Reaching back to God


A sermon preached on January 15, 2012 based upon 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.”  

John’s Gospel is different from the other three Gospels in that it is less concerned with recording a record of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and is more concerned with reflecting on the meaning of the Christ event.  So it starts off taking us back to the beginning of creation with those familiar words we hear every year at Christmas:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  (John 1:1 – 4)

Every human being in every time and place in history, when not consumed with simply surviving, has had moments of pondering the great mystery of creation:  Why is there something and not nothing?    Why am I alive?  Why is there this thing called life?  Perhaps gazing up into a star-filled night sky, or contemplating the birth of a child, we feel a sense of awe and wonder before the mystery of creation, and these words speak of that mystery, referring to it as the Word out of which all things were made.

This mystery is ultimately unknowable.  We cannot see behind the veil.   We can feel awe and wonder before this ultimate reality, but we cannot “know” its nature.  Unless, unless… this ultimate nature should choose to real itself to us.

Which is the very thing the Gospel of John goes on to say happened in the climactic fourteenth verse:

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

John is making the claim here that the great mystery has reached out to us, taking on the same flesh in which we dwell, in order to make itself knowable to us.  The great mystery behind creation has taken the big first step required in order for us to enter an intimate, personal relationship with it, revealing itself as a person, a certain man who lived 2000 years ago, having grown up in a town known as Nazareth.  That mystery which we refer to with the word “God” wants to be in relationship with us.

When you grasp what is being claimed here, it is quite astonishing, particularly in our highly secular world, but it was a radical claim in Jesus’ day where religion had come to be understood as a very static thing.   It was believed that once upon a time God had reached out to human being in a much less vulnerable way, speaking to Moses on the mountaintop, and giving him an extensive rule book  explaining everything God expected of us.  And so in those days, the primary understanding of religion was of being a rule book.

But here, the community that had encountered Jesus were saying that real religion wasn’t a rule book; rather, it was a relationship.  And God has reached out to initiate this relationship.

In John’s Gospel, after putting Jesus story in this great, cosmological context, Jesus himself finally makes an appearance in the second half of the first chapter.  And what is Jesus doing?  He is inviting people into relationship.

But in contrast to the other three Gospels, in John’s Gospel rather quickly the inviting begins to happen not only by Jesus, but also be those who have already been affected by him.

And Nathanael becomes something of a case study in regard to what is involved in coming to faith in Christ.  Philip tells Nathanael that he thinks he may have found the messiah of God, the son of God, in a man named Jesus of Nazareth.  Nathanael responds by expressing doubt:  “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  It’s a valid question.  What’s Nazareth?  It’s a Podunk town without sophisticated or educated people.  Why should the messiah come from there.

It is natural and appropriate to have doubts.   It is interesting, however, that Philip doesn’t engage the doubts.  It doesn’t seem necessary for him to resolve Nathanael’s doubts in order for Nat to take a step back to the God who is reaching out to him.  Philip says simply, “Come and see.”  In saying this, he is imitating Jesus himself, who a few verses earlier said the same thing to one of John’s disciples.   Come and hang out for me yourself and see what you think.

Now the ball is in Nathanael’s court, so to speak.  Having been reached out to, will he, or won’t he, reach back to whatever extent he is capable of in the present moment?

He could continue to focus on his doubts, but at some point you would wonder whether to do so would be some kind of excuse – a way of avoiding the risk that is involved in engaging in a relationship.   Relationships require a willingness to engage and explore.   They are not a problem to figured out, because relationships always continue to hold mystery and uncertainty.

Fortunately, Nathanael agrees to go see Jesus for himself.   He’s not committing himself to anything beyond this at the moment, but it’s no small thing.  It’s what he is capable of in the present moment.  He takes a first step.

When Jesus sees Nathanael coming towards him, taking this first step, he says to him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

At first glance, this seems an odd thing to say.  It references the old story of the patriarch Jacob, who for a big portion of his life was a big time deceiver and manipulator.  He deceives his father and his brother Esau in order to get the birthright and blessing that were rightfully his brother’s, and he spends twenty years in a battle of wits with another deceiver and manipulator, his uncle Laban, ultimately winning the battle of deception.

But eventually Jacob came home to face the music, and in the famous story where Jacob wrestles with the angel of God on the shores of the Jabbok, just before seeing his brother Esau, the angel gives him a new name.  No longer would he be Jacob the deceiver; now he would be “Israel”, the one who strove with God.

He has been changed.  He is no longer the manipulator and deceiver.  He has become real.  What you see is what you get.

In case you think I am reading all this into Jesus’ words about an Israelite with no deceit, John drives the point home in our final verse where 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.”

Oh yes, Jacob’s ladder, the dream he saw in the wilderness.

If you ask, what is the one essential thing for any real relationship, the answer is, a willingness to give up deception and a preoccupation with image and appearance.  It requires we get real.

I met a middle aged couple recently who are getting married.  They had each been married before, marrying young, and in their marriages they both dealt with deception.  I asked the woman what it was about her fiancée that led her to want to spend the rest of her life with him.   She said it was his honesty – the fact that what you saw was what you get.  Even when he tried to be a little manipulative, he was so transparent, she found it kind of cute.

There’s this story I’ve told a number of times about a desert father from the first centuries of Christianity.  Abba Moses had fled the cities to live out in the wilderness, devoting himself to prayer and study.  In the wilderness he befriended a simple shepherd.  He watched one day as the shepherd poured out a bowl of goat’s milk in a bowl and left it out on a rise.  When Abba Moses asked him why he did this, he replied that in his love and gratitude to God, he shared his goat’s milk each night with God, and during the night God would come and drink it.  Abba Moses laughed at the simple shepherd.  “Don’t you know that God is pure Spirit, and therefore God has no need for your goat’s milk!”  “Oh but every night God comes and drinks it, for the bowl is empty in the morning!”   “Here, I will show you.”  And they stayed late to watch the bowl from a distance as night fell.  And sure enough, a little fox came along, lapping up the milk.

The shepherd was crestfallen.  That night, Abba Moses had a dream in which God came to him, rebuking him for the manner in which he had treated the shepherd.  “You are right.  I am pure Spirit and so I do not need his goat’s milk.  But I very much appreciated the intention behind this simple act of devotion.  And since I didn’t need the milk myself, I shared it with my friend the fox.”

So, when it comes to engaging this relationship with God, what is required is openheartedness.   The simple intention to reach out to God in love is what matters, not the sophistication of our understanding of how God functions in the world.   Abba Moses was deceitful; he did not acknowledge the real motivation in the interaction, which was to show the poor shepherd how much smarter he was.

One thing that becomes evident as we live over time in this life is how hard it is to change ourselves.  We are given a certain personality at birth, which is shaped by our early upbringing, and as time passes, try as we may, it is hard to change who we are.

Here is the one thing that can change.  Our authenticity.  Our honesty.   Our capacity to leave the BS behind and give up deceptions and become real so that more and more, we are able to be who we are without manipulating the images others hold of us.

And this is no small thing, and it is the quality most needed for engaging in relationships of any depth and intimacy, whether we are talking about our relationship with God or with other human beings.

If we were to ask, what is the greatest barrier to the spread of the Gospel?  The answer, I believe, would be people who call themselves “Christians” and yet live fraudulent lives, deceitful lives.  They claim to believe in good news, but their inability to be real contradicts the good news.

In contrast, the Gospel is spread when people who have experienced relationship with Jesus live authentically.   Philip doesn’t claim more than he knows, he simply shares the love he has for Jesus and for his friend Nathanael.

Philip Brooks was a great preacher from last century.  He was once asked why he was a Christian.  He paused, and then said, “I am a Christian because of my aunt who lives in Teaneck, NJ.”   No be intellectual argument, simply a significant person in his life whose authentic walk with Jesus was an invitation to Philip to “come and see” for himself.

My vision for our church is that we may be a place where it is safe to be real; where pretense can safely be left behind, where we can share our doubts and fears as well as our faith and our joy, because Jesus is here.

Let me wrap up our Gospel lesson.   After Nathanael makes that step towards God that is represented in his willingness to go and meet Jesus for himself, he is astonished that Jesus already knows his name.  “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael asks him. As far as he knows, they’ve never met before.  Jesus answers, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” In other words, I had a supernatural vision of you.   This astonishes Nathanael – evidently it was under a fig tree that he had sat before Philip called him.   For Nathanael this is a sign that in reaching out to Jesus, he’s reaching in the right direction.  His doubts begin to fall away.

Whenever we can sincerely reach out to God, there will be a reaching back.  If we keep our eyes open, we catch some sort of sign that encourages us to go deeper in the relationship.   But it requires the first step to see the confirming sign.

Another story I’ve told a number of times.  One time I was in a funk.  I went out for a walk, feeling empty, aimless, confused.   I thought to myself, maybe I should listen to the sorts of things I say in sermons, for instance, why don’t I try praying.  So I did.   God, I’m in a big hole right now.   I don’t feel your presence, but I want to.  Please, give me some sign that you are with me. 

I continued on down the street.  As I crossed Beverwyck Road, who should I see coming down the street in his old Cadillac but none other than my friend and office minister, Fred Coleman, who gave me a honk and a wave.   Now you know Fred.  He’s the guy who gets up in the back of church and makes those long-winded mini-sermons about trusting God.  He is the person in my life who, more than any other, preaches trusting the Lord.

Was it just a coincidence that Fred came at the precise moment?  It didn’t seem so to me.  It seemed like a sign.  I had reached out to God, and God had reached back to me.

So I challenge you this morning to turn now to God, in whatever way you can, to reach out in all the honesty you can muster, to tell God what’s going on with you.   Try and bring yourself to a, quiet centered place where you can speak from you heart.   Perhaps you can something like this:

Mysterious God,  I want to know you better.  I want to walk with you.  I recognize that, for the most part, I haven’t been walking with you.  I give lip service to believing in you, but for the most part, I have been going it alone.  And I feel alone.   Here and now, however, I want to reach out to you.  I trust that you will be, in some fashion beyond anything I can predict, you will reach back to me. 

And then watch with eyes and hearts open to see what happens next.







































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