I have heard people say that this year is a wasted year, that it doesn’t count. That would make us all a year younger, which may sound good, but it’s not true.
Moving into Autumn, we have shorter days and longer evenings. Soon we will see leaves changing colours and falling of trees. The moving from one season into the other happens with changes, they happen every year, so we expect them every year. Unlike the changes we have been experiencing since March, due to the pandemic. We never expected to sit in the church like this, two meters apart from each other, while wearing face coverings
But we will experience more, bigger changes in the church, changes of a different nature. Changes in its shape and structure, due to all sorts of factors.
But those are not the changes to which the title of the sermon, ‘A change like a leaf on a tree’, refers to. What it does refer to is the change that Jesus in our New Testament story sees in a man that is about to be his disciple.
A more well known story where an unexpected change is happening is where Jesus calls a little man, named Zaccheus. Zaccheus hid in a fig tree from where he safely, from a distance, could see Jesus, without being seen by Jesus, Zaccheus thought. For when Jesus approached the tree, He stopped and looked up straight into Zaccheus’s eyes, called his name and then said that He wanted to be Zaccheus’s guest.
In our New Testament reading we have another fig tree with a man, Nathanael, but he is not a little man and he doesn’t sit in, but under the tree. Whatever it was he did, it is interrupted by Philip, who finds Nathanael and says,
“We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1: 46)
‘We have found him…’ It sounds as if the One of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, had been on their mind, as if they had been looking, waiting for Him.
But maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to also say that the One who was found, was Jesus from Nazareth. For Nathanael came from Cana and Cana and Nazareth, they don’t go together. There’s rivalry between the two, Cana looks down on Nazareth. That clarifies Nathanael’s response to Philip: “…Nazareth….are you telling me Philip that anything good from God can came from Nazareth?”
Cynicism. There is a place for cynicism in the bible. John preached about Thomas’s scepticism two weeks ago. And there is one whole bible book that is full of cynicism, the book Ecclesiastes. And here we have it at the point when a group of disciples is being formed, around Jesus. Jesus from Nazareth is being assessed by Nathanael in terms of the rivalry between Cana and Nazareth.
Philip is not put off by Nathanael’s response, and says, ‘Come and see’.
What Nathanael doesn’t realize, when he walks with Philip, is that he is the one who’s being assessed; being looked at, looked through by Jesus. And as soon as Nathanael approaches Jesus, Jesus says with joy in his voice,
“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47)
The name Nathanael means, ‘gift of God’, and by describing Nathanael as He does, Jesus acknowledges that Nathanael is a gift of God to Himself. This clarifies the joy with which Jesus meets Nathanael. He knows, that what He is given in Nathanael, is what the Psalmist says
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Psalm 32:2)
Jesus sees Nathanael as he really is. He sees us as we really are, with or without face masks. Nothing, including scepticism, covers up what’s on our mind and in our hearts. God deals with what He sees.
Nathanael is surprised…’How do You know me?’
“Nathanael, before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
And now we have come to the change like a leaf on a tree. For as soon as Jesus says this, Nathanael’s objections and suspicion disappear and words of confession come out of his mouth
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49)
If being seen under the fig tree by Jesus is reason for Nathanael’s belief that Jesus is the Son of God, then that is only the beginning. You will see much greater things than what you see now, Nathanael.
Greater things, what are they then? At that point in time Jesus points to their shared knowledge of an episode of the Jacob story.
"….you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)
‘You will see…’Just as Jacob did, when he was fleeing for the consequences of his deceit to his old father Isaak, fleeing because of the consequences of stealing the first born right, the blessing from His brother Esau, that left Esau raging. Jacob had overstepped boundaries with the result that his life was not safe anymore, as his brother Esau said, he was going to kill Jacob.
Leaving his home, his mother Rebecca and father Isaac, and furious brother Esau, Jacob puts himself to sleep, with a stone as support for his head. Jacob is feeling so alone. Alone? What is he seeing? A ladder is put on earth, from heaven. From heaven. Not the other way around. One cannot put a ladder on earth that reaches heaven. It has been tried, when people had this plan to build a tower that would reach heaven. That effort failed as God intervened by confusing the overconfident builders through giving them different languages. Overstepping boundaries has consequences.
Jacob doesn’t only see the ladder but also angels, ascending and descending. Descending they carry God’s comfort. Ascending they take Jacob’s guilt, grief, loneliness. Then God speaks to Jacob,
“I am the LORD, the God of
Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…
Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.
For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15)
Why does Jesus point to this story? Why does He take Nathanael and the other disciples, and us, back to this ladder; to this connection between heaven and earth, with its angels?
Jesus does so because, now He speaks about Himself. This connection between heaven and earth, that is Jesus Himself. His new disciples were about to learn to see that, from then onwards, the heavens open, with angels descending and ascending, everywhere where Jesus went. True, the way Jesus says it is still a riddle, calling Himself the Son of Man. But what He is saying is that through Him, heaven had come to earth.
Jesus takes his disciples and us back to Jacob’s experience, for His reason. Jacob’s life had completely changed, being a mummy’s boy, he was now having to go a long way, without her running around him to make sure he had everything he needed. But what Jacob saw and heard, gave him strength and courage to go that difficult way, knowing that he wasn’t going anywhere without God.
Neither do we, whatever changes lie ahead. God’s words of assurance of His presence, His comfort, His encouragement, that came to Jacob when he saw the ladder with descending and ascending angels, those words of assurance come to us, words that have become flesh in His Son. The assurance of God’s presence in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as changes continue to happen, small ones, big ones, not one of them will be bigger than the promise of God’s presence with us.