“Anything Good?” – Sermon on John 1:43-51 for Epiphany 2B

This is the second Sunday after the Epiphany, and even though our focus for this church year will be in Mark’s gospel, the second Sunday after the Epiphany always brings us to John. We’re still in the first chapter, and our reading today will bring us to “what happens next” after Jesus is baptized.

Now, John’s version of events is slightly different than the other gospels. For example, John doesn’t really give us a baptism story, just as he doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ birth or childhood, or even the temptation in the desert. But he does give us some insight into the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist.

In the verses just before today’s reading, we see John the Baptist pointing to Jesus and encouraging his own disciples to start following “the one whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie.” And they do. Andrew goes and finds his brother Simon, and brings him to Jesus. Jesus gives him a new name, Peter. The story is just beginning. …

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.”

John 1:43-51

Several different threads weave through these few verses, connecting them to what has gone before, and what will follow. Last week, I spoke about the idea of liminality in this season of Epiphany, and we see it again in this passage. Remember that the word ‘liminal’ comes from a Latin word meaning “threshold.” The revealing – or epiphany – of Jesus as the Christ brings people to the threshold of transformation. Last week, the magi were changed as they crossed that threshold. Their lives were transformed as they bowed in worship before the holy child.

They went home by a different way.

Now, as Jesus calls his first disciples, we see each of them stand on that same threshold between what was, and what God is making new in Jesus. In the verses just before today’s reading is so complete, Simon even gets a whole new name out of the deal! And yet, we know his transformation is just beginning. And that brings us to Philip.

Philip shows us a couple of themes we will recognize throughout the season of Epiphany. One of those themes is the idea of finding, or being found. We hear that word three times in the first couple of verses – Jesus finds Philip, then Philip finds Nathanael, and tells him, “we’ve found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.”

Have you ever been found? Once when I was little, I spent a wonderful afternoon visiting our next door neighbor, Mrs. Braden. We picked fresh mint from the little patch by her back door so we could add sprigs of mint to our tall glasses of iced tea. We sat in her cool, dark living room, sipping our tea and then I helped her set the table for Mr. Braden’s supper.

As I skipped home, quite pleased with myself because I hadn’t broken a glass or spilled any iced tea on Mrs. Braden’s couch, my mother came running down the alley. She was very angry, but she was also clearly relieved to see me. She had been looking for me all over the neighborhood. I was found, and I didn’t even know I’d been lost.

I wonder if that’s how Philip felt when Jesus went looking for him, when Jesus found him and said, “Follow me.” Did you notice that Jesus found Philip, instead of the other way around? Jesus was looking specifically for him. And then Philip went looking for Nathanael.

Now, Nathanael only shows up in John’s gospel. The other gospel writers list Bartholomew right after Philip’s name, so it’s quite plausible that Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person, especially because Bartholomew isn’t a personal name; it simply means “son of Tholomeus.”

We might see Nathanael as a skeptic with his challenge to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” We don’t know much about him outside of this story. But Jesus knows him. Where we see blunt skepticism, Jesus sees complete honesty.

And this is the point where Nathanael steps onto the threshold between his old assumptions and his new reality. It’s also where we see another theme emerging, one that will continue to show up over the next several weeks. It’s the theme of seeing – and being seen.

In John’s gospel, seeing is always a metaphor for deeper awareness, an awakening to faith, and a clearer understanding of who Jesus is. But notice how this threshold is initiated by Jesus. Jesus sees Nathanael coming toward him. He tells him: before Philip said, “Come and see” Jesus had already seen Nathanael sitting under the fig tree.

We often think of coming to faith as our own eyes being opened to the truth of the gospel. We look for a clearer understanding of who Jesus is, we seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness, but in this story, it’s Jesus who is doing the seeing, Jesus who is doing the searching, Jesus who is finding the ones he will call as disciples. Jesus who is looking for … you.

How does it feel to have God looking diligently for you, seeking you out, and finding you? How do you respond to the realization that you matter to God, that God sees you?

When Nathanael realized that Jesus really saw him, he found himself in the same liminal moment the magi had experienced. They were overwhelmed with joy. Nathanael was overwhelmed with faith. “Rabbi,” he exclaims, “you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” In a single moment, he transforms from skeptic into believer, from critic into disciple.

Nathanael brings us to the threshold between naming Jesus, and following him. This connection between Christology and discipleship – between identifying Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the King of Israel, Rabbi, and following Jesus without reservation – it all happens in the liminal space where we each receive our own epiphany. It’s the point between finding Christ, and Christ finding you.

Theologian Ted A. Smith writes, “Discipleship and Christology fit together so closely because discipleship is first of all a willingness to walk with Jesus. It is not obedience to an abstract set of codes, but consent to a costly, joyful relationship. In walking with Jesus, we learn who he is. As we learn who he is, we learn what it means to follow him.” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1, 265.)

We often talk about inviting Jesus into our hearts, or making Jesus part of our lives. But what if we turn that around, and realize that Jesus is welcoming us into his life? Jesus invites us to come and see where he lives. He offers us the opportunity to become part of what he is doing.

His invitation is open, but it’s up to us to follow, up to us to “come and see.” We must decide if we can make that kind of deep commitment, if we can devote ourselves to that kind of close relationship. It means letting go of our own assumptions and expectations, and surrendering our whole being to God’s desire and plan for us.

What are you seeking with all your being? What is your soul’s deep longing? Are you ready to be part of Jesus’ life, so you can find what you seek? And once you’ve found Christ, then what? It’s not enough to just ‘see’ Jesus. He calls us to follow.

You see, following Jesus wherever he goes, living with him, is the only way you are ever going to find what you are seeking. Entering into a life-long commitment to be part of Christ’s life is the only way you will ever fulfill that deep longing inside you. It’s a longing that you might not even be able to name. But it’s there.

Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” Are you looking for grace and forgiveness? Are you looking for abundant life? Are you looking for an abiding and deep connection with the God who created you just so he could love you?

Jesus isn’t sitting around waiting for us to invite him into our lives. Instead, Jesus invites us into his life. With his “come and see” Jesus includes us in his Lamb of God work. Some people talk about how Jesus fills a God-sized hole in their lives. It’s not really about that. It’s about filling the you-sized place you can claim in God’s family by accepting Christ’s invitation into his grace.

There’s one more thing you should know. In the last verse of this passage, the “you” is plural when Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Jesus isn’t just talking to Nathanael anymore. He’s talking to all of us. We will all see greater things than just being seen under our fig trees. We are to be witnesses to Christ’s sacrifice, and to Christ’s glory.

Nathanael scoffed, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” but he changed his tune when he encountered Emmanuel, God With Us in Jesus Christ. Now the question is turned toward us. Can anything good come out of Willmar United Methodist Church? Jesus invites us onto the threshold between what once was, and what God calls us toward. Jesus looks each of us, and all of us, in the eye and says, “Follow me. Come, and see.”

January 17, 2021
Watch video of sermon here.

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