“You will see great things. And if you are especially blessed, greater things”
If you want to see “greater things”, as Jesus said, something has to change. The thing to be changed is not your surroundings but your eyes. And not just once. Because even when your eyes have been opened to these astounding “greater things” that Jesus is speaking about, our busy-ness and tiredness and boring-ness keeps putting a fresh layer of frost over the windshield of our eyes. And just like driving with just a small circle of your windshield scraped from the frost is a bad way to drive, so living with your eyes frosted over in any amount is a bad way to live. No, let us be people whose eyes are wide open to seeing not only the great things of God but, even more, the greater things of God.
Now, seeing God do “great things” is impressive. The great things that Nathanael and you and I get to see is the remarkable displays of our Lord’s power. Like his miracles. Very impressive. Or today, when we see the massive power of a tornado or a hurricane or a snowstorm. That’s our Lord’s power on display. Very impressive. Or when someone becomes pregnant or someone dies. That’s our Lord’s power, he who “…brings death and makes alive” (1 Sam. 2:6). Or you look up in the evening and see a beautifully painted sunset, or later on, all the millions of stars, or a supermoon/blue moon (next one is on Jan. 31, first one since I was in college). That’s our Lord’s power on display. And it is impressive, isn’t it.
For Nathanael, our Lord’s display of power was especially impressive. It involved his seeing Nathanael when Nathanael thought he was alone. Nathanael was apparently at home reading or meditating, that’s what the phrase “under the fig tree” likely refers to. His friend Philip stops by and tells him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” To which Nathanael, who appears to be kind of a jokester, quips, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”, just like a diehard Vikings fan might good naturedly joke when he finds out someone is from Green Bay, “Can anything good come from Green Bay?”
When Jesus sees Nathanael and Philip approaching, Jesus shows that he knows Nathanael already—and here’s the slightly uncomfortable part, at least for Nathanael—knows him even though they had never met before. “Jesus said of him, ‘Here is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false.’” Meaning that he truly had an open mind, he didn’t have any presuppositions or false narratives giving him a hidden agenda. This is the kind of person we need if we are going to talk politics on social media, eh?
Nathanael is caught by surprise. “How do you know me?” he asks. And now what was slightly uncomfortable becomes slightly creepy. “Jesus answered, ‘I saw you while you were still under the fig tree (or we might say, while you lying on your couch reading) before Philip called you.”
My extended family got together at my mom’s for New Years Eve. The husband of my niece is a student at our Seminary in Mequon, WI, and he told us a story that reminded me of this. His brother was invited to spend the weekend at a friend’s family’s cabin in northern Wisconsin. Because this family is only at the cabin on weekends, they installed security cameras so they can keep an eye on the place. So it was Friday night, no one had been able to make it to the cabin but him; the rest would come on Saturday morning. But he knew where the key was and let himself in. It was late and so he went to bed. In the middle of the night he hears a bizarre voice, “I can see you!” “I can see you!” He sits bolt upright in bed, turns on the light, he’s ready for whatever. But there’s nothing. He carefully searches the cabin. Nobody there. After triple checking the locks on the doors and windows, he goes back to bed. Just as he is falling asleep he hears that bizarre voice again, “I can see you! I can see you!” He hits the lights and jumps out of bed. And that’s when he notices one of the security cameras panning the bedroom. “Who are you?” he asks. The bizarre voice just laughs, “Just a guy who knows how to hack into home security cameras.”
That’s essentially what was happening with Nathanael when Jesus said, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Which is what makes our Lord’s display of his power not just impressive, but scary. Because if Nathanael had thought about it, he would have realized that Jesus saw him not only under the fig tree, but he also saw what he did when he was alone in his bedroom, and saw what he did when he was out late on a Saturday night with his friends, and saw what he did at work when he was supposed to be working. That’s the thing about the displays of God’s power—as impressive as they can be, they can just as easily be frightening. Who of us hasn’t gotten frightened but a huge crack of lightning striking somewhere close, maybe hitting a tree? And if you think about it, that next lightning bolt should just as soon strike you or me as the tree, shouldn’t it. For we are sinful, way more sinful than that any old tree. Same is true about that next bout of the flu, or cancer, or tornado—it should strike us just as soon as anyone. For we are by nature the kind of people God’s justice must condemn to death, for we are by nature sinful. Not in theory, but in reality. For we have proven it by doing some terrible things and thinking some terrible thoughts, isn’t that true. Which is what makes our Lord’s display of his power not just impressive, but frightening.
But there was one big difference between what Jesus said to Nathanael and this home security hacker. In the case of home security hacker, his display of power had evil overtones. That’s why the young man walked over to the wall and unplugged the camera while the hacker was in mid laugh. In the case of Christ, his display of power had grace-full overtones. That’s why Nathanael’s reaction was, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.” Nathanael was a good Jew and so he knew Psalm 2 which speaks about both of these titles.
Which is why there is something even better than seeing displays of our Lord’s power. What is even greater than that are his displays of grace and love. As Jesus said to Nathanael, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You shall see greater things than that.” And then Jesus defines what he means by “greater things.” He says, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
(Quick background–Jesus is referring to that time Jacob messed up, deceived his father and made his brother so angry he wanted to kill Jacob, and was running off to his uncle Laban’s place [this happened way back in Genesis]. On the journey, at night, Jacob, filled with anxiety and stress, took a rock for a pillow and fell asleep. And then God came to him to calm his anxiety and distress, and showed him a vision of a staircase connecting heaven and the place where Jacob was lying, with angels going up and down. And what he was telling Jacob was that though he felt alone and friendless and he had really messed up, that because of the coming Savior, Jacob’s situation and interests and future were keeping all of heaven busy. And that’s still true today for each of you who believes and is baptized.)
Jesus was saying here that he is that ladder. He is that ladder, that staircase, that bridge to connect sinful people on earth to a holy God in heaven. Which means that this “greater thing” Nathanael, and the rest of the disciples, were going to see was Christ being arrested, whipped, nailed to a cross, abandoned by God, and then saying at the last, when he had paid for every last sin, “It is finished.” And after three days to see Christ raised back to life to prove that every last sin was paid for. That was what they were going to see. That’s how Jesus would be the ladder to connect us to heaven.
But that would not look nearly as impressive as when Jesus calmed the storm or walked on water or raised Lazarus from the dead…or told Nathanael, I saw you while you were still under the fig tree.” Which is why those disciples and we disciples need, by the power of the HS, to scrape the frost off the windshield of our eyes.
For the greater thing Jesus is speaking about happens right here, in front of your eyes, today, too. It happens when the pastor proclaims the gospel of Christ’s forgiveness and salvation to you in a sermon. A massive storm or a beautifully painted sunset may seem more impressive, but this is greater. The greater thing Jesus is speaking about happens right before your eyes when the pastor stands in the stead of Christ in the Absolution and announces his forgiveness of all your sin, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. A kind of supermoon that hasn’t happened since I was in college may be more impressive, but this is greater. The greater thing happens right before your eyes when Jesus comes to you with his body and blood, in, with, and under the bread wine. So that you know in a very real and very personal way that when Jesus was doing the greater thing of becoming the bridge to connect sinners to a holy God in heaven, he was making that connection for you, just for you.
And that’s how Jesus’ catches our hearts, isn’t it. Clearly for us, Jesus’ forgiving our sins, loving us, saving us is better than his displays of power, like sunrises and storms and supermoons. Clearly that’s better for us, right? But not for Jesus. If you were Jesus, wouldn’t you rather have the pleasure of making the sun rise or sending a storm or doing a miracle or creating a new life in a pregnancy? But what does Jesus? He says his being beaten and lied about and humiliated and nailed to a cross and abandoned by God and suffering and dying on the cross to pay for our sins and connect us to heaven is a far, far greater thing. Not just for us, but for him. That’s his own words, “you will see greater things.” Because what our Jesus thinks is greater than having power, raw power, is having love, forgiveness and salvation for you, just you. And me. What our Jesus thinks is the greatest thing is that he gets to serve us. How backwards, how beautiful. That’s the kind of Jesus you see, and live with, in his pure Word and Sacraments when the frost is scraped away from the windshield of your eyes. Amen.