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January 16, 2000
Second Sunday after Epiphany

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from the Revised Common Lectionary

I Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
I Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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Today's lesson from the Gospel of John is an absolutely wonderful story about one man's spiritual journey. He went from a flip comment about Jesus being a "nowhere man" from a "nowhere land" to an encounter with Christ that changed his life.

The man's name is Nathanael.  His name means "given of God," yet Nathanael didn't have a clue about the real meaning of God for his life. His life had indeed been "given of God," but he had no idea how true that was until he met Jesus.   When he met Jesus, he met his own deepest, best self.  It is as though Nathanael never saw himself clearly until he saw himself in the mirror of the love of Christ.

There are people we know who somehow draw out the best in us.  Just being present with them creates a desire within to be the best we can be.  Most of us can remember a teacher who inspired us.  We would give our best because this teacher was someone we wanted to do our best for.

I can remember a high school choir director who did that for our all-state high school choir in Vermont. The vocal music this man brought out of a group of 200 high school young people who had been together for a day and a half brought goose bumps to an amazed audience and a front page article of praise in the Burlington Free Press.

As though it were yesterday, I can remember being astonished as one voice in a vast sea of music so beautiful, I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. There is still a vision in my mind of the beaming face and beckoning arms that directed us.  In reflective moments, I can yet feel the longing within to sing like I had never sung before.  I am sure there were tears in the eyes of many of my friends as we heard ourselves in dress rehearsal.

And so also, Nathanael discovers an essential inner music that can only be called from within by the Master Director.

Mark it down. It is not the United States Army, but the man from Nazareth who has the power to invite us to "be all that you can be!"


On the surface, it would seem as though the life journey of a Jewish man who lived almost 2000 years ago in a world radically different from our own, would have very little relevance for our lives today.   We are from different times, different cultures, different lifestyles, different problems and different ideas about life and living.

Yet, the story of Nathanael contains some powerful spiritual concepts that can bring new meaning and renewal to our spiritual lives today. To get a sense for the depth of this story, let's look at two statements Nathanael made:

"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

That's what he had to say about Jesus before he met Jesus.

"Rabbi, you are the Son of God!"

That's what he had to say about Jesus after he met Jesus.

This is what I call, "The Nathanael Shift."  The Nathanael Shift is what takes place when one has an authentic encounter with Jesus Christ!  Second Corinthians 5:16 has an interesting way of expressing this:

" From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way."

This section of II Corinthians is speaking about the transformation that is a part of knowing Christ as Redeemer and Lord.  The meaning of IICor. 5:16 is that there are two kinds of "knowing" when it comes to Christ.  There is knowing "about" Christ.  And there is simply "knowing" Christ.

You and I could say that we know "about" George Washington.  George Washington was the first President of the United States.  You might even know George Washington's home at Mount Vernon is a prime tourist attraction and that his wife's name was Martha.  Yet, you can not say you "know" George Washington.  As a matter of fact, if you were to say to your friends, ""I know George Washington," they would likely put you on the prayer chain and ask your family if you've been feeling well lately!

And yet, as Christian people, we talk about "knowing" Christ.  The Apostle Paul said, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection," [Philippians 3:10] in spite of the fact that Jesus' earthly life had ended before Paul ever met him.

Nathanael met Christ as he walked the trails of Galilee.  Paul met Christ as the Risen Lord.  Because he is the Risen Christ, he is still available to you and to me in the way he was available to Paul.  It is interesting that we hear nothing at all of Nathanael in the whole of the New Testament except for this passage in John and the resurrection account in John 21. Nathanael knew Christ as the One who ministered in Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem -- and he knew him as the Risen One who came to them on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It is as though Nathanael's experience is included in the New Testament to show us that we can know Christ -- not only in an earthly kind of way (as II Cor. says) -- but also in a spiritual way. Because he is risen, we can still know him.

George Washington lived an earthly life and the people who lived during his time would have the possibility of saying they "knew" him.  We who live in the year 2000 can not say we "know" George Washington.

This is not the case with Jesus Christ.   The people who were alive when he walked this earth -- like Nathanael -- could say they "knew" him.  And yet those who have lived since the crucifixion -- like Nathanael -- can also say they "know" him.

While it is possible to know "about" Christ -- to research his life an times -- it is also possible to "know" Christ.   And when we open ourselves to the possibility of "knowing" Christ, we may experience "The Nathanael Shift."


There are three dimensions of the Nathanael shift that reach across the centuries and speak to us today, namely: [1] We are Invited, [2] We are Known, and [3] We are Promised.

[1] We are Invited

When Nathanael makes his flip remark to Philip, there is no ensuing debate. Philip does not launch into a defense of Jesus or try to argue Nathanael into the Kingdom of God. He simply makes an invitation, "Come and see."

Interestingly, this is the same invitation Jesus made to the two disciples of John the Baptist who wanted to know where Jesus was dwelling. (Their way of asking where he was doing his teaching.) "Come and see," Jesus said to them.

There is some wisdom here for our own attempts to bring people into the circle of Christian fellowship or to a faith in Christ. We can not compel, argue or shame people into Christian faith. An authentic life with Christ is by invitation only.

Remember these compelling words of Christ? "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." [Matt. 11:28]

In other words, we are all invited.

[2] We are Known

I am always so amazed when I meet those people who never seem to forget a name. Years ago, when I was searching for a seminary to do my pastoral training, I talked with the president of Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. Dr. Gene Bartlett had one of those memories. When I eventually enrolled in Colgate-Rochester and arrived on campus at least a year after we had talked, I passed Dr. Bartlett in the hall and he said, "Hello John… welcome!" [Replace this with your own "great memory" story]

Somehow it is always more impressive when some well known person remembers your name.

Nathanael is first engaged with Jesus when he discovers that Jesus knows him. "Where did you get to know me?" Nathanael asked. When Jesus explains that he knew Nathanael from afar, Nathanael is so amazed, he makes an instant shift. "You are the Son of God!"

What an marvelous thing that we should be known by the Lord God! The Psalmist expressed it this way, "…it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." [Ps. 139:13-14]

God knows us better than anyone on earth knows us… better than we know ourselves. In light of the Psalmist’s words, we can only know the wonder of who we are when we come to know the One who knows us from afar.

[3] We are Promised

When Nathanael expresses his amazement at Jesus’ knowledge of him, Jesus says in effect, "Nathanael… you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!" He will see much more as he joins the band of disciples who will follow Jesus for the next two and a half to three years.

There is an interesting word picture in Jesus' words to Nathanael. "...you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

This picture would be absolutely clear to a Jew who knew the ancient story of Jacob and how he had a dream one night. Genesis 28:12 describes the dream this way, "And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." Then God makes Jacob the one to whom the promise is made that the land on which he lay would be given to his children and their children -- the land of Israel.

The ladder is the means by which heaven is reached and the angels are the welcoming, celebrating company of God.  For Jacob, the heavens open and a promise of a great land to come is made.

Now Jesus reveals to Nathanael that he, Jesus, is the way by which heaven is reached.  The welcoming, celebrating angelic band now welcomes the one who responds to Christ in faith. Nathanael will experience more in his life as a follower of Jesus Christ than he would ever have dared to imagine.

The next time we hear of Nathanael, he is with a few other disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee once again. He is a party to the most incredible experience any human being had ever experienced.  It is the Easter breakfast encounter with the Christ who had been crucified, but now appeared once again to his followers.


You and I are invited to be a part of the company that follows Christ.  We are known by the Lord more fully than we even know ourselves.  And the greatest joy of all is that we are promised the eternal presence of God.


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

You've heard of the "me" generation.   Self is King or Queen, "I did it my way," is the theme song.  People speak in terms of, "It's my life..."  or "It's my body and I can do what I want with it..."   The church is not untouched.  People church hop when the church they attend, "Isn't meeting my needs."

I saw a cartoon that shows a woman sitting in her pastor's study with this scowl on her face while the pastor sits bewildered.  The woman is speaking and the caption reads, "I haven't been blessed in worship lately and I'm going to sue your socks off!"

1 Cor. 6:19 is a great message to a "me...  my way... now..." generation.  "Don't you know that you are not your own?"  No Christian person can say with integrity, "It's my life...  it's my body..."

The story of Samuel is the story of a person who was "given" to the Lord by his mother before he was born.

The Psalmist notes how he is known by God from the time he was conceived.  Nathanael is known by Jesus before he ever meets Jesus.   The message in the texts is that we are known by God and we rightfully belong to God.

The idea of life apart from the God who gives life is an illusion.  It persists only for a time, but the reality of God before me, God with me and God ahead of me is enduring.  Our full text sermon  points to the "shift" that takes place in our lives and in our consciousness when we understand -- not so much who we are -- but whose we are.

John 1:43-51

There are some clues in this text about Jesus' plan for the building of his church.  First of all, he picks people who by nature want to share the good news with others.  Andrew goes to find his brother Simon (Peter) -- now Philip goes to find his friend Nathanael.

There is some discussion over who Nathanael really is.  he is never mentioned in the other three gospels.  However, Bartholomew is never mentioned in the gospel of John.  The most likely suggestion is that Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person.  Bartholomew means "Son of Tholmoi" and Nathanael could well be his first name -- just as Peter's name was Simon "Bar-Jonah".  Wm Barclay suggests this as the most plausible of explanations. [DSB: John 1:43]

The second part of Jesus' plan is that he intentionally avoids those who are noted religious figures or officials who are theologically trained.  There are those who come to sympathize with or join his group (Nicodemus, a synagogue leader) - but he goes to the common, ordinary people of his time to find those who will eventually take over the mission and build the church.

This is "new wine" that Jesus is bringing and the followers he chooses are "teachable" even if "unlearned."  As time goes on, they will have questions, doubts, struggles and will even jockey for position in the "kingdom" Jesus keeps talking about.   But they are teachable!  And because they, unlike the religious officials, are teachable -- they will see "greater things..."

There is another wonderful phrase in this text in verse 51.  "...you will see heaven opened..."  This is true not only for Nathanael, but for all of us.  It is in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we see most clearly God's divine intent for our lives.  In Christ, heaven is truly opened for us!

1 Samuel 3:1-20

The story of Samuel's beginnings is one of the most heart warming stories in all of scripture.  Talk about a wanted child!   Hannah prays urgently for a child and commits to surrendering the child to the Lord before he is even born.  The gift God gave to her becomes her gift to God.  It calls to mind the saying, "Life is God's gift to us and what we do with our life is our gift to God."

Samuel is a key figure in the Old Testament as prophetic ministry begins with his word to Israel.  The themes of the scarcity of God's word and the committed life through which God can deliver the word is powerful.

As we think through these words, there is much here for the preacher.  When God calls, we show up for duty.  There may be times, like the issue with Eli's children, when the word of God is a difficult message to bear.  Yet, like Samuel, we are to deliver the message and "hide nothing."

When that message is delivered consistently with compassion and love, we may expect to become like Samuel...  "A trustworthy prophet of the Lord!"


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 139)

Leader:   We gather to worship and praise you, O Lord.
People:  No one knows us better than you know us.
Leader:   Before we rise up in the morning, you know the details of our day.
People:  When we speak, you already knew the words.
Leader:   We can not begin to imagine the wonder of who you are,
People:  You are above us, beyond us, before us and around us.
Leader:   We praise you, O God and offer our hearts to you this day.
People:  We honor and magnify your name, for you are our God!   Amen


Confession of Sin

Almighty God, our strength and our Redeemer, we stand before you today with a strong sense of our inability to be all you have created us to be.  We have sinned against you in our thoughts, our deeds and our desires.   There are things we have done we should not have done.  And there are things we ought to have done that we did not do.  Yet, we come to you asking forgiveness for the sake of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ.  Grant that we may go from this place with new strength to serve you in the newness of life to the glory of you Name.   Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Leader:   Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us affirm our faith,
People:  That for those who trust in the Name of Christ there is forgiveness and newness of life.


Prayer of Thanksgiving

Our hearts are filled with joy and wonder today O Lord.   You are the One who created us and the One who came to seek us when we were lost.   No goal we could ever achieve and no award we could ever earn can compare with the gifts you have in store for us.

We stand amazed that in Christ we have everything a human soul could ever desire. O give us the grace to see who we are in the eyes of Christ. We want to see ourselves from your perspective and not our own.  We long to become the person you made us to be and not the person the world would have us be.

All things are possible because of you.  All joy and blessing are ours because of the love of your Son.  Give us today the glorious gift of going from this place with a fresh understanding of who we are in Christ.  Amen.


Prayer of Dedication

It is good to bring our gifts to you Lord.  We acknowledge that all things have come from your hand.  Nothing we have is really ours.  You give us everything we need to sustain ourselves and our families.   Without your blessing we would have nothing.  Please bless these gifts to the building up of the kingdom of your son.  Amen.