Sunday 20 October 2013

Disciples (John 1:35-51)

It’s been about a year now since Korean popstar PSY released his hit single, “Gangnam Style”. Not only did the song reach the top of the iTunes charts, the Guinness Book of Records awarded “Gangnam Style” the most “liked” Youtube video of all time. To date, “Gangnam Style” has been viewed 1.7 billion times.

Since then, millions of fans round the world have mimicked its signature dance moves, including British Prime Minister, David Cameron, US President Barack Obama as well as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who described it as a “force for world peace” (Wikipedia).

“To dance Gangnam Style,” says PSY in a television interview, “you have to do two things. You have to ‘dress classy and dance cheesy’.” Dress classy and dance cheesy. That’s the secret. Classiness and cheesiness.

It is a combination that is meant to make you laugh and cringe. It is a combination that we see in today’s passage, actually, in a person named Nathanael. We meet a guy who meets Jesus for the first time and responds to him in a classy yet cheesy way.

1. Classy

So the first response we see from Nathanael is classiness. His friend Philip says to him in verse 45, “We have found the Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote - Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Nathanael responds in verse 46: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

Now to understand why Nathanael says that, look back to the context in verse 43. Jesus has just gone up to Galilee. This was a region north of Israel and Nazareth was a town in this region of Galilee. Compared to a big city like Jerusalem down south where you had the temple and priests and the scholars and the big shots, Nazareth was a small insignificant town full of blue collar workers.

The truth was, Nathanael was not impressed with Jesus’ postcode. “Nazareth? You are telling me the Messiah lives in Nazareth?”

But there’s actually more to it than that. You see, the ironic thing is: Nathanael was also from Galilee. We find out in Chapter 21 that Nathanael was a native of the city of Cana “in Galilee” (John 21:2) just down the road from Nazareth. What is happening is: Nathanael is acting classy in talking trash about Nazareth when the truth is he grew up a neighbourhood just like Nazareth.

What’s going on? The English expression for this is “thumbing your nose” at someone. It’s looking down on someone because of their education, their ethnicity, their income. It’s racism. It’s prejudice.

But in truth, it’s the way much of the world works today. We turn our noses at someone to put them down but at the same time to let them know that we’re better than them. Nathanael was from a small town just like Jesus and yet he needs to feel superior. Why? Because you don’t need a Cambridge degree to be proud. You don’t need a five-figure salary to be proud. All you need is someone a little less worse off that you can pick on. I’m told that even garbage collectors discriminate against one another - the guy who drives the truck thinks he is better than the one who has to collect the bins. It’s a pecking order: I might not be at the top but at least I’m not stuck at the bottom.

So, Nathanael dismisses Jesus. He turns his nose at him. But look at how Jesus responds because Jesus doesn’t say to Nathanael, “You’re proud.” He says, “Finally, I’ve found a guy to speaks his mind.”

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”
John 1:47

Isn’t that surprising. Jesus says, “Here is a guy I can work with.” You would expect Jesus to get mad but no, Jesus commends Nathanael as a true Israelite. What’s going on?

Jesus confronts us with our expectations

Our passage today is about expectations. Who do we think Jesus is? What have we heard about him? Today’s passage is all about a group of people coming to Jesus, but each one bringing with them their own baggage. That is, each one of them has preconceived ideas about who they are going to meet.

And at each turn, before Jesus does anything else, he says to these individuals, “What exactly are you looking for?” He does that with the two disciples of John in verse 35. They hear John saying, “He’s the Lamb of God. He’s the Son of God.” And immediately, they leave John the Baptist hoping to follow Jesus as their new Rabbi only to have Jesus turn around in verse 38 and saying to them, “What do you want?”

Get this: These are the first words to come out of Jesus’ mouth that are recorded for us here in John’s gospel. His first recorded words are not: I am the resurrection and the life. It’s not: Come to me all you to weary and labour. No, first thing Jesus says to these disciples - and to us - in John’s gospel is, “What do you want?” In Cantonese, it’s Lei Oi Mat Yeh Ah?

That is, Jesus is not looking for adoring fans. He isn’t looking to be popular. That’s why he meets a guy like Nathanael and says, “Finally. Someone who speaks his mind.”

Now in a few moments, we are going to see that Jesus isn’t simply giving Nathanael a compliment when he calls him a true Israelite. Jesus is exposing Nathanael’s motives and agenda. But before we get to that, I just want you to notice that Jesus is looking for a response. A lot of people come to Jesus looking for a response - they have questions they want to ask, they have their agendas. But friends, if you are coming before God, and he really is God, then it’s probably fair to assume that it is going to be on his terms, not ours.

Jesus says to the two guys in verse 38, “What do you want?” And their response is to say, “Rabbi, where are you staying.” They are not asking Jesus for his address. What they mean is, “Can we hang out with you.” Because we see in verse 39, that’s exactly what they did. Jesus says to them, “Come and you will see.” and they saw where Jesus was staying and spent the day with him.

In other words, what they were looking for was a relationship. And that was exactly what Jesus was happy to give them. That’s the significance of that phrase, “Come and see.” It’s an invitation to know Jesus. And you’ll notice it’s the same invitation Philip gave to Nathanael in verse 46. Nathanael dismisses Jesus by saying, “Nothing good can come out of Nazareth?” But Philip doesn’t start a theological debate with him. He simply says to him, “Come and see.” It’s an invitation to bring your questions, your doubts and your skepticism - to ask your questions - but most of all it’s an invitation to meet Jesus Christ.

Why does Jesus say of Nathanael, “Here’s a true Israelite”? Because even despite his hang-ups about Jesus and skepticism about Jesus, Nathanael still bothered to meet with Jesus. He came to see Jesus for himself and that, according to Jesus, was something that was commendable. That was classy.

That’s our first point. Being classy - not in a stuck-up, thumb your noses up at someone just because you disagree with them way - but classy in an honest way. You have your doubts but at least you’re bothering to check things out for yourself. That’s classy.

But our second point is: Don’t be cheesy!

2. Cheesy

Almost immediately, this same guy who was acting all classy a moment guy, gets all cheesy in front of Jesus.

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig-tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
John 1:48-49

You would expect Jesus to go, “Yes, you’ve finally got it!” at this point when Nathanael says, “You’re the Son of God! You’re the King of Israel!” Instead, Jesus replies in verse 50, “You believe I told you I saw you under the fig-tree. You shall see greater things than that.”
“Hold on, Nathanael,” Jesus seems to be saying. “I haven’t shown you what it means for you to call me Son of God or King of Israel… yet!” Notice, Jesus isn’t denying what Nathanael is saying about him. But Jesus does seem to be implying that Nathanael is getting ahead of himself. “You shall see greater things than that.”

Here is the amazing thing: Jesus isn’t content with his followers saying the right thing or even doing the right thing. He wants us to have the right basis for saying what’s right and doing what’s right. And he seems to be saying to Nathanael, “Hold your horses!” Jesus is not looking for what many of us would call blind faith because blind faith is no different from empty faith. Blind faith is faith that is based on me and my pre-conceptions. What Jesus is looking for is a right response to a revelation of himself that is true and compelling. That’s biblical faith in Jesus. It means trusting in someone because we know him to be trustworthy. It means putting our faith in someone because time and time again he has proven to be faithful. We do that with our best of friends; Jesus is saying, “I want you to have that same kind of trusting, loving, faithful relationship with me.” Faith in Jesus is meant to be within a context of a relationship. It is meant to even be reasonable.

What it should not be is cheesy. Jesus is not looking for fans who are wowed by him and he says quite frankly to Nathanael in verse 50, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig-tree.” Did you notice that? Jesus does not want us to believe him just because of his miracles, as amazing as they are - and, let me clarify this: as real as they are. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Jesus didn’t do that miracle. He did! But that’s what makes this response from Jesus even more surprising. Just because he did that miracle, Jesus doesn’t want us to make that blind-faith-leap. That kind of presumption is cheesy. It’s not what Jesus is looking for.

The question is: What does Jesus want us to base our trust on if it isn’t his miracles? Answer: His glory on the cross. That’s verse 51.

He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
John 1:51

Now some of you are going, “What on earth does that mean?” And “How is that a picture of the cross?”

Jesus is describing a heavenly escalator. He says to Nathanael: You are going to see an escalator stretching all the way to God in heaven and angels are going to be going up and down this escalator.

Two things I should point out about this vision of the escalator. The first thing is: It’s not just a vision for Nathanael. The word “you” in verse 51 is in the plural, meaning Jesus is at this point talking to all his followers. Jesus is making this promise to Nathanael and John and Andrew and Peter and I dare say, to us. That in order to believe in him, all of us, not just that one guy Nathanael in Galilee, but all of us who claim to follow Jesus and trust in him, will see or have seen what this vision means. In other words, it’s relevant. “You shall see,” Jesus says to you right now.

The second thing is this: Jesus is using bible language that would be familiar to you if you know your bible and read the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. It’s an important story because it tells of how God would give his promises to all his people through one man - and that man’s name is Jacob.

Genesis Chapter 28 tells us that God gave a vision to Jacob one day - you guessed it - of a ladder with one end resting on earth and the other stretching into heaven, and it says in Genesis 28:12, “the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” It’s the same vision Jesus says we’ll see. The really interesting thing is, Jacob’s name means Deceiver, and because God gives all his promises of blessing and salvation to Jacob, God eventually changes his name to Israel.

If you get that name reference - especially of Jacob’s name, meaning Deceiver or Liar - then look back at what Jesus says to Nathanael in verse 47, “Here is a true son of Israel, in whom there is no Jacob.” And Jesus says to us in verse 51, “You shall see the angels of God ascending and descending on,” notice this, “the Son of Man.”

In place of that ladder connecting earth and heaven, Jesus puts himself in its place as the Son of Man. On the cross, Jesus opened that connection by taking our sin and our punishment of sin and dying for our sins. Another way of putting it is: He took our place as Jacob so that we could be Israel. He became sin, the bible tells us (2 Cor 5:21) so that we could be righteous. It is a glimpse into understanding what Jesus did on the cross.

And for Jesus to look at Nathanael and say, “Here is a true Israelite,” what Jesus is really saying is, “Here is someone I have come to die for.” “Here is someone who will inherit my righteousness and I will take his sin.” If you understand that, then you understand what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God or the King of Israel. He is the Son who gives us the rights as sons before his Heavenly Father. He is the King who pays the full ransom for his kingdom with his own blood on the cross.

Don’t be cheesy in your faith, not simply because it’s silly to use big words to talk about God when we don’t have clue what we’re talking about. But more importantly, because Jesus died to give us that basis of faith. Jesus died so that we might live by faith.

Jesus says to us, “You will see.” It’s a promise. He says to us, “Come and see.” That’s an invitation - to be in a relationship with Jesus and to grow in our knowledge and understanding of him in the context of that relationship. On the cross, Jesus shows us why this relationship is possible: He has opened the way for sinful men and women to approach a holy God through his death on the cross.

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