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.” (NRSV)
Tony was a member of my first congregation in Mebane, NC. He was a gentle and soft-spoken fellow—a great outdoorsman who especially loved fishing. When the stripers were running in Jordan Lake near Chapel Hill, Tony would go to work with his boat in tow. At quitting time he’d drive down to the lake and catch fifteen or twenty big fish.
The next Sunday Tony would tell me about it and invite me to come with him. If possible, I’d meet him at the plant where he worked and throw my stuff in his truck. We’d drive down to the lake and launch his boat. Tony would set two lines to troll way off the back of the boat and two downriggers to run deep beneath it. Then he’d turn on the fish-finder, and we’d chug slowly around the lake, watching, waiting, talking, and eating junk food while the sun shattered into glitter on the surface and ripples lapped lazily on the bottom of the boat.
In all the times I went fishing with Tony, I caught one fish. Every other time that a downrigger popped up—which was exactly two times—I hauled in a three-pound hunk of waterlogged wood! To make things worse, when Tony took me along, even he caught nothing. Then, three days later, he’d go back by himself and catch more fish.
I don’t know why my fishing luck has been mostly bad luck, but I do know this: When Tony invited me to go to the lake with him, he went out of his way to share with me an activity in which he found joy. By including me in his bliss, he bore witness to the excitement and the peace of fishing. There’s the rub. Fishing was the only guarantee; catching was merely a possibility.
I don’t know, maybe God just wants me to enjoy the Creation with nothing more than a camera in hand. And that’s fine…when I’m not fishing.
We’re currently in the liturgical season of Epiphany, a word which means “revelation.” Fred Craddock said that “Revelation is never open and obvious to everyone, regardless of their current state of interest or belief. There is always about [revelation] a kind of radiant obscurity, a concealing that requires faith to grasp the revealing.”
“There is always a kind of radiant obscurity” to the revealing of holiness. Maybe it’s sort of like dropping a hook into a lake, or a river, or the ocean and knowing that whether or not a fish strikes, there are fish in that water. The radiance is in the simple gratitude of being where fish are.
It seems appropriate that the first disciples Jesus calls are fishermen. Who better to have a sense of the holiness of the possibility of encountering holiness than fishermen who have been caught by the excitement of the possibility of the excitement of catching? (How’s that for radiant obscurity?)
In today’s story, Philip utters the Johannine invitation to Nathanael: “Come and see.” Jesus spoke those words earlier to John and his disciples. Appearing in several places throughout the fourth Gospel, “Come and see” are words of witness. They’re a call to the possibility of encountering the radiant obscurity of God’s presence. And while witness to God is tied intimately to God’s revelation, the two are distinct. Witness, the casting of lines and nets, is our work. Revelation, the opening of the heart, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Through our witness of faithfully doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God, we can create situations and conditions in which we and others become open to recognizing the ongoing revelatory work of God.
There are times, however, when, consumed by challenges, fears, and the inevitable uncertainties of faith, we experience God as something more obscure than radiant.
A uniquely sophisticated gospel-writer, John introduces us to individuals that the synoptics do not. And he uses these folks with creative intention. In John, just as the Son is always deflecting attention toward the Father, these characters represent entities beyond themselves. Nathanael is a good example.
In John’s imaginative hands, Nathanael represents all of Israel, past and present. Crouched beneath a fig tree, Nathanael reminds us of Adam and Eve trying to hide their nakedness after having eaten the forbidden fruit, or Peter hiding behind his certainty that his messianic expectations and God’s Messiah will match perfectly. Our human selfishness makes continual Come and Seeinvitations necessary.
Beneath that fig tree, Nathanael is no more hidden from Jesus than Adam and Eve are hidden from God. And Jesus not only sees Nathanael, he sees in him “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” That is a moment of revelation that witnesses like you and me can’t create on our own. Seeing Nathanael through the eyes of love, through the depth-finder of grace, Jesus isn’t dissuaded by Nathanael’s sarcastic question, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Jesus sees straight into the holiness of the image of God within Nathanael. Affirmed and loved, Nathanael dives into an overt profession of faith. His confession happens much quicker than Peter’s confession. Even Jesus seems surprised.
You’re on board already? Hang onto your hat, says Jesus, you haven’t seen anything yet.
In verse 51, John switches the pronoun “you” from the singular to the plural. At this point, John’s Jesus is addressing not just Nathanael, but all of us, and the image Jesus uses recalls Jacob’s dream at Bethel.
In that story in Genesis, Jacob—the scoundrel who will, after wrestling with God at the River Jabbok, be named Israel—sleeps with a rock for a pillow. During a dream, he sees that God has chosen him for holy things. Through Jacob and his family, all the earth will be blessed. Jacob’s life, imperfect as it is, becomes a Come and See life, a life of witness to the revelation of God.
Jesus calls Nathanael, and us, to the same witness—a witness to God’s vision which sees more than the future. God’s vision sees the glorious possibilities of today by seeing through the selfishness of the Adam, Eve, Jacob, and Nathanael within us. The Christ, however, who is also within us, is the fish beneath the surface of the lake. The Christ within us and within the Creation around us is our glimpse of the Kingdom’s radiant obscurity.
We are called, then, to live a new life, a life of witness and vision. A Come and See life. We live that life at the lively and tension-wrought threshold where the Creation and the Kingdom meet. We’re like fishermen living on the shore where the heights of the firmament and the depths of the waters meet. It’s a place of joyful witness because it’s a place of relentless possibility, profound risk, and eternal hope.
It’s not for me to make promises, but does anyone want to go fishing?
My name is Allen Huff. I am a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) living in the delightful community of Jonesborough, TN. Jonesborough - home of the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival - is nestled in the beautiful foothills of northeast Tennessee.
I find that preaching forces me to wrestle with God, my faith, and trying to live as a Jesus-follower in a broken and all-too-often violent world. I want to be known as someone who trusts and follows the Jesus' way of compassion, peace, and justice. I also know the road of discipleship is fraught with challenges from within and without. I tend to use my sermons as a way of struggling, like Jacob at the Jabbok River, with God and with how to make sense of life in this magnificent but incomplete creation. If something you read in these sermons, newsletter articles, and occasional, random musing speaks to you in a positive way, I will be grateful. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. And feel free to take issue with anything I say. I certainly don't claim to have a lock on the truth.
When I'm not writing sermons, I may be writing songs on my guitar, taking photographs of the mountains, rivers, or streams in east TN and western NC, hiking the woods with my wife, or throwing a stick for our insatiable Border Collie, Todd.
*I have been posting my weekly sermons and monthly newsletters for several years on another site, Storied Faith at: pastorallentn.blogspot.com. While I will soon stop posting on that site, I will maintain it. So if you find anything on either of these sites interesting and helpful, please share with others!
Blessings and peace. Allen
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