Sermon: January 14, 2024 2 Epiphany

This morning I decided not to write and preach my own sermon, but instead to share with you the words of Nathanael, a Jewish man who lived about 2000 years ago and knew Jesus face-to-face. He asked me to read his words, because he hopes that his story will strengthen and inspire you in your Jesus-following journey.

Hello, my name is Nathanael. Some of you may remember my name, I do after all appear two whole times in John’s Gospel! I know that isn’t very much, not like Peter, or Andrew, or that apostle who likes to tell everyone how much Jesus loved him—like he doesn’t love all of the rest of us just as much, come on now, that was what he was all about. Anyway. I’m Nathanael. I lived a long time ago in a very small town called Cana in Galilee, part of a small Roman province that had a few centuries earlier been the great nation of Israel. Cana isn’t known for much, but it was the first place Jesus performed a miracle—remember when he turned all that water into wine at the wedding? That’s my hometown. Not much to brag about, but at least it was better than that other backwater Galilean town—Nazareth. Those of us from Cana might have been a little backward, but the residents from Nazareth were positively upside down.

Now, I don’t know what life is like for you today, but life in my day was downright difficult. Taxes were high, tensions between the Jewish people and the Romans were high, wages were low for most of us. Some Jewish people were doing quite well—those Sadducees for example and the high priests in the Temple. They had managed to work the system to their advantage, and they had no trouble stepping on the rest of us to do so. They were in cahoots with the enemy and we at the bottom knew it. For most of us our lives consisted of hard work, watching our children and spouses die young, and living with the knowledge that the world did not look at all like the world promised to us in our Scriptures.

We were supposed to be God’s chosen ones! We were in covenant with God. In return for showing the world who God is God promised us a land of our own. He promised this to our ancestors Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, and on and on down the line. We once had great kings like David and his son Solomon but alas, by the time I walked this earth that was all gone, and the Romans were our rulers. Oh, the shame and the degradation of it all—that was just as bad as not knowing where our next meal was coming from. We wanted to be masters of ourselves. These Romans didn’t even follow Yahweh. They worshipped false gods, idols!!

But we held on to hope any way we could. After all, the prophets promised us that all would be well. Some of us believed that a new king descended from David, living in Bethlehem, would rise up and lead an uprising against the Roman pigs. Others believed that a prophet would come who would inspire all Jewish people to live Torah-following lives, and when that happened all nations would recognize that the God of Israel is the only true God. Still others believed that the messiah would come, resurrect the dead and create a new heaven and a new earth. Whoever or whatever you thought this Messiah would be, we all agreed that this person would bring peace and prosperity to the Jewish people. And all of us who held on to a messianic hope of one form or another, searched Jewish scripture for hints and signs that it was happening now. Who wouldn’t want God to break into the world and fix things? Only those at the top wouldn’t want this. The rest of us wanted and needed change now.

So, when I wasn’t working hard to support my family, you could find me sitting under a tree and reading Jewish Scripture. I wasn’t sure what kind of Messiah I was hoping for, but I needed some hope that things could be different if I was going to keep going each and every day. I particularly liked sitting under a fig tree to read scripture because it reminded me of the prophet Zechariah. Like all the Hebrew prophets he was a stern guy, but he also assured us that God was at work and planned to live again with His people in Jerusalem. Zechariah promised us that Yahweh would save us from our enemies and cleanse us from our sins. He even said that Yahweh would “remove the guilt of this land in a single day. And on that day, we will invite each other to come under our vine and fig tree.” The rabbis told us that this meant we would be peaceful and prosperous and would sit with one another and enjoy God’s presence and our good fortune. So of course I sat under fig trees to read the Scriptures.

Anyway, as you can see, I like to talk. I haven’t even gotten to the important part of my story yet. Please forgive me. I’ll try and get to the point. One day I was sitting under a fig tree reading Torah, and my friend Philip came running up to me all excited. I asked him what was going on to get him so fired up and he said, “We have found him about whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Now, I’m a pretty straightforward guy. People know where they stand with me. I believe in speaking the truth and those who know me know they can trust my word. Philip is a great guy and a good friend, but what he was saying to me just didn’t make any sense. Nowhere in our Holy Scriptures does it say that the Messiah is going to come from Nazareth. Bethlehem yes, but not Nazareth. I suppose it is possible that the Messiah could come from somewhere other than Bethlehem, but Nazareth, that backward nowhere place? No way, and I said so to Philip. He just smiled and said, “Come and see.” There was something in Philip’s smile that was intriguing, and Philip was a good friend, and I didn’t want to make him feel bad, so I decided to follow him. I didn’t have any work to do, so why not? I was certainly curious about who could get Philip so excited and so I went.

We walked down the road toward a man I had never seen before, but Philip knew him. Before Philip or I could say anything, this man said to me, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Well, I was a little ticked off at that. I had never met him before. I do think I’m a pretty honest upright guy, but who was this stranger to tell me who I am? So, I said, “Where did you get to know me?” And do you know what he said? “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Now, I knew he hadn’t actually seen me under that tree. I was in a pretty obscure place and there is no way he was hiking around looking at me, I would have seen him. But I suddenly knew, like I had never known anything before, that he saw me, Nathanael, poor Jewish working man who yearned for nothing more than God’s presence and the peace and prosperity that it would bring. He looked at me and saw into my soul. And before I could stop myself, I cried out, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” I didn’t even know what this meant, but I did know that somehow someway this man, this Jesus, this son of Joseph from Nazareth, was the hope I’d been waiting for. And then things got really interesting.

Jesus said to me, “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 me, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” He was talking about our ancestor Jacob, the deceitful and conniving man, who nevertheless was promised by God to be the father of a great nation. I don’t know if you remember the story, but Jacob, the second born twin, stole his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing. When Jacob was running away from his angry brother, he feel asleep in the desert one night with only a stone for a pillow and he had a powerful dream. He saw a ladder that went from earth to heaven. On it were angels of God ascending and descending. And God stood beside Jacob and promised him that his offspring would spread across the face of the earth and all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. Yahweh promised Jacob that He would be with him and would not leave him until He had done what he had promised to do. When Jacob woke up he said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!. . . This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28) And Jacob set up an altar to God there and named it Bethel.

Jesus was telling me that something greater than a mere Messiah was here. I didn’t fully understand it yet, but it was my first glimpse that when you’re with Jesus, it is though you are in the House of God, the Temple itself, with God right there beside you. I was never the same again. Who could be unchanged by such an experience?

Now, Jesus didn’t turn out to be the Messiah I had thought I wanted, but he turned out to be the Messiah I needed. God is never going to overpower us and overturn the world, because that wouldn’t be love, and God always loves. However, God is always going to be right beside us working to persuade us to join in God’s love. Jesus didn’t overthrow the Romans, but he did give those of us walking with him a glimpse of what the world could be like if we loved as God loves He taught us how to live in community that way, even if the rest of the world thought we were crazy or foolish. And when he appeared to us after his resurrection, we knew that love had won.

And that is why I am here sharing my story with you today. For once you know, once you have experienced this God-love firsthand you have to pass it on. That’s what Philip did for me that day when I was sitting under that fig tree. That’s what I’m trying to do for you here today. This is why you are gathered here in worship of Jesus even though it has been 2000 years since he walked this earth. The Jesus way, God’s way, God’s kingdom, spreads from person to person. And now it is your responsibility to pass what you know on to others. Now, you don’t have to be like some of those crazy fundamentalists Suzannah has told me about. You don’t have to go out with all the answers and tell people they need to become Christians or else. But you can be a friend to others as Philip was to me and simply say, “Come and see.” I promise you that if they experience Jesus in this community, if they experience God’s love, there is no more that you will need to say.

And oh, if you haven’t yet had the epiphany I’ve had, don’t worry, don’t despair. Take some time to find a fig tree to sit under. Sit with scripture for a while. Name your deepest yearnings to yourself and more importantly to God. Pray regularly. Sit in silence. I promise you that God is already there with you and eventually you will notice God’s presence. I invite you to “come and see!” Amen.