The Heavens Opened

Text: John 1:43-51
Date: Epiphany II + Confession of St. Peter + 1/18/15

In the beginning of the Gospel we announce with John the Baptist, with the holy evangelists and with the holy Church throughout the world the coming of the Savior of the world, as we say in the creed, coming down from heaven. In this way the scripture says that heaven itself, formerly closed to and against us, was now ripped open by the grace of God breaking through to us. Now today’s sermon title could be taken as a repeat of all that talk about how the heavens were opened. But today when St. John reports Jesus saying, “Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened,” He means to say that by faith in Christ the heavens have already been opened and stand and remain always open to you. That is, ever since the coming of the Christ—as the Son of Mary in Bethlehem, as the Baptist’s “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” and as He came to you in the water of your holy baptism—ever since Christ came the doors of heaven have stood open to you. They will not be shut until everyone who will has entered. Today we say that for every believer in Christ heaven stands and remains open.

Today we hear Jesus finding and calling the man named Philip to follow Him, to become a disciple. Then we hear how Philip first went and found a man named Nathanael. Notice all the “finding” going on here! Finally we discover that it wasn’t just Philip finding Nathanael but Jesus Himself working through Philip that Jesus might call Nathanael saying “you will see heaven opened.”

This against the backdrop of today’s Old Testament lesson, the call of Samuel, brings up the subject of how God has worked through many and even mysterious means to come to you, to call you to be a disciple, to call you to salvation.

Today is also the minor festival of the Confession of St. Peter, referring to his Spirit-given answer when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus says no flesh and blood, that is, no normal, everyday means revealed this to him but God Himself to prompt him to answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” So when God called Samuel, he responds, “Speak, for your servant hears,” and Nathanael answers Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

It is of first importance to know and believe that God has called you by the Gospel. It may have been God working through your Christian parents who faithfully brought you to God in your holy baptism. There, of course, it was not something you did but something God did, speaking your name, “Desmond, Marilyn, Joey, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” There God called you by name!

Is that as surprising to you as it was to Nathanael? Nathanael asked Jesus, “How do you know me?” God knew you from the beginning. You are His creation! And like Adam at the first creation, whatever name your parents gave you, that was your name.

Now I know my story of how God, in my case, remained behind the scenes for quite a while before steering me to run into my own Philips, Andrews, Peter and Nathanael. They were new high school friends. Then it was God making me wonder, “How do you know me?” that I was drawn even closer to hear God’s own word in answer to all my questions. Stop and think about your own story of coming to faith. Thank God for the wonder of it all. But now know, “that’s not all!”

Jesus seemed pleased at Nathanael’s new found faith, just as He has said to you, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32), and he tells us our angels always behold the face of the Father in heaven and rejoice over every single sinner that repents. But now what does that mean? What is this “kingdom?” And what are we supposed to do with it?

Jesus said to Nathanael, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” In other words, there’s more, always more. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The background of this saying is, of course, Jacob’s vision of old in Genesis 28. Remember? Jacob’s ladder? “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Gen. 28:12). God spoke to Jacob giving yet another hint at what he was seeing. That hint was God’s promise, “and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed,” (Gen 28:14), that is another Messianic prophecy. Well, here He is, the Messiah, Jacob’s ladder, that is, Jesus. As the angels, God’s messengers, were walking up and down on this ladder, so Jesus is the secret to understanding the Bible from Genesis through Malachi and Matthew through Revelation.

Nathanael would see that heaven was open to him just as it is to us. It was opened when the Son of God came down from heaven and was made man. It was opened when Jesus was baptized. It stands open in the gifts of Jesus’ healing, preaching and teaching. We catch a glimpse of it in His Transfiguration. St. Peter reminds us and points us to the means of grace, the preached Word and Holy Sacraments when he confessed, saying, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven.” Heaven was opened! “For we were with him on the holy mountain. and we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts,” until heaven stands open for you, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16-21).

“In many and various ways God spoke to our fathers by the prophets. But now in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb 11:1). And in many and various ways God has been speaking to you all those ways having in common the anchor of God’s Word, the holy scriptures. And He continues to speak most intimately through the Sacrament of the Altar.

For there Jesus says, “This do in remembrance of Me.” But what kind of remembrance is it? It is as if Jesus has said to us: “It is the kind in which for the restoration of your fallen and lost nature I (1) have assumed ‘body and blood,’ that is, human nature, (2) have given My assumed body into death and shed My blood as a ransom for you, and (3) offer for you to receive in the Supper this body which has been given and this blood which has been shed, in order that this memory of Me, which is faith, may by this eating be more and more aroused, preserved, and confirmed in you.”[1]

And listen to these beautiful words of Martin Chemnitz who says, “But lest the infirmity, unworthiness, and uncleanness of our flesh disturb or overturn our faith, the Son of God affirms that in His Supper He is offering His body and blood to us in such a way that with the bread and wine we receive them in our mouth, that we may be even more certain that the unworthiness and uncleanness of our flesh can be covered and hidden before the tribunal of God through the most holy body and most precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[2]

This is Heaven Opened. This is your faith ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Again, the confession of St. Peter says to us, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:9).

[1] Martin Chemnitz, The Lord’s Supper, J.A.O. Preus tr, ©CPH 2007, 187.
[2] Chemnitz, The Lord’s Super, 190.