January 17, 2021 “Jesus Knew”
When I was a kid, we lived in a series of houses all built about the same time in the middle of some of Ohio’s finest hardwood forests and farmland. At the time, such a housing developments was called an “allotment”, and for the life of me I have no idea where that comes from. But for a kid, it was ideal. Because of all the houses close by, there were plenty of kids to play with. But if you wanted to explore, all it took was a short hike across a 50 acre corn field and you were in the wilderness, or so it seemed at the time. I have lots of great memories in those woods. We raised havoc with the animals that lived in the big hollow beech trees, we caught frogs and salamanders, built forts, and basically did everything in our power to tame and subdue this wild and forested wasteland.
I remember near the fence line there was an old dilapidated sheep shed that obviously hadn’t been used in years. It became the go-to place to meet up and the go-to place to regroup if we got scattered. Years later, this old sheep shed became a go-to place when I needed to get away from it all. It was a place I could go to think and ponder and try to make sense of this crazy world as a young man in his teens. No one could find me in that old shed; or so I thought until one day my sister showed up. “Hey,” she said, “I thought I might find you out here.” So I invited her in. We talked, we laughed, and had a good time. It was my special place – my sacred space – but she found me out, and you know what? I’m glad she did. I don’t imagine that old shed is standing anymore, but I’m sure glad it was there back then.
Now the reason I bring this up, besides an excuse to wander down memory lane, is because it’s the only way that I can make sense out of the somewhat weird conversation between Jesus and Nathaniel in those early days of the ministry of Jesus Christ. But we’ll get to that a little later.
For the next few weeks, we will be in the season of Epiphany. This season ends in mid-February and is followed by Ash Wednesday and, of course, the season of Lent. I hesitate to even bring it up because the mere mention of Lent and Easter is a sad reminder of how long we have we have been living with the worst pandemic in 100 years, but for now let’s take heart in the season of Epiphany. It’s a season of eye-opening revelations, a season to rethink and reboot. That’s what I love about the story of Nathaniel. When Philip first tells him the incredible news, you can almost feel his excitement coming from the printed page: (vs 45) “We have found the Messiah!” he said, “The very person that Moses and the prophets told us about.”
Now if he would stopped right there, Nathaniel might have been interested, but Philip went on to say, “His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph of Nazareth.”
And at this point, Nathaniel, like so many of us, makes a judgement that he had no real right to make. (vs. 46) “Nazareth!” he snorted. “Can anything good come from there?” How sad that the one statement Nathaniel is known for is this one, but it’s all good. It’s all good because Jesus knew his heart. Jesus knew that behind this gruff exterior was a heart that knew the love of God. Jesus knew that righteousness lived in this man; that there was an element of goodness and honor and integrity. Jesus knew. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? That little dirt-bag town? Are you kidding me?” To which Philip replied, “Come and see.” Come and see. And off they went.
It was in the moment that Philip and Nathaniel approach the Christ that Jesus greets them in a most unusual way. Calling out to Nathaniel, who he has never met, Jesus says, “Here comes an honest man – a true son of Israel.” Is he looking to flatter here? Is he trying to butter him up? Nathaniel fires back saying, “How do you know anything about me?” Still judging, still suspicious, still not wanting to believe. I can’t say as I blame him, really. I’ll grant you that it is rare when a total stranger compliments me on my character, but if they did I’d figure right off that they were trying to sell me something. But Jesus knew. Jesus knew Nathaniel’s heart. Jesus was naming it; he was naming that which he knew. And so it was that the instant that he answered saying, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip found you,” Nathaniel was aware that Jesus could see the deepest depths of his heart. All of his doubts disappeared as he found himself saying, “Rabbi, you are the son of God.”
But I have to explain. Of all the theories and speculation about what is meant by “I saw you under the fig tree,” I want to – I have to – subscribe to the sheep shed theory. I have to believe that Nathaniel had a place that he would go to get away from it all. It was at that place that his prayers were spoken – no distractions, no interruptions – just a moment with God. A moment of peace, a moment of prayer. Fig trees, if they are not pruned, can grow to an enormous size with a thick canopy that reaches to the ground. A perfect place to escape, a perfect place to pray for the Messiah to come; a perfect place where no one but Nathaniel knows. But Jesus knew.
If we could only read into people’s hearts, what a world this would be. But instead, we judge each other just as they judge us. The clothes we wear, the cars we drive, where we’re from – it’s something we’ve learned; it’s something we do. It’s easy. It’s expedient. But Jesus calls us to look deeper. Jesus calls us to look to find the sacred places, the holy places that live in the hearts of those we have chosen to ignore. After all, Jesus knew to search our hearts – for goodness, for righteousness. He still does and always will. Praise be to God that he has named it in the form of our faith. Jesus knew. Jesus knows to look to the heart. The least we can do is try our best to do the same.
Amen & Shalom