Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 14, 2018
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
I Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51
After his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, it is time for Jesus to choose his disciples. He heads off to Galilee, finds Philip, and extends an invitation: “Follow me.” Philip can’t wait to share the news with Nathanael. “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” But Nathanael has doubts, and asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” At this point, Philip doesn’t try to defend Jesus, he merely extends the invitation: “Come and see.” Then when Jesus says to Nathanael, upon his approach, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” and explains that he saw him under the fig tree even before Philip called him, Nathanael is taken aback. And just like that, he becomes a believer.
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” It appears that Nathanael’s easily impressed. Jesus must think the same for he responds with what must have been laughter in his voice. “You believe because I told you I saw you under a fig tree? You’ll see even greater things…”
One of the best-kept secrets about the life of Jesus may be this: Jesus had a sense of humor! Think about it for a moment. Could Jesus have been truly human without having a sense of humor? I don’t think so. Honestly, I cannot read today’s passage without smiling. It’s funny! First, Nathanael can’t believe anything good can come out of Nazareth. Then, when Jesus reveals that he has a little supernatural information, Nathanael is blown away. That’s all it takes! Well, Nathanael, hold on to your horses!
While life is filled with challenges, it is also filled with joy. Take, for example, last fall when our Mission & Evangelism Committee met to discuss, among other things, items to include in our new visitor’s bags. Since our marketing guru, Jane Shelton, had already emailed me a few ideas, I got the conversation started by sharing them. We might include some candies beautifully wrapped with a note that reads, “How sweet of you to drop by!” Another idea: a packet of hot chocolate during the cooler winter months, with a note that says, “Your visit warmed our hearts!” Or maybe a packet of nuts, labeled, “We’re nuts that you chose to worship with us today. We hope you come again soon.”
The thought of including nuts in the gift bag raised concerns for Kerri Routsong (who happened to be wearing her “Good Mother” hat that evening). She suggested sunflower seeds instead, to which—without batting an eye—Libby George exclaimed, “And we can add a label saying, ‘We SEED you here and we hope to see you again!” We SEED you here and we hope to see you again. By this time, we were all in stitches. It still makes me chuckle—every time I think of it! In fact, Libby and I have gotten into the habit of greeting one another with, “I SEED you!”
The Christian life is worth living, and along the way, how much better it is to journey with our brothers and sisters and enjoy a laugh or two. Make no mistake; Jesus is not a sour person. He does not go through life glumly and without joy. Remember—he and his disciples are called wine-bibbers and gluttons. That’s not a reputation you get by being solemn and serious all the time. Furthermore, I ask you, when you get together with friends to eat a meal and enjoy one another’s company, isn’t laughter one of the best parts?
In James Martin’s book, Between Heaven and Mirth, he speaks of Jesus’ full humanity and his fully developed sense of humor. Says Martin, “[Jesus] told clever stories, made funny asides, and welcomed apostles who had a sense of humor. Indeed, his sense of humor may be one largely unexamined reason for his ability to draw so many disciples around him with ease.”[i]
When Nathanael hears that the Messiah is from Nazareth, he cannot believe it—and he says exactly what he thinks. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It’s a slur regarding the insignificance of this little backwater town is. But does Jesus scold Nathanael for making fun of his hometown? No, instead he says to Nathaniel, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” In other words, “I can trust you. You will tell me exactly what’s on your mind.”[ii] Then, when Nathaniel seems so impressed that Jesus even knows where he was sitting when Philip finds him, in essence, Jesus says, “Wait until you see how this story turns out—I’m just getting started.”
To Nathanael, in whom there is no deceit, Jesus declares, “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened up and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Now we move from the humorous to the holy, because what Jesus is alluding to is another story in another place. It is the story of Jacob—you remember—the one in whom there was plenty of deceit! He lied and tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright, and had to run for his life. One night, while using a stone for a pillow, Jacob goes to sleep. He dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it. Then, Yahweh renews the covenant that had been made with Abraham saying, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac…all people shall be blessed in you …I am with you.”
Many years have passed under the old covenant, but now, in Jesus, a new covenant begins. “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” he says to Nathanael. The ladder has been replaced by Jesus himself who connects heaven and the earth. Jesus is the center point between this world and the world to come—Jesus, who is both human and divine, Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel.
The humorous and the holy mark the life and ministry of Jesus. Hopefully, they mark our lives, too. As we journey forth together, may we find moments to stop and give thanks for the ways in which Christ enriches our lives through one another. Without a doubt, we live in individualistic times—maybe now more than ever. People claim to be spiritual and not religious. People find endless things to do on Sunday morning besides gathering with other believers to sing and pray and worship God. But wise ones who have gone before us—wise ones like Martin Luther King Jr. have left us words to ponder: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” The broader concerns of all humanity—we need each other just like Jesus needs his disciples—for the work, yes, but also for the fellowship and the laughter and the abundant life available for us all.
You may have noticed that both our Old and New Testament readings for today are call stories—Samuel as a little boy, laying in the Temple, and Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree. It does not matter where they are, God knows, and God calls. Thankfully, they listen. Today we have three elders who have responded to a similar call. A few months ago, the Nominating Committee began to meet and pray about whom God might be calling to lead our church. By the Spirit’s leading, each candidate was approached: “In you, we see spiritual gifts for leadership that our church needs. Will you join with us?” Thankfully, these three answered yes to the call. (Actually, two of them are serving a second term.)
We need good leaders. Along with the other seven who are currently serving on session, our new ruling elders will help us seek both the holy and the humorous to bring us closer to God. They will help us explore the way ahead. They will pray and work and listen for the voice of God. They will help cast a vision for the coming days of our church life. All of us are invited to join in the work—to create something even more beautiful! “Greater things than these!” Jesus said. All to honor Jesus—the Good One who came out of Nazareth—the Good One who connects heaven and earth with the new ladder of salvation. Greater things, indeed!
[i] Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, James Martin, SJ 58.
[ii] Ibid. 54.
*Cover Art “Come and See” © Jan Richardson; Subscription.