St Michael’s, 16th January 2011
Reading – John 1:43-51
Hello. My name is Nathanael. You may not have heard of me before, although you may have heard of my other name, Bartholomew. Since the Simpsons came on air, I prefer to be called Nathanael. But no matter, you can call me what you like. Actually, it feels a little bit strange to be out here speaking on my own. I would much rather be in the background, not like my friend Philip who’s always out and about as an upfront evangelist. I guess it takes all types to follow Jesus – and I’m definitely the quieter, more reserved kind.
So why am I speaking to you today? Well, the other day my friend John came to see me. It seems he has this idea of writing a new gospel about Jesus, one that gives a different angle on His life and teaching. And he’s looking for material that hasn’t necessarily been covered by Matthew or Mark or Luke. I poured him a glass of wine and we began to talk. I shared a little of my background and what it was like growing up in Cana in Galilee. We put together our memories of the miracles Jesus did there, that wedding where Jesus turned all that water in wine, the occasion where Jesus met the royal official with the dying son. As we carried on chatting, John began making some rough notes and checked through some details with me. And then he turned to me and said, “So tell me, Nathanael, how exactly did you become an apostle? What’s your story of coming to follow Jesus?”
Now I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing I am good at talking about, it’s the way Jesus entered my life. I may not be that confident preaching or dealing with strangers, but give me an opportunity to share my story, and I’m away. Because I reckon – and other people have said this as well – if you have a real encounter with Jesus, if you meet with the living Son of God, then you can’t help talking about that moment for the rest of your life. And really that’s why I am here this morning. To share what I told John, and hopefully, for you all to consider what it means to follow Jesus.
But back to the beginning. My name Nathanael means “God-given” and I have to say, I owe so much to my parents. They taught me the Jewish Scriptures from an early age and were keen to see I was brought up in the right way. As I grew older, I started to read these Scriptures for themselves, and tried to make sense of what I read. Because frankly some of the Scriptures – what I guess you call the Old Testament – both fascinated and baffled me. It seems that hundreds of years ago, when there still was a country called Israel, the prophets gave all kinds of promises of a Saviour, a deliverer would come and rescue his people. And while I rejoiced in these wonderful promises and learnt them by heart, I was still confused. When exactly would these promises be fulfilled? How long before God would send the Messiah?
I don’t know if you’ve ever really wrestled with Scripture, I mean really wrestled with how God’s word applies to you today. I know so many of my friends go to the synagogue, hear the Scriptures and maybe think about them a little each day. But that’s not wrestling. Wrestling with Scripture is not letting go of God’s word until you have found a blessing, a promise, something you can claim as your own. Do you know what I am talking about?
I guess that makes me sound like some kind of mystic or religious freak. But I’m not like that, honest. It’s just that if God makes promises, then we need to find out how they apply to us today. Of course, all that takes time and effort – and, I might add, a quiet place to do it in as well. None of the homes back in Cana were that big, and there were always people bustling around the village. So when I had a quiet hour I used to go and find a tranquil spot in the country nearby, like the shade of a tree, where I could be alone, where I could do some serious business with God.
And that’s where Philip found me that morning. It had been a confusing few months, after all. This chap John the Baptist had appeared, as if out of nowhere, with a message of repentance, leading crowds down into the Jordan River for baptism. We hadn’t seen the like of him for many a long year. His preaching was bold, was new, and it was seemingly blessed by God. And yet, strangely enough, when folk interviewed him, he denied was the Messiah, or Elijah, or even the Prophet. Instead he talked about the one yet to come who would baptise us with the Holy Spirit and take away the sins of the world. What did he call Him? Ah yes, that’s right, the Lamb of God. Well, that was all very exciting, but who exactly was he talking about? None of us knew, really. But I know that as far as time allowed I spent much time out amongst the trees praying about the promises of God I’d learnt as a child, trying to listen and understand what God might be saying to me, and wondering if now finally might the time the Lord would reveal Himself to us and set His people free.
So there I was, under this fig tree, praying and meditating as usual, when Philip barges in. That’s just so typical of Philip, it’s what makes him such a great evangelist, but not necessarily the easiest of friends. We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote. No, “Good morning, Nathanael” or “Hello”. Straight to the point, no messing. Now I was used to Philip getting carried away with his latest enthusiasm, I’d seen it all before. But this time there was something about Philip that was different. He’d had – I don’t know what – an encounter, an experience, something, or as I was about to find out, Someone, who had really gotten hold of him.
But before I got caught up in the occasion, Philip brought me back down to earth with a bump. Jesus of Nazareth. Nazareth?? Imagine for a moment you’re a Plymouth Argyle supporter and you’ve just been told that your new chairman is an Exeter City supporter. That’s what it felt like for me at that point. Cana and Nazareth – we’d been rivals for years. The young men – not me, I hasten to add – were always getting involved in fights over this or that matter, the mothers used to warn their girls against marrying folk from “over there”. Later on Philip and I used to joke about my reaction: Nazareth! Can anything good come from there? But at that time I was serious. A Messiah from Jerusalem, yes, or maybe some other town like Bethlehem, maybe. But Nazareth? It was the last place I expected.
Bless him, Philip didn’t try and get into a big argument with me, or begin quoting Scripture at me to prove his point. If he had, I would probably be still under that fig tree now. It beats me how Christians sometimes think proper evangelism means winning a war of words, or proving you know more about God’s word than the other guy. Philip might the type to barge in, but he also knows when to back off. So instead he simply says to me, “Come and see”. Wasn’t that inspired? He knew he couldn’t answer all my questions, my doubts, my fears, and he knew it wasn’t his job to do so. His part was simply to introduce me and let Jesus do the rest.
Not that Jesus was exactly the kind of person I was expecting. He looked quite ordinary really, as someone put it later, just like one of us. As I look back on that first encounter now, I am reminded of that verse in Isaiah 53 where it says: He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. And yet somehow I felt drawn towards Him. There was – how can I put it? – a kind of peace, a kind of warmth in Him that could only come from God. I began even at a distance to see what Philip was talking about.
Now I think I was expecting Philip to say something to Jesus, and Jesus then to speak to me. That’s what it normally means to be introduced, isn’t it? But even before I got as far as Jesus, He turned to me and looked at me with such amazing love and compassion and said: Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false. It was as if Jesus was looking straight into my heart and telling others what He had seen there. He had seen all my honest struggles with the word of God, He had seen my heartfelt pleas and prayers, He had seen my hours wondering and watching for the coming of the Messiah. And as far as Jesus concerned, all that was OK. I needn’t feel guilty for all that time I had spent with God when there were other urgent matters pressing in on me, or feel inadequate that I hadn’t understood enough of God’s word. Jesus accepted me and my honest searching.
But how could He? How could Jesus know about the real Nathanael, the Nathanael no-one saw on his bed at night, the Nathanael who told no-one his deepest hopes and fears? Well, Jesus answered me almost before I had the chance to ask my question: I saw you while you were still under the fig-tree before Philip called you. And at that point I realised something extremely important. While I was still wrestling with God, Jesus was already there with me. I hadn’t recognised Him, I hadn’t known He was the fulfiller of all God’s promises. But He had been watching over me, He had been leading and guiding me up to this point, an unseen presence who was just waiting for the time when I would approach Him for myself. You see, in many ways it wasn’t me who decided to follow Jesus. Jesus had already decided to call me. It was just a case of when I would hear and respond to that call.
That’s why I declared: Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel. Because even though I didn’t yet have the full picture, I already knew Jesus was the one the prophets had been talking about. Here was the Son of God right here in flesh before me, to establish God’s reign right here on earth. It was exactly as had been promised by the prophet Zephaniah six hundred years earlier when he said: The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. OK, Jesus didn’t have the appearance of a king, and he didn’t seem to rule over any kingdom, but there was such authority and such assurance in what He said that I had no doubt who He was. From now on, whatever happened, I could do no other than follow this king in love and worship and obedience.
Of course I had little idea at the time what exactly it would mean to follow Jesus. I knew nothing about the huge number of people who would press in on us day and night, the constant moving about on the open road, the hostility and anger of the ruling authorities. I knew nothing about the terrible night when Jesus would be arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. I knew nothing about the agonies and the trials of the cross when the crowds would shout, Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe (Mark 15:32). But do I regret the step I made then? Of course not. If we waited until we understood everything that lay ahead we would never make a step of faith. All I needed to know at that point that here was someone to whom I could entrust my very life, for now and forever.
And how Jesus did respond to my confession of faith? Well, He would soon meet many different people who would claim to follow Him. Some of them because they recognised Jesus as king and wanted to be His disciple. Some because they reacted to the miracle Jesus had performed and for a brief period of time were caught up in the emotion. That’s why Jesus asked me that question: You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig-tree? (John 1:50). He wanted me to pause and reflect for a moment, whether I really was wanting to follow Him, or was just responding to the occasion and therefore likely to fall away at any moment. After all, as I have seen from my own experience, there are too many fair weather followers of Jesus who will gladly confess Him as Lord when the going’s good but melt away as soon as things start to get tough. And Jesus wanted to me just to stop and think for a moment what kind of follower I wanted to be.
But I knew. And Jesus knew I knew, if that makes sense. And then Jesus said the most remarkable thing: You shall see greater things than that…I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Now again at the time, I didn’t fully understand what Jesus meant. I was familiar with the stories of Jacob, who spend many a long year wrestling with God and learning to obey Him. I knew how he had a vision of angels ascending to heaven and descending to earth. But I couldn’t then see what this had to do with the person standing in front of me, with this Jesus of Nazareth who had seen me under the fig tree.
However if you were to ask me today what these words mean, I can give you an answer. Because I have been with Jesus. I have seen the great miracles He has performed. I have seen storms stilled, the dead raised, the sick healed. I was there in the upper room when He appeared in His resurrection body and said, Peace be with you. Life with Jesus, you see, is a foretaste of heaven. We so often think of heaven as a faraway place which is somehow far less real than life here on earth. But through faith in Jesus heaven comes to us as something far more real, far more lasting, far more solid than all those things we so often hold so dear like our money or our home or our possessions. Jesus gives us a wonderful relationship with God the Father that begins now and lasts into eternity. It is called eternal life. Do you know what I am talking about?
Of course you might have all kinds of doubts, and questions, and fears. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my friend Philip is not to get into a heated argument or score points. Rather what I say to you today is what Philip said to me all those years ago: Come and see. Lay aside all the reasons you have lined up against Jesus and be open to His call upon your life. And as you open yourself to His call, be prepared to receive His gift of eternal life, His wonderful precious gift of eternal life and discover the joy and peace of heaven in your heart. Today. This week. This year. Forever.