Bible Passage: John 1:43-51 Pastor: Pastor Berg Sermon Date: January 21, 2018
The picture up on the screen doesn’t really do it justice—in my mind anyway. I guess I always imagined it differently. But that’s kind of the way it is about anything fantastic, isn’t? You especially find that when you read a good book and then they make a movie out of it. As you’re watching the movie, isn’t there a part of you that’s disappointed, even if the movie is accurate, because that’s not how you imagined it? Everyone’s imagination pictures the same thing just a little bit differently. I wonder if that’s how Nathanael pictured it as he sat underneath the fig tree that day. We have to wonder if it was on his mind—that story we see on the screen. Why? Jesus’ words at the very end of our lesson clue us in. It seems like such an eccentric kind of statement, doesn’t it? If you don’t have the Bible context as your background, you find yourself wondering where in the world Jesus ever came up with that. Even with a Bible background, you still wonder. It seems to come out of the blue. But the fantastic picture that Jesus paints is a picture God had painted earlier. I imagine it was a story that people loved to ponder on, those people who longed for the Messiah to be revealed; people who desperately wanted a Savior from sin.
That story pictures a portal to another world, doesn’t it? Children’s stories often describe hidden or invisible gates—portals—to some other world. You can think of them, can’t you? The wardrobe closet that opens to the land of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; the rabbit hole to the weird world in Alice in Wonderland; the tesseract or wrinkle in time and space to a fifth dimension in A Wrinkle in Time. Of course, these are only children’s fantasies. But that begs the question: Where do such longings come from―longings to exit out of this broken world for a doorway to a better one? Have you ever wondered why the movies thrive during a time of economic downturn? Why would people be willing to plop down $15 a ticket and then who knows how much for the soda, popcorn, candy, etc. when money is supposedly tight? Many believe the movies offer an escape from the realities of this broken world. The answer is the same then, isn’t it? People realize this world has a problem. People realize there’s a disconnect between them and their maker, whoever that might be. It’s called the Natural Knowledge of God. People by nature know there is a God. They can see it from the broken, yet still marvelous world that we live in. Ponder the wonders of the universe, the complexities of the human body, the simplicity of beauty and you have to conclude there is a God. But where is he? He’s obviously not near me right now. Otherwise, why would I be having all these troubles? That is, unless, I don’t have a right relationship with him. I kind of have this nagging feeling in my gut that something’s not right, but I can never quite put my finger on it. Maybe, that guilty feeling I always seem to be having is because I’m not right with God. But instead of seeking out God, they look to themselves to try and make the guilt disappear. They look to their own works to try and appease their guilty consciences. And sometimes, they can convince themselves that it’s working. Can’t we all? Don’t we all at times try and convince ourselves that we are just plain better than most and that must be worth something in God’s eyes? Out status in this world, in this church, has to count for something, right?
That certainly was the case at the time of Jesus. A great majority of those in Israel had soothed their consciences or at least covered up their own guilt with extra works. But there was a remnant, a smaller group who knew that wasn’t the answer. They still longed for the Messiah God had promised. They still longed for the gap between themselves and God to be bridged, much like it was for Jacob when Jesus came to him and wrestled with him. And so, it’s with that background that we step into the pages of Scripture and we find Jesus, fresh off of calling his first disciples, Andrew, John, Peter, and James. We find Jesus heading toward Galilee. The next day, Jesus wanted to leave for Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” “Come and see!” Philip told him.
You really have to hand it to Philip and the other disciples that Jesus called. They were not apathetic delinquents to the kingdom of God. They knew and loved the Scriptures. They knew that the Old Testament foretold the coming of Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Savior. It took only a few words to convince Philip that Jesus was the one. “Follow me.” And so Philip did the natural thing that you do when you have something wonderful happen to you. He went to find a friend to share it with. He runs to find his friend Nathanael, also called Bartholomew, who was sitting alone, meditating and praying underneath a fig tree. And he says to him. “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—…” And you can see Nathanael, can’t you? He’s listening eagerly to this good news, the news that he and all the remnant of Israel have been longing to hear. He leans forward off the tree to listen attentively as Philip excitedly tell him his name…“Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And you can see Nathanael, can’t you? As he deflates like a balloon. And then incredulously he says, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Jerusalem maybe, but who expects a Savior from that hick town up north?
How do you think Philip might have felt at that point? Much like you have a time or two? You’ve gone out with eagerness to share the good news about your faith and all the wonderful things God has done for you in Jesus. And you, like Philip, are genuinely excited about what you have to say and then your friend pops your balloon by challenging your faith with objections and questions that you don’t think you can answer. You think Philip had all the answers? He’d just met Jesus moments ago. But Philip was not deterred, and neither should you be. Philip didn’t have all the answers and he didn’t pretend to. He doesn’t try and argue or debate Nathanael into believing. Jesus hasn’t called us to debate or argue people into believing his Gospel. When people question us we should do as Philip did. As one fellow said, “After two thousand years, no one question is going to bring Christianity crashing down.” Just say what Philip said, “Come and see!” And Nathanael came. Whether it was just a winsome curiosity or doing a friend a favor, he went with Philip. And when Jesus saw them coming he said, “Truly, here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Before Nathanael can get one word in, Jesus sizes him up. Jesus essentially says that Nathanael is one of the remnant, a genuine Israelite who really trusts in the coming Savior. There’s nothing phony about Nathanael, what you see is what you get. It was a high compliment from this hick from Nazareth. Naturally, Nathanael is caught off guard. “Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, while you were under the fig tree, I saw you. Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” That’s quite a leap, isn’t it? Skeptical at best about this hick and now he’s the Son of God? All Jesus said was that he was under a fig tree. But you see Nathanael, as was customary in those times, would have been under that fig tree—alone―praying―meditating. How could this Jesus of Nazareth see Nathanael under the fig tree―unless this Jesus of Nazareth was the very One who hears prayer and answers it! But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jesus says, “You believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that!” Then he added, “Amen, Amen, I tell you: You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Nathanael, you ain’t seen nothing yet, Jesus says. You will see heaven opened. And then Jesus says something that must have made Nathanael gasp. He says, “You will see…the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” To Nathanael, who knew his Old Testament, this must have been one of those “Eureka!” moments. No doubt, Nathanael and the rest of the remnant longed for Jacob’s dream to be fulfilled. No doubt they longed for a bride, a ladder to extend from heaven to earth to show the way to heaven. Maybe, just maybe, Nathanael had been pondering that very story underneath the fig tree that day. And then Jesus says to Nathanael, “I am that ladder in Jacob’s dream, that stairway to heaven, the way, the truth, and the life.”
People today are longing for an exit out of this broken world, especially during these troubling times. We look to Jacob’s dream, of this stairway to heaven, this gate to God’s world; and it’s only a dream, right? God only opened the door a crack and then closed it, right? Wrong! This stairway to heaven, this gateway to God is there all the time. We need only the eyes of faith to see it! Where is God amid all our troubles? Closer than you think! Jesus is the bridge the stairway on which God comes down to us and we return to him. Listen to what Paul says to the Romans: “The righteousness that is by faith says: ‘Do not say in your heart, Who will ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down) or Who will descend into the deep? (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).’ But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” When Jacob had his vision, he called that place “Bethel―the House of God.” And he was exactly right! Surely the Lord is in this place! And what place is that? Wherever the Word is heard, where Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and absolution are administered, there you must conclude with certainty: “This is surely God’s house; here heaven has been opened. Direct your steps to where the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered and there you have The Gate of God. My dear friends, like Nathanael, we have seen heaven opened. We are sitting at the Gate of God! Surely the Lord is in this place! May we marvel at the power of his Word! AMEN.