The Gospel for the Skeptic

John 1:43-51 / Epiphany 2B / 15 January 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

Today’s Gospel might very well be called “The Gospel for the Skeptic.” For that reason, it’s rather near and dear to my own heart. I tend to be a rather skeptical person. If you want to convince me of something, a logical argument with charts and graphs will go a lot further than an emotional narrative with a complicated plot line. I look at things analytically and scientifically; I appreciate hard data and sound analysis. I don’t readily attribute unexplainable events to devils, angels, or a miracle from God. I tend to think that when things go “bump” in the night, they are more likely to be the result of bad plumbing, a small earthquake, or a loose floor board than anything remotely supernatural.

I think I come by this honestly. All those years in the science classroom and lab shape how you think, and I was thinking that way long before I chose science as my major in college. I think God just wires people that way when He doles out our “reason and all our senses.” There is such a thing as healthy skepticism. It guards against superstition and generally wards off strange ideas and mistaken notions in addition to a lot of bad religious ideas. Skeptics are like the control rods in a nuclear reactor, cooling down the fevered pitch of enthusiasm with some cool, of not boring, analysis. Of one thing you can be sure: skeptics are not going to be the first to dive into the pool without testing the water.

There is something that happens, though, when Sin gets into that act. Sin turns healthy skepticism into a deeply hardened cynicism. It stunts the imagination and blinds us to the “things that are above.” Man does not live by hard evidence alone. While it’s true that our technologies rely on hard data, and our courts rely on hard evidence, and when I make a decision as to whether it is safe to cross the street or not I do not simply close my eyes and pray, nevertheless some of the most important things in life are held without hard evidence in hand. For example, when someone dear to you says, “I love you,” I sincerely hope you don’t respond, “Can you show me the evidence for that?” I can assure you that if you do that, you won’t be hearing the words “I love you” very much.

Things like beauty, justice, mercy, and love go far beyond our measurements, charts and graphs. If I try to understand why a piece of music is beautiful by analyzing the wave forms of the sounds, I will no longer have the music in all its beauty. Higher still is the transcendent and holy, what goes beyond the limits of space and time. Eternity and heaven, the angels and archangels, what the Bible can only deliver in pictures that only faintly sketch the outlines of holiness. When Isaiah saw the Lord on His throne, high and exalted, he could only describe what he saw around the Lord, the “negative space.” He could not describe the Lord in His glory, for “no one may look on God and live.”

Skepticism fueled by Sin simply becomes unbelief and atheism, a blanket denial that there a god at all or that there is anything above and beyond this natural world. We human beings who are made in the image of God are made to think above and beyond ourselves, and God Himself comes down to meet us on that humble plane of our reason and senses. The eternal Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, hung out with us, lived with us, pitched His own tent among us.

When I think of skeptic, I think of Phillip’s friend Nathanael. Phillip, by comparison, seems downright impulsive if not a bit reckless and even irresponsible. By John’s account, Jesus decides to head north to Galilee, encounters Phillip and says, “Follow me,” and without so much as a word or a question Phillip does exactly that. He follows Jesus. Andrew was pretty much the same. He heard John the Baptizer say of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and he followed John’s gaze and pointing finger and followed Jesus. He even went and found his brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah!” and brought Simon to Jesus.

Now at least Simon got some sort of a sign from Jesus that there was more to Him than me the eye when He seemed to know Simon’s name even before they were properly introduced. “You are Simon son of John. You shall be called Cephas, that is, Peter.”

Like Andrew, Phillip rushes off and gets his best friend Nathanael to come and meet this Jesus whom he is now following. “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Torah and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Phillip is all excited. He’s found the Messiah, the Christ, the One everyone has been waiting for. He’s the man named Jesus from Nazareth, the son of the carpenter Joseph. He precisely he knows all this, I’m not sure. Perhaps he got it from John the Baptizer. Or maybe he was with Andrew the day before and spent some time with Jesus. But regardless, Phillip is all gung ho about Jesus and can’t wait to tell his best friend.

Nathanael is a bit more skeptical than Phillip. “Nazareth, you say. Ha! Ha! Nazareth. That’s a good one! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asks his friend. Nazareth, hardly the place one would expect the messiah to come from. Nazareth was a nothing town way up in the north country, a garrison town watching over the northern highlands. Nazareth is never mentioned in Moses or the Prophets. Bethlehem is, but not Nazareth. Besides, Nazareth has a reputation, what with all those soldiers hanging around in the middle of nowhere. Honestly, can anything good come from Nazareth?

I love Phillip’s answer: Come and see. Never mind your preconceived notions, your prejudices, your skepticism. Just come and see for yourself. And I absolutely love Jesus’ initial encounter with Nathanael. Before they even shake hands and are introduced, Jesus says with tongue fully planted in cheek, “Why look. Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no guile. This one tells it exactly as it is.”

This catches Nathanael off guard. Jesus seems to know him, and yet they’ve never met. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asks. “I saw you under the fig tree before Phillip called you.” Now that doesn’t seem like much, but it sure impressed Nathanael, so we have to assume we’re missing a few details. Augustine makes a great comment about how Adam sinned under a tree and now a son of Adam finds salvation under a tree, which is pretty cool but not really to the point. Some scholars think that Nathanael may have been reading Torah under the fig tree, which people were wont to do at that time, so that he encountered Christ in the Torah. It may be as simple as there was no one around when Nathanael was having his little fig tree moment, and now Jesus claims to have seen him.

Whatever it was, those words of Jesus cut through Nathanael’s skepticism and draw his confession: Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel. He saw and heard and believed, which is the pattern throughout John, culminating in the word to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” which would include the likes of you and me.

Jesus hints at much more to come. “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. That was nothing, Nathanael. You haven’t seen anything yet. You will see heaven open and the angels of god ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jesus identifies Himself with, of all things, the ladder in Jacob’s dream. A ladder connecting heaven with earth on which the angels ascend and descend. It’s not a ladder of our ascent to God but of God’s descent to us. “He came down from heaven” to be Immanuel, God with us, to die for us, to conquer Sin and Death for us, to rise for us, to bring us to His Father and to be the sole Mediator between God and Man. Oh, Nathanael, greater things than these you will see.

In the synoptic gospels, Nathanael is historically identified with Bartholomew, among the least known of the disciples. History and church tradition tell us the Nathanael brought the Gospel to India and to Caucasian Armenia. He is revered as the patron saint of the Armenian church to this day. There are three legends about his martyrdom. One says that he was kidnapped and drowned at sea. Another says that he was crucified upside down. A third, and the most enduring, is that he was skinned alive. One thing is certain. He now sees greater things than he ever saw that day under the fig tree.

The skeptic becomes the believer, all because he came and saw Jesus. That’s really what we call “evangelism” is all about. The invitation to “come and see.” You’ll note that Phillip didn’t even get all of his i’s dotted and t’s crossed about Jesus. But it was sufficient. A simple invitation from a good friend. “Come and see.” And what you will see and hear are greater things than can be seen and heard anywhere else. People reborn and renewed in Christ. Sins forgiven. Sinners justified. Men and women made right with God.

Skeptics still wonder today, “Can anything good come out of the church?” The church’s reputation isn’t always very good. There is word on the street of corruption, immorality, hypocrisy. There are skeptics today who wonder whether any of it is even true or is it all just a bunch of silly wishful thinking. Can anything good come out of Christianity? I can assure you of this – skeptical men like Nathanael don’t get skinned alive for silly wishful thinking.

Come and see. Come and hear. Hear what God in Christ has done and is doing. Invite your friends to do the same. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Come and hear the forgiveness of your sins. Come and receive what God in Christ has done and is doing by His Spirit. And you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.

In the name of Jesus,