Gloria Dei Lutheran Church
January 18th, 2014
The Epiphany Season gives us a chance to delve deep into the revelation of who Jesus Christ really is. This Christmas, we celebrated his birth, and wondered, “What child is this?” Now in Epiphany, the questions (and answers) keep on coming. Who do men say that I am? You are the Christ. Who does God say that he is? This is my beloved Son.
Well, what would these would-be-disciples say that Jesus is? Phillip tells Nathanael about him. He seems to not know exactly what to call him, but he knows Jesus is someone special. He doesn't use the word Messiah, but the idea wasn't too far from his mind. Phillip knows Jesus is some kind of leader, for he answers his call to follow him. And he tells Nathanael he should follow too. Because this is “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
How did he know? What did he really know about Jesus? And yet, somehow, faith had taken root. He had heard, to some extent, the word of God concerning this Jesus. And he had heard the call to faith, and the call to follow. Phillip didn't come to this through superior study, through extreme spirituality, or some other exertion of effort. Like you and I, called to faith by the Spirit, through the word.
Then there's Nathanael. Not at the same point in his faith as Phillip. When he hears of Jesus, he is skeptical. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth!?” A rhetorical question, but a good theological question. We could change the names and places and ask the same question. Chicago! Can anything good come from Chicago?! Wisconsin! Certainly nothing good can come from there. Baltimore? New York? Fargo? Singapore? Take your pick, throw out your own rhetorical question. The answer will be the same. No.
Nothing good can come from any of these places, because the men and women that come from these places are sinners. You and I are sinners. You and I have nothing good to bring. Even our best works are as filthy rags, and who would be interested in that?
No, by nature, Nathanael isn't all that impressed with the idea of this messiah from Nazareth. And by nature, neither are we. A humble Jesus who suffers and dies for our sins just doesn't impress our Old Adams very much.
So Nathanael comments on Jesus, and he gives him far less credit than he should. But then Jesus comments on Nathanael, and he gives him far more credit than you'd expect. “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deception!” Wait just a minute, now, Jesus.
Are you saying that Nathanael is free of deception? That he's never lied to his parents, to his friends, to himself? That he's somehow immune to this form (or any form) of sin? Is he the fabled George Washington of the disciples, who “cannot tell a lie?” Or is Jesus here just trying to ingratiate himself to Nathanael, because, you know, he needs disciples and compliments are one way to win friends and influence people?
Or is Jesus simply recognizing that Nathanael is already a man of faith? That he knew Moses and the Prophets had been pointing forward to the messiah, and Nathanael trusted in those words of God. And Jesus knew that Nathanael would also belong to him, be one of his own, that Christ's true nature would be revealed to him along with the other apostles and so many other disciples.
Beyond all that, Jesus would take away all deceit, lies, slander, gossip and every false witness – through his saving work, his death on the cross. This is why Jesus can look at you, too, sinner though you are, liar though you are, and see nothing false. Because he has made it so. And what Jesus says about you is far more important than what you or the world or the devil say about yourself.
Can anything good come from Jerusalem? No. But Jesus doesn't come, ultimately, from Jerusalem. He comes from heaven's high through, a noble guest indeed. Can anything good come from man, let alone a man from a backwater place like Nazareth? No, but here is no mere man, but the God-man, like us in every way yet without sin.
But also with a divine nature – so that he knows all and can do all. He saw Nathanael under the fig tree long before Nathanael was in sight. The divine eye knows no limits. He knew Nathanael's heart, and he accepted him despite the fact that he was a sinner after all.
And he promised Nathanael he would see even greater things yet. What's he talking about, “angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man”?
Well assuming Nathanael, this true Israelite, knew his Old Testament Scriptures, he'd have caught the reference to “Jacob's Ladder”. In Genesis 28, Jacob (the one whose name was changed to Israel) had a dream – in which he saw a stairway or ladder, reaching from heaven to earth, and angels “ascending and descending on it”. God was making a connection between sinful man and the holiness of his heaven. The eternal separation of sin would be bridged.
And that ladder is Christ. One day, Nathanael would see it so clearly. That Jesus is the bridge, the touchstone, the very stairway between earth and heaven. He's the only point of connection, the only way (and truth and life). He, and only he, can and does transport us from the miseries below to the eternal joys above.
And he does it, suspended between heaven and earth on a cross. Nathanael who once sat under a fig tree, would come to live under the tree of Christ's cross. There this true Israelite would find God's ultimate truth – that Christ is crucified for sinners like you and me.
Today we too confess with Nathanael that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the King of Israel. He is the stairway to heaven, and the one Israelite who takes our falsehood away. The truth of his word endures, and his calling to follow is for you, too. Receive him with joy today as he comes in his body and blood. For nothing good can come out of you, but everything good comes from him, for you.