There's Something Greater than Farness
There is comfort in God being far away, above and beyond this fallen, confused world, but in this season of Epiphany where we celebrate God in man made manifest we find out that there is something greater.
The farness of God is impressive. He has a satellite view of all that goes on. C.S. Lewis pictured it this way. Draw straight lines on a piece of paper crossing one another at various angels till the whole page is virtually filled. If you put your face close to the paper, the lines converge to the point of blurring. Get close enough and you'll only see ink marks. You won't be able to see where one line begins and another ends. But hold that paper away from your face, put it on the ground, stand up, and you'll see this line starting there and going here and intersecting these lines here, here and here. God is far above this world. He sees the line of your life and those of every other person who's ever lived. From His vantage point He sees where your line intersects everyone else's. What is a blur to us down here is clear to God from above.
The farness of God impressed Nathanael about Jesus. At first he was unimpressed by Philip's bold assertion, "We have found the One Moses and the prophets wrote of." He replied by asking, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" But then Jesus shows he sees into his heart. You can only say there is nothing false in someone if you can see into them. Nathanael was startled that Jesus knew him, but then Jesus blew him completely away by saying, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Under a fig tree is a common Old Testament symbol for being at peace. Jesus says he saw Philip at a special, peaceful moment in his life known only to Philip. It could very well have been a time of prayer.
Philip can hardly contain himself. He was impressed when Jesus showed He was all knowing, but he's bowled over by Jesus showing He is present everywhere. Jesus saw Him sitting peacefully and privately under his special fig tree. "You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel," Philip blurts out.
We too are impressed that Jesus is all knowing and present everywhere. We teach our kids to sing, "My God is so great, my God is so big...There's nothing that He cannot do." And who among us does not like to sing, "All Hail the Power of Jesus Name?" In fact, more often than not when we seek comfort in God it's from His farness. Our vesicles and responses go like this: "It'll all work out." "He's in control of everything." "He knows what's best." "He's watching me from above." We think and speak of God like some omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent satellite far above the earth.
Don't misunderstand. It's true and comforting that Jesus is all-knowing, present everywhere, and all-powerful. But this is God by definition not by special revelation. What do I mean? Look up "God" in the dictionary. He is defined as the being that is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. This is the God all men can know, indeed are without excuse if they don't know, from nature. This is the God Plato, Aristotle, and even Carl Sagan know. An almighty, all powerful, all present Being is known in Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, and Buddhism. But there is something greater about the true God than His farness which done of the above do know.
What's greater than Jesus being powerful enough, knowledgeable enough, and present enough to care for us and help us? To see that in Jesus God is near us. Isn't that what Jesus tells Nathanael? "You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than these." Remember how John's Gospel ends? Jesus tells the once doubting Thomas, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." Here Jesus puts aside Nathanael's belief in His farness and highlights something greater: seeing the nearness of God in Jesus. Everyone believes God is far away because God by definition must be above and beyond man, earth, time, space. But it is a miracle if you see that God is near in Jesus, if you see that Jesus is Immanuel, that is, "God with us."
Nathanael confessed Jesus is the Son of God when Jesus showed him His power to see into his heart. See how Jesus flips this around at end. "You shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." The greater thing is not believing that Jesus is the Son of God, but seeing that Jesus, God the Son, is the Son of Man. Yes, see that God the Son has flesh and blood in the Person of Jesus. See that in Jesus God is not just near and with you but sharing your flesh and blood.
Jesus is the only ladder that God has ever let down from heaven for men to climb to heaven on. People think there are other ladders. A life helping others is a ladder. So are good feelings about God and deep thoughts about Him. No, the only ladder is the flesh and blood Jesus. Those who try other ladders climb and climb appearing to go ever higher, but in the end when they think they're poking their head into heaven, they're really poking it into hell. The God they find by helping others, by feeling good, or by deep thoughts isn't the true God but one of their own making.
The only ladder God has ever let down out of heaven is Jesus. Only by looking at the Son of Man, Jesus, will you see heaven open. That word "open" means in Greek "forever open." Jesus tells Nathanael, "You shall see heaven forever open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." As we sing in the Christmas hymn, "Today He opens heaven again and gives us His own Son." Well, the Father didn't shut the door again after Christmas. He can't; His ladder, Jesus, is in the way. You can't shut a window even on a miserable sinner if a ladder is in the way.
The reason Philip followed Jesus was because of his sins. He came to the Jordan confessing his sins as John baptized him. Then John pointed to Jesus as the reason baptism could forgive sins, "There's the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world." Sins close and lock the window of heaven because they violate God's Law. But God opens heaven, puts down His ladder, Jesus, and Jesus lives the perfect life. See all the commandments of God; see all the demands God makes of you, others make of you, and you make of yourself regardless of how unreasonable or how right they might be. Go down that list and see that for Jesus' sake God has written: done, done, and done on every single thing you needed to do.
But there's more. Jesus having done all you need to do to go to heaven would only be half a ladder. It would only be a pole coming out of heaven with rungs sticking out. You couldn't climb up such a ladder; it wouldn't support you. Not only did the Law needed doing, your breaking of the Law needed to be paid for. Your feeling guilty, your secret shame, or making yourself suffer doesn't pay a thing or make up for what you've done. No, for God to forgive sins, for God to remember them no more, it takes God in flesh and blood to bear their guilt, shame, and pain. Jesus did that His whole life and especially on the cross. So the ladder to heaven is finished.
There's comfort in the greatness of God in Jesus. There is comfort in the Man Jesus reigning and ruling all things. But there is something greater than believing the Man Jesus is the True God who rules over all things, knows all things, and is present everywhere able to do all things. The greater thing is too see the True God is near us in the Man Jesus, to see God's Ladder stuck in the dirt, mire, and mud of this earth. Right where we would think God could not be near us in our sinfulness, in our doubtfulness, in our sickness, in our suffering, complaining, and worrying, what do we find? We find Jesus, Immanuel God with us, and the angels of God ascending and descending. In Jesus we are promised the ministry of angels.
The greater thing is not believing you can know in Jesus the God who is far away. The greater thing is not believing "it will all work out," "it will be alright." The greater thing, says Jesus, is to see God is near in Him, to see that heaven remains open in Him, to see that where Jesus is you have the ministry of angels, a constant open connection between heaven and earth. The greater thing is to see in Jesus that God is with you not just when your suffering lets up but especially when it won't. God is with you in Jesus not just when you get better but more than ever when you stay sick. God is with you in Jesus not only when you feel near to God but precisely when you feel God is far away.
It's no big deal to believe God is at work in great things, beautiful things, holy things, but to see Him at work in the humble manger, the ugly cross, or in your sufferings, that's a miracle. To believe God is at work in a raging flood is no miracle, even insurance companies confess that, but to see God at work in 3 inches of Baptismal water is one. To believe God is at work when you hear a stadium full of Christians singing is no miracle, but to see that the voice of the man forgiving your sins is the voice of God is one. To believe God is at work when crops grow is no miracle. Most people see a rich harvest and believe some almighty God is behind it, but to see that this Bread is the Body of your God and this Wine is His Blood is a great miracle.
But there's a greater miracle still: to see that at this altar because of who is present here, Jesus, God the Son and Son of Man, heaven stands wide open and the angels of God are ascending and descending. To see that this takes place even when nothing works out, it's not all right, and things don't get better, this is a greater miracle still and more comforting too. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Epiphany II (20060115); John 1: 43-51