Finding a Way Forward
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip 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.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And 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.”
I thought I would try something new this week, so I went to a rock climbing gym. I joined a group of other newbies. We gathered at the back of the gym and we found ourselves in front of this short wall with lots of plastic rocks on it. As we waited, we watched folks climb the wall and contort their bodies in ways that I did not know bodies could be contorted in.
As we were staring, a young man comes up to us. “Do you want to learn how to climb this wall?” He asks. “Sure,” we answer.
The young man, explains that this is a bouldering wall and it is not very tall – that is why there are no ropes and a thick mat found underneath it – but it is typically harder than the other walls.
“Here,” he says, “I’ll show you how to get up it.” And scurries quickly to the top.
Upon dropping down, he turns to me: “You try.”
“You know I am a beginner, right?” I double check. I begin my steps dubiously. The whole arrangement is a bit awkward – having to swing and crouch from one step of rocks to another. I keep making my way to the top until I finally come to place too awkward to go any further. My feet are plastered to two thin rocks, I am hunched down clutching a rock by my face and the next rock is at least a foot above where my arm can reach.
“I can’t get it,” I shout down.
“Sure you can,” the guy replies, “Just stand up and grab it.”
Yeah right, I think, as I make a half-hearted attempt for it before finally jumping down onto the mat.
Here let me show you, the guy says, as he goes up and re-enacts what I am supposed to do.
I reluctantly I try again, but, as soon as I get up there, I shout down helplessly, “This isn’t possible.”
The young man insists, “You can do this. This is possible for you.”
I take his words to heart. In a single motion, I put all my weight on my right foot and step/leap up to grab the rock above me, first with one hand and then the other.
And I grab the rock. I am shocked: I got it. The young man had been right all along.
I have been thinking about that story this week. I have been thinking: Isn’t this what faith is like? Sometimes in life we get lost and we can’t see the way forward. And God is like that man … who sees what is possible for us … how we might find a new way forward … even when we can’t see it for ourselves.
Last week I talked a bit about being stuck … we talked about how Jesus wandered in the wilderness. Today’s text is about being stuck too, but perhaps about being stuck in a different way. In the Scripture today, Philip encounters Jesus, is transformed by it and rushes off to tell his friend Nathaniel…..
“Nate! Nate!” He calls our breathlessly, “I have found the One we have been waiting for! And he’s from Nazareth!”
Nathaniel is quite understandably dubious. He wonders aloud to Philip, “Is that really possible? Can anything good reaaaaally come from Nazareth?”
And in that sentence, I feel like Nathaniel has me pegged. Actually I feel like he has us all pegged. Because he’s right. Sometimes, we just can’t fathom God’s transformative power … sometimes we just can’t see a way forth from the mess that we are in. Sometimes, in the quietness of the night, or the loudness of the day, we find ourselves wondering: What is really possible? Can anything good come from this place of smallness and insignificance? Can anything good come from surprising places or dark places or troubled places of our world … or our lives for that matter?
We find ourselves crouched down, with our feet hunkered down on small rocks and our hand by our faces and we are unsure where exactly we go next.
So the interesting thing is that when Nathaniel find himself in this place of uncertainty, when he asks his friend: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip does not respond with an impassioned argument or a logical three-point argument. Philip simply says, come and see. Then Nathaniel responds, not by saying, don’t waste my time but rather by getting curious saying, okay, I’ll go check it out … I’ll come and see for myself.
So Nathaniel and Philip plod on down to where Jesus is standing.
And Jesus sees Nathaniel coming toward him – In an instant, Jesus perceives the fullness of who Nathaniel. Jesus announces Nathaniel’s background and character. Jesus proclaims: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus’ proclamation takes our dear old Nate by surprise – and so Nathaniel asks: Where did you get to know me?
In other words, how on earth do you know who I am?
And Jesus responds by saying he saw Nathaniel under a fig tree, which is symbolic and means that Nathaniel was studying the law. But what strikes me about this passage is not what Nathaniel is doing but rather Jesus’ perception.
Jesus perceives not only the fullness of Nathaniel’s situation – that he was an Israelite who liked to stand under fig trees -but,through God, Jesus also perceives the entirety of humanity’s situation. Like the words of Psalm 139, God searches us and knows us. God knows when we sit down and when we rise up. God sees to the very heart of who we are.
But more than just seeing to the heart of the individual, God also sees to the heart of the world. God sees the violence and greed and hatred of the world but God also see the heart and beauty of people and knows that another way is possible … that humanity can make it to that upper boulder … and so God slipped into skin and dwells us among us in the form of Jesus.
It’s like Christ comes into the world and says, “Okay let’s live into this human condition and see why we are stuck”, then starts to live with us and guide us and show us the way up … the path of love out of this predicament.
Christ is like that kind, young boy who guided me up to that rock. Christ comes to show us not only that something good can come out of Nazareth but to show us that something good can come out of humanity and out of our lives. Christ comes to show us that the path of love and peace and mercy and forgiveness, is the path that will lead us home … that it is the path that will lead us forward when we are frozen in that difficult position on the rock wall.
At the heart of the invitation to come and see is an invitation to perceive things differently, to take a risk and try new ways of living and loving. It’s like this story I once heard about a goldfish (Source: Recovering the Sacred Center: Church Renewal from the Inside Out by Howard Friend). A young six year old boy named Howard owned this goldfish, who he named Harvey. Each day when Howard came home from school he would pull up a chair next to the bay window, where they put harvey’s bowl and pinch in just the right amount of food. As Howard watched his new pet, something caught his eye … He realized that Harvey always swum around in the same direction, in the same path, at the same speed. If Howard stirred the water with his finger, the fish would change direction – but only for a minute – and so Harvey would go back to his predictable pattern. When the bowl turned cloudy, Howard’s grandmother announced it was time to change the water. “Let’s put Harvey in the bath tub while we change his water,” Howard suggested. Harvey would be able to swim from one end of the tub to other …. He’ll have a terrific time, Howard predicted. Howard gently brought the fish bowl to the tub and pour the fish in. This your chance Harvey, Howard thought. “C’mon!” Howard encouraged. Harvey just laid there, stunned for a moment, then he perked up … he was ready – Howard was sure – for some real exploring. But to Howard’s amazement, Harvey began to swim in a circle the same size as his water bowl.
Do you ever feel like Harvey sometimes? I know I do … it’s normal … we all get used to doing the same old thing all the time … but Jesus invites us to do something different. Jesus invites us to take the time to swim all the way around the tub, to explore, to ask questions, to see things that we haven’t seen before. In order to come and see, there is a need for us to go forth into the unknown, to perceive differently and to take action.
In the moments when we are feeling stuck … when we look at the news or our world or our lives, and wonder how can anything good come out of this? Christ looks at us and perceives our possibilities, calling us forth to a path of love. When we start to waiver, when we become unsure or anxious, Christ is there, perceiving the fullness of our struggles, saying I know, I have been there and I know what you might do to become unstuck, to reach that rock up there … I know it’s possible.
Each moment, Jesus calls us forth … to come … to see … to chose the paths of grace and mercy and kindness, that at last we might become unstuck, breaking free from the circles in which we as humanity swim, into new paths of redemption, new life and liberation.