Standing at the back of the wardrobe
In the bible study after the service last week, Jenna was telling us that when she was small she would sometimes go into her wardrobe and see if the back opened into a magical land.
She had been reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis, and if you haven’t read it, or the other books in the series, then it is an absolute must. The children in the story enter Narnia, this magical other land, this parallel universe, by walking into and through a large wardrobe.
Pullman, in his Northern Lights series, envisages alternative parallel universes – and there are certain places where the border between that world and this world is very thin, and it can be cut by a special knife. Now I know that he was trying to write an anti-religious book – to do, he claimed, a CS Lewis for atheism – but actually the idea of an alternative world that is just there, but invisible – is one which Jesus touches on in todays reading.
He says to Nathaniel, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’.
In the Old Testament, one of the earliest people who we are introduced to is a young man called Jacob. Jacob is the son of Isaac, and he has a twin brother, Esau. They are very different. Esau loved doing outdoor manly stuff, playing Rugby or ice hockey, while Jacob – he is the more sensitive type - was more than happy to stay at home and spend time on the computer. Well he would have done, if they had had computers then!
And Esau and Jacob don’t really get on. The problem for Jacob is that big manly hairy Esau is a few minutes older than him, and that means he has all the advantages. He will inherit from his father, and to him belongs the special family blessing.
So Jacob, with his mums support – because dad prefers Esau and mum prefers Jacob – relationships were mildly dysfunctional in this family – sets out to deceive his father, and swindle Esau of his inheritance and the all important family blessing. It’s a great story, and you can read it in Genesis 27
God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and he became the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. And from that moment on, there were particular special places in the history of the people of Israel where God met with his people.
There was the tabernacle, the tent which came with the people of Israel when they were in the wilderness.
There was the sanctuary at Shiloh (that is where Samuel was when he heard the voice of God),
and then there was the Temple in Jerusalem.
They were back of the wardrobe places, places where the temporal visible world met the eternal invisible world. They were places where the angels ascended and descended between heaven and earth
So when Jesus says to Nathaniel, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’, he is making a staggering claim.
He is saying that he is now the wardrobe, he is now the knife, he is now the gateway into the eternal world.
If you want to hear heaven speaking to you, you listen to him.
If you want to glimpse what earth looks like from the heaven perspective, you look at what it looked like to him.
If you want to see what it would be like if heaven lived on earth, you look at him.
If you wish to glimpse the peace or the glory of heaven here on earth, then you go to him.
That is why when Jesus is around, water turns into wine.
It is why loaves and fishes become a banquet for 5000 people.
It is why a man blind from birth is enabled to see.
It is why Lazarus was raised from the dead.
With Jesus around, those angels are busy, going up and down, doing overtime.
You can imagine them saying to Jesus, ‘Lord, please give us a break’ – except that they delight in that work.
And because Jesus is the gateway from earth to heaven, if you want someone to take you from here to there, you go to him.
Jesus is not, by the way, saying that there are no longer special places.
There are special places which, by God’s blessing, seem to be places where the barrier between this world and that world is very thin.
They are places which free us to think or wonder or where we encounter peace or something that is ‘other’.
But what Jesus is saying is that if you want to go through the barrier, then you don’t need to go to those places. But, even if you are in those places, you do need to come to him.
Jesus came to earth to be that door, that gateway.
He came to invite people to come through that door
That is what he does here. He calls Philip
We often speak of finding faith, finding Jesus.
But here I note that Philip doesn’t find Jesus; Jesus finds him. In fact, Jesus seems to go out of his way to find Philip.
‘The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” don’t find Jesus, but Jesus finds them.
That was quite unusual for the time.
The Rabbi did not find the disciple. The disciple found the Rabbi. They would go to him and say, ‘Can I be your disciple’. It was a bit like choosing a university or college. You do the tour and then you put in your bid.
But with Jesus it doesn’t seem to work like that.
On one occasion someone came and said to him, ‘let me be your follower’, and Jesus puts him off.
On another occasion when a crowd wanted to make him their leader, he went and hid.
Instead it was Jesus who went up to people and who said to them, ‘Follow me’.
That is why he later says to his followers, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’ (John 15.16).
Christianity is an exclusive club. Before you become a member you need to hear the invitation – from Jesus or from one of his followers. You need to hear his voice. You need to be called.
With Nathaniel it is even more clear: Jesus ‘sees’ Nathaniel even while Nathaniel is being sniffy about Jesus because of where he comes from: ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’. He implies that Nazareth was a bit of a – and you can probably imagine the word that one international senior politician might have used. But when it says that Jesus ‘saw’ Nathaniel, and describes him as being a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit, what we are being told is that Jesus saw Nathaniel and knew Nathaniel. He saw into Nathaniel’s heart. And he knew that Nathaniel would be one of his disciples, followers.
This was not Nathaniel’s initiative.
This was not Nathaniel finding Jesus, but Jesus finding Nathaniel.
Perhaps listening to this, you worry. Have I been invited? Have I received an invitation? Does Jesus know me? Has he called me?
I suggest that because you are here – whoever you are, and for whatever reason you have come: even if it is just to practise your English – if you have ‘heard’ this: heard it with your inner ear – then you have heard the invitation of Jesus. You have been invited. You have been called.
But like Philip and Nathaniel you need to respond.
This is the invitation to come to the back of the wardrobe, to meet Jesus, to put your trust in him and to live as a back of the wardrobe person, with one foot on earth and the other foot in heaven.
I’ve just been reading a very helpful book on prayer, A Praying Life, by Paul Miller. It is about how we live as back of the wardrobe people. It speaks of how we can come as children people to our heavenly Father. It speaks of overcoming cynicism and reminds us that God wants us to ask. And it is about learning to see the pattern of God’s work in your life, to see how God is writing his story on the story of your life.
Of course, that story is not finished here on earth, and so his last chapter is about those prayers and desires that remain unanswered here on earth.
What makes the book very helpful is the fact that he is the father of a severely mentally disabled daughter, Kim. For 25 years he and his wife were praying that she would speak. Those prayers were answered, and she now speaks with an artificial voice through a computer. Sometimes Kim accompanies her father when he speaks, and she says something herself.
On one occasion, when Kim came with her father on such an event, Paul writes, ‘a little girl came up to Kim as we were finishing dinner and asked, “Why don’t you speak?” Kim leaned over her speech computer, which was propped on the table, and typed, “I will have a beautiful voice in heaven”.
That is what it means to live between heaven and earth.
But I think that this passage teaches us that there is another dimension living at the back of the wardrobe.
When Jesus calls Philip, Philip spontaneously goes and calls Nathaniel.
And when you have responded to the call of Jesus, and come to the person on whom angels ascend and descend, and when you are standing with one foot on earth and one foot in heaven, you will – naturally and spontaneously – want to do what Philip did.
You may not know how to do it. It is interesting that later, when some Greeks come to Philip and say that they want to see Jesus (in John 12), he doesn’t know what to do. He goes and asks Andrew, ‘What do we do?’ And Andrew goes to tell Jesus.
So you may not know what to say, but if you are there, at the back of the wardrobe, as someone who has glimpsed Narnia, heaven or the hope of heaven, you really will want to say to people, ‘Come and see – come and see the one who is the doorway between earth and heaven, the one on whom the angels ascend and descend’.