Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”John 1:51
Jesus makes an amazing promise in John 1:51 – that his disciples would see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. It is an incredible promise that is even more amazing, I think, when we place it alongside a very famous story from the Old Testament – the story of Jacob’s Ladder.
This story is recorded in Genesis, and it is the story of a dream that Jacob had in which there is a ladder set up on the earth, but reaching to heaven itself. And on this ladder there were angels of God, ascending and descending. And in this dream, the Lord stood beside Jacob, and repeated the promises that he had made to his grandfather, Abraham, saying to him:
The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall … spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.Genesis 28:13-15
The Lord God makes three very important promises to Jacob in this dream. First, he promised him land, the land on which he slept. That would one day be called the Promised Land, and eventually Israel. Second, he promised him offspring, numerous offspring, and promised that through one of these offspring all the families of the earth would be blessed. And finally, the Lord God promised to be with Jacob, to bless him and keep him, wherever he went.
Three very special promises: Promises of land, of a Savior, and of God’s presence. It would take a thousand or so years, but God would fulfill all of these promises in an amazing way, through none other than Jesus of Nazareth, a descendant of Jacob, and the very Son of God.
Jesus Is Jacob’s Ladder
So, let’s explore today in this sermon just how Jesus fulfills all of these promises. Remember that in Genesis 28:12 we are told that:
Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
Now, fast forward a thousand or so years, and we hear Jesus saying to Nathanael in John 1:51:
Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
You see? Jesus is saying to Nathanael, and to each of us, that he himself is Jacob’s Ladder. He is the very ladder on which the angels of God ascend and descend. And because he is the ladder, he is also the fulfillment of the promises made by God at the top of that ladder. Jesus fulfills all three promises that God made to Abraham and repeated to Jacob. Let’s take them in turn and see how this is the case.
Promise One: Jesus Is the Promised Land
The first promise is perhaps the most difficult to see fulfilled in Jesus, and that is the promise of land. Jacob was promised the land on which he slept. And when Jacob woke up, he said:
How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.Genesis 28:17
And he named that particular place “Bethel”, which means “House of God.” It is no wonder that this land which we call the Holy Land has been fought over ever since. But what we learn in John 1 is that the holy place, the house of God, the gate of heaven, is not found in a piece of land on the other side of the world. It is found in Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is the ladder to heaven. And he is the gate of heaven. He is the very presence of God on earth. Where Jesus is, there is God.
And so, the promise of land, which would serve as a gateway to heaven, has been fulfilled for all of us in Jesus Christ himself. The promised holy land is found wherever Christ is, wherever people gather in his name to worship him. The promised holy land is this church, in other words, and churches around the world. But the promised holy land is also your living room, or wherever you are worshiping with us today. Wherever you are, there is God’s holy land, because there is where Jesus himself is – for you and with you – right now.
This is so important to remember today, especially, as our congregation suspends our in-person worship services for the next few Sundays. We are doing this out of care and concern for our community, but none of us are happy about it. I know that my family and I will dearly miss being able to worship in-person these next few Sundays, and we are certainly not alone.
But this does not mean that we won’t be worshiping. And it does not mean that Jesus won’t be with us, wherever we are worshiping. He will. That is his promise, a promise made to Jacob, and now to all of us. Jesus is our promised land. That is the first promise that Jesus fulfills.
Promise Two: Jesus Is the Savior
The second promise that God made to Jacob in that famous dream, which is fulfilled in Jesus, is easier for us to see. And that is the promise of a Savior. God promised Jacob that his offspring would be numerous, and that all families of the earth would be blessed through his offspring. And when Jesus came, and suffered and died for the sins of the world, this promise was clearly fulfilled.
Jesus, a descendent of Jacob, was born for us, and died for us, in order to bless all the families of the earth, all the people, all the nations. He died to be our ladder to heaven, to be the world’s ladder to heaven. He died and was raised to show us the way to our heavenly Father, and to be the way, and the truth, and the life.
But, sadly, not everyone knows this or believes this. Our world is filled with people searching desperately for a ladder to heaven. They may call it happiness, or fulfillment, or peace, or meaning, or love. But what it always comes down to is a search for that elusive ladder to heaven. That certain something that will finally answer all of our questions, and fulfill all of our desires, and end all of our searching. But that certain something is not found in medicine. It is not found in politics. It is not found in riches, or fame, or power, or pleasure. It is not even found in human relationships. It is found only in Jesus. He is the answer to all of the questions. He is the way, and the truth, and the life. The angels of God ascend and descend on Jesus alone, because he alone is our ladder to heaven; he alone is our Savior. And it is in Jesus’ death and resurrection that we find our only path to true fulfillment and happiness.
Promise Three: Jesus Is God’s Presence With Us
The third and final promise that God made to Jacob in his dream was to be with him always. And God truly has never stopped fulfilling that promise. God has always been with God’s people. Even when God’s people abandoned their faith, God remained with them. And with us. But in Jesus, God is with us in a very special way.
At birth, Jesus is given the name, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Before he ascends into heaven, he reminds his disciples of this promise to be with us always, even to the end of the age. Jesus is the way that God fulfills this promise to be with us, to bless us, and to keep us, always.
Seeing Heaven Opened
Nathanael was promised in this Gospel Reading that he himself would see heaven opened, and God’s angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. But he must have wondered when exactly he would see all that. Heaven was opened in Jesus’ baptism – a story which we heard last week – but Nathanael was not there. And heaven will be opened again in the Transfiguration – a story which we will hear this year on February 14th – but Nathanael wasn’t there then, either. So when would Nathanael see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man? And when will we?
Martin Luther gave a simple answer to this question. He said that we see heaven opened – with the eyes of our Christian faith – when we are baptized; and we see heaven opened whenever we hear God’s Word, whenever we partake of Holy Communion, and whenever receive the absolution of our sins. When we do this, Luther said, heaven itself is opened, and we ourselves hear the voice of the Heavenly Father. And we see, with the eyes of our faith, the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
And this means that we ourselves have seen Jacob’s remarkable ladder. And we ourselves have received the fulfillment of the promise made to Jacob all those centuries ago. For we ourselves have been given God’s only begotten son. And this son, Jesus of Nazareth, is himself the fulfillment of all that God promises to us. He is everything. He is our Emmanuel, our Savior, our Ladder to Heaven, and our Holy Land. He is our way, and our truth and our life. He is our light and our life. He is our Lord and our God.
And he is with us today, wherever we are. As we gather in his name to be forgiven our sins, and to hear God’s word and to worship our Savior, heaven is opened to us, and Jesus himself is here. Thanks be to God. Amen