Whither, not Whence
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 about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 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.”
We call our community “Gulf Shores” for reasons that are far more clear to me than the reasons they call our neighboring community Orange Beach. We are clearly on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, so we are “Gulf Shores”; but so far, I have never seen their beaches orange. (Somebody is probably going to meet me afterwords and start talking about sunsets; but sorry; the sky gets orange, not the beach – not the way I see it anyway).
The Story from the House of Hunting
They call the place where this story in the gospel of John is set “Bethsaida” which means the “house of hunting.” Back then fishing could be considered a form of hunting too. Bethsaida is right on the shores of the lake where the disciples went fishing. It’s at the north end of the fresh water lake that they call the Sea of Galilee.
That would be the territory governed by Herod Phillip, one of the four sons of King Herod the Great. So we could call the place King Phillip’s House of Hunting. But that sounds like a dating service so perhaps we shouldn’t.
Hunting and fishing is all about finding. In this story, set in the House of Hunting, a lot of “finding” is going on. Jesus finds Phillip – not king Phillip, but just a normal man named Phillip. Phillip finds Nathanael, and tells him,
“We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
If hunting and fishing is all about finding, this story is off to a great start.
Hitting a Snag
But it hits a snag right here. Nathanael is not so sure. He can see that their fishing line has something tugging on it, but he’s not sure it’s a fish.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Nowhere in the law of Moses is Nazareth ever mentioned. In all the talk in the prophets about the future, when God would return to Zion as king, in all of the prophecies of the time when the world would be put to right, when swords would become plowshares and everyone could sit under their own vine and fig tree without fear, Nazareth is never mentioned. So Nathanael has reasons for his skepticism.
Phillip has the advantage over Nathanael in this discussion, an ace in his hand, so now he plays it. Phillip has actually met Jesus personally; Nathanael hasn’t yet. So Phillip plays his card, saying,
“Come and see”
How Does He Know?
So off they go to see Jesus. As they approach, Jesus sees them coming. When they get within speaking distance, Jesus takes the initiative again. Like a hunter who has found his game without the game knowing he is watching, Jesus says to Nathanael:
“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
It’s quite an odd greeting. Were Israelites typically deceptive but Nathanael is an exception? Who knows?
Nevertheless, it does make us think about the fact that the original Israelite, the father of the 12 sons who became the 12 tribes, Jacob himself, whose name was changed to Israel, was indeed deceptive. Jacob was the one who deceived his older brother Esau and stole his blessing as the firstborn, his birthright. Anyway, Nathanael is not deceptive like his ancestor, says Jesus.
But the point is that saying something like Jesus did implies that Jesus knew him already – knew him well enough to know not just what he actively did, but knew what he didn’t ever do – and you have to know someone pretty well to know that. Nathanael wonders how this could be possible, since they are meeting for the first time, so he asks Jesus:
“Where did you get to know me?”
Jesus’ reply shows even more unexpected special knowledge:
“I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Now Nathanael is shocked into forgetting the whole Nazareth issue. He has “come and seen” as Phillip told him to do, and now he gets it. He jumps to the conclusion that God is at work in a unique way in Jesus. Maybe he is indeed the long awaited king that is returning to Zion, God’s anointed Son. Nathanael blurts out:
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus could understand how this special knowledge might be impressive, but he also knows more. He knows that Nathanael and the other disciples will see even greater things; things that make it clear that being in Jesus’ presence is being in the presence of God.
“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 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.”
This reminds us of Nathanael’s ancestor Jacob again. This time we are remembering that odd dream that he had in which he saw a vision of angels on a two-lane ladder from heaven to earth. When he woke up, he called the place “Bethel” which means “house of God” – which of course is a temple.
In the ancient world, temples were thought of as the place where heaven, God’s dwelling place, was connected to earth. Angels are God’s messengers, so they are coming and going from there, delivering the mail. In other words, the place where angels come and go is the place where God connects with the earth – the temple.
Jesus is saying that God’s connection to the earth is in himself, and that soon enough, Nathanael will see it happening – like water turned into wine,
people healed, even restored back to life, and all kinds of things. In fact, the very glory of God will be seen in Jesus, who is, after all, the “word made flesh” as John has told us in chapter one.
This story about hunting and finding has come to quite an unexpected place for Nathanael. He first thinks that Phillip hasn’t found anything worth finding, then he thinks he may have found Israel’s true king, but in the end, he is told that he has found the person in whom Israel’s God connects with the earth.
What is there left to do except to answer the call that got this whole story started, the call of Jesus:
As it turns out, the question is not where did he come from, but rather, where is he going? Whither? not Whence? as they used to say.
This is exactly our quest: to follow Jesus. We believe that Jesus is that meeting point of heaven and earth, that finding him – really we should say, being found by him, is exactly what we are are “hunting” in our deepest hearts. So we are committed to following Jesus.
The Scary Test
But this brings me to one of the scariest problems I’ve heard of. It comes from a book written by one of my seminary professors, Scott McKnight. He teaches a course on Jesus, in which he gives his students a test. The test asks questions about what Jesus is like – what would he do or not do. Then the test asks very similar questions about the students themselves. He says,
“The amazing result…is that everyone thinks Jesus is like them!” (The Blue Parakeet, p. 49)
Instead of becoming more like Jesus, we try to make Jesus like ourselves. Instead of following Jesus we end up following a mirror of ourselves. Jesus ends up looking like a middle-class white American whose golf game could use some improvement.
How can we become like Nathanael, people in whom there is no deceit? Someone once said, “never underestimate the power of denial” – what is denial but self-deception? If we think that Jesus thinks exactly like us, wants what we want, dislikes what we dislike, we are deceived indeed.
The Teaching Spirit
But how can we ever get past our own personal echo-chambers? Later in John’s gospel, near the end, this question is going to come up. The disciples are going to be sharing the last supper with Jesus. They have been following him during his earthly ministry, but at this point, they hear him say that he is leaving, returning to the Father. Thomas asks Jesus, “how can we know the way?” How can we follow Jesus when Jesus is no longer physically present? Jesus replies:
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:25-26)
We believe that the Spirit is active in our days, helping us to see how to follow Jesus. We do our best to study Jesus; we read the gospels and take note of how Jesus lived, who he took time for, how he responded to people, what kind of people he reached out to. We learn from Jesus.
And as we do, we expect that his Spirit will teach us. We humans can be slow learners. It took us a long time to understand his teaching about
slavery, and a longer time to understand the Spirit’s teaching about women in ministry.
These were hard for us to learn, because we thought Jesus looked just like us, thought like us, wanted what we wanted, which, for us white men, was to stay in control.
One thing we can see clearly from the gospels is that Jesus was continually pushing people outside their comfort zones. One test of whether or not we are following Jesus as the Spirit leads us in our days is to ask what topics make us uncomfortable? What kinds of people do we feel comfortable despising, as if they came from Nazareth?
Following Jesus is not the most comfortable option in our times.
We are living in times in which money justifies just about anything imaginable.
We are living in time in which security justifies just about anything imaginable.
We are living in times in which the idea of staying in fellowship with those who have different opinions seems completely dispensable.
We are living in selfish, angry times.
None of this is of the Spirit.
Rather, the Spirit leads us to follow Jesus, imitate Jesus, emulate Jesus, because in him, we see the meeting point of heaven and earth. In him, we are truly found.
“Come and see.”