(a sermon for January 14, 2018, the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, based on John 1:43-51
It’s a scene that’s repeated itself, actually, quite a number of times over the years I’ve spent as a pastor. Maybe it’s after a funeral, or at a wedding, or on a hospital visit; or else in the midst of some conversation where the subject of my particular vocation comes up: someone will say to me, very sincerely, “You know, I like you… you’re normal.”
Ummmm… thank you?
“Yeah,” they’ll go on to say, “you’re not like those other fire-and-brimstone-head-in-the-clouds-holier-than-thou types of preachers! You seem like regular people, and I could really get behind a pastor like that!” Okay, I’m thinking, I’ll take that as a compliment… not to mention this may be a chance for some meaningful dialogue between this person and me. Could be that this conversation had suddenly become an opportunity for Christian outreach; maybe this is the moment this person gets to truly hear the Word of God; perhaps the Spirit has moved in just such a way that he or she is introduced to Jesus Christ! Who knows; maybe I’ll even get them to come to worship sometime!
But then, usually before I even have a chance to get a word out, they’ll add these words that bring everything to a screeching halt: “But just don’t ever invite me to church. You’re fine and all, but I’m just not that much into religion!”
Oh, well… but I guess as the saying goes, you win some, you lose some… but as it turns out, some people don’t even want to play the game! I also think that’s why, as I’ve been revisiting it this week, I’ve felt like our scripture reading for this morning sounded so very familiar!
You see, each year during the Epiphany season, we in the church return to the gospel accounts of Jesus calling the twelve disciples; and like most of you, I suspect, I love those stories! I love them not only for their truth, but also their beauty and simplicity: Simon and Andrew are fishing along the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus comes along, saying, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:17) And immediately, they both leave everything to follow Jesus; as do James and John and the rest. John’s gospel tells the story a little differently, of course, with two of John the Baptist’s disciples inquiring of Jesus where he was staying; but there we hear Jesus’ simple answer for the first time: “Come and See.” (1:39) It’s all so poetic and so wonderfully and immediately life-changing; and, for me at least, it expresses everything that an encounter with the Lord ought to be!
But then there’s the calling of Nathanael; good ol’ skeptical, sarcastic and – dare I say – even snarky Nathanael! David Lose points out in an article on this passage that while in today’s culture it’s not at all unusual to hear sarcasm get used to make a point (in fact, way too much these days, I would say!), it’s rare to hear it used in scripture. But as we heard it from John’s gospel this morning what’s the first thing that Nathanael says when he’s approached by Philip, already a disciple, about this amazing man “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” this “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth?” It’s a smart-aleck comment about Jesus’ hometown: Come on… “can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Simply put, where Jesus was concerned, Nathanael really had little or no interest in even meeting the guy! As far as Nathanael knew, Jesus was merely another self-appointed teacher from some little backwoods town. A prophet? Not likely! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? Please! Don’t even waste my time, says Nathanael. And that might well have been the end of it; but no, Philip wasn’t going to take this for a response, and simply says to Nathanael, “Come and see.” Just come and see… what do you have to lose?
And that, for Nathanael – as well as for all of us who sometimes wonder what all of what we do in the church is for, and why – that’s where this story gets very interesting.
Nathanael does decide to follow Philip to see Jesus, and as Jesus sees Nathanael coming, he offers up a bit of a quip of his own: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is not deceit,” or, as The Message puts it, with “not a false bone in his body.” Jesus, you see, was referring back to the Old Testament story of Jacob, whose name eventually became Israel and who, if you know the story, was anything but a man without deceit! It was a good natured joke on Jesus’ part, an ice-breaker, if you will; but ultimately it was something more. And Nathanael must have sensed that, because his answer was to ask, no doubt defensively, “How do you know that? How do you know me? You don’t know my life!”
And that’s when Jesus says the thing to Nathanael that makes all the difference: before Philip even brought you here, “I saw you under the fig tree.” Now, understand that this more than Jesus confessing that he’d seen Nathanael “around” Galilee. You see, in Jesus’ time, the image of someone sitting under a fig tree was synonymous with a that of someone both seeking – and imparting – spiritual knowledge. It was not uncommon to see a rabbi – a teacher of the law – teaching his students the precepts of faith under the shade of the fig tree; and so, for Nathanael to be seen “under the fig tree” was immediately to suggest that he was longing for something more than just the here and now of daily life. He wanted peace, and consolation; he needed the wholeness of divine blessing, and to truly know righteousness.
We know what that’s like, don’t we? You and I might not understand why or how it should come about; but we do know that we need it, that we want it, that we yearn for it: this assurance that everything in our life and living… somehow makes sense and has greater meaning and purpose. We want to know that our faithfulness means something, and that the love and kindness we espouse makes a difference in the world; speaking personally and globally – and most especially, spiritually – we want everything to come out good in the end! Perhaps we don’t always express it in exactly this way, but in and through it all, we have this desire that heaven and earth come… together!
As John tells the story, when Jesus says this about the fig tree immediately something changes for Nathanael; it’s like for him a light suddenly flickering to brightness! In fact, if we correctly understand the meaning of the word “epiphany” as light and a higher level of spiritual awareness, then it’s clear that Nathanael had an epiphany! We don’t know exactly why or what it was about the fig tree analogy that got him; all we know is that now Nathanael is a follower of Jesus. “Rabbi,” he says, hardly believing that the words are coming out of his mouth, “you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Granted, it does seem like a all-too sudden reversal of what must have been a lifelong level of skepticism on Nathanael’s part; but then, isn’t that the nature of faith, that oftentimes it’s not the logical or provable theorem that convinces us to embrace God’s presence and power; that it’s not always the sign or the miracle that will convince us to follow the Lord, or to find religion, or to go to church (!). Sometimes it’s simple a new awareness of something more… to life, to living, to ourselves… than what we ever sensed before. Faith is less of a conviction than it is an experience, friends; and the thing is, so often that experience begins with that loving and gracious invitation to “come and see!”
But wait… there’s more…
I love how John’s account of Nathanael’s call does not, in fact, end with his confession as Jesus as the Son of God; that Jesus answers back to Nathaniel by asking, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” Because Nathanael, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! And Jesus goes on to talk about how Nathanael’s going to see the heavens opened, and “the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” just like Jacob’s Ladder of old! Get ready, Nathanael, because it’s all going to happen, and much more! Come and see, yes, but come… and be… be part of it!
I think that this is the thing that most of us forget about our confession of faith: that it represents not a destination, but a journey. Martin Luther (the Protestant Reformer!) said it very well, I think: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”
Jesus calls us: o’er the tumult, o’er life’s wild restless sea, in and through the joys and all of the great challenges – and sorrows – of human life. But he does not call us to one defining moment or one, all-purpose answer or to a single, pithy response to all of life’s persistent questions; Jesus, in fact, calls us to follow him. To come and see who he is and what he teaches, and what wonders he imparts; but then, just as importantly, to come and be… to quote David Lose one more time, to “be what God has called you. Be the person the world needs. Be all you can be. Be the beloved child of God” who invites others to the same kind of transformative experience you’ve known along your own journey with Jesus Christ on the way. Always remember, friends, that while faith begins with believing, it certainly doesn’t end there. Faith also means becoming; and that is not only true for each one of us, but also for every single person out there who finds themselves beneath a shady fig tree.
You know, over the years I’ve come up with a lot of responses for people who, while they might like me alright, are quick to dismiss what and who I represent. Sometimes, for instance, I like to point out that it’s okay to be skeptical of religion, because religion is easy, and it’s faith that really matters; other times, if they make a point of saying they don’t like organized religion and I’m feeling particularly snarky that day, I simply invite them to church anyway, because we “haven’t gotten ourselves organized yet!” Mostly, to be honest, I just go on with the conversation, hoping and praying that our dialogue about things faith-related and in some small way, my example, might spark something in them later on. You know what I’m saying; even as pastors, we don’t want the conversation to become somehow awkward, do we? It’s the same for all of us; but what we’re reminded here this morning is that it doesn’t have to be that way
What would it be if we simply answered the skeptics of this world not with words that are defensive, or irritable, or boastful, or demanding, but with an invitation that is both gracious and loving? To simply say to them, “come and see?” Why don’t you come and see what it is we’re about; perchance to see what you’re all about along the way?
Beloved, it is in our graciousness, our hospitality, and above all, in the love that we embody and which we share that makes us true disciples, and eloquent tellers of the good news of Jesus Christ. Remember always that so much of what our Lord has to offer – forgiveness, redemption, life abundant and eternal – begins with simple invitation; to come and see… come and be.
I pray that as each one of us accepts that gracious invitation, that we will be just as willing to extend that invitation to everyone all around.
And as we do, may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry