Sunday, January 15, 2012

Epiphany 2, Series B

Sermon on John 1:43-51
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 15, 2012 (The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Series B)

If you ever had any doubts about whether the Gospels are factual history or mythology, today’s Gospel lesson is another one which should convince you that what we are dealing with here is a factual account of what really happened.  Mythological heroes just don’t talk like this.  Nathaniel, one of the twelve apostles, one of the founders of the earliest Christian Church, is here depicted as being sarcastic about Jesus’ home town, and Jesus Himself gives a bit of a wry observation about Nathaniel’s personality.  Nazareth?  Can anything good come from Nazareth?  Might as well ask if anything good can come from Gary, Indiana.  And what Jesus says about Nathaniel, while it is a compliment, is one of those compliments that could be taken as a criticism, too.  “A true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit,” sounds like high praise.  But what Jesus is talking about here is the fact that Nathaniel pretty much says whatever he’s thinking.  He’s incapable of deceit, not because he is any better than anyone else; Nathaniel too was born in sin, a descendant of Adam and Eve.  Rather, he’s incapable of deceit because his mental filters just aren’t that good.  He blurts out what he’s thinking even if what he’s thinking is a bit insulting or impolite, such as his commentary on the town where Jesus grew up.

But it is such imperfect men as Nathaniel that God uses to spread His kingdom here on earth.  Show me a perfect pastor and I’ll show you a faker who probably has more than a few skeletons in his closet.  It is precisely because He’s God and all the glory should go to Him that he uses sinful men as His messengers.  It’s precisely because He’s God and He’s all-powerful that He uses those who aren’t necessarily all that great at public relations, or who easily lose their temper, or are stubborn, or are wishy-washy, or lazy, or any of a thousand other faults, to bring His Word to those who need to hear it.  It is His power, and His power alone, that is at work when the Word is preached.  To make that point, He uses men who just don’t have the talents or the personality to draw a large following, to bring His good news of forgiveness and eternal life to their fellow sinners.  It must be God working, because if it were up to us, we would fail, and fail miserably.

This coming Wednesday is known in the Church year as “The Confession of St. Peter,” and the Gospel lesson we would be reading if we had a service on that day would be the account of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  What Jesus says to Peter on that occasion also applies to what Nathaniel says this morning as well: “Blessed are you, because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”  Nathaniel also confesses who Jesus really is, the long-awaited Messiah, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh come down to earth to save us.  But how was that revealed to Nathaniel?  Yes, there was a miracle involved, namely that Jesus saw Nathaniel and knew him when he was in a place where he thought he was alone.  But ultimately it was the Word of God which informed Nathaniel of who Jesus is: the Messiah promised for hundreds of years, going all the way back to the promise in Genesis 3 that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, and following throughout the Old Testament Scriptures.  That’s partly why Nathaniel believed even though he only saw the one minor miracle: He knew the Scriptures.  The Holy Spirit works through the Word.

But Jesus does promise him that he will see much greater things than this.  The heavens will open, and he will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.  It is precisely Jesus who is the ladder of Jacob.  Nathaniel’s ancestor Jacob, also known as Israel, after whom the nation of Israel is named, saw a staircase reaching from heaven to earth, symbolizing that God would come down to us to rescue us from our sin.  Jesus here identifies Himself as that staircase, as well as the man who wrestled with Jacob that same night and renamed him Israel.  To the true Israelite, who cannot deceive because he’s too blunt and even rude, God will show His salvation, His route down from heaven to join us, share in our sufferings, and take us up with Him into glory.

You see, Nathaniel is not the only one in this Gospel lesson who is without deceit.  There is another here who cannot lie.  But Jesus’ truthfulness is different from Nathaniel’s.  Jesus’ truthfulness doesn’t come from a lack of mental filters or a tendency to blurt things out.  But Jesus’ truthfulness doesn’t come from scrupulousness in always speaking true things, either.  Jesus is without deceit simply because He’s God, the Son of the Father, the Word by which the heavens were made.  What He says, is.  Which is why it is by His Word, even when spoken by sinful men, that faith is created in the heart, even the cynical heart which doubts anything good can come from humble beginnings.  The Word does what it says, despite doubt and cynicism.

This Gospel lesson comes from the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel.  Near the very end of that same Gospel, there is an account involving another disciple who confesses Jesus as the Son of God.  Every year on the Sunday after Easter we hear the story of St. Thomas, who claimed he needed to see Jesus to believe in His resurrection.  What Jesus says to Thomas then, is an echo of what happens here in Nathaniel’s case.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.  Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.  Which is why God calls preachers.  Which was why Jesus called Nathaniel, and Thomas, and Peter.  All had personality flaws, all had doubts.  All were sinners forgiven for the sake of Jesus’ death on the cross.  It’s the Word itself that does the work.  As we go forth and confess to our friends and neighbors what we’ve heard from God, that’s a comfort for us as well.  The Word itself does the work.  The Word itself comes down to us and gives us eternal life.  The Word Himself comes to us personally to forgive our sins and give us His own body and blood.  It’s all the Word.  It’s all Jesus.  And that’s all that’s necessary.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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