Jesus is the Ladder

jacobs ladder

John 1:43-51

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

Do you remember the story of Jacob in the Old Testament?  He was critical, skeptical, and shrewd.  He was also very dishonest, a person in whom there was all deceit.  Quite the opposite of Nathanael in this regard!

Jacob was born along with his twin brother, Esau.  When their time had come, the first baby to exit the womb was hairy, with red hair covering his body.  So red was he that right then and there he was given the name Esau, which means red.  But before he was completely out of the womb, we hear that the hand of his twin brother was grabbing onto Esau’s heel.  So the brother was given the name Jacob.

Now, this name, Jacob, has a couple of meanings, one literal and one figurative.  The literal meaning of Jacob is Heel Grabber—which is what he was doing to his brother when he was born.  The figurative meaning is Deceiver.

How would you like to be given that name at your birth?  (“Um, name, please.”  “Liar.”  “Er, pardon?”  “Liar!”  “Uh, what’d you call me?”)

Well, it stuck with him.  You remember the story, right?  Jacob was the younger of the two brothers.  That meant he wouldn’t receive the inheritance, the birthright.  Rather, everything would go to his older brother, Esau, according to tradition.

But Jacob didn’t like this tradition.  (Adolescent rebellion is nothing new!)  So he critically, skeptically, and shrewdly determined to grab his brother’s heel again, this time in the form of his birthright.

What does Jesus mean, do you think, when he says that Nathanael is truly an Israelite? Nathanael is of the race of Israel, of Jacob; and truly means something like he’s faithful to his heritage.

But what about in whom there is no deceit?  What does Jesus mean by this?

We see from his interaction with Philip that Nathanael is thoughtful.  He questions Philip when he hears, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.”

At this point—we don’t see it in the narrative, but it’s easy to imagine—Nathanael’s probably asking, “Really!  The Messiah?  The Son of God?  The King of Israel?”

It’s easy to imagine this because of what happens next.

Philip says, “Yes, it’s Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.  He is the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote!”

And Nathanael’s critical.  He’s skeptical.  He’s shrewd.  He thinks, “Isn’t this what people were saying about the last guy?”

For the simple truth is that, in recent history, there were several Jewish leaders that had risen in the minds of the people to the level of Messiah, Savior, King of Israel, even Son of God.

So Nathanael answers Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

And so: is this why Jesus calls Nathanael a person in whom there is no deceit?  Because he’s critical, skeptical, shrewd?

But Jacob was also critical, skeptical, and shrewd.  And he was all deceit.

The story continues: Isaac, Jacob’s father, is getting on in years and is blind. So, while his brother Esau is out hunting, Jacob disguises himself with goatskins to feel and smell like his brother.  Then, with the help of his mother and some delicious stew, he tricks his father Isaac into thinking he’s actually Esau; and asks right then and there for the family blessing—the entire inheritance!—which Isaac gives.

A little later Esau comes home from hunting and is ravenously hungry.  He’s so ravenous, in fact, that he begs Jacob for some of the delicious stew he’s made.  “Give me your birthright first,” Jacob offers, “then I’ll give you some stew.”

Understandably, Esau is reluctant; but Jacob grabs at his heel—and doesn’t let go!  Finally, hunger overcomes Esau and he gives in to his little brother’s shrewd deceptions.  Jacob wins the birthright.

Here is Jacob—whose name is later changed to Israel—in whom there is all deceit!

Here is Nathanael, truly a son of Israel, in whom there is no deceit!

Are we to draw a connection?

Jacob’s deceit, as you know, nearly kills him.  When his brother Esau discovers the full extent of Jacob’s deception—that Jacob will indeed inherit the family fortune—he is angry enough to raise Cain.  And Jacob, fearing for his life, runs away in self-imposed exile.

His deception and trickery have left him with nothing.  He is homeless.  He is desperate.  He is a broken man.

With nothing but the clothes on his back, he finds a place in the desert to spend the night, lies down, and pulls up a rock for a pillow.  And here—homeless, desperate, and broken from his life of selfish deception—he meets God.

The Lord himself is right there at his side, speaking to him.  And angels are ministering to him, ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.

The order here is an important detail: the angels are said first to be ascending.  Broken and desperate as he is, feeling completely alone, Jacob suddenly sees that the angels of God are there with him.  Already!  They go up and down the ladder to heaven only to replenish what they need in order to continue ministering to him.

Jacob sees heaven and earth meet—the Lord stands next to him and says, “Do not fear; I am with you!”—and he is transformed!

Jacob, in whom there is all deceit, becomes Israel, in whom, when truly transformed, there is no deceit.

Yes, we are to draw a connection.

Jesus meets Nathanael and says, “Here is truly an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit!”

And Nathanael is no longer critical, skeptical, or shrewd.  Now he exclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”

Jacob met the Lord and was transformed.

Nathanael meets Jesus and is transformed.

And look at what happens next.

Jesus says, “You will see greater things than these.  Very truly, I tell you, just like Jacob you will see the angels of God ascending and descending.  But Jacob saw them on a ladder.  You will see them ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Jesus is the ladder.

In Jesus, heaven and earth meet.

Jacob saw heaven and earth meet in his vision; and he was transformed.

In the man Jesus, Nathanael saw heaven and earth meet; and he was transformed.

Today we sit in church, a place where heaven and earth meet, seeking Jesus.  Are we being transformed?

You see, it doesn’t matter what kind of person you are.

You might be like Nathanael—a person who is truly a Christian, born and raised in the church, steeped in its traditions, a so-called cradle Episcopalian—in whom there is no deceit!

Or, on the other hand, you might be like Jacob—a person who has spent a lifetime taking matters into his own hands, turning his back on God, resorting to trickery and deception to get ahead in life, using some people, pushing others out of the way, fleeing from others in your own self-imposed exile, estranging yourself from family members, acting in a critical, skeptical, and shrewd manner towards God and your neighbor—in whom there is all deceit.

My guess is that each of us is more like Jacob than Nathanael.

But it doesn’t matter!

Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, Christ is with you!  He is at your side now, telling you, “Do not be afraid; I am with you!”  His angels are ministering to you day and night.  He wants you to encounter him, and through encounter to be transformed.

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