Good news for a cynic. John 1.43-51

John 1.43-51

I wonder whether you believe that this world is all that there is. The world of sense: of sight, touch, smell, taste and sound – or if you believe that there is something more, an invisible world that is behind this world – but which occasionally becomes obvious in this world.


It is as if the curtain that separates heaven from earth is drawn back and we see clearly.

There is a story in the Old Testament about a man called Jacob. He is the grandson of Abraham. So we are talking about a story that comes from 4000 years ago.

He has deceived his father and cheated his older brother, and his brother wants to kill him. So his mum gives him a packed lunch and tells him to get out fast and go to stay with his uncle Laban who lives far far away. Jacob leaves, and sets up camp for the first night. He falls asleep and he has a dream. He sees a ladder going up into heaven, and angels are going up and down the ladder. And God speaks to him and tells him that he will be with him, protect him and bless him – and that through him all peoples on earth will be blessed. And when Jacob wakes up, he calls the place Bethel, meaning House of God. And he describes it as ‘the gate of heaven’.



The curtain that separates heaven and earth has been drawn back, and Jacob sees

In our reading Jesus promises Nathaniel that the curtain will be drawn back

All Nathaniel can see is this world.

When Philip tells him that they have found the one ‘who Moses and the Prophets spoke of, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth’, all Nathaniel does is sneer. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’

He has become cynical.

Nathaniel, from what we can gather from Jesus description of him, ‘a true Israelite in whom there is no guile’, is a deep patriot.

And no doubt he felt crushed that his country was occupied and shamed, and that the laws of God were ignored or mocked.

And like many he looked to the promises of God, spoken by Moses and the prophets, that one day someone would come: a deliverer, a messiah. They would set Israel free and establish the promised kingdom of God: that place – which we often speak of - of peace and mercy and justice and abundance and laughter, where humans will live in communion with God, and in harmony with each other and with nature.

And there had been many who had come and claimed to be that deliverer, that messiah.

And I suspect that Nathaniel, like many, had put his trust in them. First one, and then the next, and then the next. And each time he had been let down.

The authorities had stepped in and crushed the so-called Messiah and their little movement.

And now Philip comes along and tells him of another – of Jesus from Nazareth.

And Nathaniel tells him, ‘I am not interested. I’ve given myself too many times to too many people and I am weary’.

I’ve been a follower of Jesus for all of my life, for almost 60 years.
And in that time I have heard countless people who claim to have had prophecies which speak of how there will be revival. There will be an outpouring of the power of God, people will turn again to God, there will be repentance and joy, the churches will be filled and societies will be transformed. And I used to give myself to the latest movement – the person or method or course or prayer challenge – but what I was looking for did not happen.

And I confess that now I have become a bit like Nathaniel.

When someone tells me that there is this new movement of the Spirit that will bring revival, I realise that I have become cynical.

But Philip, bless him, will not give up on Nathaniel.

And he says to him, ‘Come and see’. Come and meet the man. Because this one is different.

So Nathaniel – no doubt in order to get Philip to leave him alone, and get off his back – gets up and goes to meet Jesus.

And as he draws near to Jesus, Jesus sees him.
“Here is an Israelite”, Jesus says, “in whom there is no guile”.

Jesus is speaking the truth:
He sees the heart of Nathaniel – what Nathaniel really wants.
He sees the fact that here is one who is a true descendant of Abraham – not just a physical descendant, but one who has a deep faith in God, and who longs for the promises of God to be fulfilled.
And he sees one who is plain speaking. With Nathaniel you got what you saw.

And for whatever reason, that which Jesus said got to Nathaniel.
And he is astonished. How does this Jesus know him? Really know him. They haven’t met.

And Jesus tells Nathaniel, “I saw you when you were sitting under the fig tree”. That in itself is a reference to the vision that we find in the prophets that in the Kingdom everyone will sit and rest under their own fig tree.

And Nathaniel is astonished again. Why would this Jesus notice him specifically?

And Nathaniel falls for it again. He puts his trust in yet another messiah: Rabbi, he says, you are the Son of God! The King of Israel!

And look at Jesus response: 
‘Nathaniel. You think that is good! You’ve seen nothing yet. But that is because at the moment you cannot really see. You are only looking at the visible world. You are looking with your eyes and not with the Spirit. If you look with your eyes then you will see good stuff, but you will also see bad stuff. You will see me rejected and crucified. But Nathaniel, as you put your trust in me, as you receive me, as you follow me, as you listen to my words and allow them to come into you, and to be part of you, you are going to change and you will see in a new way – not with the eyes, but with the heart, with the Spirit – and you will see just as Jacob saw all those years ago. The curtain will be pulled back for you. And you will see that I am the one who is the gate to heaven’.

If you would like to do more study on this, read through John 1 and look at how the words ‘see’, ‘saw’ or ‘seen’ are used (well known to many of you studying or teaching English irregular verbs). Add to that the word ‘look, looked, looked’ (that one is regular)!

John writes in John 1.14, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory .. full of grace and truth’.

And in verses 43-51:
Philip says to Nathaniel, ‘Come and see’ (v46)
Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward him (v47)
He tells him, ‘I saw you under the fig tree’ (v48)
And then later says, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than these’ (v50)
And he continues, ‘You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (v51)

Our cynicism can come because we just don’t care, or from laziness, or because we get lots of ‘likes’, metaphorically or literally, when we mock or make jokes at others expense.
But as someone said, ‘Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist’. There is also a cynicism that comes because we care too much about something and are trying to protect ourselves from being let down.

So what does this passage say to cynics like Nathaniel, or to people like me – people who think that we have seen it all, and don't want to be let down again?

1. Jesus sees us, he knows us. 

He knows who we are deep down. He can sum up who we are in a sentence – actually in a name. Did you know that for each of us God has a nickname, a nickname which is known only to him and will one day be known also to us, a single name which sums up completely who we are.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom writes, ‘We also have another name, which we do not know. You remember the passage in the book of the Revelation which says that in the Kingdom each will receive a white stone with a name written on it, a name which is known only to God and to him who receives it. This is no nickname, no family name, no Christian name. It is a name, a word, that is exactly identical with us, which coincides with us, which is us. We may almost say it is a word which God pronounced when he willed us into existence and which is us, as we are it. This name defines our absolute and unrepeatable uniqueness as far as God is concerned. No one can know the name, as no one can, in the last analysis, know anyone as God knows him; and yet it is out of this name but everything else comes that can be known about us.” (School for Prayer)

And Jesus knows when we feel let down – let down by ourselves, let down by those we trusted, let down by those who claim to come in his name, let down maybe even by Him.

And he does have a way of breaking in, through that hard crust that we form around our heart.

2. Jesus will probably not give us what we are hoping for. 

If Nathaniel was waiting for the Kingdom of God to be established in its fullness he was going to be frustrated again. If he expected to see the Messiah set Israel free from the occupation of the Romans, he was going to be disappointed. 

And if we expect to see dramatic revival, full churches, amazing obvious miracles, Christendom reestablished, and the world become a place of peace and harmony and love, then we are probably going to be disappointed. 
I’m afraid that more often than not, we want those things not for the glory of God, but for our reassurance and glory: we want people to know that I am right, to know that Christianity works – like money and power work – but only better, and that I matter, and that they need to listen to me.

3. Jesus will give us far more than we are hoping for. 

He will help us to see reality in a radically new way.

He will pull back the curtain that separates heaven from earth

He will help us to begin to see this creation in a new way, to see places and things and other people and ourselves in a new way, and most importantly of all to see Him in a new way: not as a divine ambulance or first aid, not as a political liberator, or president or prime minister or monarch or freedom fighter, not as a wonder worker or superman.
If Nathaniel only saw him that way, then when he saw the crucifixion, once again all his hopes would be shattered.

But Jesus changed Nathaniel’s vision. 
We don’t know whether Nathaniel had a dream like Jacob and saw the angels ascending and descending on Jesus, or whether over time he began to see with his heart that here – in Jesus – is the gate to heaven, the one who comes to us from heaven and takes us to heaven, the one who opens our eyes so that we begin to see as God sees, and so that we begin to see God.

I pray that as we make one more effort, and ‘come and see’ Jesus, who sees us and knows us, he will open our eyes and we will begin to see with 
the eyes of our heart, the eyes of the Spirit.

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