Sermon: The Stairway to Heaven (John 1:43-51)

Text: John 1:43-51
Second Sunday After Epiphany, Series B
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

The book of Genesis paints the Patriarch Jacob as a schemer and a trickster. He tricked Esau out of his birthright and even swindled him out of his father’s blessing. But Jacob’s trickery came back to bite him: Esau was going to kill him. Jacob left in a hurry, not a penny to his name and nothing but the clothes on his back. One night, while on the run, he had a dream. He saw a staircase with its foot on the ground and its top reaching up to heaven. God’s angels were going up and down on it. The Lord God himself came and stood beside him. God promised to be with him that he would bring him back to his land in peace and prosperity.  Fast forward to our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see haven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Jesus identifies himself with, of all things, the stairway in Jacob’s dream. A stairway connecting earth to heaven, a stairway which the angels ascend and descend. So, why does Jesus identify with a stairway? 

In Jesus God Comes to us

To answer that question, I want you to think about who found who, Jesus or Philip? “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee and he found Phillip.” Jesus decided. He found. It was Jesus’ choice. Jesus’ decision. Jesus found Phillip. There’s a sense that Jesus was looking for Philip. This is not some random occurrence. “Hey, you, over there. What’s your name?” Jesus knows who he’s looking for. Phillip was not looking for Jesus. Phillip did not “make a decision to follow Jesus” either. Phillip did not go up to Jesus and say, “Hey, can I follow you?” Remember, Jesus is the same one who was in the Beginning with God. When he speaks, things happen. “Let there be light.” Boom! Light. Philip simply hears the call “Follow Me,” and he does exactly that. Philip will later say to his brother, “We have found the Messiah.” Wait a second, who found who? Jesus found Phillip. Philip wasn’t even looking for Jesus. Jesus sought and found him. The important thing to remember is that Jesus choses his disciples. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus reminded them of this, “You did not chose me, but I chose you,” (John 15:16).

And this is the way it has always been. God is the one who sought out Adam in the Garden when he was hiding. In the Old Testament reading, Samuel was just going about his daily tasks in the Tabernacle. He wasn’t waiting or expecting some mystical experience. God is the one who was seeking Samuel. We see in John’s Gospel that God took on human flesh and decided to go and find Phillip. God does the seeking. God does the deciding. God does the saving. 

You may think that you decided to follow Jesus, that you chose Jesus, that you made a decision or choice to be a disciple of Jesus. It may feel that way to you, but that’s not the way it was. You didn’t seek and find Jesus. He sought and found you. We cannot follow Jesus unless he first comes to us. There is no discipleship unless we hear Jesus inviting us to follow him. This means, there is no faith without the Word, preached and heard and read.  Jesus’ call to follow him is found in the Word. It’s an invitation for sinners like us to trust in Jesus. There is no forgiveness without the Word, no holiness, no discipleship, no sanctification, apart from the Word of Jesus. “Follow me,” said Jesus to each and every one of us. Some of you, he found in your infancy, where the words “follow me” were poured on you in your baptism. Others, like me, he found later in life, but he found you nonetheless. Throughout it all, it is always Jesus who does the finding, and thanks be to God that he came to seek and find the lost, or we would be lost forever!

In Jesus We Ascend to God

This helps us to begin to see the point about Jacob’s stairway to heaven. Jesus identifies himself with Jacob’s stairway because the stairway showed that God was there with Jacob, in that place. Jacob called the place ‘Bethel’, which means, ‘God’s house’. Bethel became one of the great holy places of Israel, one of the places where the early Israelites worshiped together. The tradition of Jacob’s dream, of the angels going up and down on the stairway, was connected to the belief that when you worshipped God in his house, God was really there, with his angels coming and going to link heaven and earth. We have the same idea each Divine Service where we confess that we worship, “with angels and archangels and all the hosts of heaven.” Jesus says where two or three are gathered in his name, he is among them (Matt 18:20).

Jesus is the stairway to heaven! God doesn’t dwell in a house, he dwells in Jesus. God is really present in Jesus. Christ is the place of worship. In our Lord the gap between heaven and earth has been bridged perfectly and completely. God has found you because Jesus is God in the flesh. When you are united to Christ, it is as though you’re in the house of God, the Temple itself, with God’s angels coming and going, and God’s own presence there beside you.

God’s came down to us. That’s what the creed says: “He came down from heaven” to be Immanuel, God with us, to die for us, to conquer Sin and Death for us, to rise for us, to bring us to his Father and to be the sole Mediator between God and Man. Jesus is the place where God dwells. Jesus is the Son of Man who was lifted up on the cross. The cross of Jesus is the new “Bethel”, the house of God, a stairway to heaven. St. Catherine of Siena paints a beautiful picture of Jesus’ cross as a wooden ladder to heaven. She even says that his crucified body is that ladder on which we climb toward God. She wrote,

“And if you ask, “What is the way?” I will tell you it is the way Christ chose, the way of disgrace, suffering, torment, and scourging.  “And how?”… To make it possible to climb to this perfection, Christ actually made for us a staircase of his body… If you look at his feet, you see that they are nailed fast to the cross to form the first stair…  Climb the next stair without delay and you come to the open side of God’s Son… Then, aflame with desire, you get up and climb to the next stair, his mouth.  There you find rest in quiet calm. This, then, is where [a Christian] finds [themselves] conformed with Christ crucified, united with him,” (The Letters of St. Catherine of Siena, Vol. II).

The call of Philip and Nathaniel tell us that there is a stairway connecting heaven with earth, a stairway to heaven. Jesus is that stairway to heaven. Jesus of Nazareth is the one whom all of the Old Testament was talking about and pointing to. In Christ, God comes down to earth. He’s the Word made flesh, the Son of God, the promised King of Israel, who bridges that gap between heaven and earth. Jesus is the answer to all of our God questions. He didn’t just come to do one or two nice tricks.  Jesus is the true Son of God, who came to earth to seek and save you.  The Lord Jesus says to each one of you, “Follow me.” Before you knew Christ, he knew you. Before you chose to follow him, he chose you. His cross is your stairway to heaven.

Cling to the Cross. Cling to it. Never lose sight of it. If you ascend that stairway, then… the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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