Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;
The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). 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 of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”” (John 1:37–51, ESV)
(From a Sermon by Norman Nagel)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Nathanael actually asks a good question. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" You see, Nazareth was nowearsville. One of my seminary professors said "Nazareth was of one-donkey nothing of a town." Nothing good or notable had ever come from there before. It wasn't in the history books. No famous people claimed Nazareth as their home. It was in the middle of nowhere, and you can't get there from here. So Nathanael's question stands, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
His friend Philip was from Bethsaida. He doesn't waste any time arguing with Nathanael, instead he takes him to Jesus straight away. "See for yourself!" There is nothing wrong with Nathanael's question, in fact we have it on good authority that Nathanael was a good man (the best authority indeed). When Jesus sees him he says in him is no deceit. Nathanael had spent time studying God's word. That's what it means to be "under the fig tree". Nathanael must've spent plenty of time there reading The Book. It's possible to read the Bible and never see Jesus. It's possible to read the Bible and think it's something like "Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth". That is a manual on how to live and what to do in every situation. In other words how to be a good person to make God happy. There wasn't a problem with Nathanael's question, there seems to be a problem with the way Nathanael thought about God. What he meant by the Nazareth question was "that's not the way God is supposed to work. Nazareth is not even mentioned in the Scriptures (for Nathanael that was our Old Testament). That's not the way God should be doing things."
Nathanael's understanding of God had to change. The God he had made for himself reading under the fig tree had to die. And the God from Nazareth had to be born. Nathanael needed a new heart created in him that could see not a God of his own making, one who couldn't do anything from Nazareth, but the one who came from Nazareth who was going to do everything, that is bring salvation in new life to him and all people.
This is the way of all people. It's even our way here at Trinity/First Lutheran. We have ways we think God should work. We have standards that we think God needs to meet. We need money to run the church, volunteers to fill our boards, new bodies sitting in the pews, and Sunday school classrooms full of little children. And if he can't do that, well, we just throw him out and make up our own God. One that can fulfill all our expectations. We want our God to point out the sins of other people and hold them to account, but not point to our sin is deadly, and damning. There are ways, we think, that God should work, and ways that he should not. When we place our expectations on God we are not dealing with the living God but were working with the God that we have made and put in his place.
Jesus knew how ridiculous it is to deal with God this way. Maybe he's even poking a bit of fun at Nathanael. Maybe you think he would never do such a thing. But he shouldn't have come from Nazareth. He shouldn't have been a plain old carpenter. He shouldn't of been born in a stable, either.
Nathanael wasn't seeing what God was really supposed to be like. He read under the fig tree but he missed the point. He wasn't seeing God while he was under the fig tree but God was seeing him. And actually, the question isn't whether you believe in God, the question is whether God believes in you. The question isn't whether you accept Jesus, the question is does Jesus except you. Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree. Nathanael came to Jesus of Nazareth. And he doesn't just see Jesus, he sees God in Jesus. He blurts out the truth. He sees with more than just his eyes. "You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"
But notice that Jesus doesn't use any of the titles afforded him by Nathanael. Instead he uses the title "the Son of Man." As St. John always wants us to see, Jesus is true God and true man together. Jesus uses the title that makes him interchangeable with all people. He walks and talks and breathes and lives on the Earth as a son of man, a person. He walks and talks and breathes and lives on earth for anyone and everyone. Jesus says later "the hour has not yet come for the Son of Man to be glorified." He is speaking of his death on the cross, being lifted up from the earth. And there too, he is interchangeable with all people. He suffers, he bleeds, and he dies. And he does so according to God's perfect will. The Son of Man, Jesus Christ, true God, is glorified and lifted up on his throne of the cross. This is indeed the greatest thing that Nathanael will ever see. If he didn't think that God could come from Nazareth, he certainly didn't think that God should die on the cross. But this is exactly what happens in Jesus Christ. With all his weight bearing down on the nails, he bears our sin, especially our sin of replacing him with our own god. And there bleeding out of his head, hands, feet, and side he is not the God we think he is, or even want him to be, but he is the God that we need. For in his life, suffering and death he brings to us the forgiveness of sins, and as Martin Luther says "where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation."
So this evening, Ash Wednesday, you bear on your forehead a charcoal cross. It is a sign of death. What has been put to death in you is your old nature that wants to make its own God. A God that will do things the way you want them done. A God that will tell you that your sin is small. A God that will excuse your sin and the sins of those you love, and tell you you have no other way to go. That's the ashes. They remind you that you are dead to sin. But it's also a cross. And even though the cross is a deadly instrument, and it brings death to you through Jesus Christ, it also brings life. It brings life because in his death on the cross, Jesus, the Son of Man, is interchangeable with you. Your sin goes the way of death. Your sin goes the way of forgiveness. For you the cross is also life. And although it's not the way we think that God should work, thank God he does. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.