2nd Sunday after Epiphany
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, How do you deal with obstacles? You know, things that get in the way, things that prevent you from going to where you want to go or doing the things you want to do, how do you deal with those things? My home with four children has many obstacles. At times I’ve joked with my wife about a silver lining after our children have finished playing and we’re surveying the aftermath that if anyone every broke into our home to steal something valuable not only would they be disappointed but they would have quite a challenging time maneuvering around toys and games and barbies and matchbox cars and legos – at times our home can be quite an obstacle course.
Perhaps life can at times feel like such an obstacle course. There are always things that get in our way, that prevent us from doing what we want to be doing, prevent us from going where we want to be going. Perhaps its sickness, perhaps it’s a lack of money or income, perhaps it’s a job that you don’t really enjoy, perhaps it’s a relationship or a lack of relationship. There are all kinds of obstacles that we run into in life and perhaps find ourselves wondering, “Really? Can any good come out of this?”
In our text Nathanael asked a very similar question. Jesus is just beginning to reveal Himself as the promised Savior. This happened shortly after John the Baptist baptized Jesus and saw the Holy Spirit descend on him and God the Father say, “This is my Son whom I love with Him I am well-pleased.” Sometime after that John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” After that some of John’s disciples started to follow Jesus. One was Andrew and he found his brother Simon Peter and invited him, and the third one is probably John though we aren’t told. Then we’re told that the next day Jesus found a man named Philip and said, “Follow me.”
Now on the surface that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but think about it a little bit. Jesus is telling Philip to follow him. If some guy came up to you – some guy you didn’t really know anything about or at least very little about – and said, “Follow me.” Would you do it? Perhaps we would just out of curiosity’s sake and see what’s going on, but really? Without knowing much about him? Without knowing where he’s going? Without knowing what the journey is going to mean? But against all these obstacles the power of Jesus’ words wins Philip over and right away we’re told that Philip went and found Nathanael and listen to his confession of faith in Jesus, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” He saw in Jesus more than just an ordinary human being, but the one whom Moses wrote about in the first five books of the OT and the promised Savior whom the Prophets wrote about in the rest of the OT. God’s Word had convinced him that this Jesus is the one, the promised Savior, the promised Messiah!
But then comes Nathanael’s reaction: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” He’s stunned, he’s shocked, Nazareth, really? No way! Well, what is it about Nazareth that makes Nathanael react the way he does? It seems that he is referring to the cultural and geographical insignificance of Nazareth. Nazareth doesn’t receive any specific mention in the whole Old Testament. It seems it was a village of some 500 people at this time. It was located in Galilee, not Judea. It wasn’t a destination spot, it wasn’t on a crossroads, it was kind of in the backwoods, it’s so irrelevant, so culturally insignificant, so small, can anything great come from there? It was in the sticks, the people of Nazareth were not culturally significant, they aren’t the movers and shakers of society, no one of any significance came from there. If you want to talk about someone important, if you want to talk about a prophet, talk about someone from Jerusalem and Judea, not Nazareth!
You see, Jesus’ shattered all preconceived notions about the kind of place that the promised Savior would come from. For all those who were looking for a great Messiah coming in riding on a lightning bolt or riding a white stallion to free them from the Romans, this Jesus has been quite disappointing. He comes not from the powerful places but from an insignificant, irrelevant, no-name town! Can anything good come from there? Can the greatest good, the Savior of the human race, come from such a place? Nazareth was an obstacle for Nathanael.
Do you ever find yourself looking at life asking that same question? “Can anything good come from there?” Can anything good come out of weeks sickness, a medical emergency, discouragement, loneliness, a sudden loss, death? Can anything good come from bad stuff? Our world is wrecked by sin in so many ways, we see it every day, we see it in the news, we see it in the world, and we see it in our own lives. Can anything good come from this world wrecked by sin?
When sickness comes and we’re wondering, “Can anything good come from this?” When we’re facing a problem or difficulty and wondering, “Can anything good come from this?” When we’re facing death or loss or discouragement and wondering, “Can anything good come from this?” How do we answer that question? You see, our default setting is always to turn inward when something isn’t going the way we want, to turn inward if something in our life is broke and say, “I have to fix it, I have to make this right, there must be something I can do to make myself feel better, there must be something I can do to figure this out. There must be something I can do to remove this obstacle.” And really, that’s exactly what our world will tell us too. Just get over it, you can do it, you can make yourself feel better, etc. But the more we rely on ourselves, the more rely on our own reason or strength in the face of obstacles, the worse things will get.
Instead, may we hear the words Philip spoke to Nathanael: Come and see. You see, the key is not answering the question, “Can anything good come from there?” The key is where you turn when that question comes. As Jesus saw Nathanael coming Jesus said, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” Nathanael was a true Israelite, he longed for the coming Savior, he longed for the Savior from sin God had promised all the way back in the Garden of Eden. But at this Nathanael is confused, “How do you know me?” And Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” In other words, long before you saw me or knew me, I saw you, I knew you.
Have you ever had a time when you said something and you didn’t realize someone was listening to you? Or sent a text message or email to the wrong person or didn’t realize that your phone had dialed someone and someone was listening to a conversation you had and all of a sudden you felt really embarrassed? “I can’t believe they heard what I said!” “Ugh! What are they going to think?” Here Jesus shows us that he knows everything, and that means he knows everything about you and me. He knows more about you than you know! He knows about every conversation you’ve had, he knows about every careless word you’ve spoken, he knows about every little thing you’ve ever done, in fact, he even knows your thoughts – the things that you can hide from every single other person alive, but you can’t hide them from God.
He also knew Nathanael more than Nathanael knew himself. And Jesus showed it to Nathanael here. What is this deal with the fig tree? We don’t really know what happened under that fig tree but it must have been something deeply personal, something just between Nathanael and God. But Jesus knew it. Jesus knew everything about Nathanael, knew his sin, his failures, his shameful acts, his terrible thoughts. But notice that Jesus doesn’t condemn him, doesn’t lambast him for his sins. Instead Jesus commends him for turning to him and promises him even more.
The same is true for you and I. Although Jesus knows our sin and our shame. He didn’t come to condemn us, but he came to overcome our greatest obstacle. The obstacle that stands right in our way, the obstacle the prevents any of us from getting to heaven on our own, the obstacle of sin. Jesus came to overcome that obstacle. Jesus came to connect heaven and earth, to open heaven wide for you and me.
Jesus is clearly referencing that dream Jacob had when he had to flee from his brother Esau, he was in Bethel and he laid down to sleep and God came to him in a vision where there was a stairway to heaven with angels going up and coming down. It was meant to assure Jacob that though he had done some terrible sins, God in mercy was still his God, was still going with him with his protection. Jesus told Nathanael and all those that were there that he is that ladder, that connection to God, indeed, the only way to God. He is the one who has overcome that obstacle separating humans and their God. He has come to bridge the otherwise unbridgeable gap between sinful humanity and the all perfect God. He came to do so with His perfect life in the place of humans and his full payment for the sins of the world with the sacrifice of his own life on the cross, where God forgave you and me! And Nathanael was going to witness it all!
And since Jesus has overcome our greatest obstacle and since Jesus came from Nazareth, one of our earthly cities, since Jesus walked and talked on this earth as one of us, since Jesus knows what it’s like to be human because he is human and has lived in our world, and since Jesus is also God and knows all things, knows what we go through in life, since all of that is true, Jesus is perfectly qualified to overcome every obstacle we face in life.
May it be that every time that question creeps into your mind, “Can anything good come from there?” That you don’t try answering that question turning to your own strength or ingenuity, but may you with Nathanael and Philip always turn toward Jesus and His Word, and see in Him the Son of God and King of Israel, the one who assures you that He is with you no matter what, who will strengthen you and help you and uphold you with his power, and who has and is and will continue to overcome every obstacle to bring you to your eternal home. Amen.