The Rev. Paul J Cain
I Saw You First
Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 15 January 2012
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Before Columbus discovered America, it was here. There were no horses, but there were people, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and hot peppers. Before Americans discovered and explored the Grand Canyon, it was already here. My point? When Philip finds Nathaniel and tells him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph,” we know that it is actually the other way around. Jesus was around before Philip or Nathaniel knew it. And Jesus found them!
We aren’t surprised by Philip’s announcement. We’re dull to it. Why? We already know that Jesus is the one Moses and the prophets predicted. We know that Jesus of Nazareth was thought to be the son of Joseph, the man who raised Him, but Jesus is actually the Son of Almighty God, the Christ. And in that, today’s sermon text from John 1 is a very similar story to Mark 8 and 9.
Jesus has already begun calling His disciples. Peter and Andrew were called away from their fishing nets first.
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 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.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
Nathaniel had a bias against Nazareth. It was up North in Galilee, a territory not as well regarded as Judah in the south. In Isaiah 9, the prophet speaks of “Galilee of the Gentiles.” By the time of Jesus, there were still many faithful Jews living there, like Jesus’ family. Yet there was the temptation to fall into line with the pagan Greek and Roman culture. Nazareth was close to the big city of Galilee, Sepphoris. In Jesus’ day, to be called a “Nazarene,” was to be despised.
No doubt Nathaniel was confused. Wasn’t the Messiah, the Christ, supposed to come from Bethlehem? You know the Christmas story, so you know how Jesus came to be called Jesus of Nazareth. Even with doubts, possibly wondering what kind of rabbi Philip has been caught up with, Nathaniel goes along to meet Jesus.
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”
Jesus knows all things. Nathaniel speaks His mind. Jesus knows what Nathaniel had said to Philip. And Nathaniel is amazed. Imagine how amazed he will be when Jesus reads the very thoughts of the Pharisees and answers their unspoken questions!
48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
Before. Before Columbus discovered America, it existed. Before Americans explored the Grand Canyon it existed already. Nathaniel, Jesus says, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
When I speak of someone “on their knees,” you may picture someone truly humbled, perhaps at their wit’s end. You might also think of someone at the communion rail, or someone at prayer. When I say “bow your head, close your eyes, and fold your hands,” you are probably reminded of how we teach children to pray. But what comes to mind when I ask you to come up with a phrase that refers to a time and a place for Bible study?
I drew a blank. Then I thought of a few things that other Christians say. American Christians, American Evangelicals to be more precise, talk about “Quiet Time.” Some liturgical Christians have an individual version of our communion rail with a place to kneel that has a little shelf for a Bible and prayerbook. For the Jewish people, “under the fig tree” was the typical place to sit and study God’s Word and pray, especially in hot weather. Except at camp, we usually don’t think of sitting under the cool of a nice shade tree to do our study of the Bible today.
We aren’t told what Nathaniel was reading that day. We are given insight into what he knew about the promised Son of God and King of Israel. He knew the prophecies Philip brought up. And he knew how to understand them and use them to see their fulfillment by faith.
49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Son of God. King of Israel. These are loaded words, phrases and titles filled with meaning.
“Son of God” was a title that meant being equal with God. This is an important theme of the Gospel according to John. While most of our Gospel readings for 2012 will be from Mark, John helps fill in important details, especially during the Easter season. The divine sonship of Jesus is unique. He existed as the Son of God “in the beginning,” long before His birth as the son of Mary. Believing in the Son is the “work” God requires. The title “Son of God” calls for faith in Him.
The title “King of Israel” has much in common with Messiah, also called Christ. These titles refer to one who has been anointed. Priests and Kings are anointed with oil to set them apart for their special work before the Lord. The Jews anticipated the promised Messiah. Instead of the Hebrew word, we more commonly use the Greek, Christ. The Messiah was supposed to be a king. Herod the Great tried to kill Jesus when he was a toddler. By the time Jesus was grown, Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, was ruling Galilee, Jesus’ home territory. After Herod’s death, his son Archelaus ruled Judea for a mere ten years. He was removed by the Romans, who installed a Roman Governor. That’s where Pontius Pilate enters the picture. When Jesus appears on the scene, there is no King of Israel. Or isn’t there?
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathaniel said. He knew his Hebrew Bible, what we Christians commonly call the Old Testament. Nathaniel knew to look for the one who was to be Messiah, the Christ, the promised prophet, priest, and king. Right here, he puts his newly-given faith and trust in Jesus.
50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
The promised King of Israel is not only descended from King David, but also Israel, Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. The Bible goes to great lengths to give you Jesus’ family tree—not to bore you—but to establish how God has kept His promises through all human history, from the Garden to the Promised Land.
Jacob was given the name Israel by the Lord Himself in Genesis 32. A mere four chapters earlier, he had a dream. It fits in well with Jesus’ words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Genesis 28:10-22 (ESV) 10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 18 So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
The Lord kept his promise to Jacob, renamed Israel. He fulfilled those promises in the days of Philip and Nathaniel in Jesus of Nazareth, the promised King of Israel and Son of God.
The whole point of Epiphany is that Jesus is revealed to be who He truly is. We sing the best summary of the season in Hymn 394, “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.” The final phrase of each stanza of Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn confesses: “God in man made manifest.” It is revealed to us each week of the Epiphany season that Jesus is God in the flesh. Jesus Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. Jesus is God with flesh on. He is with us. He is forever Immanuel, God with us.
Jesus saw you, too. You probably weren’t under a fig tree back then. He knew you from your mother’s womb. He saw you before you ever found Him! He knew you before you were brought to a Christian Church or ever set foot in a church building. He guided those who made sure you were baptized and taught the faith. You have seen great things: water and word that wash away sins, bread and wine and body and blood that give eternal life, people forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven them, and Christians giving of themselves to those in physical and spiritual need. You believe great things: a virgin birth, a physical resurrection, a glorious promised future in heaven.
What does this mean? As Christians, we first heard of Christ. God used His Word to bring us to faith and life by the work of the Holy Spirit. As we grow in Christ, we grow in our confession of Him as He reveals Himself to us in the Bible. By faith, we conform our thoughts, words, and deeds to that Word. We raise our children in the faith, because God has called us to that good work. And we also bring others, just as caringly as a parent brings his or her own child. We want others to have forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus. We can’t take our possessions with us, so we use them in this life to care for our own needs, the needs of others, and to extend the kingdom of Christ. Then, we truly have treasure in heaven, plenty to take with us when the Lord returns or calls us home.
What is that treasure in heaven? We have God’s love in Christ as an eternal possession. The Word of the Lord endures forever. And you will have with you all who have died in the faith, all who have fallen asleep in Christ Jesus.
Jesus has said to you, “Follow me.” Be a Philip to someone like Nathaniel and say, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazarethg… Come and see.” Amen.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.