1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)/Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17/1 Cor. 6:12-20/John 1:43-51
This scene from the Gospel of John seems camera-ready to me—if a bit odd with its very abrupt ending. John sets the scene: somewhere in Galilee “on the next day”—which happens to be the second day after Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River. The main characters are on the set. Jesus is ready with cryptic quotes. (“Where did you get to know me?” “I saw you under the fig tree.” The actor playing Nathanael is ready with earnest effusions. (Who would play guileless Nathanael? Maybe that guy that plays Jamie on that cop show “Blue Bloods”—Will Estes?) Somewhere in the background there’s got to be a fig tree. The cameras roll. The players play.
Then this strange and abrupt ending: “Very truly I tell you, you will heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” End of scene—that’s it; we have no idea what happened later that day. All of a sudden it’s chapter three: “On the third day there was a wedding…”
We don’t get to learn how Jesus got to know Nathanael by seeing him under the fig tree. We don’t get to see Nathanael’s reaction to angels going up and coming down on the Son of Man. The scene just stops, with no explanations. Then it’s the next day, a wedding day in Cana of Galilee.
Well, what does it mean that we’ll see “…angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” Is this poetry or prose? If we take it literally we have to imagine angels landing somewhere on Jesus’s body. Do they land on his head? Do they take off from there? Or do they land on his shoulder? Which shoulder? Is the Son of Man standing up for all this, or is he lying down?
If this is poetry and not prose, if angels ascending and descending is some kind of poetic image, we’re not much further ahead: we still might want to “search out and know” the meaning, to borrow a phrase from our psalm for today.
One of the best pieces of advice from my seminary days was something my theology professor said: “If someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, say: ‘I don’t know’”. Clergy should not try to create the very erroneous impression that they have all the answers. One of the most truthful things we can say is that life is ultimately a mystery—and God is ultimately a mystery. And we are ultimately mysteries—not to God, who searches us out and knows us, as the psalm says—but mysteries to one another and to ourselves.
But, what about those angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man? What if we just insist on figuring out what it means? Well, I don’t know. It’s some kind of reference to a story in Genesis, where Jacob has a dream of angels going up and down a ladder connecting heaven and earth. But this is dream language, the language of visions and poetry. Can we interpret, can we translate this into plain English?
I don’t know. But I’ll offer one possible interpretation. I do think it is poetry and not prose. I think it’s one of those cryptic sayings that John likes to tuck into his writing, sayings meant to be puzzled out, sayings meant to point us toward a deeper meaning, toward something that cannot be easily explained in plain words; that is, toward the mystery of God. And, of course, if we’re left to puzzle things out on our own, we might puzzle things out in different ways, we might come to different interpretations. And we might never get to the end of it—the deepest levels of truth may simply be beyond us.
“Truly I say to you, you will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Perhaps it has something to do with prayer; that is, what prayer is and how prayer works.
Angels are messengers—that’s what the word means: messengers. A messenger doesn’t necessarily have wings or a halo. Messengers take messages, words from one place to another, from one person to another. I think John may telling us that Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God, is the mediator of our prayer, the one through whom the Word of God comes to us, and also the one through whom our words return to God. Jesus is the figurative ladder upon which the messengers relay their messages to and from the heart of God.
As you know, many of our prayers end with the words, “through Jesus Christ, our Lord”. The Word of God comes to us in him and through him. And our words return to God in him and through him: ascending and descending, as it were, to-ing and fro-ing, hithering and thithering. As if born by messengers, as if born by angels of God, on a kind of spiritual ladder connecting earth to heaven and heaven to earth.
But the word of God coming to us and our human words returning to God is a to-ing and fro-ing in which there is no distance traveled. God is closer to us than our own breath. God is everywhere. As our Psalm for today puts it: if we climb up to heaven, God is there. If we make the grave our bed, God is there. If we take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, God is there as well.
Also from Psalm 139: “How deep I find your thoughts, O God! How great is the sum of them.” God may search us out and know us, as the psalm says—even sitting under a fig tree. But we search—and search and search. And maybe come to know a little something along the way.
I find it so tempting to linger over the mysteries of God, pondering the depths of God’s thoughts–or trying to. Even to getting lost in the wonder of it all. But we’re invited into something even larger, to what is sometimes called the cruciform life. That is, life in relationship with God (the vertical beam of the cross), and life in relationship with other people (the horizontal beam of the cross).
As God has searched us out and known us, as the psalm puts it, we search out God—although in this lifetime we do not know him fully. And we search out to know one another—although in this lifetime we do not know one another fully. And we search out the mysteries of our own hearts—although in this lifetime we do not even know ourselves as fully as we are known.
Or we don’t search. We may stop short of the search, being satisfied with too little. Too little knowledge of God, too little knowledge of one another, too little knowledge even of our own selves.
Perhaps this is the sin of presumption mentioned in another psalm, Psalm 19: “Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound…” The presumption of being satisfied with too little knowledge of God. Or, the presumption of being satisfied with too little understanding of our neighbor—because it suits our needs to think of our neighbor in some very limited way. Or, being satisfied with too little understanding of ourselves—because we are afraid of what we might learn.
But God has searched us out and known us, whether we sit under a fig tree or an oak tree or an apple tree or a banana tree or any kind of tree. God has searched out and known us. And God is searching us out to know us and to know our neighbor. And he says, “Come along with me…come and see.”
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