Call to Worship/Psalm 40:1-11 (NRSV)
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.
Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.
Open our eyes, Lord Jesus, to the world around us. Show us what we should see but from which we hide our eyes. Show us how people live in this world and the reality of their days. Give us courage to do what you ask and to ‘Come and see’.
Open our eyes, Lord Jesus, to the shape of your Kingdom. Show us what life could be like if only we could see in wisdom. Show us what we could do to change things forever with you. Give us courage to have a vision and to ‘Come and see’.
Open our eyes, Lord Jesus, to the people all around us. Show us what we should see, but what we fail to notice. Show us what people are saying to us and what they long for. Give us courage to be where you are and to ‘Come and see’. Amen.
John 1:43-51 (NRSV)
43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip 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.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And 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.”
Message/Nathanael (aka Bartholomew)
Children often charm us by their directness. In their naive inquisitiveness, they often ask very blunt questions like “Why do people die?” or “What is God like?” or “Where do babies come from?” There is something most precious and indeed refreshing about these moments. Given our life experiences, our concerns about how someone might perceive us if we were to ask them a pointed question, we train ourselves to be guarded, cautious, tentative. So, there is something about Nathanael’s childlike bluntness that brings a smile to my face every time I read or hear the story of his call in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.
Like so many of the other disciples, Nathanael was probably a fisherman by trade. Nathanael came from the town of Cana in Galilee, the place where Jesus performs his first miracle turning water into wine at a wedding feast. It is important to settle an important issue about his name. The name Nathanael is not mentioned among the disciples in the first three Gospels; there, a man named Bartholomew is always listed. By contrast, the Gospel of John never mentions a Bartholomew. Bible scholars believe that these two men are one and the same. In the first three Gospels, the names of Philip and Bartholomew are always listed together, while in John’s Gospel the names of Philip and Nathanael are always associated. Additionally, Bartholomew is not typically a first name, but rather an identifying second name—the kind that in ancient times singled out one person from another for the same name by using the name of his father. Bar means “son of.” Thus, Bartholomew means literally “son of Tolmai.” On the weight of these details and other general evidence, we judge that Bartholomew was the second name of the apostle named Nathanael.
As far as the biblical record is concerned, the story of Nathanael is the story of his call to follow Jesus. Scripture tells us nothing else about him, but it gives more detail to his call than that of all the other disciples. Nathanael is the only disciple who seemed to hesitate in responding to Jesus’ call. Where the other stories show Jesus calling someone and that person rising up without delay, Nathanael engages in a dialogue, first with Philip and then with Jesus. It was Philip who brought Nathanael to Jesus. Philip had already met Jesus and was excited to share his experience with his friend Nathanael. “We’ve found him!” Philip exclaims. It seems that perhaps Philip and Nathanael had been talking and studying about the coming of the Messiah himself or the messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah. Philip reports, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” There are several things about Philip’s description here that might warrant comment, however Nathanael settles on one of geography. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he queries.
Now that’s a loaded question. If Nathanael had been in scholarly conversation with the Scriptures themselves, there is no mention that the Messiah or any precursor to the Messiah would come from Nazareth. None of the prophets suggest it. Nazareth had done nothing to win a mention in Jewish history or affection. No poet or prophet or priest or king or anyone else worth noting had ever come from there. Nathanael may have reasoned then that God was hardly likely to bring the Messiah from a place unmentioned in prophecy or unheralded for any achievement. Possible too, was Nathanael’s overfamiliarity with the region. The underlying feelings of the adage “familiarity breeds contempt” might be in play here. Nathanael had probably been to Nazareth, as it was not far away. He had seen it and found it unremarkable. It was an ordinary, blue collar kind of community where most folks eked out a living in the fishing business or raising sheep or simple farming. There was nothing exceptional about the place. Nathanael’s cheeky question evokes this kind of feeling. Average people come from average places. Exceptional people, like the kind of Messiah Nathanael had in mind, would come from a more notable place, at least a place worthy of mention by the prophets of old. Surely not Nazareth…
Philip’s enthusiastic spirit, however, was not dampened by Nathanael’s condescending question. Philip simply encourages Nathanael to come and see for yourself. “Come and see,” Philip urges. So, Nathanael accompanies Philip to visit with Jesus. As they were approaching, Jesus seemed to see inside Nathanael’s soul: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” It is as if Jesus knew of Nathanael’s “get down to brass tacks” personality and even goes on to praise it. You, Nathanael, can see through to the truth of the matter. You deal with people honestly and you desire an honest answer. You don’t have time to play mind games or appeal to hidden agendas. When Philip first told Nathanael about Jesus, Nathanael spoke his doubts without hesitation, even to the point of abruptness. And it seems that it is this quality in Nathanael that Jesus honors.
The forthright Nathanael doesn’t allow Jesus’ flattery to deter him from his questions. “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael counters. Jesus replied, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Something about this matter-of-fact, yet rather enigmatic statement seemed to awe Nathanael, who cried, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” New Testament scholar William Barclay explains that in the cultural pattern of that first-century world, most poorer homes had only one room. But they would often have a fig tree planted at the doorway, The tree would grow to a height of 15 feet or more and its branches would spread out, offering a shaded area that could be used as a second room. When folks desired a quiet place to meditate on Scripture and pray, they would go out under the fig tree. The Rabbis recognized this practice and described a seat under a fig tree as the appropriate place for the study of the Torah. So, when Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree,” the inference was, “I know that you are a devout person, one who searches the word of God.” It would be like a teacher or professor in our day were to say to us, “I’ve noticed how much time you spend in the library.” Regardless of the setting, it’s clear that Nathanael was deeply moved by Jesus’ observation. Nathanael may have been studying for many long years and finally, in Jesus, he discovers the objective of his search and the fulfillment of his dreams. So, he boldly, confidently makes the ultimate confession: “You are the Son of God!” Jesus reply seems almost playful. In effect Jesus responded, “Are you so easily convinced? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
The biblical record shares nothing further about Nathanael beyond including him in the listings of the twelve. One wonders what style of preacher he became. Some probably found him naïve while others may have been turned off by his candor or lack of tact. One wonders how he got along with the secretive Judas Iscariot, especially as Jesus approached ever closer to Jerusalem and a dark plot began to encircle the group. Did James and John feel uneasy about this open, honest man when they were jockeying for positions of power in the new kingdom? Did he ever have conflict with Peter, who shared some of Nathanael’s propensity for directness? Only our sanctified imaginations can provide possible answers to these questions. One thing we do know about Nathanael is that he stuck it out. When he embraced his calling, he never seemed to look back. During the first days after Jesus’ resurrection, when the disciples seemed to be groping their way toward an understanding of their new calling to go into the world as witnesses to the good news, Nathanael is listed among the group who went fishing with Simon Peter.
Tradition credits Nathanael with missionary journeys to several parts of the world, starting in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and then moving east to India and then north to Armenia, a nation that looks to him as its patron saint. It was in Armenia that legend records Nathanael’s death at the hands of the king of Albanopolis who ordered him to be skinned alive—therefore, the flaying knife has become the symbol of this intrepid and brutally honest disciple.
In a world in which truth is often disguised in spin and rhetorical obfuscation, perhaps Nathanael offers us an example of the need for us to be truth-tellers to one another. That when push comes to shove, our honesty and integrity reveal something about our faith in the One from Nazareth who came to cut through the name calling, our self-deceptive boasting, and the lies we often use in order to manipulate others. To witness to “The Truth,” through whom we will be set free.
Eternal God, you are the maker of us all, and we are your creation, people formed in your image, as individuals, as community; formed and fed and furnished with understanding of who you are and of who and whose we are. We worship you today in recognition of your calling, of your communicating, of your caring to invite us to share in your creative and healing work. We are here because we have heard you speak in us and through others. Help us, dear Lord, to ever respond to you and your invitation to your grace.
God of all our moments, of our days and our nights, you speak and you act in the world around us, not only to call all people to you, but also to direct and guide us in the way of healing and wholeness. Awaken us Lord, to hear what you would say to us. Help us to open our ears, our eyes, and our hearts to your presence. Help us to know when it is your voice we are hearing and it when it is our own prejudices and desires.
Lord, we pray that your church may rise up with renewed commitment in answer to your call, that your people may be instruments of your grace and love. We pray for those who consider themselves inadequate and dismiss or avoid your calling in their lives. Give them a new vision, a vision in which you are their strength and their hope.
We pray for those who, in answering your call, must leave the known for the unknown, the oasis for the desert, the comfortable for the uncertain. Grant them courage and steadfast faith.
We pray too, today, O Lord, for those in want and need—for those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit. Loving God, bless us all with an abundant faith, a fruitful ministry, a joyful life. Bless us and all those who gather together to continue the work of Jesus, who came to heal, save, and deliver us all, and who taught us to pray as one family, saying…
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Go now as God’s chosen witnesses to testify that Christ has been raised and that we are raised with him. Do not look for him among the dead, but be glad and rejoice in his salvation. And may God raise you from all that would entomb you; may Christ Jesus call you by name and go ahead of you; and may the Holy Spirit empower you for all that is good. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.