leave it alone like that. Keep in mind, that before Nathaniel had even met Jesus, Nathaniel had dismissed Jesus out of hand. He had already made up his mind that Jesus was nothing. Nazareth? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth is too close to home! There’s nothing there, certainly no prophet. Prophets come from away; important places like Jerusalem, not Nazareth!
But now, Nathaniel is absolutely stunned. He’s shocked. And he asks “Where did you get to know me?” What Nathaniel is really asking is, how did you get inside my head? How do you know what I’m pondering, how do you know what I’m thinking, how do you know about my connection to Jacob? How do you know that Jacob is really important to me?
What Jesus has done, is gone straight into the depths of Nathaniel’s heart. Jesus has touched the deepest point in Nathaniel’s heart, and Nathaniel can’t hardly believe it. He’s overwhelmed. “Where did you get to know me?” Now before we unpack that, let’s say that it is a really good thing that Jesus knows our hearts and our thoughts and our struggles. That’s where he connects with us the best. And knowing that should bring us incredible comfort. Jesus connects with our lives in our deepest, most intimate places, he knows what we really need from him, even if we won’t admit it to ourselves. It is not a stretch to say that he knows us better than we know ourselves. And he knows us that way so that he can heal us, but mostly so that we can experience the awesome depth of love that he has for us. Jesus knows our deepest and most hidden struggles and fears, and he loves us precisely because of those. He wants to touch us in our most intimate places so that he can redeem us.
So, what’s the connection between Nathaniel and Jacob? If ever there was a person in whom there was plenty of deceit, it was Jacob. Jacob was a conniver of the worst sort. He tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright, and when his poor old dad was on his deathbed, Jacob fooled him into giving him the blessing, with lies stacked upon lies. In spite of all of that miserable living, though, God was not about to give up on Jacob. We read about Jacob’s salvation experience and conversion in our call to worship this morning. Eventually, after a bunch of fits and starts, Jacob finally realized that God was truly his life, and God gave him a new start and a new name. God changed Jacob’s name from Jacob to Israel, and Israel became the true father of the Israelite people.
And that is what Nathaniel picked up on. Jesus knows that Nathaniel resonates deeply with Jacob’s life in both the good and the bad, that Nathaniel has learned much from Jacob. Jacob is Nathaniel’s kindred spirit. And not only that, Nathaniel has already moved in his spiritual life from being a Jacob to being an Israel. And that is why Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” In one sentence, Jesus has identified and connected with Nathaniel’s entire spiritual journey, and that’s why Nathaniel is so overwhelmed to be in the presence of Jesus.
And so Nathaniel blurts out, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” That’s a pretty bold statement, and I’m convinced that Nathaniel meant every word of it. And yet in much the same way that Jesus challenges Thomas, Jesus invites Nathaniel to look even deeper, because there is much more to see.
Nathaniel has identified Jesus not only as a Rabbi, and as the Son of God, but also as the King of Israel. In keeping with his affinity for Jacob, Nathaniel is now naming Jesus as the new Jacob, or the new Israel. Nathaniel is saying to Jesus, you are the new representative of the covenant that God made with Jacob. And that is exactly who Jesus is. And so Jesus invites Nathaniel to look even deeper, and Jesus says 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.” You will see a re-enactment of Jacob’s dream, and this will confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am the new Israel, and that your faith in me is genuine.
John does not record that anything like this happened in Nathaniel’s life. And that’s OK. As far as I’m concerned, Jesus gave Nathaniel exactly what he needed to confirm his faith. And if that included a vision of angels re-enacting Jacob’s dream for Nathaniel’s benefit only, I’m good with that. It fits nicely with Nathaniel’s personality and with his lifelong journey of faith. I believe that one of the things that Jesus does really well and very willingly is to give each of us personal and individual confirmations of our faith as we journey along.
But what I’m really interested in is this business of heaven opening up. Heaven opens up all the time. There is a very thin space between heaven and earth. Heaven is not in some far, distant galaxy, light years away, its right here, among us. There are miracles happening all around us. The greatest miracle of course, is the presence of Jesus Christ, here in our midst. But sometimes we don’t see those miracles, we don’t see heaven opening up around us because we’re too much like Nathaniel before he met Jesus. He scoffed. He couldn’t imagine something so wonderful showing up and happening in his own neighborhood. But once he met Jesus, he did see heaven opening up. The true disciple of Jesus, then, is someone who can transcend the ordinary. It is someone who can see and live beyond the merely ordinary. Let’s open the eyes of our hearts and we’ll see the “greater things than these” that Jesus promised us.