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You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
January 15, 2012

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

John 1:43-51 

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

The thing I liked most about going to the dentist when I was a boy was the waiting room.  There I could almost always find a few back issues of Highlights for Children.  Do you remember that magazine?  I would look through those pages and read about “Goofus and Gallant,” look at the comic strip about “the Timbertoes,” and somewhere near the back there would always be two pictures you were supposed to compare to see how many differences you could find between them. 

I thought about those pictures when we read the story of Jesus’ baptism from the Gospel of Mark last week.  As Mark tells it, just as Jesus was coming up out of the water he saw the heavens “torn apart,” and the Spirit descending like a dove on him, and he heard a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  You have to look very closely to see how Mark’s version of the story is different from Matthew’s, for example, but in Matthew’s version Jesus saw the heavens opened up and the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  It’s almost exactly the same, isn’t it?  Almost, but not quite.  First of all, Matthew tells us that the heavens “opened up,” not that they were “torn apart.”  And then he says the Spirit not only descended like a dove but “lighted” on Jesus.  And finally, when the voice speaks from heaven it doesn’t say, “You are my Son, the Beloved,” it says, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”  It’s pointing Jesus out to the whole crowd, whereas in Mark the voice is for Jesus alone.  In fact, God may have bent down and whispered in his ear, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I mention all this simply because I think we sometimes have the impression that everybody knew who Jesus was.  We hear the Christmas story, about the heavenly host of angels that appeared at his birth singing, “Glory to God in the highest,” but we forget that they appeared to a handful of shepherds out in a field.  We hear about the wise men who asked King Herod, “Where is the new king of the Jews?” but we forget that when Herod sent his soldiers to kill that new king they didn’t know which little boy in Bethlehem he was.  And with the baptism I think we sometimes picture all the people of Jerusalem and Judaea out there being baptized by John in the Jordan when suddenly the skies are torn apart and a dove flutters down and a voice thunders from heaven, “Hey, everybody!  This is my Son, my beloved; with him I am well pleased!”  We think that everybody heard the voice, and everybody saw the dove, and everybody—from that day forward—knew that Jesus was the beloved Son of God.  But not according to Mark.  Mark doesn’t even tell the story of Jesus’ birth, and when it comes to his baptism it is only Jesus who sees the skies torn apart, only Jesus who sees the Spirit descend, and only Jesus who hears God whisper, “You are my beloved Son.”

In John’s Gospel we don’t hear the story of Jesus’ baptism at all, and we certainly don’t see it.  Sometime after the fact John the Baptizer sees Jesus coming toward him and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  But then he confesses: “I myself did not know him but the one who sent me to baptize with water said, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’  And that’s what I saw.  That’s just what happened.  And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”  But nobody else saw it, apparently.  All they had to go on was John’s testimony. 

Do you know how that is?  Have you ever tried to tell somebody that Jesus is the Son of God when they haven’t discovered it for themselves, when they don’t have any experience of it?  I remember talking to a woman in DC who asked me what “Christianism” was.  I said something like, “Oh, you mean Christianity!  Well, that’s the belief that Jesus of Nazareth (who lived 2,000 years ago) was “the Christ,” the anointed one, and that even after his enemies nailed him to a cross and killed him God raised him from the dead.”  She looked at me as if I had lost my mind, and the more I talked the more I began to think that she may be right.  So much of what we believe about Jesus seems, frankly, unbelievable.  And if you don’t have any experience of it, if you’re hearing it all for the first time, it sounds more unbelievable still. 

I think about those two disciples who were standing with John the Baptist when Jesus walked by.  He said, “Look, there goes the Lamb of God!”  And they followed.  When Jesus saw them following he stopped and asked, “What do you want?” and they said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  He said, “Come and see.”  And then they spent some time with him.  And it’s after that that one of them, Andrew, goes and finds his brother Simon and says, “We have found the Messiah!”  Do you see what happened?  When those two disciples first spoke to Jesus they called him rabbi, which means “teacher.”  But after they had spent time with him they called him the Messiah, or in Greek the Christ—the “anointed one.”  But that’s not the end of it.  The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee and he found Philip, and told him to follow.  But Philip went and found Nathanael and said, “We’ve found the one Moses wrote about, the one the prophets were talking about, Jesus, the son of Joseph, from Nazareth!”  And you see, now it’s not just a rabbi, and it’s not even the Messiah, it’s the one all of Scripture has been pointing to from the very beginning.  But Nathanael can’t believe it.  He hasn’t had any experience of Jesus.  All he knows is that he is from Nazareth, that wretched little town down the road from his own wretched little town of Cana.  And so he sneers and says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  And Philip says just what Jesus had said the day before: “Come and see.”

Nathanael does, and when Jesus sees him coming he says, “Truly, here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  And Nathanael says, “Where did you get to know me?  And Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you.”  And that’s when the little hairs stand up on the back of Nathanael’s neck, and that’s when he says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  Because Jesus has seen something no ordinary person would have been able to see, and heard something no ordinary person would have been able to hear.  He may have been a mile away from that fig tree, maybe more, but it’s as if he had been right there, watching everything that happened, and listening to every word, even those words about nothing good coming out of Nazareth.  Nathanael—embarrassed—says, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  Because who else could do such a thing?  And that’s when Jesus says, “Are you telling me you believe just because I saw you under the fig tree?  Listen, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  One of these days you’re going to see heaven opened up and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

I like to say that Epiphany is like dialing up the dimmer switch on the wall, and watching the light go from barely on to full bright.  It starts with the light of a single star, just enough to lead those wise men to Jesus, but in the Sundays that follow we witness his baptism, listen to the things he says, watch the things he does, and as we do the light gets brighter and brighter, until we begin to see him for who he really is. 

You may have noticed recently that some times, when the type is small, I have to get out my reading glasses to see what I’m reading.  The doctors call it presbyopia, which really just means, “old eyes.”  It seems to happen to everybody sooner or later, but it’s new for me.  I’m still getting used to it.  And sometimes when I need my reading glasses, I find that I’ve forgotten to bring them.  Like when I’m in a dimly lit restaurant and the server brings the check.  I stare and stare but I can’t tell if that last number is a six or an eight.  And I can’t always tell what the first number is, either.  And if there are three numbers, then I know I’m really in trouble.  But I’ve found that if I can hold the check under a light I can see it, and if the light is really bright—like direct sunlight—I can see anything.  I can read without my glasses. 

Which makes me think that the more light we shed on Jesus, the more he comes into focus, the more we can see him for who he really is.  And in today’s reading it’s as if all that has happened at once, as if somebody grabbed the dimmer switch on the wall, and gave it a good hard twist, and we got to watch as Jesus went from being a rabbi, to being the Messiah, to being the one to whom all Scripture had been pointing from the beginning, to being the Son of God and the King of Israel, to being the one on whom the angels of God will ascend and descend.  In the space of a few short paragraphs he has gone from being just another face in the crowd to being the one we’ve been waiting for all our lives.  It’s not that he’s changed; it’s just that the light has gotten bright enough for us to see him, like when I can finally see my check in the restaurant.  And we gasp and say, “Oh, there you are!”  And he says, “I’ve been here all along.”

That’s what happened for Nathanael.  He thought he was just talking to Jesus, the son of Joseph, from Nazareth.  He wondered if anything good could come out of a place like that.  But then Jesus said, “I saw you while you were under the fig tree,” and Nathanael realized that nobody could have done that, nobody except….  And that’s when the lights came on.  That’s when he saw Jesus for who he really was, and when he did he said, “You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!” 

Have you ever had a moment like that, when you saw Jesus for who he really was?  I was asking people that question last week.  I asked myself that question last week, and the memory that came to mind was one from my ordination service 25 years ago.  It was held at the First Baptist Church of New Castle, Kentucky, where I had been the pastor for about three weeks.  I had asked that church to ordain me.  I thought it would be special that way, and it was.  But one of the people I invited to the service was an architect who had been my neighbor in Georgetown, Kentucky, before I ever went to seminary.  I lived downtown, in an apartment just above the pharmacy, and he had the office space next door.  Sometimes, if he was still there in the evening, I would step out of my kitchen window onto the flat roof of the pharmacy, tiptoe over to his office, tap on the glass, and he would open the window and let me in for a visit.  And sometimes, if whatever I was cooking for supper smelled good, he would come over, tap on the glass, and I would do the same.  We would talk about everything you can imagine, but the thing we didn’t talk about—not often anyway—was religion.  This man was not a believer.  He didn’t mind that I was, but he wasn’t, and if I forgot he would remind me. 

And so I was a little nervous about inviting him to my ordination.  It was going to be a religious ceremony and he wasn’t religious.  It was going to be in New Castle, Kentucky, a long way from Georgetown.  I was afraid that when I asked him to come to my ordination he might say, “A religious ceremony?  Are you joking?”  Or that he might say, “In New Castle?  Can anything good come from there?”  But instead he said, “What’s an ordination?” and just like Philip I said, “Come and see.” 

I was very conscious of his presence throughout that ceremony, and whenever somebody said something especially religious I cringed a little, just for him.  But when it came time to lay on hands the whole congregation was invited to participate, that is, anyone who wanted to, and while I was kneeling there in front of the altar, with my head bowed and my eyes closed, they came, and one by one they laid their hands on my head, and prayed for me, and whispered words of blessing.  I could feel the presence of God in the room.  It got stronger and stronger.  And although I am not typically an emotional person the tears just came.  And then he came, putting his hands on my head and whispering something in my ear like, “I don’t know what all this is about, but I want you to know that I believe in you, and that I wish you all the best.”  That was it.  No prayer, no blessing…just a wish.  But it moved me that he would participate, and that he would want to wish me the best.  When I saw him downstairs after the service, having punch and cookies in the fellowship hall, he made it a point to pull me aside and say, “That was powerful!”  And I said, “It was real.” 

I’d like to tell you that he became a believer after that, but I don’t know.  He went back to Georgetown and I stayed in New Castle and we sort of lost touch with each other.  In that way he is not so different from Nathanael in today’s Gospel lesson.  Nathanael shows up in this story, makes this huge confession of faith, and then we never hear from again.  But I’d like to think that, like Nathanael, my friend the architect saw Jesus for who he really was, that sometime during that service—as the light in that little church got brighter and brighter—he saw that this wasn’t just some ancient religious ritual, but something real, and that there was real power in it, and that the power came from the one who had called me to serve him, and who was even then pouring out upon me all I would need to serve him faithfully and well. 

Have you ever had a moment like that?  When it stopped being just a blur of words about Jesus?  When the lights got brighter and brighter and you were able to see him for who he really is?  When something happened that convinced you that all you’d heard about him all your life was really true?  I think in that moment Jesus himself might say to you, “Really?  You became a believer because of that?  Well, listen my friend…

“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

—Jim Somerville 2012

 
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