Miracles, Faith and Free Will

6th Sunday after Trinity / Proper 9

Mark 6.1-13 / 2 Corinthians 12.2-10

 

Mark tells us that Jesus has come home to Nazareth after performing a string of miracles, but if he’s hoping for some rest and comfort among his family, friends and neighbours, he’s going to be disappointed.

He goes to the synagogue on the sabbath and begins to teach, and people are reportedly ‘astounded’.

The word translated in our reading as ‘astounded’ is ‘ekplesso’, which doesn’t mean happy amazement but rather disbelief and scepticism.

And it’s not just what Jesus is saying that upsets them.

Their reference to Jesus as the son of Mary is a roundabout way of calling Jesus illegitimate.

Even if Joseph had died Jesus should still have been called Joseph’s son.

He’s still Jewish because Judaism is passed down through the mother’s line but he’s tainted by shame.

So Jesus is scandalous just by his very existence, and now he’s presuming to stand up in the synagogue with all the good, legitimate Jews, and tell them what to do.

Even worse, he’s just a local handyman, not a proper rabbi at all, so why should they take any notice of him.

They knew him when he was just a kid running around in the dirt with his brothers and sisters, so what makes him so special now?

The end result of all this is that Jesus can do almost nothing in the town, apart from heal a few sick people.

Before this point he has stopped a storm, freed someone from being tormented by evil spirits, healed a woman who’d been ill for years, and brought a young girl back to life.

But now, suddenly, all that power is gone, and Jesus can’t do anything.

But why?

Was it to do with the town’s lack of faith?

In his previous miracles Jesus has responded to requests.

He stopped the storm when his disciples woke him and demanded help.

He freed a man from evil when he ran to Jesus and begged for assistance.

He healed a sick woman when she reached out to touch his cloak.

And he helped a dying girl when her father begged that he would come.

But now no-one, apart from a few ill people, has even the faith to ask.

They’re too wrapped up in cynicism and doubt and preconceived ideas about Jesus to see and hear what’s happening right in front of them – the breaking in of God’s kingdom and the start of God doing something new.

And because they don’t believe they won’t ask for help – why would you ask for help from someone you think can’t provide it?

And because they won’t ask Jesus is unable to act.

 

 

Now, I’m definitely NOT saying that if we don’t see miracles or get answers to prayers it’s because we don’t have enough faith or haven’t prayed well enough.

Probably all Christians, even ones of great and deep faith, at one point or another, experience times when they pray for a miracle, a change, a healing, for things to be different, and are disappointed.

Paul refers to this when he talks about his mysterious ‘thorn in the flesh’.

He asks God to take it away three times but his request is refused, and I don’t think anyone could accuse Paul of lacking faith.

Sometimes we have to live with things for reasons that are unclear.

 

But there does seem to be some kind of link between God’s power and our willingness to ask.

There’s a scene in the film Life of Brian where a healed leper complains that Jesus came along and just healed him, when he was doing very nicely begging.

Jesus doesn’t work like that, though – we were created with free will, with the ability and right to decide whether we want anything to do with God or not, and he’s not going to march in and override that.

We may not always get what we ask for but if we don’t ask God won’t force his power on us.

What God can do, though, is find another way.

When Jesus can’t get through to his home town he goes to the surrounding villages and sends out his disciples to spread the message around the area.

And maybe the message filtered back into town and people were able to hear it then, separated a little from the Jesus everyone thought they knew, and maybe not, but the point was that Jesus didn’t spend his time trying to force the kingdom on people.

Instead, he offered it to them, and when it was rejected he accepted their answer and found a new way to get his message out and to bring help to people who needed it.

And if they won’t ask Jesus won’t force his help on them.

Instead he goes elsewhere and finds a new strategy, sending out disciples to spread his message to people who will listen.

 

 

 

This gives us both help and a pattern to follow.

It helps us because it prepares us to face opposition and rejection, even and perhaps especially from those closest to us, because we know that Jesus has faced the same thing.

This means we aren’t alone, and we haven’t necessarily failed.

It may be that the people we’re talking to aren’t ready to hear the message, at least from us, or prepared to be part of God’s kingdom, although that doesn’t mean they won’t ever be.

There’s always hope while God is at work.

And we have a pattern to follow because this story shows us that if something isn’t working we can change our plans, be flexible, find a new way of going about things, maybe involve new people.

The God we follow is living and active and prepared to adapt where things aren’t working, and calls us to be the same.

 

So let us pray that we will always have the faith to ask for God’s power to help us, the courage to bear it when we don’t get what we ask for, the consolation of knowing that we’re not alone in facing difficulties and rejection as we try to spread God’s kingdom, and the openness to God’s Spirit to go to new places, try new things, and see what God can do.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know?

2nd Sunday after Trinity /Proper 5 / Year B

Mark 3.20-35

 

Lady Caroline Lamb said of the poet Lord Byron that he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

If this phrase had been around in 1st century Israel it would’ve been very useful to the enemies of Jesus.

They’re possibly scared of Jesus’ popularity or shocked at what seems to be outrageous behaviour – he’s been healing on the sabbath, casting out evil spirits, breaking rules and arguing with the authorities – and now look, huge crowds are following him.

He could stir them up to anything, to ignore all their carefully laid down rules, to upset the order of things, and he’s not even a proper religious leader.

Jesus is a threat to authority, an affront to law and order, and a dangerous subversive, with his healing people on the sabbath and talk of a new order of things.

And what better way is there to get rid of such a threat than to undermine it with a few words about being mad or bad?

So those who were threatened and upset by Jesus started spreading rumours that he was mad – dismissing his importance and undermining his credibility.

And then some of the religious authorities joined in the campaign against Jesus, announcing that he was in league with the devil, and therefore both bad and dangerous.

After all, in their eyes, the power that Jesus had could only come from God or the Devil, and it couldn’t come from God because God only worked in accordance with Scripture, while Jesus was breaking rules all over the place.

In this way they could justify stopping and containing Jesus, and even say it was for his own good.

But Jesus undermined their game by calmly pointing out the problem with their idea that Satan was fighting against himself.

When there’s a civil war it’s disastrous for that country – we only have to look at Syria to see that.

When members of a household start fighting among themselves it can lead to a family breaking apart.

In the same way, if evil is working against itself, then it’s weakening itself and is doomed.

It just doesn’t make sense to claim that evil is being driven out by evil.

In fact, evil is doomed but not because it’s in a state of civil war.

Rather, evil is doomed because Jesus is here and bringing in God’s kingdom.

All the things Jesus has been doing – all the healings, all the casting out of evil, all the preaching good news about freedom and forgiveness, his choosing of disciples to spread his message – all these things are signs that the kingdom of God is coming and breaking down the walls of the kingdom of evil.

But his enemies are holding on too tightly to the idea that God must work in particular ways, ways that fit with their own understanding and experience and beliefs.

There’s no room for God doing something new or surprising, as everything God does, has done or ever will do is neatly laid out for them in Scripture, tradition and scholarship.

Any change in that pattern doesn’t mean that God is living, active and doing new things, or that what they thought might not be 100% accurate.

Instead, new and different are labelled bad and wrong, and neatly dismissed or treated as dangerous, a tendency that still exists today.

Jesus’ opponents refuse to see the work of the Holy Spirit among them because it doesn’t look how they think it should, and end up labelling what is clearly good – the coming of God’s kingdom – as the work of the devil.

And this attitude leads them to the edge of the unforgivable sin – labelling the work of the Holy Spirit as the work of the devil.

The unforgivable sin has been debated and worried about a lot from the early days of the Church.

But there seems to be a general agreement that is not a case of a one-off misunderstanding of what God is doing, or just making a mistake.

If it was Paul would never have been able to become a Christian on the road to Damascus after strongly rejecting Jesus and persecuting his followers.

And Peter wouldn’t have been able to receive forgiveness and restoration to his position as the rock of the church after denying Jesus 3 times.

Rather, it’s a case of wilful, ongoing seeing and knowing what God is doing and deciding to label it as evil.

It’s not accidentally getting something wrong but rather constantly choosing to deny the signs of God at work among us.

It’s seeing all the good that God is doing but deciding to reject it and literally demonize it.

It’s persistently attributing God’s work to the devil with a stubborn resisting, rejecting and insulting of the Holy Spirit.

Many Christians worry that they might have committed this sin – but worrying about it is a good sign that you haven’t – because those who are genuinely trying to follow Jesus are unlikely to have such a hardened, ongoing hatred of God and rebellion against his work.

But what can we make of the idea that this sin is unforgivable?

Doesn’t this contradict the idea that God can and will forgive all our sins?

Well, I don’t think it’s the case that God won’t forgive but rather that it puts people in a position where accepting his forgiveness is impossible.

It’s rather like hanging off a cliff edge by your fingertips but refusing to accept help because you’re convinced that the person offering it is trying to kill you.

You would probably prefer to hang on hoping for someone else or even to just let go and take your chances if you’re convinced strongly enough of that person’s bad intentions.

Similarly, if a person is completely and persistently hardening their heart so that they see God as evil then they’re not likely to accept his offer of forgiveness and carry out the repentance needed to receive it.

It’s refusal to be forgiven that gets in the way – not reluctance from God.

For, as it says in 1 John 1, verse 9: If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

All that is needed is to turn to God, admit weakness and let the Holy Spirit carry us, instead of resisting him.

So let us not lose heart, or let guilt, worry and fear weigh us down, for we have a loving and forgiving God who longs to draw us ever deeper into his kingdom of goodness and love, if only we will turn to him.

The Final Enemy

Some thoughts on Wednesday of Easter Week

1 Corinthians 15.20-28

 

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

This is the simplest of all our Christian creeds, yet it contains the most central facts of all.

For without these three facts – Christ’s death, resurrection and return – we have nothing really to hope for.

In Jesus we see the beginning of the world being put back to how it should be, and how it was always meant to be.

For Jesus comes to conquer everything which tears the world away from its true purpose and nature as a good, beautiful, love-filled and worshipful place in harmony with its Creator.

Jesus comes to put an end to sin and evil, suffering and sorrow.

And he comes, above all, to put an end to death, the result of the ways in which the world has gone wrong.

For death is the ultimate enemy.

There’s a poem which is popular at funerals, perhaps in an attempt to soften the blow of bereavement, but which I really don’t like.

It’s the poem that begins Death is nothing at all.

Apologies if you happen to like this poem but to me it denies the reality of what death is.

Death is something, something terrible has happened, and nothing is how it used to be.

I know it’s a hard reality to face but denying the true tragedy of death can lead us in the long run to all sorts of emotional and even physical problems down the line.

Death is an enemy of all the goodness, beauty, power and love of God’s good creation because it destroys all the things that God has made.

And in the death, resurrection and future return of Jesus we see the defeat of death.

Though his death, Jesus takes on our sin and hurts, releasing us from them and destroying the power of evil.

In his resurrection, Jesus overcomes death’s hold on humanity and breaks its curse.

And when Jesus comes again he will bring about our resurrection into eternal life, where there will be no more death, no more sin and no more sorrow.

Of course we haven’t seen death’s full defeat yet but in Jesus’ death and resurrection we see the beginning.

His rising from the dead is our guarantee for the future.

And so we can have hope, even when everything seems dark and uncertain, because

Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

 

What’s Your Passion?

Jeremiah 31.31-34 / Hebrews 5.5-10 / John 12.20-33

5th Sunday of Lent / Year B

I don’t know what sort of things you’re passionate about.

 

When I say passionate I mean that you feel gripped by them, unable to let them go – you want to spend lots of time doing them because they inspire and excite you or transport you away from everyday life.

 

Perhaps your passion is music, films, crafts, TV soaps, reading, DIY or gardening.

 

Or maybe you long to jump out of planes or trek through South America.

 

When we talk about passion these days we think about an intense desire, maybe even an irresistible force, something we really want to do or have, or a person we feel we can’t live without.

 

Often, when people don’t know what career they want to have they’re advised to follow their passion, on the grounds that if they really love something they’ll enjoy working in that area.

 

Passion, though, is one of those words that seems to have completely changed its meaning over time.

 

Its root is the Latin word patior, which means to suffer.

 

The word is also used to suggest the idea of being driven to suffer by some sort of force.

 

And it suggests the idea of being driven to take action where there is pain and suffering.

 

This is why we talk about the passion of Christ – his suffering on the Cross because of his desire to save all of us from the consequences of sin and bring us into relationship with God.

 

And today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday, the start of Passiontide, when the Church begins to look more closely at Jesus’ suffering during the last days of his earthly life and his death on the cross.

 

Yet, although it seems at first glance that the passion of Christ and what we call passion today are completely different, I think there’s still a link between the two.

 

When we’re truly and deeply passionate about something, or someone, we’ll do anything in pursuit of that passion.

 

We’ll go out of our way to follow it, even if it means working long hours or sacrificing other things, or even undergoing pain and suffering.

 

Think of ballet dancers, for example, some of whom will dance on with horrible pain and injuries in their feet in pursuit of their passion.

 

All of our Bible readings today contain passion in both the old sense of suffering and the modern sense of a strong desire.

 

In the reading from the book of Jeremiah we’re told that God’s law, the will of God as described in the Old Testament, will pass from the written word, from tablets and scrolls and paper and books, into our hearts, so that we can live it out naturally and easily, in closeness with God.

 

The promise is, says God, that he will write his law in our hearts.

 

And this promise comes from God’s suffering as he sees his people betray him again and again, and his strong desire to have a relationship with us despite all of that.

 

Then in the Hebrews reading we see Jesus described as a priest passionately praying to his Father on our behalf with tears and cries in his desire for us to be saved, and willing to accept suffering on our behalf.

 

And finally, we have our Gospel reading, in which Jesus talks passionately about his coming death, and how it will both bring about the victory of goodness and love over hatred and evil, and draw people to him.

 

Although Jesus is troubled he stands firm and faces suffering because of his love for us and his strong desire to win our salvation.

 

And it was this love, this all-consuming passion, that was the basis of Jesus’ life, and which led him to his own passion and death on that Good Friday.

 

It was this all-consuming love and passion that guided all that he said and did.

 

It drove his faith, and it led him in the will of God.

 

It wasn’t easy, and it lead to death, but his death and resurrection have made it possible for each one of us to share in the life of God.

 

And we hear in the Gospel that as disciples of Jesus we’re called to follow in his footsteps.

 

This means we too must have a passion for God that makes us willing to serve him, whatever the cost.

 

We must also have a passion for those around us that means we’re willing to love, help and serve others as Jesus would do.

 

The Bible is quite clear that, as Christians, our faith must be alive and active, and filled with passion.

 

The Christian life is not a passive thing,  but must be a passionate thing.

 

Serving and following are active, not passive – they are things we must actively pursue as Christians.

 

And we do all of this so that God’s name may be glorified, so that his Kingdom may come and his will be done.

 

So that the seed of this old world may pass away and God may bring resurrection life to all of creation.

 

So that we can oppose all that seeks to hurt and destroy and hinder the purposes of God, for although Jesus has won the war against evil there are still battles to fight.

 

So that fullness of life in Christ can come.

 

So that all people may be drawn to Christ as he’s lifted up on the cross.

 

We can play our part in this great plan, in our great hope of faith, by living our Christian lives with passion in all that we do.

 

By being willing to face the consequences and the costs, just as Jesus was, in order that God may work in us and through us and in partnership with us to usher in the new life of his Kingdom to all people.

 

May Jesus’ passion, and the way he passionately led his life, inspire the whole of our lives, and may passion for Christ and for the coming Kingdom consume us and draw us ever closer to God.

 

Amen.

Ash Wednesday

A Jewish saying counsels that each person should have a note in each pocket.

In one pocket, the note should announce “for you the universe was created”.

In the other, “you are dust”.

 

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust, that our lives are short, and that we go wrong in so many ways.

It reminds us of our need for forgiveness and God’s loving grace in giving it to us.

Today is also the day when we might begin a Lenten fast.

We might give up chocolate or alcohol, spend less time staring at screens, or let go of whatever else it is that distracts us from eternity.

Not that these things are necessarily wrong, but the best things can become a problem if they push out things that are more important.

Alternatively, we might resolve to take things up: to spend more time in prayer or Bible reading, to volunteer our time to help others, to follow a Lent course.

Whatever we do or stop doing, our aim is the same: to make more room for God in our lives, to refocus on what’s really important, to make ourselves a little more prepared for the day when we become dust and meet God face to face.

We clear our lives out a bit to let in God’s light and grow in wholeness, just as a fruit farmer prunes trees to let light in and encourage fruit to grow.

 

Not that this is necessarily easy.

It’s when we give up our cherished comforts or sacrifice our precious free time that we realise what a hold such things can have on us.

We suddenly notice the empty place inside us that we’ve been trying to fill with chocolate or TV or the internet.

We find out what we really miss and what we’re really afraid of, whether it’s hunger, silence, loneliness, boredom or something else.

But if we feel emptiness and longing, impatience or boredom, a craving to be filled, or a restless desire to go back to our old comforts, this isn’t something to run away from.

This is a call to connect with our need for God.

It’s a reminder that there’s a place within us designed for God and which nothing else can really fill for long.

In St Augustine’s famous words, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.

So, the journey of Lent, though it may seem negative with its talk of sin and repentance, and though it reminds us that we are dust and our lives are short, is an invitation to travel towards wholeness and healing.

It calls us to face the reality of our lives, not to harm but to heal.

It draws us towards a more joyful and fulfilled life, full of wonder at God’s love, seen all around us in the grace he extends and the world he’s given us.

Lent invites us to experience restoration, and a newer, deeper relationship with the God who loves us, rejoices over us and created the universe for us.

Lent is a call to find new life through shaking off the things that trap us and the things that separate us from God and one another.

May we all be able to hear and respond to this call.

Elijah, Elisha and Transfiguration

2 Kings 2.1-12 & Mark 9.2-9

Sunday next before Lent/Year B

 

This week I’ve been up in my attic rummaging through old things.

I don’t go up there much because there’s a danger of meeting spiders, but for some reason I had an urge to do some clearing out, and it’s not a big time for spiders right now, so I went.

And while I was up there I came across a portfolio from when I was a librarian and working to get my chartership.

Once you’ve got your academic qualification in librarianship you can become a chartered librarian by working for 1 to 2 years with a mentor to achieve some continuing professional development objectives.

I’d never worked with a mentor before and I found I really enjoyed it.

It was good to have someone interested in my development, and willing to talk and listen about how I could further my career and interests, generously giving me the benefit of her wisdom and experience.

There came a time, though, when I had to leave my mentor behind and begin to stand on my own.

At that point I was on my own when it came to making my way in the library world.

And this feeling of being on your own is what Elisha experienced on the day when his mentor Elijah was taken up to heaven.

Elisha really didn’t want to let go of this relationship, saying three times during our reading that he wouldn’t leave Elijah.

His fellow-prophets also seem worried, as they keep asking Elisha if he knows that today’s the day he loses his mentor and has to take on the job of lead prophet himself.

Elisha isn’t pleased by this, essentially telling them to shut up and stop going on about it.

Perhaps the other prophets weren’t confident about Elisha’s abilities, maybe they were trying to make sure Elisha was prepared, but all they do is rub salt in the wound.

Then Elijah is suddenly gone, separated from Elisha by a chariot and horses of fire, and taken in a whirlwind.

Then Elisha cries out “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”

Now, Elijah was not Elisha’s father, but it was normal at that time for a pupil to refer to a master as ‘father’, so that much makes sense.

But I did wonder what that statement about the chariots of Israel and its horsemen was about.

It seems this refers to an ancient image of God as the commander and chief chariot driver of the heavenly host of angels.

Elisha is therefore recognising that God himself, or at least his heavenly host, has come to collect Elijah.

Interestingly, when Elisha later lies dying in 2 Kings 13 the king of Israel uses the same words in grieving for him, as if Elisha is to be taken in the same way.

And this phrase is also where the song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” comes from.

But, going back to our story, an interesting thing happens.

Just after the place where our reading ends, having seen this great vision of God’s power and glory, Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle, repeats his miracle of parting the waters of the river Jordan, and is recognised by the other prophets of Israel as having received Elijah’s spirit, meaning that he’s been given the power that Elijah was given – to act as a prophet of God and leader of all the prophets in Israel.

Elisha has been empowered and reassured, and the further story of his life proves that he’s learnt from his mentor and walks in the power of God.

But what does all this have to do with the transfiguration of Jesus, which is what we’re supposed to be remembering today?

Well I think perhaps the link lies in the way in which the visions in the two stories reassure, strengthen and help God’s people in their work.

Elisha was given a vision of glory which equipped him to take on his mentor’s job when he was full of doubt, fear and grief.

The disciples on the mountain with Jesus were also given a vision of glory.

They weren’t yet facing doubt, fear and grief but it wouldn’t be long before Jesus began heading towards Jerusalem and towards his suffering and death.

Then they would begin to doubt – this wasn’t how the story of God’s Messiah was supposed to go, perhaps they’d made a terrible mistake.

And they would be afraid – if their leader had been arrested and executed maybe they would be next.

And they would be grief-stricken – their leader, friend, guide and mentor would be dead, and all their hopes would be gone.

It’s easy for us to underestimate how difficult that time was for the first disciples, as we move into Lent and start to look at the events of Jesus’ suffering and death from the other side of Easter.

For them there was no Easter, and no idea that one person could die and rise from the dead for all of humanity.

To them, resurrection was something that happened all at once to everyone at the end of the world, and then it would be too late to make any difference to things here and now.

So perhaps this vision of glory, like the one given to Elisha, was designed to help them through the dark times to come, to strengthen them when they felt weak, give them hope when they wanted to give up, and to reassure them that God was indeed near them and at work in the person of Jesus – they had only to hold on until things became clearer.

Of course, there is a difference: Elijah was gone and couldn’t help Elisha any more.

But Jesus is not gone, and he doesn’t leave us to carry on alone, but stands with us always.

And, even if we never get a vision like the ones we’ve heard about today, we have the benefit of the Easter story to help us hold on to the truth that God is alive and active in the world, the mentor who never leaves us, and the one whose glory fills both heaven and earth for ever.

Revelation

1 Samuel 3:1-10 / Revelation 5:1-10 / John 1:43-51

2nd Sunday of Epiphany / Year B

 

In this season of Epiphany we’re celebrating the ways in which God reveals himself to the world in Jesus.

Revelations come in many ways.

Some are small but persistent like the voice in the night that Samuel got.

Some are dramatic, scary and strange, like the visions of the Book of Revelation.

And some build up quite slowly but then become big, as with the one given to Nathanael.

This revelation begins with Jesus showing that he knows something about Nathanael’s character – that he’s an honest man.

John seems to be suggesting that this is a wry reference to Nathanael’s rather impolite question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”.

Nathanael is amazed because Jesus has never met him and shouldn’t know anything about him.

And Jesus wasn’t there for the Nazareth statement, so how does he know what Nathanael said?

This is the first step of the revelation – that God knows us inside and out even if we don’t know him.

 

Then Jesus says that he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree before Philip called him.

This apparently small thing refers to a prophecy about the coming of God’s Messiah in Micah Chapter 4:

“… they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no-one shall make them afraid…”

It’s subtle but to someone steeped in Scripture and Israel’s hopes the meaning is there.

Nathanael obviously gets the reference because he reacts by moving from cynicism about people from Nazareth to proclaiming this particular Nazarene to be the Son of God and the King of Israel.

This is the second step of the revelation – that Jesus is the Messiah promised to Israel.

 

And then Jesus promises more even than these things by referring to back to Jacob’s ladder.

Jacob appears back in Genesis, where we find that he’s the son of Isaac and Rebecca, the grandson of Abraham, and one of the great patriarchs of Israel.

He’s also a trickster and a liar who takes his older brother Esau’s birth right in exchange for some lentil stew, fools his father into giving him the blessing that should’ve gone to Esau, and then runs away to stay with his uncle when his brother threatens to kill him.

Yet it’s while he’s running away that Jacob’s life is changed by an encounter with God in his famous dream about a ladder between heaven and earth with angels going up and down it, in Chapter 28 of Genesis.

God himself then appears to Jacob in the dream and promises to bring him back home with blessing, peace and prosperity.

Now why God does this, and the further story of Jacob, are a tale for another time, but the relevance here is that it seems to be this dream of Jacob’s that Jesus is referring to when he says, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”.

The point of Jacob’s dream was that it showed that God was there with him, with angels moving up and down to bring heaven and earth together.

Jacob named the place where he had the dream Bethel, or the house of God, and later the idea grew up that when you worshipped God in his house he was really there with you in a special way, you were directly in his presence and linked with heaven.

This is why the Temple was so important – it was where the gap between heaven and earth was closed and God was among his people in a special way.

And now Jesus is here saying that he’s the place where heaven connects to earth – not the Temple in Jerusalem.

He’s the gateway through which angels pass to connect earth and heaven, and the place where God dwells.

Jesus is the real ladder between fallen humanity and a perfect God which Jacob’s dream was pointing to.

And he makes a further small change.

Nathanael has referred to Jesus as the King of Israel, claiming Jesus and the blessings of God for his own people.

Yet Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, pointing to himself as belonging to all of humanity.

He is a ladder not just for Israel and God to meet but for all people and God to meet.

We don’t know how Nathanael reacted to this, but it is the third step of the revelation – that God has come to draw all people to himself, not just Jews but also us Gentiles.

 

These are big ideas: God knows us completely before we know him; Jesus is the promised Messiah of God; Jesus bridges the gap between heaven and earth for all people.

And they are truths that shine brightly in a sometimes dark world.

If we wonder if we’re really good enough for God or other people we can be comforted by remembering that God has always known exactly who and what we are – and he has always loved us.

We are his children, whatever we do and wherever we go.

We can stop rushing round trying to prove ourselves with achievements and possessions, and difficult New Year’s resolutions, and instead focus on sharing the love we’ve received with others.

When we look at the news and see prejudice, death, war, division, disasters and cruelty we don’t need to lose hope.

Our hope and faith are that the world has a Messiah, one who has lived, suffered and died among us, and who lives now forever to lead us to a new world of peace and safety, justice and mercy.

Living in the light of this revelation we can be a source of hope for others by being people who offer the peace, love, forgiveness and help we received to those around us, without judgement or expecting anything back.

So may God lead us and all his people to his promised kingdom, in which everyone “…. shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no-one shall make them afraid…”.