For this second after Epiphany, the lectionary texts I preached on are John 1:43-51 and Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18. Here’s my sermon for St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa, for January 14, 2018. Thomas B. Slater’s commentary on Working Preacher was helpful, as was Jan Rippentrop’s.
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week, the first Sunday after Epiphany, we talked about Jesus’ baptism. At the moment when Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart and we get a glimpse of God breaking into our world. It’s a profound moment where Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God is revealed.
This week and next week, we’ll hear about Jesus starting his ministry by calling disciples, inviting people to follow him, inviting them to join in what God is doing. Today, we meet a new character, Nathanael.
I’ve decided this week that Nathanael is one of my favorite minor characters in the Bible. He’s mentioned just one more time in John’s Gospel, in chapter 21, after Jesus is raised from the dead. He’s also mentioned by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but they call him by a different name, Bartholomew.
Every other time he’s mentioned, though, he’s just part of a list of disciples. This is the only story where he’s a starring character. This is Nathanael’s big moment. It’s the only time in the Bible where he says something interesting enough to get recorded. In today’s reading, he gets a whopping three lines of dialogue, and we’re going to look at each one.
First, picture the scene. Nathanael is minding his own business when his friend Philip comes up to him and says, “Nathanael, we’ve found the Messiah!”
All we know about Nathanael is what Jesus will say about him later, that he was sitting under the fig tree. It’s not certain, but that might be a way of saying he’s a student of the Hebrew Scriptures, because there were rabbis who had compared studying the Torah to gathering figs.
Either way, Nathanael knows his Jewish history. Everyone has been waiting for centuries for the Messiah, the champion God promised would come and save Israel. And here’s Philip saying, “We’ve found him! This is the guy Moses wrote about. This is the guy God promised through the prophets. He’s here! His name is Jesus, and he’s from Nazareth!”
Here’s when Nathanael gets his first line of dialogue: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
I used to think this was one of the funniest lines of comedy in the Bible. Part of what I love about Nathanael is that when he hears the good news of Jesus, his first response is this sarcastic quip about his hometown.
Nazareth, you see, is a small, ordinary village of 200-400 people, nowhere of any importance. It’s a backwater blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town not even mentioned in the Old Testament. It’s not somewhere heroes come from. It’s not somewhere you’d expect to find God.
This week, I’m not so sure “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is so funny. A couple days ago our President made some similar statements about people from other parts of the world, places like Haiti and countries in Africa, reportedly using language I won’t repeat here. (See also this statement from ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton
Don’t worry, I won’t get too political, but I suspect whether we admit it or not, we all make judgements about where people are from, judgements about what they’re capable of. Nathanael is doing something I suspect all of us do.
There’s a lesson here for us in both how we judge others, and in how we limit where we expect God to be at work.
It’s not an accident that when God chooses to break into our world, it’s in a small town, among poor peasants. It’s not in a great empire’s capital. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, another small village, to unexceptional, unnoticed parents. That’s pretty typical of the way God works. For thousands of years, God had worked through the people of Israel, selecting this small, unexceptional, often-conquered nation as the chosen people.
When Nathanael asks if God can possibly be working in a dump like Nazareth, Philip gives the perfect response. He simply says, “Come and see.” It’s a simple invitation, the same invitation Jesus used a few verses earlier to invite a few others to come be his disciples.
For us as modern followers of Jesus, Philip is a wonderful role model. First, when he meets Jesus and gets excited about his new-found faith, he goes and tells someone, his friend Nathanael. That’s the appropriate response to hearing good news.
Then, when his friend is skeptical of what he’s found, he doesn’t argue with him; he doesn’t lecture him or try to force him to convert; he simply invites him. “Come and see.” There’s no program, nothing elaborate, just a simple invitation. Come and see.
I’ve had quite a few conversations with people in our church about others who don’t go to church. All of us have friends who don’t seem to have a relationship with God, or who don’t make the effort to go to church. Many of us have family members who don’t put the same value on faith as you and I do. It’s hard for us to understand how people can get through life without the anchor of faith that we rely on.
There are some people, perhaps someone you know, who are opposed to church. Maybe they’ve been hurt by people in the church. There are far too many cases where the church has inflicted great pain on people.
In many cases, though, I think people do have an interest in faith, a curiosity about church, and all they need is an invitation. We can’t make someone come to church. We can’t make someone connect with God. But we can do what Philip does. We can invite them to come and see.
We don’t hear Nathanael say anything in response to Philip, but apparently he is interested enough to follow along, because in the next verse, Jesus sees Nathanael coming towards him. When Jesus sees him, he compliments him on his honesty, on his very willingness to speak his skepticism.
And then we get Nathanael’s second line of dialogue. He asks Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus responds that he saw him under the fig tree, but there’s more to it than that. Jesus didn’t just happen to glance over and see a guy sitting there. Jesus knows Nathanael. He knows his skepticism, his doubt, his sarcasm.
It gets complicated when we think about Jesus being both God and man at the same time, but I think it’s the same kind of knowing that our Psalm today talked about.
The Psalmist writes, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” Our Creator knew each of us before we were even born, knitting us together in the womb.
It’s the exact opposite of the kind of knowledge Nathanael thought he had. Where Nathanael thought he knew about someone just because of where they’re from and because of that he could reject them, God actually does know all about us.
The miracle, of course, is that knowing all about us, knowing our doubts and weaknesses, knowing our sins and even knowing the things we don’t want anyone to know about us, God still loves us. Knowing us completely, God still invites us to come and see, to come and follow.
As followers of Jesus, we are invited to see people this way too, to see all people the way God sees them, as beloved children of God no matter where they’re from, to see all people as fearfully and wonderfully made. We are called to stand up for the rights and dignity of all of God’s children. We are called to invite people to challenge their assumptions and the limits they place on God, to come and see what God is doing.
When Nathanael realizes the way Jesus knows him, his entire attitude shifts. In his third line of dialogue, he goes from being a skeptic to confessing Jesus as the Son of God, naming him as the King of Israel. His shift is so dramatic that Jesus seems a little startled. Loosely translated, Jesus’ response is something like, “That’s all you needed to believe? You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
We know, of course, that there is much more to come in the story. Jesus’ identity will be confirmed again and again, culminating in his rising from the dead on Easter. But this is enough for Nathanael. He’s ready to follow. He believes. He’s found the Messiah, or rather, the Messiah has found him.
You and I are given the same invitation as Nathanael, and in fact, we’re given much more evidence. We should know by now that God’s work takes place in strange ways, in unexpected people from unexpected places.
We should know our identity comes from God’s claim on us in the waters of baptism, not from our circumstances or birthplaces or accomplishments or anything we do.
And yet, we wrestle with the same things as Nathanael.
Can God really be at work in someone from “there” or someone like “that”?
If God truly knows me, can God really still love me and forgive me?
Come and see, for this is the Son of God. This is the King of Israel. Come and see. Amen