Epiphany 2b, January 18, 2015

January 19, 2015

Nathanael’s Journey
John 1:43-51

1:43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

If you saw any kind of news this last week you probably saw the cover the latest edition of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. They printed and immediately sold out 3 million copies, which was 50 times their usual circulation of 60,000 issues, and then they printed an additional 2 million copies to meet the demand for the magazine. I was curious as to what kind of cartoon they would portray on the cover, and I think what they came up with was some inspired journalism. The cartoon was a drawing of the Prophet Mohammad with a tear coming from his eye, and he was holding a sign with the now-familiar phrase, I am Charlie. It also had the heading, All is forgiven.

Now I know that it’s an official act of blasphemy to portray the Prophet Muhammad in any way, so I know there’s something there to annoy the Islamic hard-liners, but for the most part I think that cartoon contains a powerfully positive message. It’s an image that shows how much more important it is to be compassionate than it is to be righteous. If there is anything the world needs right now it is for everyone in every faith tradition to reclaim the prominence of compassion. I love the message of that cartoon.

Unfortunately, I think terrorists are people who have no sense of humor or compassion, so I’m sure this cartoon will do little to reduce the threat of violence that religious extremists pose to the world, but what the world desperately needs is for people who kill in the name of God to take another look at what God actually desires for the world.

That process of taking a new look at who God is and what God is like is actually what we see going on in this morning’s passage of scripture. Our standard understanding of Jesus isn’t as obviously redefined in this passage as was the usual portrayal of Muhammad recast on the cover of Charlie Hebdo, but if you take a close look at what goes on in this passage you might see someone taking a new look at an old tradition and being totally reoriented by what they saw.

This is the first time Nathanael ever appears in any of the stories about Jesus, so we don’t know who Nathanael was, but the nature of the dialogue between Philip and Nathanael indicates that he was what we might call, a good Christian boy. Nevermind that he was Jewish. You could think of him as a good Jewish boy if you grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, but most of us grew up around Christians, so we generally think of our good Jewish neighbors as good Christian people.

And that’s the kind of person Nathanael was – he was good people. His name gives it away, Nathanael means, gift of God. He had a godly name and he tried to live up to it. Philip knew this about Nathanael and that’s why he went looking for him after he met Jesus and came to believe he was the one that all the good religious people were looking for. Nathanael was probably the most religious person Philip knew, so he went and told him what he thought about Jesus. Phillip told him that Jesus was the one who Moses and the prophets had talked about and that he was the son of Joseph from Nazareth.

Now Nathanael had studied his Bible. We know this because hanging out under the fig tree was another way of referring to the work the rabbis did of studying the Torah. I don’t know if rabbis were actually known for studying the Torah under fig trees, but if you were known as a person who hung out under the fig tree you were known as someone who knew their way around the Torah.

So what we know is that Nathanael was a gift of God who studied his Torah. Philip figured Nathanael would be excited to hear that he had found the long-expected messiah, but when he told Nathanael he needed to come meet him, Nathanael wasn’t so quick to buy in to the situation because Nathanael was a scholar. He knew his Bible and he what kind of people lived in the region of Nazareth. Those people weren’t known as good people.

But Philip was Nathanael’s friend, so he followed him anyway. Nathanael was willing to meet this Jesus, but he didn’t expect him to be the messiah. Jesus didn’t fit the profile that his Biblical scholarship had provided him.

I really do understand this character, Nathanael. Because I was once a good Christian boy. I was a person who had a very clear understanding of who God is and what it meant to live right and to be acceptable to God. I was not always the largely confused and conflicted person you now know me to be. I used to understand what God expected. That was before I got involved with the Wesley Foundation when I was a student in Fayetteville.

I wasn’t a perfectly well-behaved young man when I was in high school, but I did my best to meet the high standards I had come to believe our loving God expected of people who didn’t want to burn in hell for eternity. I was a faithful church-going person. I wasn’t exactly a Biblical scholar. In fact I didn’t really know much of what it said, but I considered it to be a powerful good luck charm, so I usually knew where my Bible was.

But it didn’t really bring me that much good luck as a freshman in college. In fact I became pretty miserable and depressed. I’ll spare you my thorough psychoanalytic profile, but I decided to solve my problem by transferring from Hendrix to Fayetteville for my sophomore year. I was going to study my way out of my misery, and I took a full load of pre-engineering classes. I don’t remember everything I took that semester, but I do remember that’s when I had my first encounter with Calculus, and it ramped up my misery level to a new high.

My beloved youth and children’s director back at the 1st UMC in Wynne, Emily Cockrill, had told me I should go by the Wesley Foundation in Fayetteville and meet her friend, the director, Lewis Chesser. I had done that, and I took an instant liking to him because he rode a bicycle to work, but I was a little put-off by some of the language he used to describe his experience with some of the hills around Fayetteville. He used a word or two that good Christian boys didn’t generally use.

I began going by the Wesley Foundation often and I met these people who were really interesting to me, but they didn’t really fit the profile of the kind of people you usually met in church. You might say they were the kind of people who came from Nazareth. I didn’t really know what to think about people who seemed to be interested in talking about who Jesus was but who weren’t particularly well-behaved people – at least not in the narrow way I defined it at the time.

But I was trying to keep up with my homework and I was miserable. I was living off campus in a house with two older graduate students – one of whom I knew from childhood. The other one was his friend, and I considered him to be the poster-child for someone destined for hell. I won’t go in to that, but our household was a toxic environment – biologically, chemically, and sociologically. I tried not to spend much time there. I often did my homework in the library of the Wesley Foundation, and one night I was trying to do some Calculus and it was literally driving me nuts. There was a thunderstorm raging outside, but I was so upset with my inability to understand what I was doing I decided I would rather walk home in that storm than to deal with those numbers any longer.

I packed up my backpack and put my gortex rain-jacket on and I had taken one good step out of the door when this bolt of lightening struck something across the street and the crash of thunder caused me to jump back against the wall of the building. One moment later I heard this Middle Eastern accented voice come from above that said: Thompson, this is your God! I was frozen for a second, until I heard that same voice start chuckling, and I realized it was this Greek guy named Costas who lived on the second floor of this old house that was on the Wesley Foundation property. He had been sitting by his window watching the storm and he played my precarious situation perfectly when he saw what happened. I didn’t think it was so funny, and I proceeded to walk home in that storm.

I remember having a pretty frank conversation with God on that walk home. I suggested that He (and yes I was pretty sure God was a man) just go ahead a take me out with a bolt of lightening. I think I considered it to be a form of grace that enabled me to get home alive, and I think I can point to that night as the beginning of the transformation that I’m continuing to undergo in regard to how I understand God to be.

I showed back up at the Wesley Foundation the next day, and of course Costas had already spread the story of my encounter with God, and that pretty much initiated me in to that non-traditional religious community. It was at the Wesley Foundation where I began to hear sermons based on what Jesus actually said and did, and my image of God became much less punitive and far more compassionate.

We don’t know what Jesus had seen Nathanael doing under the fig tree and what it meant to Nathanael to hear that Jesus knew what he had been doing, but it was an exchange that redefined what Nathanael expected from the messiah. He had to let go of what he thought and become open to a new relationship with God. And that was a good thing. The heavens had not been so previously open.

So I’m not saying I’m against religious fervor. It’s not a bad thing to be as disciplined and as resolved as you can be in seeking to serve God as you know God to be. And I’m all for diligent Bible-study, because such study can show you how many different ways God is defined. Religious training can be a good thing, but if you aren’t careful it can get in the way. I can testify that you can become too sure of who you think God is and what you think God expects.

Fortunately, God isn’t easily contained! And I’m grateful that we have these experiences that disrupt our familiar concepts and comfortable understandings. God wants to be in a relationship with us, but it isn’t a relationship that is defined by clear rules or traditional roles. It’s better described by the sight of the heavens being opened with angels ascending and descending – sometimes riding on thunder and lightening.

Our relationship with God is far more mysterious than can ever be prescribed and I believe this story of Jesus and Nathanael is a portrayal of the type of transformation that happens to all of us when we encounter the living Christ.

Nathanael’s journey is our own journey. And what a journey it is!

Thanks be to God.


2 Responses to “Epiphany 2b, January 18, 2015”

  1. Randal Hundley Says:

    Great sermon. I saw your post on Twitter and had to come over here to WordPress to read the sermon.

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