October 16, 2018

Epiphany II: God Revealed to Skeptics

The Jacob’s Dream. Chagall

Sermon: Epiphany II: God Revealed to Skeptics
• John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip 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.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And 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.”

• • •

The Lord be with you.

When I was in high school, I went through a fairly ordinary period of skepticism. I used to love getting into arguments about religion. I delighted in coming up with questions to stump people I thought were just following their faith because they had been raised that way and hadn’t really thought it through. I’m sure I frustrated them, because I’m sure they thought I was being mocking and disrespectful. When I look back now, I think it was an essential part of my faith development. Even though I was being kind of a jerk about it, God was keeping me involved in thinking and questioning and talking with others about matters of faith, and when the page eventually turned my faith was stronger for it.

It is not uncommon for people, at various periods of life, to begin to question the things they believe. Personally, I don’t think we should be alarmed by that. Often, it is simply part of of being human, of becoming mature, of working through things in our lives. It can represent “growing pains” that we have to get through in order to develop into more thoughtful and grounded people.

There are those who take a more fundamentalist approach to religion, and they tend to get frightened by doubts, questioning, and skepticism. For them, it’s either black or white, you’re in or you’re out, the light is on or you’re in the darkness. So when someone expresses lack of certainty about something they hold to be absolute truth, they get worried and think that maybe the person has lost his or her faith. That is when the pastor starts getting phone calls from worried parents or friends. However, if we view doubt and questioning and skepticism as an integral part of faith, we can be a bit more patient with one another.

The leading character in today’s text, the disciple Nathanael, was a doubter and maybe a skeptic. Now for sure, he was part of the Jewish people, had been raised to believe in God, to revere God’s word, and to follow the various rites and practices of the faith of Moses. But Nathanael was one of those people you feel uncomfortable having in your Sunday School class. He was always expressing contrary opinions. He raised questions about the validity of certain things everyone else just accepted. He seemed implacably negative, like he was always trying to pull up the rug and find the dirt under their accepted religion.

So how do you think Nathanael responded when his friend Philip came to him all excited one day and said, “We have found the Messiah!” This was no small claim. In fact, it was the most audacious claim any Jew could have made. Philip was announcing that the One they had been waiting thousands of years for had arrived. That God was fulfilling his promises and would be restoring the kingdom to Israel. That their enemies, like the Romans who occupied Israel at that time, were about to be defeated, and Israel’s long exile under foreign powers was coming to an end. Philip was not just giving some enthusiastic personal testimony, this was the best of all good news for Israel and, indeed, for the world. This was history-making news, world-changing news, and the most significant religious news that any Jew could imagine.

How did Nathanael respond? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he scowled. In other words, “Sure Philip, what have you been drinking?” Like most Jewish people, Nathanael probably thought that when the Messiah came, it would be a bit more glorious than some guy from a backwater town walking around and gathering disciples. To him, Philip’s claim was ludicrous.

Philip, to his credit, did not become alarmed at Nathanael’s skepticism. He merely said, “Come and see.” Here is an example of how to relate to skeptics. Don’t argue. Don’t try to convince them with proofs. Just offer an invitation: “Look, I know it seems crazy, but why don’t you come take a look for yourself?”

To his credit, Nathanael took Philip up on his invitation. And when he did, he met Jesus. And that made all the difference.

You may not recognize the nuances in this story, but as Jesus talks with Nathanael, he makes several allusions to the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Like Nathanael, Jacob was a hard guy to convince about stuff. He had a rough childhood and was something of a delinquent, until his parents sent him away to live with his uncle Laban, an even tougher person they thought might teach him a few lessons.

Along the way to Laban’s, Jacob had his first experience with God, at a place called Bethel. When he laid down to sleep that night, he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven and God’s angels were going up and down on it. He woke up in the morning and said, “Wow! God is in the place, and I had no idea!”

This is the very story Jesus is referring to here. The name “Jacob” means “deceiver,” and when Jesus confronts Nathanael he says, “Now here’s an Israelite without deceit — an Israelite who’s better than ‘Jacob’! Here’s one who has honest doubts and questions about God!”

He then says he saw Nathanael under a fig tree, which probably means Nathanael was sleeping, taking a nap under that tree. Like Jacob at Bethel, Nathanael had no idea Jesus could see him when he was sleeping.

And finally, Jesus makes reference to Jacob’s ladder, saying that Nathanael would see God’s angels ascending and descending upon him. In other words, Nathanael would recognize Jesus as the One where earth and heaven meet, where God is present and active. Jacob named the place where he first saw God Beth-el — the house of God. Nathanael would recognize that Jesus is God’s dwelling place.

This was Jesus’ first encounter with Nathanael, and Jesus likened him to Jacob in this episode. Jacob represents the kind of person who constantly struggles with God. And yet he is considered one of the fathers of Israel. In fact, it was Jacob whose name was changed to Israel, in recognition that he and his children and his children’s children would always contend with God. That’s not a sign of lack of faith, it’s a sign of people who are trying to work out their faith, trying to understand their faith, trying to make sense of their faith in a world where it often doesn’t seem to make sense. Jesus was suggesting that Nathanael would follow the path of Jacob, a person who wrestled with God his whole life.

Perhaps there are some Nathanaels here this morning, some people who are kin to Jacob. Faith doesn’t come easily to you. You wonder and ponder and doubt a lot of different aspects of the faith you’ve been taught. When you read the Bible, it raises more questions than answers for you. Church is sometimes hard and you don’t always feel like you fit in.

You know what? That’s okay. It really is. Here, this morning, in the Gospel of John, is a person like you. His name is Nathanael. And I will say the same thing to you that his friend Philip said to him: “Come and see.” Come and meet Jesus. Get to know him. Listen to him. It may seem unlikely to you at the moment, but you might just find someone who knows you better than you know yourself, One who loves you and will show you the most wondrous and glorious things about God.

That’s a lot like what happened to me back in my most skeptical days. A very joyous and loving group of Christians invited me to join them at church and in their youth group. They didn’t try to argue with me, they just welcomed me. They gave me the chance to meet Jesus. And that has made all the difference for me. I still have loads of questions and doubts, but having met Jesus, I’m content to keep on struggling with him.

May God bless all who wrestle with God. Amen.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    ” A very joyous and loving group of Christians invited me to join them at church and in their youth group. They didn’t try to argue with me, they just welcomed me. They gave me the chance to meet Jesus. And that has made all the difference for me. I still have loads of questions and doubts, but having met Jesus, I’m content to keep on struggling with him.”

    something like this happened to Anne Lamott, the author, who told of it, this:

    ” . . . . I began stopping in at the church from time to time, standing in the doorway to listen to the songs. I couldn’t believe how run down it was, with terrible linoleum that was brown and overshined, and plastic stained-glass windows. But it had a choir of five black women and one rather Amish looking white man making all that glorious noise, and a congregation of thirty people or so, radiating kindness and warmth. During the time when people hugged and greeted each other, various people would come back to where I stood to shake my hand or try to hug me. I was as frozen and stiff as Richard Nixon. After this, Scripture was read, and then the minister would preach about social injustice and Jesus, which would be enough to send me running back to the sanctuary of the flea market.
    I went back to the church about once a month. No one tried to con me into sitting down or staying. I always left before the sermon. I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I didn’t want to be preached at about him. To me, Jesus made about as much sense as Scientology or dowsing. But the church smelled wonderful, like the air had nourishment in it, or like it was composed of these people’s exhalations, of warmth and faith and peace. There were always children running around or being embraced, and a gorgeous stick-thin deaf black girl signing to her mother’s flashing fingers.
    I could sing better here than I ever had before. As part of these people, even though I stayed in the doorway, I did not recognize my voice or know where it was coming from, but sometimes I felt I could sing forever.
    A few months after I started coming, I took a seat in one of the folding chairs, off by myself. Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food.
    Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of . . . ”

    Anne wrote ‘I was being taken care of’.
    I think she was right. 🙂 God’s ways are far above our understanding, yes.

  2. Susan Dumbrell says:

    The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light!

    Sorry, the light’s gone out folks, must be a power cut.
    Find the candles………(insert name here)

    Write me a haiku Robert, I am depressed.

    Susan

  3. Ronald Avra says:

    Again, helpful. Thanks.

  4. Very good sermon.

    –> “It is not uncommon for people, at various periods of life, to begin to question the things they believe.”

    From my own experience, it’s not only questioning the things I believe, but it’s questioning the “WHY” I believe them.

    Christ ended up using my own “why do I believe what I believe” to lead me into following Him.

  5. “When I was in high school, I went through a fairly ordinary period of skepticism.”

    When I was in high school, I was still a goody goody preacher’s kid who embraced the whole story including the distinct views of our denomination. But three summers of mission trips in between college terms destroyed that. In addition, I’m a nerd with the attendant tone-deafness to emotion and spiritual feelings others apparently have that I do not. Thus, my mind lost a confident faith. That was the early seventies. Nonetheless, I kept up appearances for the ensuing decades, attending church, leading singing, even teaching class, occasionally, in hope that one day two things would happen. One that my church would lose its fundamentalism and two, that I would discover a better Christianity that I could believe in.

    “I still have loads of questions and doubts, but having met Jesus, I’m content to keep on struggling with him.”

    Same here. The emergent church and writings of some who might be termed postmodern Christian have been a big help to me, and internet sites like this one.

    • Did either of those two things end up happening at all with your church?

      • Neither happened or had a chance of happening at my church. I’m not a postmodern relativist. Postmodern writing exhibits an immense amount of incomprehensible nonsense. But some Christian writers have mined postmodern thought for some things of value; for example its critique of Enlightenment and attention to language. It has helped me to appreciate paradox and to understand the relational and narrative nature of reality.

  6. Does Marc Chagall own the color blue or what?

    Doubt and skepticism are not really the same thing. Doubt comes upon us unbidden, an uncomfortable dwelling place. Skepticism is a conscious interrogation, an ongoing act of deliberation. We doubt because we don’t understand. We become skeptics when we try to understand. Skepticism is not simply refusing to believe. It is not simply anti-faith. Skepticism is the faith that only those ideas that can withstand scrutiny are worth having.

    • “Skepticism is not simply refusing to believe. It is not simply anti-faith. Skepticism is the faith that only those ideas that can withstand scrutiny are worth having.”

      +1

      This is something I’ve come to slowly acknowledge over time. And if we really do believe what we say we do, then we have nothing to worry about. I used to be worried about if we were to discover things in science (e.g. finding life on other planets) what it might do to my faith, but I now realize who cares. If God is real, then nothing we discover will change that reality. It was like chains were removed. We are free to be skeptic and explore.

  7. Patriciamc says:

    Excellent post.

  8. the gray winter days
    in the weeks after Christmas
    have light of their own

    • Susan Dumbrell says:

      greyness and light – the plus and minus of life.
      Working on the depression and stress.

      Keep me focused. You do well.

      Susan

      • Hang in there, Susan. Sometimes, maybe quite often, that’s all there is, or needs to be, to keeping the faith.