Powers and Principalities

Duration:16 mins 41 secs

Our Second Reading for today comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 43-51. After the cosmic prelude to this Gospel in which “the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth,” the attention quickly turns to some early encounters between John the Baptist, some of his disciples, and Jesus. John serves not so much as the Baptizer in this Gospel as he does the role of Witness. On two occasions just before our text for today, John sees Jesus walking by and declares to all who might hear, “Here is the Lamb of God.” Some of John’s disciples are intrigued by this declaration and follow Jesus to find out more. In our text for today, we find two others who come to see Jesus, one initially with some skepticism. Let us hear this Word of God.

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 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.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Every pastor I know, and I suspect it would be true of many of you as well, but every pastor has a story about a conversation with someone who used to go to church but no longer does. I myself hear these stories at parties, on airplanes, at the doctor’s office, at the soccer field. Pretty much anywhere you go; you might run into someone who used to go to church.

Pastor David Lose tells one of the more powerful stories he heard in his book Preaching at the Crossroads. Recognizing that they had become critically overextended, a family shared with a friend the need to simplify their life. Between work, social commitments, and the activities of their middle school aged child and elementary school aged child, they were exhausted by Christmas and struggled to make it to the end of the school year.

Determined to make some changes, the family held a “family council” to review all of their commitments “in light of how each helped them be the kind of individuals and family they wanted to be.” They seriously considered everything they were doing. After about an hour and a half they made their decisions. Church was out. The man explained to his friend:

“It’s just not that meaningful. We go each week and finally realized we’re not getting anything out of it. It’s hard to believe I’m saying this. Our parents took us, and once we had kids, we took them too. But it just doesn’t connect with the rest of our lives. So we’re done.”

Now we might be tempted to see that story as one more sign of the decay of the mainline church. And there is an element of truth in that. But even more we need to listen carefully to what the man said. His family wanted to spend their limited time and resources on things that “help them be the kind of individuals and family they want to be.” And for them, “church just doesn’t connect with the rest of our lives.”

Yes, this family is searching for meaning. They have a vision of what a meaningful life looks like. They want their life and the life of their children to be more integrated. They want what they do to help them understand their place in the world. They want to raise their children so that they will make a positive impact in the future. They are not selfish or out of touch. They are willing to commit. But they have determined that church is not helping them to live a “good” life. Or to paraphrase the words of Nathanael in our text for today they are asking, “Can anything good come from church?” And their answer is no.

Yes, my friends, they are like Nathanael sitting under the fig tree. He is sitting there when Philip shows up with some news. Philip has met Jesus and is thrilled. He is so excited that he needs to tell his friend that he has found the Messiah. Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth, is the one for whom generations have waited.

But Nathanael cannot fathom the idea:

He thinks he knows Nazareth - those who come from Nazareth do not contribute to the economy or create beauty and art.

He thinks he knows Nazareth – those from Nazareth are not “good.”

He thinks he knows Nazareth - Messiahs do not come from there.

Can anything good come from Nazareth?

Philip hears his friend and must make a choice. On the one hand he could enter into an argument. He could try to make the case that Nazareth really is good, and beautiful, and productive. But that is not what he does. As my friend Jill Duffield from The Presbyterian Outlook has written:

In our day of constant debate accompanied by the relentless need to be right, Philip's response is worth noting. Philip doesn't defend Nazareth: "Have you ever even been to Nazareth? It is beautiful this time of year. Lots of lovely people in Nazareth." … He simply says, "Come and see." Don't believe me? Come see for yourself.

Nathanael says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip responds, “Come and see.” Don’t come and see Nazareth, come and see the one from there.

For you see the real task of followers of Jesus is not to bring people to a place or even to the church. That is not what that family who decided to quit church needs. They are not looking for a place. Because a particular place or a particular church or a particular group of people, even an amazing church filled with awesome people like Reid Memorial, will disappoint you. Because …

In the church, people will let you down.

In the church, there will be days when you get nothing out of it.

In the church, the pastor is going to say something that you do not agree with.

In the church, there will be moments when you wonder if anything good can come from it.

Yes, I believe that one of the greatest struggles in the church today is that we have become so focused on keeping the church going that we have stopped inviting people to come and see Jesus. In the midst of all the stories and narratives which seek to define our lives, we have lost track of the Word that became flesh and lived among us. We have lost the story that it’s not the church, but Jesus Christ who is the redeemer and transformer of the world, our lives, and all that is in it. We have lost the sense that the story is about Jesus and that story is gospel, “Good News.”

We need to hear that story again and again and again. And by that I am not just talking about the need to teach people more about the Bible. Certainly we could all know more about the scriptures. We could all memorize more verses. We could all better identify places and names and on which page in the pew bible you can find a particular book. All that would be of help, but we need something more.

Think about it this way. If you are facing a difficult decision at work, what do you do? Where do you turn for guidance? I suspect you might ask a colleague, consult a policy, or even read a book. But how many of us seek to understand our challenges at work in light of a biblical story – maybe Solomon and the two mothers or the parable of the man with the great harvest? Are you even looking for Jesus in that situation?

If you are diagnosed with a health issue, what do you do? Where do you turn for guidance? I suspect you might listen carefully to your doctors, you might get a second opinion, you might search on the internet, or you might even ask people to pray for you. But how many of us seek to understand our diagnosis or situation through the lens of a biblical story – perhaps the woman who touches the hem of Jesus’ cloak or the man carried by his friends to see Jesus? Yes, where do you go to see Jesus?

If we who are actually attending church this morning do not find the biblical story meaningfully contributing to our understanding of our life and the world, as the story that invites us to come and see Jesus each and every day of our lives, can we begin to understand how the family at the beginning of the sermon chose to search for meaning elsewhere?

Now, before we become too discouraged, I must share with you that there is an unexpected conclusion to that family’s story. After listening to this father for some time, the friend asked whether he had told all this to his pastor. When the man admitted he had not, the friend urged him to do so.

About four months later the man sent this friend an email. He had shared with his pastor his family’s reasons for no longer going to church. The pastor surprised him by asking if they could repeat the conversation on Sunday during worship in place of the sermon. The man agreed and after they did so the pastor asked how many others in the congregation felt the same way.

In a worship service of just over a hundred people, more than a dozen hands immediately went into the air. So the pastor committed himself then and there to leading this congregation into a quest of how the biblical story might become useful to them, how it might inform their daily lives and decisions, and how the faith they professed on Sunday might help them sense God’s presence and activities in their lives and community the rest of the week.

The email closed simply, but profoundly: “So that’s what we’re doing. And you know what? We’re in. We’re staying.”

My friends, I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but I suspect that there are more than a dozen of you who heard that story at the beginning of this sermon and were ready to put your hand in the air and say, “That’s my story too.” If not you, then perhaps you have children or grandchildren who tell that same story.

If so, I invite you to come and see Jesus. If you are weary and tired, come and see Jesus. If you are distracted and distant, come and see Jesus. If you are discouraged and frustrated, come and see Jesus. If you showed up one last time on a holiday weekend to see if anything at all made sense, come and see Jesus. Yes, come and see Jesus. Because even from the most surprising places, yes even when Nazareth and the church and the whole world let you down, we can still encounter the one who is good and who brings gospel, “Good News.” Come and see Jesus. Yes, Come and see Jesus.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: