Sermon: Who Knew?

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Year B – 15 January 2012

Eleanor Lee Wellford

Associate Rector

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. 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 about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And 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.”

                                                                                                                                   -John 1:43-51




If any of you lived in Richmond up until about the 1980s, you may remember how Short Pump was barely more than the intersection of West Broad Street and Three Chopt Road.  And it had only three structures to claim as landmarks: an antiques store, Short Pump garage and Short Pump grocery.  It didn’t take much for us to wonder or even joke about what good could ever come out of downtown Short Pump.

Well, the joke is on all of us who ever thought that, because Short Pump has become the hot spot for growth and development, and for the finest in shopping, dining, and entertainment in all ofCentral Virginia.  Who knew?  Who could have known 50 years ago or even 30 years ago that such development was possible?

The same question of “Who knew” could also be asked about some people who literally came from nothing but who became something.  For example, who knew that Abraham Lincoln would be the good that would come from a family of uneducated parents living in a tiny log cabin inHardin County,Kentucky?  Or who knew that Oprah Winfrey would be the good that would come from an unwed teenager living on an isolated farm in a tiny, impoverished town inMississippi?  Or who could have known that the young boy who went door-to-door selling chewing gum, Coca-Colas, golf balls or magazines inOmaha,Nebraskawould turn out to be legendary investor, Warren Buffet?

So, as we heard in John’s gospel, how hard is it to believe that Nathanael would have asked his friend Philip if anything good can come out ofNazarethwhen referring to Jesus?  After all,Nazarethwas a tiny, secluded village in the region ofGalileewith no particular political or cultural importance attached to it, which meant there was no special status attached to anyone coming from there.

But then, we might ask what difference should it have made to Nathanael where Jesus had come from?  It did make a difference because in 1st century Israelite society, students or disciples attached themselves to teachers who could make a big difference in their lives.  So, it was understandable that Nathanael would be skeptical of someone fromNazareth because he wouldn’t have wanted to give up family and livelihood to follow around just anyone.  He truly wanted Jesus to be someone special.  “Come and see” for yourself that he is, said Nathanael’s good friend Philip.  “Come and see.”  And so he did.

But, who exactly was this teacher that Nathanael came to see?  If we add John the Baptist, Peter and Andrew to the mix of students trying to figure out who Jesus really was, we get the following descriptions: “the son of Joseph from Nazareth,” “Rabbi,” “the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote” (vs. 45), “the Lamb of God” (vs. 35), “the king of Israel” (vs. 49), “the Messiah” and finally, by Nathanael’s own admission, “the son of God” (vs. 49).  That’s about as impressive a progression of attributes as anyone can hope for – which makes me a little skeptical that it happened the way John wrote that it did.

If we consider that the gospel of John was written some 70 or so years after Jesus had died, it makes me wonder if the loftiest attributes were given to Jesus by John because he needed to prove something to his readers about who Jesus was.  Nathanael wasn’t introduced to Jesus as the word that “became flesh and lived among us” whose glory” we have seen… the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14).   All Nathanael could really know authentically about Jesus was what he could see of the man right in front of him.  No more, no less.

And that’s all we can ever know of the people we meet for the first time standing right in front of us.  But we can make judgments on what is presented to us, can’t we?  At least I know that I can.  How many times do I have to be reminded of the expression: “Never judge a book by its cover” because I’m constantly doing just that.

I remember when my younger daughter, Beth, had some of her 1st grade school friends over for a birthday party.  I was having fun watching the children playing with each other when one little girl caught my attention.  She just didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the girls.  She seemed much younger than they were and was slow to catch on to many of the activities I had planned for them all.  And socially, she was just annoying – so much so that I couldn’t wait for her Mom to come and pick her up.

I felt sorry for her as I envisioned how hard it was going to be for her to thrive in a small, all-girls school environment where being different was not a good thing.  Well, 11 years later at Beth’s graduation, this same girl was honored for her superior scholastic achievement, and voted by her classmates and teachers alike as the one person in the senior class who represented in character and personality what the school valued most in a young woman.  Who could have known?

Going back to this morning’s story about Nathanael and Philip and Jesus, how could Nathanael have known who Jesus was with just a few words spoken between them?  Philip picked up on something special about Jesus the minute Jesus said “Follow me”, but Nathanael needed some convincing which is probably something many of us would have needed, too.

Try to imagine yourself in his place.  You’re inGalileeapproaching Jesus with a curious mind because of all the buzz you’ve heard about him; yet you maintain a healthy degree of skepticism.  The closer you get to him the more you wonder about him.  Then Jesus says something about you that’s not only insightful but true, such as that you are kind and generous, or maybe that you are a person with integrity and without guile.  How would that might make you feel?  Would you be put off by hearing something about you from someone you’ve never met before or are you intrigued by it?  Are you drawn to him as much as Philip is?  He doesn’t say very much yet he speaks with authority.  Have you noticed his eyes, yet – how they are able to look right past your demeanor and straight into your soul?  Does that make you want to follow him or run as far away from him as possible?

There is much in this one scene that is so human and believable about Philip and Nathanael, and even Jesus, that it’s easy to imagine ourselves as part of it.   Even though John might have embellished it with lofty proclamations for the sake of emphasizing Jesus’ divinity, the scene stands on its own merit and there is much we can take away from it.

First, is the realization that appearances aren’t everything.  Yet, I’m pretty sure we all know that.   The second thing to take away is that whether we like it or not, Jesus can see beyond the obvious to the essence of who we are and what we do and why we do it.  He has the mind of God and is able to see the same big picture that God can see but that we cannot.  If we would only pay attention, we would notice how Jesus by his words and actions opens up windows onto heaven, and for brief moments reveals God’s kingdom to us.

And perhaps what he reveals to us is the most important thing to take away from this morning’s reading.  As Brother Robert L’Esperance from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist wrote in his sermon entitled “Reveal”: Jesus was a “…man who revealed the God of the universe to us… and who opened the doors to eternal life.”  Who could have known that a baby born to unwed teenage peasants would turn out to be the man who could do all of that for all of us?