Scripture Readings: Psalm 139.1-18
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Just after I was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, I had an experience which reminded me that in this job, I would be working with all kinds of people. I was asked to appear on a late night TV show on Scottish Television in Glasgow. The show was called Trial by Night (there is one episode available on YouTube– thankfully not the one featuring me!), and it was presented by a former weatherman. The other guests were a member of parliament, and young women in a leopard skin dress. In the hospitality suite beforehand, I asked the lady what she did. She said she was a writer, and so I asked her what she wrote. She told me she wrote pornographic novels for women. Well, I thought, if I’d never been ordained I would probably never have met someone who wrote pornographic novels!
When you meeting all kinds of different people, it’s important not to take too much notice of your first impressions. How often do we judge people on the basis of very little knowledge about them? We judge on the way they dress, what job they do, where they come from, what kind of accent they have, what they do for a living. Today’s Gospel story is a tale of first impressions, but it’s also about the importance of insightfulness, about getting to know people well, beyond the surface.
At the beginning of the story, Philip goes on first impressions. Jesus says to him- ‘Come with me!’- and he does. It is an instant conversion experience, and before we know it he’s off to tell his friend Nathaniel about this remarkable man he’s met. Jesus seems to have had that effect on people sometimes.
And so Philip goes with his hot news to Nathaniel- ‘I’ve met the Messiah, and he’s Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth!’ he tells his friend. But mention of Nazareth makes a negative impression on Nathaniel. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ he asks. Nathaniel is from Bethsaida, another Galilee town- perhaps there’s some local rivalry behind the remark. And perhaps he also knows that there is nothing in the Hebrew scriptures about Messiah coming from Nazareth. Why should the Messiah be from a small town like Nazareth, of all places?
Philip’s answer is interesting. He doesn’t try to argue with Nathaniel, but just says, ‘Come and see’. The result is that Jesus and Nathaniel meet face to face. And Jesus sees in Nathaniel not a stubborn, awkward questioner, but as he puts it ‘a real Israelite; there is nothing false in him’. Jesus recognises in Nathaniel someone who’s the salt of the earth- there’s no guile in him, he’s up front, calls a spade a spade.
Nathaniel is astonished, and asks, ‘How do you know me?’ And Jesus makes a strange reply: ‘I saw you under the fig tree’. That seems a strange thing to say- what did Jesus mean by it?
Fig trees are a symbol of peace in the Old Testament. In a peaceful world, every person would sit in peace under their fig tree, as the prophet Micah foretold: ‘Everyone will live in peace among his own vineyards and fig trees’. So Jesus is saying that he realises that Nathaniel- this plain spoken Israelite- longs for peace. After all the generations of wars and occupations, all true Israelites dream of the day when they can have a fig tree to sit under and can live their lives in peace. Jesus, somehow, knows Nathaniel’s deepest dreams and longings. Jesus doesn’t just rely on first impressions- he looks into Nathaniel’s heart and understands his deepest longings. Jesus understands Nathaniel better than himself, and so provokes from Nathaniel a confession of faith- ‘Teacher, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’
Nathaniel says that because he recognises that there is something divine about Jesus’ deep knowledge of him. Nathaniel realises that here is a man who knows him perhaps as well as God knows him. After all, does not Psalm 139 say:
Lord, you have examined me and you know me.
You know everything I do; from far away you understand all my thoughts.
You see me, whether I am working or resting; you know all my actions.
Even before I speak, you already know what I will say.
You are all around me on every side; you protect me with your power.
Your knowledge of me is too deep; it is beyond my understanding.
God knows us even better than we know ourselves. And Nathaniel realises that Jesus has something like the power of God to truly know another person, their dreams, their inner life, their hopes and fears.
For many people, it is a great comfort to know that there is a God who knows you and understands you. That’s why the Psalmist can affirm, ‘You are all around me on every side; you protect me with your power’. There is nowhere we can go and be beyond God’s love. God knows all about us, all the time, and so he’s always looking after us. That is, indeed, a great comfort.
But when I was a child, we used to sing this Victorian hymn, by the American author Philip Bliss, in church and Sunday School. It may well be based on Psalm 139- but there’s something missing from the hymn:
God is always near me,
Hearing what I say,
Knowing all my thoughts and deeds,
All my work and play.
God is always near me;
In the darkest night
He can see me just the same
As by mid-day light.
God is always near me,
Though so young and small;
Not a look or word or thought,
But God knows it all.
As a child, I always found that hymn distinctly unsettling, and I’m glad to say it didn’t make it into the latest edition of the Church Hymnary. Looking at it again after many years I remember why I didn’t like it. I think as a wee boy I didn’t really like the idea that someone else would be able to hear everything I ever said. I found the idea of someone who knew ‘all my thoughts and deeds’ rather scary. At least I could give my mum a bad look when she wasn’t looking- but not God:
Not a look or word or thought
But God knows it all.
And just when you thought it was safe to go to bed and put the light out, there’s still someone watching you with James Bond style infrared glasses:
In the darkest night
He can see me just the same
As by mid-day light.
– well, that’s a just creepy.
The trouble with the hymn is that there is nothing in it that explains why God should be watching over you all the time. After all, there are two reasons for watching a child. A parent or a baby-sitter might watch you to make sure you don’t get hurt. But the hymn, unlike Psalm 139, says nothing about God’s love or care or protection. Instead, this hymn conjured up to my impressionable childish mind a picture of God as an all-seeing headmaster, always watching out for me to go wrong, waiting to get me into trouble. I don’t think that’s a very healthy picture of God for a young child to grow up with.
Fortunately our family religion was a healthy sort of religion, which emphasized God’s care and love. So at an early age I simply decided that that was a hymn I didn’t like very much, and didn’t think much more about it. But I have since met people who live in fear of a god who has X-ray vision into their minds, who knows all about their sins, real or imagined. They imagine God ready to pounce on the merest suggestion of a sinful thought.
But Jesus once said ‘I have come in order that you might have life- life in all its fullness’. But if a person experiences only guilt and gloom because of ‘religion’ then there is something wrong with that religion. At the end of the day, Christianity is not about making people feel guilty and bad- it is about the forgiveness of sins. If God knows all about us, it is to protect us, not to try to trip us up.
I now know that my childish fears of a God who sees all and knows all about us were misplaced. Those fears, and the fears that many people have of God, are fears which come from not really knowing who God is. I’ve learned that most people design their own god. And so some people imagine god as a malevolent power who is watching their every move, trying to catch them out. But when I grew up I learned that the only real way to know God is to encounter God in Jesus Christ. If you want to know what God is like, you need to learn about Jesus. If you want a clue into how God deals with human beings, you must seek for those clues in the stories of how Jesus deals with human beings.
It seems Jesus was gifted with something like divine insight. Like God, he could see into people’s hearts. So what happened when Jesus saw into Nathaniel’s heart? Nathaniel had his good qualities, but like everyone else he no doubt had things he had done that he’d rather weren’t talked about. Like the rest of us, he would have flaws in this character. Like the rest of us, he was a sinner. But these are not the things Jesus picks up on. He does not, like some manipulative evangelist, say to Nathaniel, ‘Nathaniel, I can see into your heart, and I can see that you are a sinful person. You have dark secrets which only God can deal with’. No- instead he talks about Nathaniel’s good points: ‘You are a real Israelite, Nathaniel. You are honest, straightforward, without guile. And you dream of the day when some day you and every Israelite will sit under your fig trees and live in peace with your neighbours’.
Jesus takes Nathaniel’s good points, his gifts and graces, and he brings them out. He affirms the best of Nathaniel’s dreams and hopes. And I think that’s how Jesus would treat us. Yes, it can be unsettling to think God knows all your inner motivations. Jesus could be pretty damning about religious hypocrites- he said they were like ‘whitewashed tombs, which look fine on the outside but are full of bones and decaying corpses on the inside’. But usually he looked at person and saw the positive possibilities, the potential that was there.
That’s why Philip wanted to bring Nathaniel to meet Jesus. ‘Come with me- come and see!’ says Philip- because he knows that meeting Jesus will be good for Nathaniel. It really is time that we Christians learned anew that we, too, can be Philips- bringing our friends to meet Jesus. Evangelism has a bad reputation, because many people associate Jesus with the worst of the church- preaching that make people feel ashamed, a church that wants to oppress and silence minorities. It’s time for us to rediscover what it means to say to our friends and neighbours ‘Come and see!’ and to introduce them to Jesus. And for them to discover that Jesus promises, not hell, guilt and damnation, but life in all its fullness.
For when God made the world, God made it good. He created human beings- people made in the image of God, and therefore full of potential. Yet even if we fail to reach our potential, God does not stop loving us. The God who created us, formed us in our mother’s wombs, knows us better than we know ourselves. And God looks deeply at us, and sees what is good about us, and calls us to be the best we can be.
When Jesus met Nathanael, he didn’t say ‘You miserable sinner- you need to repent!’ Instead, Jesus praised Nathanael, reminding him of what was best about him- ‘a real Israelite- nothing false about him’. Let’s invite our friends to come and see- to meet the Christ who does not judge, but who wants to take the best of us, and help us live life in all its fullness!
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584