Sermon: Epiphany II: God Revealed to Skeptics
• John 1:43-51
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
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The Lord be with you.
When I was in high school, I went through a fairly ordinary period of skepticism. I used to love getting into arguments about religion. I delighted in coming up with questions to stump people I thought were just following their faith because they had been raised that way and hadn’t really thought it through. I’m sure I frustrated them, because I’m sure they thought I was being mocking and disrespectful. When I look back now, I think it was an essential part of my faith development. Even though I was being kind of a jerk about it, God was keeping me involved in thinking and questioning and talking with others about matters of faith, and when the page eventually turned my faith was stronger for it.
It is not uncommon for people, at various periods of life, to begin to question the things they believe. Personally, I don’t think we should be alarmed by that. Often, it is simply part of of being human, of becoming mature, of working through things in our lives. It can represent “growing pains” that we have to get through in order to develop into more thoughtful and grounded people.
There are those who take a more fundamentalist approach to religion, and they tend to get frightened by doubts, questioning, and skepticism. For them, it’s either black or white, you’re in or you’re out, the light is on or you’re in the darkness. So when someone expresses lack of certainty about something they hold to be absolute truth, they get worried and think that maybe the person has lost his or her faith. That is when the pastor starts getting phone calls from worried parents or friends. However, if we view doubt and questioning and skepticism as an integral part of faith, we can be a bit more patient with one another.
The leading character in today’s text, the disciple Nathanael, was a doubter and maybe a skeptic. Now for sure, he was part of the Jewish people, had been raised to believe in God, to revere God’s word, and to follow the various rites and practices of the faith of Moses. But Nathanael was one of those people you feel uncomfortable having in your Sunday School class. He was always expressing contrary opinions. He raised questions about the validity of certain things everyone else just accepted. He seemed implacably negative, like he was always trying to pull up the rug and find the dirt under their accepted religion.
So how do you think Nathanael responded when his friend Philip came to him all excited one day and said, “We have found the Messiah!” This was no small claim. In fact, it was the most audacious claim any Jew could have made. Philip was announcing that the One they had been waiting thousands of years for had arrived. That God was fulfilling his promises and would be restoring the kingdom to Israel. That their enemies, like the Romans who occupied Israel at that time, were about to be defeated, and Israel’s long exile under foreign powers was coming to an end. Philip was not just giving some enthusiastic personal testimony, this was the best of all good news for Israel and, indeed, for the world. This was history-making news, world-changing news, and the most significant religious news that any Jew could imagine.
How did Nathanael respond? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he scowled. In other words, “Sure Philip, what have you been drinking?” Like most Jewish people, Nathanael probably thought that when the Messiah came, it would be a bit more glorious than some guy from a backwater town walking around and gathering disciples. To him, Philip’s claim was ludicrous.
Philip, to his credit, did not become alarmed at Nathanael’s skepticism. He merely said, “Come and see.” Here is an example of how to relate to skeptics. Don’t argue. Don’t try to convince them with proofs. Just offer an invitation: “Look, I know it seems crazy, but why don’t you come take a look for yourself?”
To his credit, Nathanael took Philip up on his invitation. And when he did, he met Jesus. And that made all the difference.
You may not recognize the nuances in this story, but as Jesus talks with Nathanael, he makes several allusions to the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Like Nathanael, Jacob was a hard guy to convince about stuff. He had a rough childhood and was something of a delinquent, until his parents sent him away to live with his uncle Laban, an even tougher person they thought might teach him a few lessons.
Along the way to Laban’s, Jacob had his first experience with God, at a place called Bethel. When he laid down to sleep that night, he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven and God’s angels were going up and down on it. He woke up in the morning and said, “Wow! God is in the place, and I had no idea!”
This is the very story Jesus is referring to here. The name “Jacob” means “deceiver,” and when Jesus confronts Nathanael he says, “Now here’s an Israelite without deceit — an Israelite who’s better than ‘Jacob’! Here’s one who has honest doubts and questions about God!”
He then says he saw Nathanael under a fig tree, which probably means Nathanael was sleeping, taking a nap under that tree. Like Jacob at Bethel, Nathanael had no idea Jesus could see him when he was sleeping.
And finally, Jesus makes reference to Jacob’s ladder, saying that Nathanael would see God’s angels ascending and descending upon him. In other words, Nathanael would recognize Jesus as the One where earth and heaven meet, where God is present and active. Jacob named the place where he first saw God Beth-el — the house of God. Nathanael would recognize that Jesus is God’s dwelling place.
This was Jesus’ first encounter with Nathanael, and Jesus likened him to Jacob in this episode. Jacob represents the kind of person who constantly struggles with God. And yet he is considered one of the fathers of Israel. In fact, it was Jacob whose name was changed to Israel, in recognition that he and his children and his children’s children would always contend with God. That’s not a sign of lack of faith, it’s a sign of people who are trying to work out their faith, trying to understand their faith, trying to make sense of their faith in a world where it often doesn’t seem to make sense. Jesus was suggesting that Nathanael would follow the path of Jacob, a person who wrestled with God his whole life.
Perhaps there are some Nathanaels here this morning, some people who are kin to Jacob. Faith doesn’t come easily to you. You wonder and ponder and doubt a lot of different aspects of the faith you’ve been taught. When you read the Bible, it raises more questions than answers for you. Church is sometimes hard and you don’t always feel like you fit in.
You know what? That’s okay. It really is. Here, this morning, in the Gospel of John, is a person like you. His name is Nathanael. And I will say the same thing to you that his friend Philip said to him: “Come and see.” Come and meet Jesus. Get to know him. Listen to him. It may seem unlikely to you at the moment, but you might just find someone who knows you better than you know yourself, One who loves you and will show you the most wondrous and glorious things about God.
That’s a lot like what happened to me back in my most skeptical days. A very joyous and loving group of Christians invited me to join them at church and in their youth group. They didn’t try to argue with me, they just welcomed me. They gave me the chance to meet Jesus. And that has made all the difference for me. I still have loads of questions and doubts, but having met Jesus, I’m content to keep on struggling with him.
May God bless all who wrestle with God. Amen.