Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 18, 2015
John 1:43-51 Commentary
Note: I happened to make a new sermon on this text recently and preached it at a church in my area on January 4 and so for this week I am taking a break from the usual notes on the text to show how on this occasion I assembled those same notes into a sermon. I pray it will spark even more creativity in you!
“The Child’s Leading”
Don’t you wish sometimes you could have been there, could have seen them in person? I mean the disciples and, of course, Jesus himself. You hear people say things like that once in a while. Wouldn’t it have been something to have been able to meet Peter, to shake Matthew’s hand? What if even now we could somehow go back in time to hear the Sermon on the Mount? Often when people wish for such things, the motivation seems to be a combination of healthy curiosity and the idea that maybe it would be easier to believe the gospel if we could have seen gospel events unfold before our very eyes.
But I myself doubt that latter point. I am not at all convinced that seeing the disciples would make the gospel easier to believe. In fact, seeing the disciples in person might just make it more difficult! The disciples were not, after all, from among society’s upper echelons. They were not highly educated, well-dressed, or outwardly impressive. The odds are that if you could have met up with Jesus’ band of followers, the first thing that would have struck you would have been their commonness. You would perhaps notice their dirty fingernails, the callous on Philip’s big toe, the missing teeth that were on such obvious display every time James grinned. You might be surprised at how short and stubby a couple of them were and would note the poor grammar that they often employed.
We need to forget about the illustrations from those well-meaning children’s Bibles some of us grew up with. In those pictures the disciples tended to be pretty handsome with well-groomed beards, sporting robes worthy of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. In such depictions the disciples were always clean and remarkably Anglo-Saxon looking. The fashions may have changed over time, but in an era when tunics and robes were what people wore, we often visualize the disciples wearing the ancient equivalent of Armani designer suits. Probably, though, they were far more common and ragged looking. But this morning, we need to wonder if we are so very different from them ourselves. Maybe we’re not much to look at, either. But as we may yet see this morning, maybe that’s Good News after all.
Because somehow that rag-tag group of uneducated fishermen were in touch with the deepest truth and dearest secret of the universe. Those ordinary fellows changed history by their witness. It’s quite remarkable. In fact and as Frederick Buechner once noted, this all has a fairy tale-like feel to it.
Most everybody has a soft spot in their hearts for fairy tales. There is just something about a fairy tale’s reversal of expectations that intrigues us. There is something delicious about finding out that the frog is really a handsome prince, that the ugly duckling is the one that grows into the most resplendent of all swans. We enjoy it when the moment of truth comes for the characters in a story, as when the Hobbits discover that the scruffy-looking character of Strider, whom they never quite trusted, is actually the true king of Gondor.
Fairy tales are stories of transformation, and that’s what happened to these simple people we call the disciples. If you took the disciples and brought them all together into one room, you would never in your wildest imagination guess by looking at them that this weak-looking pack of ordinary folks could change the world. But they did. The disciples changed the world because it was to them that the secret of the universe was first revealed.
That’s why Jesus called them in the first place. If you’re going to save the world, you’ve got to start somewhere. And if in the end you’re going to save the world through humility, gentleness, compassion, and sacrifice, it makes sense to begin with a bunch of fellows who couldn’t get much more humble if they tried! The messengers fit the message. In fact, over the course of his ministry if Jesus had any significant struggles with his disciples, it was the struggle to keep them humble and ordinary-looking. Every time a couple of them started angling for power or arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest, Jesus slapped them back down to the street level of service.
The disciples needed to be common, ordinary, and above all humble if they were going to do Jesus any good and so change the world. Still, Jesus did need them and that’s why he called them. But in the calling process, there was more going on than we realize. Our passage from John 1 is a case in point. Jesus has already attracted Simon Peter and his brother Andrew when he calls also a man named Philip to follow him. No sooner does Philip join Jesus’ still-small group of disciples, and he runs to fetch his brother, Nathanael. Near as we can tell, Nathanael, though a follower of Jesus, did not become one of the inner-circle of twelve disciples. Yet his particular call to follow Jesus is remarkable.
Based on the external evidence alone, you’d have to say that Nathanael dove in based on little more than a kind of spiritual parlor trick: Jesus claims to have seen Nathanael sitting under a fig tree even before Philip went to go get him. The fact that Jesus seemed to know that was a neat trick but not exactly the most startling thing in the world! Still, it was enough for Nathanael to sign on even as it motivated him to declare openly that near as he could tell, Jesus was the Son of God and the king of all Israel. Nathanael’s confession was pretty simple but in this story, Jesus reveals some pretty amazing things if we pay close attention to this story. Because twice in this brief passage there are very clever, very telling allusions or references to a key Old Testament figure: Jacob.
The first reference crops up in the curious way that Jesus greets Nathanael. Jesus says, “Well now, here comes a true Israelite, a man in whom there is no guile.” The NIV translated that as “in whom there is nothing false,” but that’s not quite right. The Greek word used in verse 47 is the word for “guile,” which can also mean craftiness, being tricky, underhanded. There are not too many biblical characters who are described as being full of guile, but the most famous person who was a trickster par excellence was Jacob himself: the crafty deceiver who eventually was re-named Israel. That’s why some have paraphrased Jesus’ words here to say something like, “Here is an Israelite with no Jacob in him! Here is a son of Jacob who is not a chip off the old block!”
Jacob, as you may recall, always got ahead in life by his own wits. He relied on his own cunning and craftiness to snag life’s goodies. He outsmarted dim-witted Esau, did an end-run on his nearly blind father Isaac, and then spent the better part of twenty years finding ever-more creative ways to snooker his Uncle Laban out of just about everything he owned.
For some reason, though, God liked Jacob. Once, when fleeing the wrath of Esau, Jacob had a dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. In that dream God assures Jacob that despite all the stunts Jacob had pulled, God was with him. And God would stay with Jacob, finally and quite literally wrestling him into an understanding that the best things in life come by grace alone. It’s not about the power to snag what you want. No, it’s about being humble to receive what only God can give.
“Here comes an Israel who is not Jacob,” Jesus basically said when he first saw Nathanael coming his way. It was nice for Jesus to say this, all the more so considering that the last thing Nathanael had said before meeting Jesus was a kind of sneer: “Nazareth! Can anything, or anyone, good come from that backwater town!” That’s what Nathanael said, and apparently it was an honest thing to say.
Because Jesus as much as replies, “You’re right, Nathanael: I’m not much to look at. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m the One!” Nathanael believes this, and Jesus then responds by declaring himself to be the living Bethel. When Jacob had that dream of a ladder to heaven, he declared the place where he had the dream to be “bethel,” beth-el, Hebrew for “the house of God.” Jacob was surprised to find himself at the intersection between God and this earth. And so he called the spot “God’s House,” “Bethel,” the place where God and people meet up. But in John 1 Jesus now tells Nathanael that he himself is that intersection point: if you were with him, you were in the presence of God!
It’s as though the whole story of the whole Bible is getting a re-boot, a fresh start. Jesus is founding a new Israel, a brand new people. Gone are the days of craftiness and guile when people had to live by their wits to survive. A new era of innocence has dawned, a time that requires an almost child-like, naive ability to embrace the fairy tale-like truth of Jesus. It may be yet another way of saying that to enter the kingdom of God, you need to be like a little child. And in many ways, Nathanael and the others were like children.
If you wanted to be cynical, you could say that the only reason Philip and then Nathanael were so quickly impressed by Jesus was because they were rather naive bumpkins. There is something innocent, child-like in the way Nathanael comes to faith, and even Jesus says as much. “You believe just because I told you about the fig tree!? That’s nothing! Just wait until you realize that I am the walking, talking Bethel–the place where God and humanity, meet! Just wait until you see the angels, my friend!”
But far from criticizing Nathanael’s simple faith, Jesus is commending it. This is someone who is innocent enough to believe that something not just good but something of God really did come from Nazareth. Apparently we need a little naiveté to embrace the gospel’s fairy tale-like depiction of God himself living inside the man Jesus. We need a little holy innocence to believe that in that small band of ignorant fishermen, a cosmic treasure lay hidden. The disciples, as it turns out, are the frogs who turn into princes.
And when it comes right down to it, we know that we are no more impressive-looking, no more outwardly dazzling than those simple disciples we meet in the Gospel story. The world still thinks the church looks like a dead end, a non-starter. In recent years popular New Atheist authors like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have publicly sneered at people of faith and have used words like “immature” and “retrograde” and “child-ish” to describe what they think of people like us. Christians who go to churches on Sunday mornings are no different, Richard Dawkins has said, than people who believe in the tooth fairy, in river sprites, in spirits who inhabit elm trees.
But by grace we know that somehow, we, too, have been put in touch with the dearest truth of the universe: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. We don’t mind being child-like if that’s what it takes to believe this. And so we hang onto our faith in the gritty realities of this world. Because in fairy tales, as surely in our present situation, dark and terrible things are present; good and evil wage horrific battle, and some good things are lost along the way. But the child-like aspect of faith keeps hope alive because our willingness to embrace and believe the unlikely has given us a glimpse of Joy. We’ve caught an Epiphany glimpse of a larger world in which God is the Creator and Jesus is the true King.
We don’t stop noticing the bad things that happen, and sometimes in the teeth of war and its carnage, of death and the sufferings we endure on this earth, sometimes the Joy-inspired hope we bear causes us to weep even more than those who don’t have faith. We are innocent enough to believe unlikely things but not so innocent as to miss seeing that the gospel often has a tough time making it in a world of guile, cynicism, and despair.
And many of us gathered here this morning know all about this. Over the past week I like many of you no doubt have seen some retrospectives on the year 2014. The New York Times and other news websites have featured collections of photos from the last year and they weren’t pretty. We saw beheadings by ISIS and now a new war to combat those people. There was a terrible war between Israel and Gaza with so many children blown up. We saw fighting in Ukraine and a passenger jet with many children on it shot from the skies in July. We saw Taliban thugs shoot up a school in Pakistan and kill 150 or more kids. We saw Ebola ravage West Africa, and civil war take the lives of so many people in Sudan. Closer to home, some of you lost loved ones this year, had cherished jobs taken away from you, have seen conflicts with children or grandchildren escalate to the point that we did not even all manage to get together over the recent Christmas holiday.
Oh, we believe in Jesus, we are still wide-eyed in our wonder over him. But our eyes are open, not shut, and we see again and again the very realities that required God’s Son to become incarnate here, right in the midst of life’s struggles and sorrows. We follow Jesus but always we remember that the shadow of the cross is ever present. That cross is what it took for even God’s own Son to start setting things to right again.
It’s a lesson the disciples learned eventually, too. Through betrayals and denials and abandonment, the disciples went the distance with Jesus, finally and by grace alone arriving on the other side of that great event we call Easter.
That’s the only place you ever find Nathanael again, too. Nathanael makes just one other appearance in the Bible and it comes in the very last chapter of John. Nathanael is a kind of book-end character for John’s gospel, appearing in only the first and final chapters. By the time you get to John 21, Jesus had been killed dead in plain sight of the disciples. The shrewd powers that be looked at Jesus, asked if anything good could come from Nazareth, and concluded, “Nope,” and so they dispensed with him, crossed him out. But in the ultimate reversal of expectations, the dead one became alive again. And finally the morning dawned in John 21 when Nathanael and the others were fishing in a boat only to see some hazy figure on the distant shore, cupping his hands to his mouth and calling out, “Catch anything?”
They knew then who he was and so rowed back to the shore as fast as they could. Nobody said much. John says they didn’t even dare to ask, “Is it you, Jesus?” They felt like they were in a dream, a dream of heaven come down to earth. But you know how it is with good dreams sometimes: you don’t dare say anything for fear you’ll wake up and it will all disappear like a soap bubble wafting in the air. But they knew it was Jesus.
Nathanael knew it, too. This Jesus now looked like he had been to hell and back, bearing scars and looking somehow different, changed, but he was undeniably alive. And when at breakfast that morning he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them, there was no longer any doubt who this stranger on the beach was. He was the same man who, years before, told Nathanael that he hadn’t seen anything yet. Having now been to the cross and back, Nathanael agreed.
Back on that day when he first came to faith, Nathanael had been pretty innocent all right. But in a way, despite all he’d seen, suffered, lamented, and wept about, he was still innocent, still child-like enough to believe that the one he watched die was alive again, that the truth of Jesus as our living Bethel was no dream. And every once in a while, out of the corner of his eye, Nathanael was just sure he saw the flutter of angel wings above Jesus’ head.
And by grace, so can we. So can we. Hallelujah and Amen.
*** My thanks to Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row 1979, pp. 115-117) for some inspiring help on some of this sermon’s reimagining of Nathanael.)
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