Epiphany 2b, January 14, 2018

January 15, 2018

Nathanael’s Journey

John 1:43-51


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.”


I like this story of the calling of Nathanael. It’s the portrayal of the way in which a skeptical person became captivated by Jesus. It reveals the way in which our preconceived notions can get in the way of the truth, but it also shows how amazing it can be when we let go of those obstacles and embrace the truth. Nathanael will always be remembered as the person who asked: what good could come from Nazareth when he was told that the messiah was the son of Joseph from Nazareth, but he quickly came to see and to embrace the goodness of Jesus Christ.  I think the civics lesson from last week is that it’s not helpful to berate the place of origin of anyone. That’s a lesson Nathanael probably knew very well — sometimes the unfortunate words we say are the very ones that follow us for years to come.


God doesn’t just have a sense of humor – God seems to have  what we might call a wicked sense of humor. God knows how to dismantle our most cherished false understandings. The way this happens isn’t exactly laugh out loud funny, but I think its sort of amusing to think of the ways in which God often undermines our preconceived notions of the way things aught to be and provides us with opportunities to see the way that things really are.


We don’t know much about Nathanael. He actually doesn’t get named in any of the other Gospels, and there’s only one more reference to him at the end of John’s gospel, but John presents him as a faithful young man. His name gives it away. Nathanael actually means, gift of God. Nathanael 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 that Jesus was the one that faithful Israelites were looking for. Nathanael was probably the most religious person Philip knew, so he went and told him what he thought about Jesus.


What we can speculate about Nathanael is that he was a student of scripture. We can guess this because being under the fig tree was the way the work of a rabbi was described. Just as you might hear a preacher described as a man of the cloth, a rabbi was a man under the fig tree. I don’t know why this is the case for preachers or for rabbis, but apparently this reference to Nathanael being under the fig tree is coded language that identifies him as being a person who knew his way around the Torah.


And in this first chapter of John there are a couple of phrases and images that harken back to the book of Genesis – which is the first book of the Torah. John begins his gospel with those same three words that we find in Genesis: In the beginning…”. And at the end of this story about Nathanael we hear Jesus saying to him that people will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man – which is a clear reference to the vision Jacob had at Bethel in Chapter 28 of Genesis.


If you don’t know the story you have at least heard the song about climbing Jacob’s ladder. In that story, Jacob has a vision and in his vision he sees a ladder with angels ascending and descending from heaven to earth. That vision served as an affirmation to him that he was in a holy land. It would also be the spot where God changed Jacob’s name and Jacob became known as Israel.


I’m convinced John wanted us to connect this story of Nathanael’s experience with Jesus with the story Israel. As I say, John began his gospel with the same words that began the Book of Genesis, Jesus told Nathanael he would have the same vision that Jacob had, and there’s this business of being under the fig tree. We’re told that Jesus was able to know who Nathanael was because of what he saw him doing under the fig tree. Being under the fig tree indicated that he was a student of the Torah, but it may also have meant that Jesus actually saw him under a fig tree. And that conjures up another image from the Book of Genesis – the story of Adam and Eve.


As I’m sure you remember, after disobeying God and coming to realize they were naked in from of God and each other, Adam and Eve did their best not to be seen, and they hid themselves behind fig leaves. It’s not a happy story, but it’s not a story with a graceless ending. Adam and Eve lose their life in the garden of Eden, but God doesn’t destroy them, and God provided a way for them to live. It’s actually a story that describes the familiar difficulty of life pretty well. Life would become a struggle for Adam and Eve, but there’s some comic relief within the story that we modern Americans don’t pick up on very easily, and it has to do with the fig leaves.


Fig leaves are large, so they would have provided good cover for Adam and Eve, but they’re also really prickly. It’s not the kind of material you want to have as your first layer of clothing. Covering yourself with fig leaves would be little bit like wearing underwear made from 36 grit sandpaper. The part about Adam and Eve grabbing fig leaves to cover themselves is probably a line that always provided the ancient Hebrews with a good chuckle when they told that story around the camp fire.


Adam and Eve weren’t able to hide themselves from God, and neither was Nathanael. Jesus told Nathanael that he saw what he was doing under the fig tree, but what Nathanael was doing wasn’t a bad thing. What Jesus was able to see was a good thing about Nathanael, and Nathanael was moved by the words that Jesus said.  It was after seeing what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree that Jesus declared him to him to be an Israelite in whom there was no deceit.


What we’ve got in this story of the call of Nathanael is an account of the remarkable way in which Jesus brought together the holy history of Israel with the radically new way that God would be present in our own history. This story affirms that God was present in Israel’s history, but God chose to do a new thing in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus wasn’t just another messenger reminding people what God had done. Jesus became the very embodiment of God. Jesus wasn’t telling people where to go to find God, Jesus was the means by which people could actually encounter God.


And none of this happened in a manner that people expected. While the arrival of a messiah was universally desired by Israelites, Jesus didn’t meet the most common expectations of those who were most interested in the messiah’s arrival. Clearly Nathanael was not immediately impressed with Phillip’s announcement that he had found the one of whom Moses and the prophets had written, and that it was Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael’s reaction wasn’t just prejudice against an out of the way place, which Nazareth was. Nathanael’s concern about Nazareth was that it was in an area of Israel that was not known for it’s religious purity.


Nazareth was in the region of the country that was part of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was the part of the country that was first conquered by the Assyrians, and that political disaster was seen as a consequence of their lack of faithfulness to the God of Israel. Nazareth was nearer to the region of Samaria than it was to Jerusalem. It was Nathanael’s religious orientation that led him to believe that nothing good could come from Nazareth. But Jesus demonstrated to Nathanael and the rest of us that our religious expectations can get in our way.


Our faith in God should expand our view of the truth and not restrict it. The practice of our faith should lead us closer to God not create barriers between ourselves and God. Unfortunately, many devout Jews of Jesus’ day weren’t able to see beyond the barriers that their faith had created. Jesus didn’t meet the criteria that the leaders of Israel had established for the messiah, and it took courage for Nathanael to let go of what he had been trained to expect, and to embrace the new understanding of God that Jesus provided.


Jacob had an authentic experience with the presence of God at Bethel. God was present in the history of Israel, but the world was in need of a new understanding of God, and that’s what Jesus provided. God doesn’t just want us to revere our holy history. God wants us to experience holy living. And holy living isn’t just a matter of behaving well. Holy living is what happens when our hearts are filled with the love of Jesus and we allow that love to guide our lives. Jesus told Nathanael that because of his belief he would become a person who would see angels ascending and descending. Nathanael wouldn’t just know about Jacob’s experience – by looking to Jesus he would share Jacob’s experience.


One way I’ve heard Jesus described is as a portal to God. In other words, we can see God by looking at Jesus. I like that way of understanding who Jesus was and what Jesus can do for us. If we will seek to see and to understand who Jesus was and is we can increase our understanding of who God really is..


The story of Nathanael is the story of a person who wanted to see God. He diligently worked to see God, and his efforts were rewarded – he found his way in to the company of Jesus – who provided him with a view to God.


I wouldn’t have known what a portal was before my previous appointment. That was at Quapaw Quarter UMC in Little Rock. You may have seen that church in the news a couple of weeks ago because the congregation recently voted to sell the building. It’s a historic and magnificent building on one level. But on another level it’s an old and problematic structure. I spent six years trying to keep it operational, and I know that building very well.


I’ve crawled around in the sub-basement and I’ve stood on top of the bell tower. It was a little terrifying to get on top of the bell tower, but it was worth it. In order to get up there you have to crawl up an old weathered ladder made from 2 x 4s that’s 16 or 18 feet tall that’s just under the roof of the bell tower. I had never seen anyone go up it. At the top of the ladder there’s a portal – a box you have to lift up and off that opens on to the roof of the bell tower. I wasn’t sure if I could open it or what to expect if I could open it. There was another man with me, so I knew there would be someone to explain what had happened if something went wrong, but going through that portal on to the roof of the bell tower turned out to be a wonderful experience. There was a chest-high wall around me, so I wasn’t afraid of falling off, and I had this panoramic view of the city of Little Rock from maybe 75’ off the ground.


I sort of think this is symbolic of what Jesus offers us – Jesus is the portal through which we gain access to a panoramic view of the truth about God. By looking to Jesus and following Jesus we are able to gain a better view of God and a better understanding of ourselves. It’s a challenging trek. The portal that Jesus provides isn’t in an easily accessible place, and we never know what we’ll find on the other side.


We all have our own forms of misguided expectations and fears that we have to overcome. Trusting Jesus isn’t an easy thing for any of us, but he’s also incredibly captivating. Nathanael didn’t follow Jesus because he wanted to go against the traditions of his faith. He followed Jesus because Jesus captured his attention – he loved what Jesus said to him and he wanted to know more.


Nathanael’s journey in to the presence of Jesus is the journey that’s been offered to us all. It comes to us as a gift and as a challenge. And by the grace of God we will have the wisdom and the courage to follow Jesus and to see what life can truly be!

Thanks be to God. Amen


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