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Epiphany 2 - "Simple Instructions"

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

John 1 43 –end

‘Simple instructions’

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

 

May these (written) spoken words lead us to the living word Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Last week we had a brief introduction to the year of Mark – but today we find ourselves at the beginning of John’s gospel

By way of background, it may be helpful to note that this passage is the third that begins with, "The next day." (See John 1:29 and 1:35) The first of these gives John the Baptist's testimony that Jesus is the Lamb of God on whom John saw the Holy Spirit descend like a dove. In the second, John again says of Jesus, "Behold the Lamb of God." Two of John's disciples then leave him and follow Jesus. One of them, Andrew, then goes and fetches his brother Simon Peter who also goes to meet Jesus. The third is the account for today Philip going to tell Nathaniel.

Most Bible scholars believe Nathanael and Bartholomew were one and the same. The name Bartholomew is a family designation, meaning "son of Tolmai," which implies that he had another name. Nathanael means "gift of God" or "giver of God."

In the synoptic Gospels, the name Bartholomew always follows Philip in lists of the Twelve. In the Gospel of John, Bartholomew is not mentioned at all; Nathanael is listed instead, after Philip. Nathanael is only mentioned in the first and twenty-first chapter of John’s gospel.  He does however pay a key part in the gospel story as we will see.

 

We need to pay attention to the frequency of the verbs "behold / see," and "come / follow." The whole purpose of the Gospel of John is that we should SEE who Jesus really is so that we might truly trust and abide in him and thereby have eternal life.  John tells us that plainly (John 20:31 ‘But these (words)are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’

In this passage today we see how important personal connections and introductions are:  Here is the most astounding chain-reaction - John the Baptist personally testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God; hearing this, one of John's disciples, Andrew, follows after Jesus; Andrew then goes and brings his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus; Jesus then goes to the hometown of Simon and Andrew where he meets Philip; Philip found Nathaniel and urges him to come and see Jesus and the ripples went out, introductions and invitations across the world for over 2000 years and here we are 2021 years later still coming to meet Jesus.

When Philip found Nathaniel he gave him some vital information. ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ And Nathanael responds: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael had certain expectations for the Promised One, the great hope of Israel – expectations about who he would be and where he might come from and it would seem Nazareth fell well short of those expectations.

 

That phrase “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” may have been a local proverb that reflected rivalry between Nathanael’s town of Cana and nearby Nazareth, or it might have been something a bit deeper than that, reminiscent of the Monty Python sketch!  Many Israelites looked down on people from Galilee, within Galilee other Galileans looked down on those who were from Nazareth, and that is where Jesus was from.  Despite his birth in Bethlehem, Jesus is not referred to as Jesus of Bethlehem throughout the Gospels, but as Jesus of Nazareth.

It makes me wonder what our “Nazareths” might be.  Do we look down on those who come from a different place to us, either a geographical place, or an intellectual place or even a financial place?

Despite his cynical response Nathaniel responds to Philips urge to ‘come and see’.   Jesus’ response to Nathanael is very interesting.  When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, “Where did you come to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’”

There are two interesting things here.  The first, is to do with the word ‘see’ – and the different Greek words in the Bible for this. Philip had said to Nathanael, “Come and see!” And the Greek word he used for ‘see’ had to do with use of the eyes: we look and we see something. But twice the word ‘see’ is used with regard to Jesus in this passage: “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him” and “I saw you under the fig tree” And on both those occasions, there is a different Greek word for ‘to see’ used than the one Philip used. On both occasions, the word used has nothing to do with physical sight through the eyes but speaks of spiritual perception instead. Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him; that is to say, he saw into Nathanael’s heart as he approached and recognised him for who he truly was. And secondly, we read Jesus’ words that, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you”, which suggests that Jesus knew of Nathanael before this encounter - not in a physical sense of having seen him before - but in a more spiritual sense of having had his hand on Nathanael’s life before that encounter from all eternity. Yes, Jesus Christ had found Nathanael, just as he had found Philip, even though both Philip and Nathanael thought they had found Jesus. And there is a real sense of peace that we can derive from the knowledge that God has had his hand on us even from before we became aware of him.

 

The Inescapable God –

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

   you discern my thoughts from far away.

3 You search out my path and my lying down,

   and are acquainted with all my ways.

4 Even before a word is on my tongue,

   O Lord, you know it completely.

 

Jesus is perceiving in Nathanael the obedience of a well lived Jewish life. He says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” meaning that Nathanael has known the peace and blessing of God on his life. But, in a relationship with Jesus, there is even more for Nathanael to receive: far more than obedience to the Jewish law could ever give him. Jesus says to him: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” I think Jesus is commending him for having been an obedient Jew - but he is calling Nathanael into a deeper place of peace and blessing through a relationship with him.

 As Christians, we know that true peace and blessing can only come from our relationship with Jesus. The more we allow Jesus to be the centre of our lives, the more we know peace in our hearts.

In this seemingly very simple passage, the story about the calling of Philip and Nathanael we find the deep teaching on the nature of discipleship.

We did not choose God – he chose us from all eternity.

When we respond to the love of God we are called by him to tell others about the good news of Jesus.

We should never be discouraged by a negative response we may get but keep urging them to ‘come and see.’

We are called into a life of peace and blessing with God: Jesus sees us, he knows everything about us and perceives our deepest needs. And if we follow him, as he said to Nathanael, we will see heaven opened.  This is not a word for today but the template for our lives, to follow the two simple instructions that we find at the beginning of John’s gospel. ‘Follow me’ and ‘Come and see’ for Jesus Christ is indeed a Saviour to be followed and it is a lifetime’s work for us to live out these two simple instructions:

      Today, we follow.

      Today, we come – and we will see.

Lord God we thank you that we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world; that you know us and love us.  Help us to be holy and blameless in his sight and help us to keep the ripples of salvation ever moving .Amen