By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 17, 2021
John 1:43–51 (ESV)
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 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.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 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.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 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.” 51 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.”
We are currently in the season of Epiphany in the church calendar. I know that Friends do not traditionally follow the liturgical church year, but I do find it to be helpful in my personal spiritual life. I like to walk with Jesus and his disciples through Jesus’s life and ministry, and the church year helps me do that. There is something profound when the seasons all around us, at least in the northern hemisphere, speak to the conditions of our own hearts. During the darkest days of winter, we celebrate the birth of Christ the light of the world that overcomes the darkness. When spring comes, we celebrate Easter, just as the world begins to bloom, we are reminded of the resurrected and glorified life of Christ. But this is usually where the free or non-liturgical churches stop. We forget about the long and hot days of summer and how they speak of the trials within our spiritual life which is the longest season of the year also known as ordinary time. Its ordinary because that is where most of the work is done, in pre-industrial societies it was during the summer when the when crops were tended and animals were led out to graze. And in the church, it is during the summer where we are reminded of the long processes of living the disciplined life and expanding influence of the church.
But there are a couple of other seasons not yet mentioned, the transition season. During the fall we have the gradual decline of the weather meteorologically, and this is highlighted in the church calendar with the ending of the ordinary time and the beginning of advent. The despair and longing for the coming messiah. Then as the days first being to get longer we have the season of Lent where we prepare ourselves for new life. Those are the major seasons of the church, but there are a few others. Some that last only a short time like Pentecost, which is the season between spring and summer which reminds us of the emerging church as we begin to get back outside to enjoy the warmer weather. And then there is this season of Epiphany what do we make of it?
Epiphany is hard. It is the time just after the joy of Christmas. The beauty of the holiday has past, the winter is set in and we do not want to get out. We start the new year during the season of Christmas, and when the new year comes, we are filled with great ambition. We set goals for ourselves. Things like: “I’m going to eat healthier,” or “I am going to read through the bible this year,” or maybe “I am going to finally kick some bad habit that I have been struggling with.” We set these goal or resolutions and in just a few short weeks, we have already forgotten them. That is the struggle of this season. The season of Epiphany focuses on the time of Jesus’ life that we do not really know a great deal about. We have great stories surrounding the birth of Christ, but we do not get much after that until he is approximately thirty years old. We get a few glimpses into what went on, like Jesus going to the temple and staying there when his family leaves, and the presents that the Magi bring when he was around two years old. But what else is there? We do not know. Jesus obviously lived a full life; we just do not see it in the pages of scripture. But we know that Jesus was still Jesus during that time. He lived within a family and community. He worked and he grew. He learned and he participated in the teaching and encouragement of those within the community. We know this because it was during this time Jesus developed his lifestyle that became the rhythm of the life we see in the pages of scripture.
Epiphany is the season of discipleship and discipline. It is the season of learning and testing. It is the season where we begin to see who Jesus is as a man and as God with us. It is during this season where the word of God is revealed. Because that is what Epiphany means, it is revelation and insight. We get to know God with us during this season. We begin to see and hear what Jesus is about, and we begin to take that walk with him. It is during this season that our journey begins.
Our passage today is early in Jesus’s ministry. Really, we could say that it is before Jesus begins his ministry. In the verses prior to today’s passage, we have John the Baptist’s ministry and testimony of Jesus. And we have the first invitation to the disciples. It is interesting to read these passages because we get a glimpse of the humility of Jesus. John is out on the banks of the Jordan screaming for Israel to repent and Jesus just walks by minding his own business and the screaming preacher stops talking for a moment and says almost in a hush, behold the lamb of God. And as Jesus is walking, he finds a couple of John’s disciples tagging along behind him. He walks and looks back and there they are. He walks some more and looks back again and they are still there. He finally asks them what they want, and they have this amazingly profound answer, “Rabbi where are you staying?”
At this point in time, Jesus, as far as anyone knew, was just an ordinary construction worker. He had not yet begun his ministry. He was just a man that was working with his relatives as a skilled craftsman as he had done for the past seventeen years. John called him the lamb of God, and these two guys just decided to follow him because if this man could silence John, he must be impressive.
But the invitation is interesting. He does not preach to them. He does not give them some formula to become his student. There is not an application processes, where they must meet certain requirements. They want to know where he is staying and Jesus simply tells them, “come and see.”
The next day, Jesus does not go back down to the Jordan where John is at, instead he travels north into Galilee. While he walks, he meets a man named Philip. We do not know how long they walked and talked with each other. We only know that Philip was from the same town as Andrew and Peter. And that Andrew and Peter had spoken with Jesus the previous night. What we do know is Philip, according to John’s gospel, was the first to be officially called to become Jesus’s disciple. Andrew and Peter were invited to come and you will see, but during the conversation that Philip had with Jesus, Jesus invited Philip to, “Follow me.”
Maybe Philip was just walking to the same village that Jesus was going to visit and just happened to be on the same path. We do not really know. But the conversation that they had inspired Philip to such a degree that once Jesus got to the place he was heading, Philip left for a brief amount of time to find his friend Nathanael. And He excitedly approached his friend and said, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
Nathanael was just minding his own business when his friend come to him. If we look at his response, we can almost sense that he might be a bit annoyed with his friend for bothering him. You would think that with the news that was just given would have excited him, but Nathanael is skeptical. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I like his response. I am like that. If you know me well you know that I do not get overly excited about very much. I need to see, observe, and study things for a bit before I begin to get excited. At times this makes people upset. They think that I do not take them seriously or that I do not recognize the seriousness of the situation. I am engaged, I just want to keep my eyes open to see what else is happening.
Nathanael seems skeptical but he is being rational. Nazareth did not really have the best reputation. It was not a center of culture. It was an area that was known for its narrowminded views on things. The people of Nazareth were rural, common, and simple. It was not a place that scholars emerged from, but it had its fair share of ideological rebels that seemed to stir up trouble. When Nathanael says, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He is being practical. He wonders if his friend is getting caught up in some conspiracy theory. Philip understands his friend’s skepticism and does not argue or engage in a debate. He simply replies, “come and see.”
I like this. It shows us something remarkable. Philip told his friend the exciting thing happening, but his friend was not buying it. His friend even tried to pick a fight with him, yet Philip did not argue. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from Philip in this age of social media. All the debates we seem to find ourselves entering on Facebook and twitter are not changing the minds of those we are talking to; it is just giving more fuel to their preconceived ideas. And are driving wedges in the relationships we have with them. For me personally, there are some friends and family members do not even want to talk to because everything I say will start another round of misunderstanding and pointless debate. Philip does not enter a debate. He does not add fuel to Nathanael’s prejudice, he simply offers an invitation to come and see for himself.
When I read this, it seems as if Philip’s response surprises Nathanael. It was not exactly the response he expected. It was obviously out of character for his friend. It intrigued him, so he followed his friend to meet Jesus.
Jesus sees them coming, and he greets Nathanael. “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” I have always thought his is an interesting greeting. And as I sat praying this week over this passage, that sentence is where my mind rested. I thought about the wording and the history of Israel.
Israel is more than the name of a nation; it is a name of a person. It was the name given to the son of Isaac, Jacob, the prior to Jacob’s reunion with his brother Esau. It is important to remember this story because Jacob’s name has meaning like most names in scripture. Jacob means to follow, or to be behind but also to supplant, circumvent, assail, or overreach. In scripture Jacob lived out his name. He became known as a schemer and a trickster. He found a way to convince his brother to transfer the greater inheritance to him, and to get his father’s blessing. He also devised a scheme to increase his wealth while he lived with his uncle. But over the years all his schemes weighed on him. And when he approached the land of his brother, he was convinced that his brother would try to kill him. Jacob struggled with this in his mind, and one night, after he had sent his family into the land before him and he was alone on the border, he was visited by a stranger. For some reason Jacob wrestled and fought with this stranger though the entire night until the next morning. And at the end of this struggle, he came to the realization that he was struggling with God, and God gave him a new name. He was no longer Jacob, but Israel. And this new name means wrestles with God.
This story is seen in the greeting Jesus makes to Nathanael. Behold an Israelite indeed. This alludes to where Nathanael is spiritually. He is struggling, wrestling, not taking things at face value but looking deeper, he is seeking the truth. And like Jacob, he has a desire to put his previous life behind him yet does not really know how to move forward. Jesus reveals himself to Nathanael by revealing Nathanael himself.
The invitation that Jesus gives to each of us is like these first disciples. Jesus asks us each to come and see, and to follow. For some of us we simply listen and respond, and for others we the process takes a bit more time, and we must see it before we believe. This is the Epiphany. God will reveal himself to us in the way that we need when we need it. It shows us how we should approach life with each other, and how we should encourage those around us. It is not about having all the right words, but it is reflecting Jesus in our lives. I want us to think about this as we enter this time of open worship.
There is a natural response to share the gospel we know with other, but how are we doing it? We are urged and even commanded to go to Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth making disciples yet how are we doing that? Jesus shows us how. He shows us from the very beginning of his ministry. Build relationships and show a different way to live. Stop debating and listen, stop arguing and have a conversation. Everyone we know is struggling in some way, and Jesus I here with us in that struggle, and Jesus is speaking and offering healing for our condition if we are willing to simply come and see.