One Big Story - Week 10: It Takes One To Get To Know The One
Today we're going to be leaving the Hebrew Scriptures for the last few weeks of our sermon series, and we're going to be meeting two of Jesus' disciples: Philip and Andrew.
But before we dive into their story, let me ask you something...
Have you ever started a conversation that ended up in an argument? I know, right? Everyone in here has had that happen. You just started off thinking that you were having a conversation about---oh, I don't know... politics, or football...
And then the next thing you know someone has said something savage and your brother-in-law is gathering up the kids and telling your sister through clenched teeth that they are leaving.
Let me ask you a question: How many of those conversations were about religion?
I have this friend on Facebook who used to love to try and bait me into theological discussions. He would post provocative questions on my Facebook timeline, just egging me into debating him.
He particularly loved it when someone was asking me a question--maybe they were curious about faith and didn't know that much about the Bible. He loved to body slam those people in the comment section of my Facebook feed.
Because God forbid they have a question, right? That dude loved him some certainty.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't keep from commenting back. I would tell myself that I wouldn't do it, and then like a magnet, I'd be drawn into some ridiculous debate about some obscure theological issue.
I remember once that I was trying to explain to this guy that almost every reputable Biblical scholar on the planet didn't support his completely bonkers notion about how a particular passage of Scripture ought to be interpreted.
And he made the mistake of saying, "Oh yeah? I don't believe any reputable scholar would believe that."
To which I just started posting links to all of the books that were written on the topic by almost every reputable Biblical scholar--one after the other.
And then he finally comments after I've posted like thirteen of them: "Why would a Christian want anyone else to interpret the Bible for him when he ought to be doing it himself?"
Then I might have said something to the effect that he wasn't really qualified to interpret the instructions on how to put together an Ikea lamp, so I probably wasn't going to be going to him for biblical interpretations and such. But if I wanted advice on how to be a judgmental jerk, he'd be the first call I made.
Then someone else comments, "I thought you were a pastor." Facebook is not my friend.
It got me thinking--how many people saw that conversation and were completely turned off to Christianity?
And further, How many people's faith journey has ended at curiosity because we saw their questions and doubts as a challenge to be overcome?
One of the last things that Jesus did with his disciples was to commission them to go out into the whole world and tell the story of how death didn't get the last word... how God has a preference for those who the world doesn't have a preference for... how it doesn't matter how broken or messed up you think you are, God loves you more than anything and gave everything to save you, and that God can use you... no matter what.
This is our purpose as followers of Jesus--to tell the story.
So how do we pull this off? How do we fulfill our purpose to tell the story of our faith--without starting an argument? How do we draw people closer to Jesus rather than chasing them away?
Today we're going to be learning something incredibly important from the story of Jesus' two disciples, Philip and Nathanael. It's a lesson both they and all of the rest of the twelve disciples learned over and over again in the three years they spent stumbling after Jesus.
I want you to remember this long after today: Just bring people to Jesus and let him do the rest.
Today we're going to be telling the story of Philip and Nathanael--two of Jesus' disciples, but before we dig into their story, we need a little backstory.
And John the Baptist is the backstory here.
If you don't know all that much about John the Baptist--I'll give you the basics.
On top of being Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist was also a wild, street preacher with a flair for the dramatic. It was prophesied at his birth that he would be a messenger, the one who would come before the coming of the Messiah.
He dressed like the prophet Elijah in animal skins and a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild honey, which, in a weird way, was actually kosher.
And he preached. He preached that the kingdom of God was coming--that there would be a reckoning for the powers that be. He preached that if you wanted to be ready for the coming kingdom of God, you had better get your mind and your heart right.
John the Baptist also baptized people who wanted to get their minds and hearts right. He performed his baptisms in the Jordan River just north of the Dead Sea--the very spot where the people of Israel entered into the Promised Land after wandering for 40 years in the wilderness... the very sport where Elijah
In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist tells his followers the story of how Jesus came to be baptized. He relates to them that when Jesus came up out of the water, there was a loud voice that spoke from heaven and something like a dove that hovered over Jesus' head.
A little later, John is hanging out with two of his followers and he sees Jesus walking by. He tells them, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." And so naturally those two guys decide to follow Jesus and see where he's going.
I love this. These guys are kind of stalking Jesus, hanging back and trying to figure out where he lives or something, and Jesus finally turns around and says, "What do you want?"
"Teacher," they ask him, "where are you staying?" We don't always get the subtleties of the ancient Hebrew world, but essentially what they were asking Jesus was, "Where can we go hang out? We want to know more about this Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world thing."
And Jesus says to them, "Come and see."
So one of these guys, whose name was Andrew, had a brother named Simon who he introduced to Jesus, and as soon as Jesus saw him, he said: "You're not really a Simon, you're more of a Rocky." And so from then on the guy was known as Peter.
Now you are caught up. And so we go to John 1:43-51, which reads:
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”Jesus goes on a mission to find a guy named Philip. It's highly likely that Peter and Andrew told Jesus about Philip, and how he might be a good candidate to be a part of their growing band of brothers. All of these guys were from the small fishing village of Bethsaida.
And what does Philip do? What is his response to having his life turned upside down? Why, he goes and finds someone, who he knows needs to meet Jesus, too.
Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”Nathanael's name means "Gift from God," and he was doing everything that he could to live into the hope of his name. Nathanael was probably part of a group of reformers within ancient Judaism who were expectantly anticipating the Messiah.
These reformers believed that if they could just get everyone back to basics when it came to their faith and practice---God would honor that and would rescue them from Roman oppression. They believed that the main reason things were as bad as they were was that not everyone was being holy, moral and keeping all of the religious laws.
This group of reformers was known as the Pharisees, and they were one of the most popular religious denominations within ancient Judaism.
So when Philip tells Nathanael that they have found the Messiah, Nathanael is a bit skeptical. Based on his understanding of Hebrew Scripture, the idea that Nazareth would be the hometown of the Chosen One of God is highly unlikely.
Nazareth was thought by many to be an unclean town--overpopulated with Romans and Roman sympathizers, people who were the main workforce in rebuilding the town of Sepphoris after it as destroyed by the Romans after an uprising.
Nathanael's question is a simple one:
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”But underneath that simple question is a complicated longing, and serious doubts. Nazareth may be a backwater town that isn't mentioned in any of the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, but that's not exactly what Nathanael is saying.
His question comes from a place of dashed hopes, which have resulted in a kind of resignation and skepticism. Nathanael is afraid to get his hopes up about this potential Messiah. He's been hurt before. He's beginning to wonder if any of this is true.
And all Philip says is:
"Come and see."So Nathanael gets up and goes with Philip. When they approach Jesus, it's like Jesus already knows Nathanael, which kind of freaks him out.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.Again, we see the skepticism rising up in Nathanael. He's like, "Okay, man---what are you trying to sell me. You don't know me... you don't know me at all. Quit trying to act like you're my buddy."
But as usual, Jesus had something going on underneath the surface. He was always pulling these Jedi mind tricks on his followers. So, he says to Nathanael:
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”At this point Nathanael is thinking to himself, "How in the world did he know I was sitting under a fig tree? He was here the whole time. Philip could have not known where to find me, because he had to come looking. There is no way that he would have known that..."
And you should also know that the phrase "sitting under a fig tree" was a loaded phrase in first century Judaism. The fig tree was often a symbol of Israel itself, for starters. And to "sit under a fig tree" meant that you were praying, longing for the restoration of Israel.
And all of a sudden, Nathanael feels known. All of his longings, all of his hope rise up within him and he feels a connection with this young rabbi that he can't explain. Without warning he finds himself blurting out the words:
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”You can almost see Jesus smiling at Nathanael when he responds:
“You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”It's like Jesus is saying to Nathanael, "Seriously? You came to that conclusion just because I told you I saw you under a fig tree? Just you wait... you are going to see even more incredible things." Then Jesus uses a strange metaphor about heaven being open and angels descending and descending on the Son of Man, which is a clear reference to himself.
What Jesus was doing here was reminding Nathanael of a story from the book of Genesis where Jacob the patriarch, who came to be known as Israel, had a dream of a ladder stretching to heaven with angels going up and down it. When he woke up, he realized he was in a holy place and said, "Surely the presence of the Lord was in this place, and I didn't know it."
Jesus connects all the dots for Nathanael. The very thing he's been longing for, the doubts, the fears all of it---it all comes down to a belief that Jesus is that bridge between this world and the next, that Jesus is the very embodiment of God on earth.
And all of this because Philip knew that Nathanael needed to meet Jesus, and to discover who he was on his own. He trusted that Jesus would meet Nathanael right where he needed to be met.
Which brings us back to our main point: Just bring people to Jesus and let him do the rest.
But the problem that so many Christians have is that they want to be the answer. They want to solve their friend's problems. They want to overcome their objections. They want to argue them into their way of thinking.
How do we introduce people to Jesus while honoring their story, their questions, and their doubts?
We can actually learn a lot from Nathanael and Philip.
Let's start with Nathanael. We know three things about Nathanael that will help us understand how we can introduce people to Jesus in ways that have less to do with us, and more to do with Jesus.
First, we know about Nathanael that he is curious and open. He had a longing for authentic connection with God.
In 2018 the Pew Research group published their results to a question that was posed to average Americans: Do you believe in God?
80% of Americans surveyed said that they did believe in God. But here's something interesting. Out of the 20% of people who said they didn't believe in God, almost 10% of that group said they believed in some kind of higher power or spiritual force.
So basically 90% of the people in America as of this year say that they believe that there is something out there that is bigger than they are. They may not call that presence God, but essentially... that's what they mean.
Christians today seem to have the strange notion that the vast majority of people out there are either out to get them, or they need to be convinced that God is real and that they ought to believe in God.
But when you look at the statistics, what we see is something altogether different. It seems that the vast majority of people around us (9 out of every 10 to be exact) have some kind of openness to God, and (this is my belief) that they also have a longing to authentically connect with God.
In a world that often seems full of strife, anxiety, violence, hatred, division, racism, and fear... in a world where people are becoming more and more connected digitally, people are also becoming more and more disconnected physically from one another... people are longing for something more.
Even the 10% of people who say they aren't really open and curious are longing for something deeper, something more true and real. We have an opportunity to speak life to them.
Second, Nathanael has honest questions about faith--the struggle was real for him.
I will never forget the moment when I asked my Sunday school teacher why it was a sin to drink alcohol (this is what my church taught, you see), but Jesus' first miracle was to turn water into wine.
"It was different," she told me. I'm sure by now she was tired of all of the questions I asked.
"I don't see how it was different," I told her. "The Bible says it was wine."
Then she told me something that I never forgot. She said, "When Jesus drank wine it wasn't really wine--when he drank it, it turned into grape juice."
Seriously. That happened.
I have watched so many Christians engage in debates and arguments with people who had questions without even really listening to their questions. They assumed that they needed to be convinced, that they needed to be overwhelmed by a superior argument.
All they really wanted was for someone to say, "I hear you, and you know what? I have questions, too." My Sunday school teacher should have just admitted that she had no idea why drinking alcohol was considered a sin and it appeared that Jesus drank alcohol.
But she couldn't bring herself to admit she had questions of her own.
Finally, Nathanael wants to be known---and he discovers that he is.
The two greatest human desires are to know and to be known. To know that we are not alone in the universe and to feel deep inside that the universe is not indifferent to us.
But for far too many Christians, faith is transactional. They present to people who are longing for God a religious system that requires them to do and say the right things in order for God to love them.
And this transactional approach does more to undermine the relational aspect of true Christian faith than just about anything. But Christians keep doing it... over and over again. They tell people if they will just pray a formulaic prayer, keep the rules and regulations, vote a certain way, believe the right theological things... they're in.
Now let's see what we learn from Philip...
First, he doesn't try to convince Nathanael of the Lordship of Jesus.
He doesn't see Nathanael's skepticism as a threat. He doesn't rise to the challenge by engaging in an argument with Nathanael on Facebook. He doesn't boycott the restaurant Nathanael frequents. He doesn't demonize Nathanael for disagreeing with him.
He just gently and lovingly meets Nathanael where he is at the moment, bearing witness to what Jesus has done for him. He tells his story, relates his own experience.
Second, he doesn't try to answer Nathanael's questions, he just says "Come and see."
People have questions about faith. They have questions about the Bible. They have questions about God and questions about Jesus. And we usually try to give them more and better information in order to resolve their questions and overcome their objections.
Your job isn't to prove God. God can do that a whole lot better than you can. Your job is to keep introducing people to Jesus. To tell them "Come and see."
"Come and see how my faith community follows Jesus by caring for the homeless."
"Come and see how my faith community tries to be like Jesus by loving the unloved."
"Come and see how my faith community embodies Jesus by welcoming refugees."
"Come and see how my faith community loves God and loves everybody... because Jesus told us to."
"Come and see how my faith community helps me to be more like Jesus with them than I would be on my own."
Just tell them, "Come and see."
We cannot do relation-less evangelism. You have to earn the right to share your faith story by demonstrating that you actually care about the people you are sharing it with. When we do this, we show people how God views all of it.
All God desires is to be in a relationship with God's children. We are telling people that they have to work harder in order for God to love them, and God's answer to this is by becoming one of us, taking on human form, living, laughing, healing, teaching, loving, dying and being resurrected.
God's approach is one that brings God up close and personal, a God who knows intimately what it's like to be us.
In a few weeks we are going to be doing an entire sermon series on sharing our faith, inviting people to join in our journey and so much more. But for the time being, I want you to do something. I want you to think about one or two people in your life who you might be feeling called to share your story with. Begin praying how you might introduce them to Jesus.
And remember, just bring people to Jesus and let him do the rest.