Jan. 15, 2012 Epiphany 2 “Nathanael meets Jesus”
As you read in the Bible, one of the things you begin to notice is that the writers don’t seem to be inspired by God to sugar-coat the characters or disguise their faults. Whether it’s the chosen nation of Israel or the judges, the prophets or the apostles – we get to see them, warts and all. God’s people are sometimes treacherous or cowardly, sometimes weak or stupid. It becomes very clear that God calls real people, people like us, to work through. It comes as a surprise, then, to read about Nathanael, because Jesus himself speaks highly of Nathanael, and Jesus’s praise is praise indeed. When Jesus saw Nathanael coming he said, “Here is a true Israelite, here is a man in whom there is nothing false.” I think there are few people about whom that could be truly said.
Certainly Nathanael was taken by surprise. He had come to see this man – this man that his friend Philip claimed was the long-awaited Messiah – but he was a little doubtful. He knew his Scriptures, and they didn’t say anything about the Messiah coming from Nazareth (and we can tell he didn’t have a very high opinion of Nazareth). Because Philip seemed so sure, he had decided to go along – maybe just to humor him, or maybe out of respect for his friend.
But he hadn’t been prepared for this strange greeting, and he asked Jesus “How do you know me?” Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” And at that Nathanael was convinced, and he cried out, “Rabbi you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
That’s the basic story of the reading today, and it leaves us with all kinds of unanswered questions. What WAS Nathanael doing under the fig tree? Why did those words of Jesus convince Nathanael so suddenly and so thoroughly? And who is this Nathanael anyway?
Well, one thing we know about Nathanael is that he was a faithful student of the Scriptures – the Law and the Prophets, as the Jews would have said. When Philip came to tell him about Jesus, he said to Nathanael “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law – the One the Prophets told us was coming.” There were a lot of people out there hoping for a political Messiah, but as we saw last week with King Herod and the priests and the Scribes, there weren’t so many people who still had their hearts and minds set on the promises of Scripture. That is one reason Jesus called Nathanael a true Israelite, because he had continued to place his hopes in the Messiah of the Scriptures, he had kept alive his expectation for the King that God’s Word had promised since the time of King David.
And that gives us a clue to clue as to what Jesus might have been talking about. In Rabbinic literature, “under the fig tree” was an expression that meant meditating on the Scriptures. So it is likely that Jesus was saying he knew that Nathanael had been studying and meditating on the Scriptures when Philip came along. Or it might just be that Nathanael was quite literally sitting under a fig tree, but whichever it was, when Nathanael heard that Jesus knew him that truly, that intimately, that was all he needed to be assured that Jesus was the One he had been waiting for.
That seems like a small thing that Jesus did, almost like a magic trick, but there is something powerful there. Nathanael needed – we all need – to have friends or family that know us. We need some one person at least who knows our weaknesses as well as our strengths, someone to whom we can tell our embarrassing or shameful moments, someone who will listen to us and not judge us, someone with whom we are safe. The problem is that no matter how close a friend or how good a wife or husband a person is, there will always be a part of us that is hidden, a part that another person couldn’t accept or understand, or a part we can’t bring ourselves to reveal. But there is one person, and one only, with whom we can be completely open, because he knows us perfectly already. That is the One who made us. We read today in Psalm 139:
O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
God knows us at our best and he knows us at our worst and because nothing is hidden from him we are safe with him as we are not safe with any one else. When God calls us it is never because he thinks more highly of us than we deserve; he never expects us to do more than we are able. He calls us because he knows us and loves us exactly as we are. He desires for us to grow, he wants us to put to death the sin that tries to take root in us, but first he knows us. And that knowing is what gives us life. When the apostle Paul wrote about the end of this mortal life he said, “Now I know in part, then I shall know fully even as I have been fully known”.
But Jesus didn’t stop at convincing Nathanael that he was the Son of God, Nathanael’s creator, the One who knew him. He said more. “You will see greater things. Are you impressed now? Just wait – really big things are about to happen”. And then he said, “Truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” And Nathanael, who knew his Bible, would have known exactly what he was talking about.
There is a story in Genesis about Jacob, one of the Patriarchs of Israel. Jacob was the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham. It was Jacob that God re-named Israel and his twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel. This Jacob had a dubious character as a young man. He cheated his brother out of his inheritance and tricked his own father into giving him his brother’s blessing. Finally he had to leave home because his brother was threatening to kill him and it was on this fugitive journey that he met God. God had chosen Jacob, even before he was born, to be the one through whom his promise would be carried. Jacob was the chosen one, no matter how treacherous and devious he might be by nature. And on this journey, as Jacob lay down for the night, God gave him a dream. He dreamed that the heavens opened up, and a great ladder or staircase appeared between heaven and earth, and there were angels going up and down between heaven and earth, ascending and descending on this man Jacob, the heir of God’s promise. And when Jacob woke from that dream, he said, “Surely God is in this place!” and he named the place Bethel, which means “the House of God”. The dream was a sign to Jacob that when he and his descendants worshiped God, God would really be present among them. It was a promise that there would be a connection between earth and heaven.
And that is what Jesus was saying to Nathanael, and to Philip, and any other disciples that might have been there – he was saying, I am here now to do more than know my people – I am here to live among my people, I am here to be one of them. For all these generations God was present to his people through the temple, by means of sacrifices and through the hands of the priests who were appointed to offer them. But now I am here to BE the temple, to be temple and sacrifice and priest, to be God incarnate among men and to be man taken up in glory into the godhead. Heaven and earth will no longer be connected by the forms of religion but by myself, the Son of Man.
Those new disciples wouldn’t have understood all of what Jesus meant that day, but as the days and weeks and months of hi ministry continued they would begin to understand, bit by bit. And finally, when Jesus rose victorious from the grave they surely knew what he had meant when he said, “You will see greater things than these.”
The gospels don’t tell us a lot about who Nathanael was. It is very likely that he was the same man, the apostle, that the other gospels call Bartholomew. There are two reasons to think that is true. First, in the lists of the apostles Bartholomew is paired with Philip, as if the two were friends, or brothers like James and John. And second, Bartholomew isn’t a proper name, it just means “Son of Ptolomy”. But we don’t know for sure. We do know that Nathanael’s home town was Cana, the village where Jesus did his first miraculous work when he turned water into wine for a wedding celebration. And we know that when Jesus had risen from the dead Nathanael was one of the people to whom he appeared. And when Jesus stood before Nathanael, victorious over death and the grave, Nathanael would surely have exclaimed once again as he had done at their first meeting, “Truly you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
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