john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Nathaniel and the new vision of God

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion 18/1/2009

    Revelation 5.1-10, John 1.43-end

    You remember the story of the vision of Jacob: who went out on a journey and that night put a stone under his head and lay down to sleep.
    And he 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. And the Lord stood beside him and said, 'I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you 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. [Genesis 28.12-14]
    This story was written on the hearts of the people of Israel, people like Nathaniel in Jesus' day, and is still written on the hearts of the people of Israel today, because of the promise it gives them of a land they can see as their own.

    The place where Jacob laid his head that night was in a town called Luz. But his dream made Jacob see Luz in a new way, and so he immediately decided to rename it Bethel, which means the "house of God". "This is the house of God," he said, "This is the gate of heaven."

    That place lies twelve miles north of Jerusalem and today it is called Beitin, a Palestinian town in the West Bank. In ancient times it became a Christian settlement; today its 3,000 inhabitants are entirely Muslim.

    Very close nearby it is an Israeli settlement called Beit El, built in 1997 and occupied by about 1,200 families. Most of them are associated with the Religious Zionist Movement, who believe that since the land of Israel was given to the ancient Israelites by God, the right of the Jews to that land is permanent and nonnegotiable. That belief justifies the efforts to build a Jewish state in the land of Israel. [1]

    The story of Bethel - Luz, Beitin, Beit El - illustrates what we know very well: there are many different ways of seeing... places; people too.

    In today's gospel story Jesus teaches us about our ways of seeing.

    You know the story of Jesus and Nathaniel. Nathaniel whose friend Philip said to him, 'We have found the one who Moses and the prophets wrote about, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.' Nathanael couldn't see the connection that Philip was making, it seemed ridiculous to him, and so he replied to his friend, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' But when he met Jesus, Nathaniel stopped being sceptical and started to see things differently.

    Seeing how Jesus had worked him out immediately, Nathaniel realised how special and insightful Jesus was, and said, 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!' Jesus responded by promising that he would help Nathaniel to see 'heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.'

    Jesus - very graciously - taught Nathaniel a very big lesson that day. As well as teaching him to see Nazareth in a different way - yes, something good can come out of Nazareth, yes, even the Son of God can come out of Nazareth - Jesus taught Nathaniel something profound about the way Nathaniel should see Jesus.

    'Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!' Nathaniel had said at first.

    'You will see greater things than these', Jesus had replied. 'Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.'

    Nathaniel, the Israelite, saw the Son of God as the King of Israel.
    Jesus, the Son of God, saw himself as The Son of Man.

    Where Jacob saw a ladder connecting earth and heaven, with angels of God ascending and descending on it, as a sign that God would give the land to Jacob's people, Jesus invited Nathaniel to see something quite different. No ladder in this new vision, instead Jesus described 'heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.'

    In this new vision it is not a ladder which connects earth and heaven, it is Jesus himself, the Son of Man, who connects earth and heaven. He's not the King of Israel. He is the link between The Father and all of humankind.

    If Jesus was the King of Israel then he would belong to one place in particular and would bring blessing to just that one community.

    As Jesus is The Son of Man then he belongs to all places in the world and yearns to bring blessing to everybody.

    No-one had known God like this before. A God not tied down to territory but universal. A God not attached specially to one particular race or people but completely open to all. This is the great truth to which Nathaniel opened his eyes that day.

    Now I'm nowhere near clever enough to turn these thoughts into a clear and fair-minded interpretation of what is going on in Israel-Palestine today. This is an area of the world where three major religions and numerous secular political parties meet and interact in very complicated ways. It would be insensitive and unhelpful and too simplistic anyway to suggest that the problems can be solved just by turning to Jesus. I suspect that each of those great religions have stories like this one which can each help those who want to turn to God in the search for peace. The story of Nathaniel is one of them.

    At this present time all we can do is protest and pray. Our friend Garth Hewitt, who performed here recently, last weekend opened the biggest ever pro-Palestinian rally in the UK with a call for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the siege of Gaza. Garth was the first speaker to take to the stage in front of 100,000 people in Hyde Park, London, and he said: "Israel we've had enough, enough of your brutality, enough of your war on children, enough of your relentless bombings, enough of your killings, enough is enough."

    Afterwards he said, "I was asked to open the rally and felt it was important that as Christians we show solidarity with the Palestinians suffering in Gaza... It is vital at this time that the church links with Muslims and Jews to call for an end to the horrors. People are watching the news and witnessing the total erosion of any respect for life or international law. Children are being bombed and terrorised. We must have an immediate ceasefire." [2]

    All we can do is protest and pray. The story of Jesus and Nathaniel might help us in our prayers. Remember how Nathaniel seemed to sneer at the idea that the Son of God could come out of Nazareth. And remember also Jesus's funny reply: 'Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!'

    The word 'Israelite' means, One Who Can See God. Jesus's sideways comment tells us that Nathaniel couldn't see God at all, at that time. But by making a little joke of it, by being playful, Jesus made it possible for Nathaniel's eyes and heart to be opened to himself.

    For the sake of the suffering people of Israel-Palestine today we must pray that people there will have their eyes opened again to see God - not a God who belongs to one place in particular and can bring blessings to just that one community; rather a God who belongs to all places in the world and yearns to bring blessing to everybody.

    Isaiah, the great prophet of Israel, once had a vision from God which was very negative, despairing. God told him,
    Go and say to this people: 'Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.' Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed. [Isaiah 6:8-10]
    God knows, there will sadly always be people who just will not see God, or just will not see other people, in an open, generous, giving and forgiving way.

    But the prophet John, in Revelation, foresaw that 'saints from every tribe and language and people and nation' could, and will, come together in God.

    This is what Nathaniel saw, in the end, once he'd met Jesus, and had his eyes opened. We can hopefully, or confidently, pray for people and leaders in the troubled Middle East, to emerge with the same vision in the days and weeks ahead.


    [1] References to Beitin and Beit El from Wikipedia
    [2]Garth Hewitt opens biggest ever Gaza rally, Amos Trust website, 12 January 2009