Normandy UMC - January 14, 2018
John 1:43–51 (CEB)
43 The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter.
45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”
46 Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
Philip said, “Come and see.”
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?”
Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! 51 I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.”
Today’s Bible passage begins with Jesus recruiting Philip as one of his disciples, and then Philip rushing out to find Nathanael.
Nathanael is only known by that name in the Gospel of John. In the other three gospels, the synoptic gospels, as well as in the book of Acts, there is reference to a disciple named Bartholomew, and most Bible scholars assume that Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person, referred to by two different names. Bartholomew is more of a family name — it means “son of Tolmai” — while Nathanael is a descriptive name, meaning “gift of God.” So it’s completely reasonable to think that both names could apply to the same person, given the way that names were used in that time and that culture.
Nathanael, at first, is skeptical when Philip tells him that he’s found the messiah, the one foretold by the prophets. He’s especially skeptical because Philip mentions that Jesus is from Nazareth.
“Can anything from Nazareth be good?” asks Nathanael.
Philip answers “come and see.” That’s about as good an answer as you can give under the circumstances.
I’m active in a missions program called Mountain T.O.P., and I was a board member of it for about 12 years, most of it back when our founder, the late George Bass, was still serving as executive director. When we talked about recruiting people to come to Mountain T.O.P. as volunteers, George often said that it was like trying to describe to someone what a banana tastes like. You can’t really convey the experience to someone else; the best you can do is make them curious enough that they want to try it for themselves.
Philip didn’t try to argue with Nathanael; he just said, “Come and see for yourself.” There’s a place for deep theological discussion, but sometimes the best we can do is just hold out our hand and say, “Come meet Jesus for yourself.” A relationship with Christ is meant to be experienced, not read about.
And Nathanael does. Jesus sees him approaching and greets him this way: “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
A lot of us put on different faces according to the situation. We may behave one way around our closest friends, and a different way at work, and a different way at church. Over the past few months, we’ve had a remarkable and unsettling string of revelations about various public figures, in both politics and entertainment, and while some of them weren’t all that surprising there were others that have driven home the point that a person’s public persona may not be an indication of who they really are, or how they treat those around them.
It’s refreshing when you find someone with a really genuine personality, someone who is the same no matter what the situation and no matter who’s around. I like to think that Nathanael was someone like that: someone plain-spoken and honest, not in a mean-spirited kind of way, but someone who says what they’re thinking — or at least holds their tongue rather than dish out fake flattery.
Of course, you can use “I tell it like it is” as an excuse for saying rude and inappropriate things. There’s a difference between being honest and being a jerk about it.
Jesus said that Nathanael is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit — and he seems to mean that as a compliment. That’s a quality praised elsewhere in the Bible as well. Psalm 32:2 says “The one the Lord doesn’t consider guilty — in whose spirit there is no dishonesty — that one is truly happy!”
Jesus valued truth, and honesty, and knowing yourself. The religious leaders whom Jesus often criticized weren’t honest, with themselves or others. They pretended to be holy, either to deceive others or to deceive themselves, when in fact they were very far away from what God really expected of them.
Jesus liked people who were honest — even if they were sinners. If you’re honest with yourself and others, you can be redeemed. If you’re honest with yourself and others, you can be led to repentance. If you’re honest with yourself, you know you need a savior. It is much easier to lead an honest sinner to repentance than it is someone who’s pretending to be holy.
Nathanael was an Israelite who was without deceit, and for Jesus, that was worthy of praise.
And his plain-spokenness extended to Jesus himself. Nathanael wasn’t intimidated one bit by this new teacher from the scruffy little town of Nazareth. Jesus is paying him a compliment, and Nathanael thinks it’s flattery and isn’t about to be taken in. When Jesus greets Nathanael, Nathanael looks him in the eye and says “How do you know I’m without deceit? How do you know what I’m like at all?”
Jesus responds by telling Nathanael that he’d seen him under the fig tree.
In Jewish culture, according to the commentator William Barclay, the fig tree was a symbol of peace. Not only was it a symbol of peace, a fig tree had a lot of leaves and provided good shade compared to some of the other vegetation that grew in Judaea. That meant a fig tree, if you could find one, was often a good place to sit in the shade and think, or meditate. Perhaps that’s what Nathanael had been doing — sitting under a fig tree, by himself, thinking. That would have been a private moment; when you want to think, you want some place where you aren’t going to be disturbed.
But Jesus tells Nathanael he saw him under the fig tree — Jesus saw him in his private place. I don’t know how fully Nathanael was able to understand this — he obviously understood it to some degree — is that Jesus sees, not only the fig tree, all of the private places in Nathanael’s heart.
In the past 15 years, our notions of privacy have been changed drastically, perhaps forever, by new technologies. In the old days, you would have been alarmed if I told you that someone had planted a wiretap in your house and was listening to every word you say. This past year, millions of people have bought the Amazon Echo or the Google Home, devices that are specifically designed to listen to every word you say so that they will wake up when you say the key word.
Now, in practical terms, that’s not as bad as it sounds. Those devices, we are told, do not transmit anything home to Amazon or Google until and unless you say that key word, such as “Alexa” or “OK, Google.”
If all of those devices were transmitting everything they heard 24 hours a day back to the home office, there is no way that Amazon could keep up with or process it. Imagine being able to suddenly hear every conversation taking place in every home in Bedford County. There’s no way you could make any sense out of all of it. It would be too much information.
But even so, those devices are always on — and who’s to say that some third party, whether the government or a criminal, could not hack into them and use them to listen to you personally, especially if you happened to be an enemy of someone in power, or an enemy of someone on the technical side of things.
However, our concerns about privacy have been abandoned in the face of the conveniences and enjoyment promised by these amazing new devices. And we seem to have changing ideas about what is, or should be, private. Today, we share photos and information about ourselves with the world — which has both good and bad implications.
I’m as bad about this as anyone. If I go to a new restaurant, I want to check in on Facebook — so that I can let my friends know about it, or because I like being the first person to go there, or just because it’s a conversation-starter.
Today, as you surf the web, you often see ads for products or services directed specifically at you. If you visit a website and look for, let’s say, new shoes, all of a sudden you’ll be seeing shoe ads on every web page you visit — even after you’ve bought some other pair of shoes and aren’t in the market any more.
We all have friends that overshare on Facebook. A year or so back, an acquaintance of mine from another county was having some marital problems, and as his marriage started to unwind he would vent his frustrations — in sort of an indirect, passive-aggressive way to where you knew he was sort of indirectly talking to his wife, or maybe hoping that someone else would talk to his wife. I would think to myself, “I don’t need to hear this. Man, if you really are trying to keep her, this is the wrong way to do it. Your wife is going to be furious that you’re inviting the world into your personal drama.”
And, sure enough, they were divorced a few months later.
The truth is, many of us share a lot more on social media than we would have thought about sharing with the world a few years ago.
But while technology has changed our ideas about privacy, Amazon and Google still can’t see into the human heart. God, however, can. We have no secrets from God. Our deepest hopes, our greatest fears, our shameful shortcomings, and our greatest joys all belong to God. Jesus could see Nathanael under the fig tree, but he could also see Nathanael’s heart. Jesus told the woman at the well all about her history, and she was flabbergasted. After talking to Jesus, she went around to everyone she knew, saying “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done!”
One of our other lectionary passages today is from Psalm 139. Let me read you the first six verses:
Psalm 139:1–6 (CEB)
139 Lord, you have examined me.
You know me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
3 You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
4 There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
that you don’t already know completely.
5 You surround me — front and back.
You put your hand on me.
6 That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.
We have no privacy when it comes to God. God sees our hearts. God knows whether we’re doing good works because of love, or because it’s good for our reputation, good for business. God knows our un-acted-upon hatred, our unconsummated lust.
And keep in mind how good we often are at deceiving ourselves, at being in denial. God knows the truth, which means God knows us better than we know ourselves.
Sometimes people ask why the Bible tells us to pray when God already knows everything we’re about to tell him. I think the purpose of prayer isn’t so much for God to be edified as for us to be edified. Just the process of talking to God about our situation can help us to process it, to understand it, to put it into some sort of context and perspective. As we pray, the very act of talking to God helps us to understand what our priorities are, what our problems and assets are, and helps to keep in the forefront of our minds the fact that God is the solution to all of it.
God’s knowledge of us can be a source of both comfort and fear. We know that God knows our dark side. But we can also take comfort in the fact that God loves each and every one of us, even knowing the worst about us.
Nathanael is amazed to realize that Jesus had seen him under the fig tree. He immediately echoes what Philip had tried to tell him earlier, proclaiming Jesus as “God’s son” and “the king of Israel” — in other words, the messiah.
But Jesus pulls Nathanael’s attention outward. What was really impressive was not that Jesus could see into Nathanael’s heart; what was impressive was the kingdom Jesus would establish.
“I assure you,” Jesus said, “that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.” This was a reference, of sorts, to the ladder that Jacob had seen in a vision in Genesis 28. God’s angels, in that vision, were traveling to and from heaven.
But in Jesus’ words, it is the Human One — or, in older translations, the Son of Man; Jesus himself — who provides the passageway for this transit to and from heaven. Jesus himself is the ladder. Jesus himself is the one who secures our reconciliation with God, and therefore, our access to the Kingdom of God.
Jesus sees our hearts. Jesus knows our sins and loves us anyway. And Jesus, through his sacrificial death and resurrection, makes it possible for us to be forgiven and reconciled, and to be a part of the Kingdom of God, both as it exists in the here and now and as it exists as a hereafter.
When we understand, and when we remind ourselves, that God knows our hearts, it helps to underline our connection to that Kingdom. When we know that God is with us, when we know that we are, in fact, constantly in God’s presence, that casts a new light on our actions, on our motives, on our attitudes. When we remind ourselves that God sees our hearts, we are motivated to make those hearts more welcoming. If you found out that you were going to have some great visitor at your house tomorrow, you’d spend a lot of time tonight cleaning and polishing and rearranging and picking up. When we understand that God is a constant visitor in our hearts and minds, we are motivated, or should be, to do the same.
But we have to make sure that the changes we make are real changes, not cosmetic changes. We want to be like Nathanael, people who are without deceit and who are open to learning more about who Jesus truly is.