The Third Sunday After Epiphany January 25, 2004
134, 129, 344, 132(1, 5)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and 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.” And 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 is no deceit!” Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered and said to 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, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angel of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Dear fellow-redeemed in Christ Jesus, the Hope of Israel:
The young man was running away from home. He was running for his life, fearing the wrath of his brother, Esau. Esau had a right to be angry. His fugitive brother shared with their mother a talent for deceit. Esau had once despised the value of his birthright. Now, Jacob had stolen it from him by tricking their father Isaac.
Jacob traveled by foot, with little more than a staff in his hand. Exhausted, he stopped for the night, laying his head on a flat rock. The weight of guilt and fear added to the waves of exhaustion. He fell fast asleep.
He had a dream that he would never forget. Jacob saw a ladder. It rested on the earth and arose up to heaven. He saw angels ascending and descending on the ladder—a passageway of grace and fellowship between man’s world and God’s abode. The Lord, the God whom Jacob’s father and grandfather worshiped, stood at the top. The God who had revealed Himself with the promise of blessing to Abraham and Isaac. Now Jacob heard that promise laid upon him as well: “This land I will give to you…in you and in your seed shall all the earth be blessed…I will be with you and bring you back to this land.” (Genesis 28:13ff).
Jacob awoke saying to himself, “What a dream! What an awesome place this is!” (cf. Genesis 28:17ff). He called the place Bethel, “House of God.” Then Jacob went his way thrilled and grateful for the gracious revelation that God would show such mercy and kindness to the likes of him. God had bridged the gap between heaven and earth with His grace. He had forgiven the deceitful one of his deceit.
Jacob held that hope close for the rest of his life—a life not without trials. Others tricked and cheated him as cruelly as he had deceived Esau. Over the years, he fathered twelve sons—the start of a nation. The Lord brought him back to Canaan, to Bethel, to his home. One night, Jacob went out for a walk—one of those long, soul-searching walks we sometimes take. He was met by a Man who was more than a man and they fell to wrestling. The Man forced Jacob to cling to God’s promises for all he was worth thereby challenging him to keep the faith. They wrestled until dawn. Jacob limped home with a new name, Israel, which means, “One who prevails with God” (Genesis 32:22ff).
Israel prevailed with God because he had believed God and held Him to his promises. Over the centuries, the children of Israel were reassured of those promises time and again. The basis for hope was broadened as God sent prophets to give more detail as to the nature of Israel’s Hope. God gave them the awesome prophet Moses, and then said they should wait for “One like Moses” in the future (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15). God gave Israel a good king and then promised that one of the King’s descendants would be a better King, and rule Israel forever. Israel’s Hope became a smoldering ember in the hearts of many of Jacob’s descendants.
Nineteen or twenty centuries later, Jacob’s life, dream, and small tribe of family must have looked pretty simple and clear-cut to the present day Israelite. Things were more complicated in Nathanael’s day, and when he was told that Israel’s Hope had come, Nathanael was a hard sell.
Jewish spiritual life in Nathanael’s day was amazingly like Christianity today. Just as we have different denominations, there was a variety of sects and characters on the religious scene. There were Pharisees and Sadducees. There were pietistic communities in the deserts like the Essenes who sought fuller communion with God through simplicity and piety of living. Every now and then some charismatic personality would arise and excite the people with messianic hopes. The personality would die, their movements would fizzle, and hope died too.
But for all the falsehood, the deception and guile of false prophets, God kept a remnant of believing people alive. These faithful were waiting for the redemption of Israel—their liberation from the bonds of sin. God had said He would do this. “The remnant of Israel shall do no unrighteousness And speak no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth” (Zephaniah 3:13).
So often we find people who have been turned off by religion, offended by hypocrisy, and worn out by a current of legalism. Some of the greatest hurts are not done by others. Rather, we do them to ourselves when we let the flesh dictate what we should receive from God. Looking for an earthly kingdom and political freedom, many Jews rejected Jesus. When we try to force our will upon God and look for quick and easy solutions when God may wisely choose a longer path, it is then that we may become discouraged. Or we may move our Christian hope to the back burner, uncertain that it will provide needed help. We turn to other helps, other wisdom, other comforts.
Philip of Bethsaida was confident he had found something. He met Jesus personally after Jesus sought him out, and Philip was ready to follow Jesus back to Galilee. But first, he had something to tell Nathanael: “We have found Him of whom Moses and the Prophets wrote: Jesus, the son of Joseph, of Nazareth.” [v.45]
Some people say it was a sneer. I think Nathanael probably asked an honest and intelligent question: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” [v.46] He was a man who knew what the Scriptures had to say and they said nothing about Nazareth. Later, there would be others who would made the same argument against Jesus—the Messiah shouldn’t come from Galilee!
Philip’s news and the excitement he showed possibly aroused a grudging interest in Nathanael, but he wasn’t going to believe that Jesus was the Messiah simply on Philip’s testimony. So Philip used the best missionary tactic there is: “Come and see.” [v.46]
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him. Jesus saw in Nathanael, not a skeptic, but a true Israelite. Not perfect, but unspoiled by the carnal hopes of so many Israelites. Sincerity comes out of simplicity: One can only enter the kingdom of God with the faith of a child which is a simple and complete trust in God as the fount and source of salvation. Nathanael was a man who made no claim to being worthy or great. He was willing to gratefully receive what God was willing to give, but he was also perfectly ready to hold God to His promises. Nathanael was ready to follow where God led, to bear what God asked him to bear. Nathanael’s kindness toward others expected nothing in return, for that had been the Lord’s kindness toward Him. He was only guarded because did not want to be deceived by false hopes.
Nathanael asked Jesus, “How do you know me?” [v.48] Nathanael offered no title of respect for Jesus…yet. But Jesus touched him right where he lived: “When you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” [v.48]
Nathanael’s reaction, “You are the son of God; the King of Israel” [v.49], opens a window into Nathanael’s heart. He was one of the faithful looking and waiting for the promised hope. “You are the Son of God,” Nathanael blurted, now also calling Him “Rabbi” (Teacher). Only God could have known about those moments under the fig tree, only God was privy to Nathanael’s fervent thoughts, so Nathanael rightly concluded that Jesus was the Son of God.
Dear friends, how blessed we are if we both hear the word of God and keep it. Life today is unquestionably more complex and perplexing than ever before. We can lose our bearings, and be swept aside to a feeble, outward Christianity, if we do not commune with our God, quietly mull over His Word, grow in it, and communicate to our God through prayer.
The fig tree incident was a small miracle for Nathanael and us, yet it showed that despite our sins, God’s eyes are on us. Even though sin becomes both a burden weighing us down, we find that God still mercifully bears with us, just as He came to Jacob long ago, while he slept on a rock.
Jesus said “because I said ‘I saw you…’ you believe? Hereafter you will see the heavens open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” [vv.50-51] Here then, in person, was Jacob’s Hope—that bridge between heaven and earth. But Nathanael was yet to see how awesomely, how terribly, and how lovingly that Bridge would come to be. Nathanael believed a little, but believing, he would follow Jesus while Jesus led him on the path back to Jerusalem, to the hour and power of darkness, and then into the daylight of glory. Following Jesus would not be easy; faith would grow weak: Nathanael, too, would fail, as we all do. But the grace and mercy of Jesus, the Son of God, would draw him ever onward.
Let us always be ready to rejoin Nathanael and the others, following Jesus on the path He takes to the cross, knowing that He goes that way for our sake. Let us watch the miracles of the Son of God in the flesh. Let us behold the Lamb as He goes uncomplaining to slaughter. Let us grieve those sins which He bears for us on the tree. Let us marvel at the empty grave and rejoice with the angels. Let us come and see!
Jesus promises that along the way we will see great things—for it is God who called us to Himself through Jesus. He will keep us safe while we are near. When we stop and meditate upon His grace, we’ll be astonished to see how complex problems are solved in God’s patient way, how He bore us through times when we should have fallen, and how life’s turns have a blessed end for those who love the God that loved Jacob. This is Jacob’s hope. This is the way of our Savior, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Amen
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.