by Nick Strobel on January 15, 2006
Good morning, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you!
Today is a sort of transition. For me it is the end of the winter break and the beginning of a new semester—you K12 teachers and children in school and youth have already been at school for a couple of weeks now. No more late nights and sleeping in. WellŠ at least no more sleeping in! Another transition is for Wesley Church as this is the first Sunday of a few months of guest preachers while Pastor Kimberly is recovering from her surgery. We pray that the new experimental surgery she has tomorrow will finally rid her of her pain! She will be back with us April 9th.
On this second Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear about the call of the disciples as told by John. For most of the Sundays this liturgical year, we will be following Jesus through the eyes, the words of Mark, but we'll occasionally jump back to John for several weeks at a time. This is just a one-Sunday jump to John, though, as last Sunday we heard Mark tell us of the Baptism of Jesus and next Sunday we'll be back to Mark to hear his version of the call of the first disciples.
We are in the season of Epiphany, when the special quality of Jesus the Christ and his relationship to God is revealed. On Epiphany Sunday we heard Matthew tell us of when God revealed the Christ child to the wise men or magi. Last Sunday we heard Mark tell us that Jesus was not just another prophet and God revealed Jesus' unique relationship to Jesus in no uncertain terms, telling Jesus, ``YOU are my Son, the Beloved; with YOU I am well pleased." In the following Sundays more revealing will occur as Mark shows us a man who teaches with authority, commands unclean spirits and they obey, cures the sick, and forgives sins, something that God alone can do. And in case anyone has missed the point of the rest of this Epiphany season, the season will end with the Transfiguration when Peter, James, and John see Jesus with Elijah and Moses on the mountaintop and God tells them in no uncertain terms who Jesus is.
This Sunday we hear about the story of Jesus calling his disciples, inviting them to be open to the revealing of God at work in the here and now. This is actually the second day of the calling of the disciples. The day before he called Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. Today he calls Philip and Nathanael. How will Jesus reveal himself, the Word made flesh, to these men? It's not by brilliant, logical rhetoric. Jesus simply says, ``come and see" and ``follow me". Mark's story next Sunday won't have Jesus saying much more than that either. I don't know about you, but it seems very little to go on; to leave the old life behind and go on a new path. Clearly there was something else.
Jesus tells Andrew and Peter to ``come and see" and he tells Philip to ``follow me". Here is an example of God not being revealed by the words we say but by what we do. ``Come and see". Jesus is going to show them how a life is lived that is one with God. They are going to learn by watching and living with Jesus. Words usually touch just the head, the intellect, but actions touch the heart. Philip understands this when he answers Nathanael's skepticism with what Jesus told Andrew and Peter, ``come and see".
One of our Opening Songs this morning was a song I would sing up at a church camp in the Sawtooths in Idaho growing up: ``They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love." It says ``we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. We pray that all unity may one be restored." How will unity be restored? ``We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand. Together we'll spread the news that God is in our land. We will work with each other, we will work side by side. We'll guard human dignity and save human pride." Philip tells Nathanael to ``come and see".
On the one hand this is good news for those of us who worry about coming up with the right words to say in a given situationŠ at the right time. Our evangelizing is not going to be superb oratory but how we act and react in a way that is different than the way of the world. People will see by our behavior that our lives are based on something, someone, much better than what our society, the world, proclaims. Personally, I'm glad of that because I have a very hard time figuring out what I should say. I spend a long time in front of the computer trying to put my thoughts down in words. Some email messages can take half an hour to an hour to compose.
On the other hand the realization that it is our actions that will touch the heart shows us that we have a big responsibility. As Pastor Kimberly has asked us, could you be convicted of being a Christian? Is our love of God shown in our love of our neighbor? Do we live a life of creativity instead of destruction; of giving instead of taking; of calm assurance instead of paranoia; of including people instead of excluding people? I can understand why many non-Christians, looking at the actions of those who loudly testify to the world of their love of Jesus but act in very hateful, condemning, excluding ways, will say ``no thanks" to an invitation to follow Christ. ``We will work with each other, we will work side by side. We'll guard human dignity and save human pride. And they'll know we are Christians by our love; yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love."
``Follow me" Jesus tells Philip. With just those two words, Philip puts his trust in Jesus and follows him. Two quick things I'll note here: First is that it is God's grace is what enables Philip to follow Jesus. We Methodists call it ``prevenient grace". God has been at work in Philip's life before Jesus invites him to follow. Jesus did not say or do anything extraordinary to convince Philip to follow him. That is how it can be when we share the love of God to a non-Christian or a Christian who has wandered off the path: it will be the grace of God that opens them up---we should not worry about doing or saying the right thing to ``make it happen" and we cannot take credit for what God does. Second is that we don't need to have it all worked out to follow Jesus (thank God!). Philip doesn't know what's going to happen. He doesn't have advanced degrees in theology and philosophy. He isn't perfect. He's probably done some pretty stupid things in the past and is going to make mistakes in the future. But he knows that the only way he can learn how to live a true life is to follow this Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth, about whom the Hebrew Scriptures talk about (``about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote"). He is going to learn how to live a true life by living a life in the Truth, with the Christ.
Now let's take a look at Nathanael's call. You won't find Nathanael in Matthew's, Mark's, or Luke's listing of the disciples. He is probably the same as Bartholomew, that is the ``son of Tholomew". Jesus' description of him as ``an Israelite in whom there is no deceit" connects him to Jacob, the father of the Israelites. With this we find a connection to the Hebrew Scriptures that goes several hundred years further back than Moses and the prophets that Philip mentions.
Jacob had been deceitful when he, the second-born son of Isaac, tricked Isaac to get his father's blessing that was usually given to the first-born son, his brother Esau. A couple of decades later Jacob returned to his homeland. On the way he had to pass through the land of his brother, Esau. The night before Jacob met Esau, he wrestled with God all night to get God's blessing, a proper one unlike the one he stole from Esau. That night, God renamed Jacob, ``Israel" because he had wrestled with God and prevailed. Nathanael is an ``Israelite in whom there is no deceit."
Another connection to Jacob is at the end of the passage when Jesus says that his disciples would see ``the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." The connection is Jacob's first vision of God at Bethel soon after he had tricked Isaac to get the blessing of his father. He dreamed of a ladder between heaven and earth with angels moving up and down on the ladder. After the scripture reading we sang of Jacob ladder. The ladder's meaning is that there is communication between heaven and earth. But now Jesus makes clear that HE, the ``Son of Man", is the connection, the communication, between heaven and earth. The disciples would soon experience that communication through the words and actions of Jesus, the Word made physical, tangible. By the way, one translation of this scripture passage makes another connection to the Hebrew Scripture that goes all the way back to the beginning with Jesus using the title ``son of Adam". You fans of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series will recall the use of that title when referring to the humans in the stories.
After Jesus proclaims Nathanael an honest person who wrestles with God, who strives to develop a deeper experience of God in his life, Nathanael asks, ``How do you know me?" Jesus answers, ``I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Before we heard our call to follow Jesus, God was with us. The psalmist declares in our Call to Worship this morning, ``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. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways." That is the grace of God that goes before, the ``prevenient grace". Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree before Nathanael even knew Jesus or about Jesus. God knows us before we know God. In fact God knows us better than we know ourselves. Even before a word is on our tongues, God knows it completely says the psalmist. Jesus' knowledge of Nathanael before Philip came to him was enough for Nathanael and he tells Jesus, ``Rabbi, you are the Son of God and the King of Israel!" Jesus responds to Nathanael, the disciples, and us that ``you ain't seen nothing yet!" Jesus is going to reveal God's love for us in many unexpected ways.
I want to close with what actually first struck me when I read through this passage in preparation for this sermon. It is there in the middle of the passage with Nathanael's skeptical response to Philip, ``Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nazareth was a small, insignificant village that was not, shall we say, held in high regard. Could anyone respectable, anyone worthy come from such a place? Back in the mid-50s people probably had a similar response to a young preacher in the deep south, ``can anything good come from Montgomery, Alabama?" Yes. God can work with and through anyone, even someone from a ``Nazareth" place.
The good news is that even though God knows us, he calls us anyway. No matter where we're from, what we've done, what schools we went to, God loves us; Jesus calls us to follow him. In fact, it is because God knows us even better than we know ourselves, that God loves us, that Jesus calls us to follow. Our Call to Worship was the first part of Psalm 139. Near the end of that psalm we hear, ``For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well." God ``knit" you together in your mother's womb.
Because God formed our inward parts, knit us together in our mothers' wombs, Jesus calls us to follow. If we can trust in that, trust that we are ``fearfully and wonderfully made", we will be able to do things we never expected we could do. ``You will see something even greater," Jesus said. That Bible-based trust in his own worth, is what enabled Martin Luther King Jr to move forward and succeed with the very unconventional tactic of meeting violent, hate-filled racism with non-violence. When we truly trust that we are ``fearfully and wonderfully made", we will naturally follow God's call to see that others too are ``fearfully and wonderfully made" and to help others see that in themselves. Let us reconnect with that trust, remember that call as we celebrate tomorrow the birth of a man who clearly exhibited that fruit of the Spirit.
``Martin Luther King Jr. espoused a politics that viewed every human being as a soul of infinite metaphysical value." (Dark, p. 115).