[Proverbs 3:1-8 / 2 Cor. 4:7-10 / John 1:43-51]
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Those words from today’s Old Testament reading set up for us the opposition that frequently arises between our ways and the ways of the Lord. We have our notions of how He OUGHT to act; what He ought to do; how things should be. But He consistently blows us away with doing things in a way that appears downright silly to us. His ways, though, pan out in the end, and we’re left confessing that we’re not nearly so smart as we thought we were.
Along comes Philip with news to knock the sandals off a devout Jewish believer of the first century. “We’ve found Him!” he cries to his buddy Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew, whose festival we celebrate today). “He’s the One Moses and the Prophets wrote about. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph!”
It was the “of Nazareth” that was the sticking point. To Nathanael, that made no sense whatsoever. As the Pharisees would point out later: No prophet arises from Galilee. Nathanael, using his mind, his reason, was thus skeptical of Philip’s news. “Nazareth?” he repeats. “Can anything good come from there?”
And here we see Philip being wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove. Does he argue with his friend? Does he attempt to reason with him and show him the fallaciousness of his argumentation? Nothing close! Instead, with (I suspect) a twinkle in his eye, Philip spoke three words that we need to take to heart: “Come and see.”
Come and see! That’s the constant invitation of the Christian Church when she encounters those who are skeptical of our Lord and His claims. We invite them to come with us to where the Lord may be found – here as we gather in His name, around His words, and His Holy Sacrament. We gather to Him, and we know the great task of evangelism isn’t persuading others to believe, but rather inviting them to come with us to meet Jesus of Nazareth and let HIM do the persuading.
How well does it work with Nathanael? As he comes trailing Philip, skeptical of what he will find, our Lord looks up and says of him: “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” A man who simply calls things as he sees them, no pretense and hypocrisy. The sort that makes most folks uncomfortable, because he won’t engage in the polite lie.
But Nathanael is confounded by this. Confused. HOW did Jesus know this of him? How could He know what sort of person he was? Has someone been talking about him? “How do you know me?” he asks.
And well might those whom we invite to meet with Jesus here in the Divine Service proclaim the same. For how many times have WE had the experience, where the Word of God revealed to us things about ourselves that we weren’t even prepared to see or face, and we wondered: how does He know me so well? For He does know us. Inside and out. Behind all the pretenses and the pretentions; behind all the fears and the failures. He knows us. And even so, He welcomes us, just as He did Nathanael, Matthew, Mary Magdalene, and any other poor sinner who came to Him and sought His fellowship.
“How do you know me?” Nathanael had asked. Jesus answers: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” From Nathanael’s response it is obvious that our Lord was nowhere in sight – nowhere where he COULD have seen him in the ordinary way. But He saw him nonetheless. Though we may introduce our friends to Jesus, Jesus never needs to be introduced to our friends. He sees them and knows them through and through long before we even thought of asking them to come meet Him. He’s waiting for them.
Nathanael is blown away: “Rabbi,” he cries. “You are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel!” Our Lord appears amused by that. “Because I said to you I saw you under the fig tree do you believe? You will see greater things than these. Amen, amen, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Some have opined that Nathanael was reading or meditating on that passage about Jacob and the vision of the ladder, so that Jesus’ words would be all the more astonishing. He is the link between earth and heaven, the eternal Son come down to earth precisely so that we can ascend in and with Him to the Father. Not under a fig tree, upon a tree nonetheless, He will hang between heaven and earth, uplifted on His Cross, pouring out His blood, so that all who shelter beneath that TREE in faith, receive forgiveness for all sins and rescue from death and the devil, and can come home with Him to the Father’s house.
Trust in the Lord Jesus with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. That’s what Nathanael did when he left behind his skepticism and came to faith and became an Apostle of the Lamb – he spent the rest of his earthly days inviting others as Philip had invited him to come and meet the Lord Jesus Christ, to know Him as Son of God and King who reigns from a cross. Not leaning on his own understanding, but strengthened by the promises of the Gospel he faced a horrific martyrdom – flayed alive according to Church tradition –yet he joyfully gave up his life trusting that in Jesus he had a life that was stronger than death, a forgiveness so complete and full that set his heart singing even as the knives dug in.