Posted on January 17th, 2012
January 15, 2012
For audio of the early service sermon (slightly different version of the sermon below), click here
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Follow Me.” What Jesus says to Phillip, He says also to you: When you were baptized, “Follow Me”; whenever you hear God’s Word, “Follow Me”; when you rise up each morning, “Follow Me.” That sounds like Law – and the Law always condemns. Yet these words carry no condemnation. For there is no greater gift than to be brought by baptism into the company of the disciples of Jesus. Following Him is to follow in the way that leads to life, to be promised absolution, resurrection.
That great promise and gift is what brings me to Messiah this morning. Pr Huebel was very kind to allow me to baptize my godson David, the son of our friends Michael and Lindsay; and it is an honor to be invited to preach. Today’s Gospel gives us the teaching about Jesus that we as confessional Lutherans hold in common across all our congregations: “You are the Son of God.” This is the content of the faith delivered to little David in baptism. Michael and Lindsay, you have a command from God to keep instructing David in this faith, along with Charlie and Molly. Every father is to teach his household the faith. That’s why you have a Christian school here at Messiah: to impart this faith, “Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, who saves us from sin, death, and the devil”—you pass that faith on to all the children that come under your care. I toured your school on Friday, attending chapel and meeting your principal and teachers. You should be very proud of your school, and pray that it allows you to confess to many people this great confession, “You are the Son of God, the king of Israel.”
Now on today’s Gospel, to fully understand it you must know the backstory. It begins with the birth of Esau and Jacob, twin boys, sons of the great patriarch Isaac. Isaac’s son Jacob came out of the womb grasping his brother’s ankle. This is why he is given the name “Jacob,” which is from a Hebrew word meaning deceitful. Jacob later lived up to the meaning of his name, “deceitful,” by deceiving his father Isaac, stealing the paternal blessing from his brother by pretending to be Esau.
Fleeing the wrath of his brother, Jacob received a dream where he saw a ladder reaching to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. At the same time, God gave Jacob the promise that in his Seed—his offspring, through a male child born to Jacob’s line—all the families of the earth would be blessed.
This promise of the Seed is the central motif of the book of Genesis, and it becomes the theme of all Holy Scripture: From Adam to Seth, down to Noah, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, down to Jesse, to David, to Solomon, all the way down to Joseph of Nazareth, son of David, who becomes the adoptive father of Mary’s Son when he gives to the Child the name commanded by the angel: JESUS, which means, “The LORD saves.”
Later, when Jacob had to flee from his father-in-law’s house, on his journey he learned that his brother Esau was coming to meet him. Jacob, terrified, feared his brother would kill him. At this point, Jacob does what we all should do in any trouble: he stopped and prayed. And his prayer is one of the most beautiful in all of God’s Word. He said, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth that You have shown to your servant” (Genesis 32.10).
A “man from heaven” comes and wrestles with Jacob all that night. At the conclusion of the night’s struggle, the man, who is the LORD, gives Jacob a new name: Israel, “Man who sees God.”
So, “Jacob” means deceit, deceiver, but an “Israelite” is a man who sees God, someone under God’s favor, love, mercy, blessing, protection. With the new name comes a blessing, an absolution for Jacob’s sin, his life of deceit and treachery.
So what do we have so far? Jacob means deceit, deceiver; Jacob receives a vision of a ladder going from earth to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending; and finally his name is changed from Jacob to Israel. That’s the background to what we heard in the Gospel: Jesus sees Nathanael coming, and says, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” He then tells him that he will see the angels of God ascending and descending, not on a ladder like Jacob, but on the Son of Man.
Let’s take the first part. “Behold, an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.” Can that be said of you? Is there deceit in you? You know how you have deceived others: pretending to be what you are not; giving the appearance of piety and morality when in truth you are impious and corrupt. You have hidden your sins from your wife, your pastor, your parents, your friends. You even imagine that the things done in darkness and in the perverted corners of your mind are hidden from God. But all things are open to the eyes of Him to whom you must give an account.
If you say you have no sin, you have deceived yourself and the truth is not in you. If you say your sins are not serious, you have deceived yourself and the truth is not in you. If you say your sins are a problem you can manage, that you can improve and climb your way up the ladder of morality, spirituality, and sanctification, you have deceived yourself and the truth is not in. This is the great error of that well-intended song, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” Catchy song, false doctrine. You cannot ascend the ladder! If there were a ladder from man to God, you could not climb a single rung.
But thanks be to God! What you could never do, God in Christ Jesus has done for you. From Christmas through Epiphany, this has been the message of your congregation and mine: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Because we men of flesh and bone could never climb Jacob’s ladder and ascend up into heaven, the Word, the eternal Son of God, took on our flesh and came among us. And now in Christ Jesus, the great mystery of the heavenly ladder, hidden for ages, glimpsed by Jacob, is revealed by Jesus to Nathanael: “Hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
What does this mean? Just this: In Christ Jesus, God and man are one person. He is true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary. The angels have seen Him in the heights of the heavens, ruling the universe, and they have also seen Him in the lowest depths of the earth, born in a stable.
What did the angels sing when Jesus was born? They sang about Him in heaven—Glory to God in the highest—and they sang about Him now on the earth—and on earth peace, goodwill toward men. And this is the great mystery of Christmas and Epiphany, that God in the highest heavens would condescend to take on our human nature, suffer every humiliation and degradation, that He would come to His own and have His own receive Him not. And in this great mystery is also unfathomable grace: that He would do it for us deceitful men, filled with guile, entirely unworthy of the least of His mercies and truth.
Finally then at the death of Jesus, a ladder is built from the wood of the cross. There we who could not attain to God, who could not keep ourselves alive, who could only watch each successive generation of father to son perish and be buried in the earth—there on the ladder of the cross we see the portal to heaven opened, not by what we accomplish but by His blood which cleanses us from all sins.
That cleansing came to David this morning, and came to you at your baptism. When Christ became man, heaven opened and the angels sang. When He was baptized, heaven opened, the Father spoke His blessing, and the Holy Spirit descended. Heaven is opened to pour down grace, and neither death nor devil, not even your own past sins, can close it. The cross is now the heavenly ladder, not for you and me to climb, but the ladder by which Christ rescues us and pulls out of the grave, hell, and every misfortune.
So when Jesus said to Phillip, to little David, and to all of us, “Follow Me,” He invites us to be joined to Him and He to us, where heaven is opened, where death and devil, sin and hell have lost their sting and power. Therefore we Christians cry out with great joy to Jesus just as we heard in the Gospel: “You are the Son of God, the king of Israel.”
God bless you, brothers and sisters at Messiah, to follow Jesus with joy, knowing that in Jesus’ incarnation and cross, Jacob’s ladder, the portal to heaven, is now opened to you. +INJ+