Sunday, September 29th, 2013 (Back to Church Sunday)
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 1:47-51
“Where did you get to know me?”
As human beings, we are on a journey. It is a journey of discovery and a quest for meaning. I know that sometimes I find myself so caught up in the everyday things of life that the questions of “discovery” and “meaning” become eclipsed by the more mundane questions of “what on earth am I going to make my family for supper?” and “where on earth will I find the time this week to get that haircut?” Yet, even as such mundane question rumble about in the fronts of our minds, the deeper questions mull about still in the corners of our hearts. Questions like “what is this life really all about?” “Why am I here?” Where are we going?” “What is joy?” “Why do I hurt?” “What is love?” “Is there really a God?” are all questions that find their homes deep inside of us and every once in a while they percolate to the surface pushing away for a moment those questions about dinner, shopping, haircuts, and how I will get my kid from one program to the next. And yet we push them down again.
The truth is, we seek deeper meaning in this life, and we seek the deeper meaning of this life. Even more precisely, we seek the deeper meaning in and of our particular lives. Sometimes, that question becomes frightening: What if there is no meaning to life? What if my life has no meaning? It is often easier to push these questions down and try to forget about them and return to the comparatively easy questions about the pedantic things of everyday life.
I wish to push this line of thought just a little further, though, and ask an even deeper question that has to do with our quest for meaning, and that question is this: What are we really afraid of? What keeps us pushing these questions down deep inside? What is a life without meaning? What does a meaningless life look like?
Perhaps a life without meaning is a life in which we are forgotten by all others; that we are, in a way, completely unknown. Maybe it means that we are unloved, or worse, unlovable. I think there is something in our human condition that, sadly, tends us to despair. I know that this can be true for me in my weaker and more vulnerable moments. What if all I do and all the good I try to bring about goes unnoticed, unaccepted, rejected, or worse, is really all for nothing. Have you ever worried about these things? Have you ever worried that people will reject you, hate you, fail to honour what you are doing, that there is something wrong with you, or that you are even unlovable? Well, welcome to the human race. I think we all feel these things from time to time, in varying degrees. Sometimes such thoughts are fleeting and for but a moment, at other times, we can become obsessed by them. But lest you think I am only here to paint a bleak picture, I want you to consider a very special story.
Nathaniel was a skeptic. I think he may not have been that different from many of us. He was not won over by easy arguments and likely had an aversion to easy answers. Now what I don’t know for sure, I am only speculating here, is if his skepticism was just an innate sort of thing, or whether it came from being “burned” too many times. We cannot know for sure, but it we would not be surprised if he had maybe been conned once or twice in his early days. Now, a healthy skepticism is certainly not a bad thing, but how many of us have known people whose skepticism has turn to an unhealthy cynicism? Cynicism is that hopeless place in which we question everything not to seek answers, but to unmask the fallacy that there is meaning and hope in life. It is a depressing place. It a place of despair. Now, was this Nathaniel’s story? We don’t know for sure, but when his brother Philip came and told him that he had met the one about whom Moses, the Law, and the Prophets had spoken (namely, the Messiah), Nathaniel replied skeptically with these words, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Oh how I, myself, have uttered similar words when challenged to believe unbelievable things! Have we not all wondered at various times if anything good could come out of our figurative “Nazareths”? Perhaps Nathaniel was uttering the ancient version of that proverbial modern phrase, “I’m from Missouri… show me!” Yet, his brother Philip was convinced by what he had found. His brother knew he had found something special to share, and thus Philip, looked knowingly at his skeptical brother and said simply, “Come and see.”
Perhaps, like all of us, deep down underneath all the skepticism, Nathaniel had a longing, a deeper longing – a longing for meaning, a hope that this life is not all for nothing, and maybe, just maybe, he brother Philip had found something worth investigating, something he himself was afraid to admit he wanted to see. And so, Nathaniel, the man from Missouri, to a risk and followed Philip, and they went together seeking the Messiah.
One wonders if Nathaniel was thinking all the things we might think in such a situation: “Why am I doing this?” “Why did I say ‘yes’ to going with him?” “I know this is going to be a bust.” “I’m not getting my hopes up only to be let down!” “I’m certainly not going to enjoy this…” And yet, he came anyway, with all his fears, skepticism and even cynicism intact, and also with his unanswered longing tucked deep within his heart. With all of his confusion and angst, with his wondering and longing, he came.
When Jesus saw Nathaniel approach he shouted out, “Truly, here is an Israelite in which there is not deceit!” What did Jesus mean by this? Perhaps it might be translated into an idiom my late great-grandmother loved use, “There ain’t no flies on him!” Nathaniel was on not to be easily persuaded or easily fooled. And Jesus recognized that. Jesus was not criticising Nathaniel – no, he was paying him a compliment. The very skepticism that others may have found a character flaw, Jesus boldly celebrates. Jesus likes what he sees when Nathaniel approaches. Nathaniel does not try to be someone else, someone whom he is not; he simply comes as he is with all his prevailing doubt and secret longing. Jesus respects that, knows that, and meets him with joy.
Nathaniel might have been justifiably confused. “How do you know about me?” Nathaniel asks. “Ah,” says Jesus, “I saw you under the fig tree before your brother called you.” Suddenly, Nathaniel realized that as he had longed to find deeper meaning, deeper meaning had found him. What he had thought was held secretly in the quiet dark corners of his heart, he learned was actually known to this man who greeted him with respect and joy. A question was answered for Nathaniel. He was not alone. He was not unknown. He was not lost. He was not unloved.
These are the question we all have – what if I am alone, unknown, lost and unloved? But as Jesus recognized Nathaniel, even in all his skepticism, and perhaps even will all his cynicism, Nathaniel discovered that even as hard as we might search for meaning and for truth, meaning and truth seek us out and find us. Jesus recognized Nathaniel for who he was, without judgement, without condemnation, without all that the world might heap on him, and without all the judgement and condemnation that Nathaniel may have heaped on himself. Jesus recognized him, knew him, loved him. Something clicked in Nathaniel in that moment – he was not alone, he was known, he was loved, he was honoured. Suddenly, and most surprisingly, Nathaniel, the guy from Missouri, made this bold proclamation: “Rabbi! You are the son of God – the king of Israel!” Imagine what others who knew Nathaniel might have thought as he made this bold proclamation. Imagine what they might have thought as Nathaniel chose to follow Jesus on the way.
Friends, God know us even better than we know ourselves. When we sit under whatever fig tree we sit under, pondering the deeper questions of hearts, wondering if we are alone, in our angst asking if there is any meaning to this life, if our lives mean anything at all, then think of Nathaniel, and how Jesus knew him. In Christ God knows each and every one of us. He recognizes us for who we are, and bids us to follow him on the way.
Where there is meaninglessness, we find meaning in him.
Where there is loneliness, we find companionship in him.
Where there is rejection, we find acceptance in him.
Where there is despair, we find hope in him.
And when we feel lost, alone, sitting under whatever solitary tree we sit, rest assured, that even before we know or understand it, Jesus has found us, loved us, and offered himself for us in boundless love.