By Rev. Amy Butler
Oh, I love Epiphany! This is the time in the church year when we get to revisit all those Bible stories about Jesus starting his ministry, breaking onto the public scene, making his way into the lives of all those unsuspecting Galileans, offering them the life-transforming opportunity of becoming his followers.
It’s during this time of the church year that you and I get to tag along behind, straining to hear over the din of our culture, stretching to catch a glimpse of this Jesus over two thousand years of human history. During Epiphany we read the stories and hear his sayings, we wonder about the disciples and we try to imagine ourselves, say, sitting up on a grassy hill watching him pray over loaves and fishes and making lunch for everyone, a crowd that stretched as far as the eye could see.
And every time we listen and study and strain to understand, we are seeing the message of Jesus in a clearer, more illumined way. Yes, the light is on now, and with every reminder we have, the light gets brighter, we can see more clearly, we can follow more closely. That’s what we’re up to in worship these days.
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Our Epiphany text for today places us right at the beginning of all this, right at the beginning of the Gospel of John, where this carpenter from Nazareth began breaking new ground by beginning a more organized effort to communicate a message from God.
First order of business: find some folks who’d like to come along. Find someone . . . anyone, really . . . who might want to sign on, try out for the team, join up . . . .
I always imagine it was something like the first day of Junior High, where you enter the hallowed halls of a new school and try as best you can to saunter with ultimate coolness down the hallway to your locker for the first time. As you do, you know there are social structures and unspoken rules you have to learn, and that the months ahead are going to be full of feeling your way around, finding your seat in the cafeteria, learning to navigate the challenges of changing classes and discovering the answer to whether or not you’ll find any kind of social group to hang out with at all, which will determine, of course, whether or not your life will be worth living.
And this is what is happening in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus is making his way through Galilee and has already convinced a handful for John the Baptist’s disciples that they might want to follow along.
It’s here in this passage that we encounter Nathanael. We’re very carefully told by the author of the book of John that Nathanael was sitting under a tree–a fig tree, even. Such a detailed recounting in the book of John makes me think that perhaps that posture was notable, that he was pondering, thinking about things, working through some of the issues of his life.
In fact, he may very well have been sitting under the fig tree that day asking the same questions all of us ask maybe for the first time in Junior High and then in variations for the rest of our lives: What is the meaning of my life? Am I happy? Where do I fit? With whom do I belong? Are there people around me who really care about me? Am I living the best life I can live?
Yes, maybe he was asking those questions.
Or, maybe he was debating what to have for lunch.
It’s always so hard to read the scripture and try to understand what really was going on. Sometimes you have to read between the lines, try to draw connections by the very powerful reality that the human experience is strikingly universal. The truth is, we don’t really know quite what was going on with Nathanael while he lounged under the fig tree that day. We don’t know if he was pondering the meaning of life, taking stock of his level of general satisfaction, or whether he was considering the fact that he really needed a new fishing net.
But we do know that Nathanael was in a questioning kind of mood.
We know this because Philip ran up to him, disturbing his musings under the fig tree, brimming with good news. “We found the Messiah of Israel! We found the meaning of life! We found . . . we found what it is we’ve all been looking for! You know the dissatisfaction we’re always talking about? You know how we get together after work and wonder about why life just doesn’t seem to be going our way? We found the answer! Come on!”
Nathanael’s first response was . . .
“Tell me: who is this guy you’re talking about? I’ve never heard of him!”
Nathanael asked that question because he’d been around town for awhile and there was nothing on the horizon that HE’D seen that merited this kind of excitement. From HIS perspective there was nothing much going to answer the questions of his little life.
“It’s Jesus! Jesus!” , Philip exclaimed . . . “you know, from Nazareth.”
Again, a question:
“What of any kind of good could come from THAT town?”
Nathanael asked that question because he was just a little skeptical. HE knew what kind of folks lived in Nazareth because HE had been resident of the area his whole life and HE had a certain degree of experience with those Nazareth folks. From HIS perspective there was plenty to question about the possibility of a Messiah . . . from Nazareth. What kind of guy from Nazareth could answer the longing in HIS heart, give him the purpose, belonging, meaning that HE needed?
Somehow Philip convinced him to come along, though, to meet Jesus, who greeted Philip with recognition of his exacting taste in associates–“Nathanael,” Jesus said, “you must be a TRUE Israelite, someone who really knows what they are looking for, someone who will ask and question and think and only accept the very best for his life.”
Nathanael replied with–you guessed it–another question–this one full of suspicion:
Hey! How do you know ME???
Nathanael was in a questioning mood–he was the kind of guy who was going to take the time to ask the questions of anyone who claimed to have the answer to how HE could live HIS life in such a way that HE could be happy, could feel that HE was living the best life HE could possibly live.
Well you know what happened. At the end of our gospel reading Nathanael made the decision to get up from under that tree and become a follower of this man Jesus.
But that didn’t happen until a major shift occurred.
You can see it in the text.
Question, question, question . . . Nathanael demanded to have those questions answered, and all of those questions were about HIS life. I’ve never heard of this guy . . . and I know a lot of people! And, why would I ever want to associate with someone from Nazareth? How could MY life possibly be better by associating with a Nazarene? And then, hey, how does he know ME? What could he possibly know about MY life? How does what he is saying impact ME?
It just seemed like this whole experience, for Nathanael was all about me, me, me (not me, but him, of course), until that moment when the light went on, when the fog cleared, when he recognized something very important: he recognized that this quandary about the meaning of life, this decision about whether to follow . . . well, it wasn’t about him at all . . . it was about God.
Yes, it was right then that things finally clicked for Nathanael, that Jesus was the Son of God, that his message would change the world, that this opportunity to follow, to give up his whole life to be part of the dream Jesus had for the world . . . well, it wasn’t about Nathanael and his happiness and his best life now. It was about God.
You might imagine that how it was that Jesus convinced perfectly normal, respectable individuals to give up their whole lives and follow him is something of an area of interest for those of us who lead churches. In fact, if you took a moment to peer into my church mailbox you might very possibly be shocked by how many seminars, classes, curriculums, workshops, books and trainings are available for those of us who want to find the elusive key to . . . quadrupling our membership in 6 months! To doubling the church budget each year! To hosting sold out events in our sanctuary! To launching a building program (I throw all of those away . . .)!
If you were to read any of these books, teach any of these curriculums, view any of these videos, well, you would quickly learn that the best way, hands down, to have this kind of success in today’s day and age is to create a church in which all of the people who attend are approximately the same age, the same color, the same economic level and the same political party. Most of all, you need a simple message can be adopted with little fuss—that it’s not embroiled in controversy or too radically different than popular ideas. Easy to grasp, easy to do, easy to see results.
See, church growth experts tell us that the fact of the matter is that people in America today are concerned. They are concerned about those questions we all started asking in Junior High, questions about our lives, how we’re living them and how to get the best possible life we could have. “Tell me how,” the experts say they want to know, “to have a successful, happy, abundant, prosperous life. “Tell me how to have my best life now!
I am not lying that this is the studied approach to getting people to sign on the dotted line, to become followers of Jesus, as we say in preacher-talk.
And, truth be told, it works.
I returned last night from a few days in the great city of Houston, where the cars are big, the Mexican food is fabulous and a large number of men wear cowboy boots in public. Oh, and no one can go very far without running smack into the shadow of Jesus-follower recruiting superstar, Joel Osteen.
You’ve heard me talk about Joel from the pulpit before; he has kind of become a rags to riches story of church leadership. He took over the leadership of a small church and has built it into a church of over 30,000 members–plus many more who watch him on television every week. (I know who you are.)
He’s been in the news lately because, to accommodate his rather large congregation, Joel has recently found himself purchasing the Compac Center. Whatever it is that he’s doing, it seems that he doesn’t have trouble getting people to sign on the dotted line, to join up, to decide they need to jump on the bandwagon and follow.
How does he do it (we all want to know)?
Well, here’s the message–you might recognize it from the sermon title: Do YOU want something more in your life? Are YOU looking for something? If so, well YOU can have it . . . YOU can have YOUR best life now!
Joel will start out by telling a joke, getting everyone relaxed, then he’ll take the microphone and walk down to the audience, reach out his hand to his wife Victoria and tell the audience—“Victoria and I . . . we are living our best life now! And you can, too!” (Plus, he has this very charming Texas accent that just makes you want to run up and hug him).
Yes, its clear, from the amazing success Joel Osteen has had, that there are an awful lot of us Nathanaels, sitting under the fig trees of life, looking for something to complete us, to make our lives successful, happy . . . the best life we could ever have. Preferably right now!
You can have your best life now, he says, by believing that God wants success for YOU! Happiness for YOU! Prosperity for YOU! And YOU can do it by reaching out to follow Jesus and getting in return . . . YOUR best life now!
Huh. Not much has changed in 2000 years, has it?
From stressed-out fisherman to disillusioned farmers, from self-important government officials to distrustful lawyers, when Jesus began his ministry he encountered all sorts of folks like us, people who were not, in fact, living their best lives now (or then, actually) people who needed some hope for the future, something more to believe in.
But the funny thing was that, though he started out inviting people to join him, to learn to live the gospel message he preached, well Jesus did not buy the Compac Center (or in his case I guess that would be the Coliseum). Instead, he wandered around the countryside—didn’t even have a home office. And at the end of his ministry Jesus didn’t have thousands of adoring followers lined up to hear him–just a few fearful women at the foot of his cross. If you recall, Jesus did not stretch out his hand, to Nathanael and the others, flash a smile and promise “Your best life now!” No, he said strange things, like: follow me and I will make you fishers for people . . . or, if anyone wants to be my disciple they should take up their cross and follow me . . .
Yes, instead of promising relief from the political oppression of Rome, wealth to eliminate the drudgery of day to day existence, positions of power and influence to bring success, this Jesus spoke about strange new ideas like love and justice, ideas that had very little to do with ME–with my life and my success and my best life now . . . and a whole lot more to do with God–God’s message of love and reconciliation for the whole world . . . not just me.
Ironically, during my trip to Houston I sat in two full days of classes advertised as training for pastors to lead congregations through size change. I was really looking forward to getting some fresh ideas for solving the eternal conundrum of all pastors: HOW TO GROW THE CHURCH.
Imagine my surprise when I got to the class and the leader started off saying, “The goal of the pastor, the goal of a congregation should never be TO GROW THE CHURCH. The goal of growing the church is a lousy goal.”
That’s what he said: a lousy goal.
After we all fumbled through our handouts and double-checked our calendars to make sure we hadn’t stepped into the wrong classroom by mistake, the leader explained.
He said that when our goal is to grow the church, what we are doing is committing all of our resources and energy and attention toward the goal of what? Of getting more people.
Why? Because we NEED more people . . . . We’re tired, and we’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s time for someone else to step up, to staff the committees, to pledge the budget, to fold the newsletter, to teach Sunday School! The only way I am going to get a break, the only way that I will be relieved of the burden and responsibility of meeting the church budget, caring for the grounds, staffing the mission programs . . . the only way will be if we GROW THE CHURCH–if we get more people.
Some of us in the room were a little slow. We gazed at the leader with slight confusion.
Yeah? And . . . ?
“Well, don’t you see?”, he said. “Those kinds of goals and objectives are all about you! They are all about how to ease your burden, how to relieve your responsibilities, how to free you up.”
A few of us were still thinking, “Uh, huh, and your point is?”
So this is what he told us. The problem is, friends, that the mission of the church is, sadly, not about you.
The mission of the church is about God, about God’s redeeming work in the world, about living that out and making room for others to join us in that living.
Our churches growing is a nice side effect, but it’s not the goal. The goal is about God.
Nathanael finally figured it out. It took him awhile . . . it took him sorting through the questions of self-importance and self-interest that, up until that point had been the motivating, compelling forces in his quest for self-actualization, for success, for the ability to live his best life now!
And when Nathanael finally figured it out, when that moment came that the light went on and the pieces fell into place, well, he gasped in recognition and said, “Teacher, you ARE the son of God . . . the king of Israel.” YOU are the one I’ve been looking for.
Not professional success, not material wealth. Not self-actualization, not societal prestige . . . it’s not any of those things. It’s you.
You want to live your best life now? Stop thinking about YOUR life and YOUR happiness, YOUR preferences, YOUR success and YOUR accomplishments. It’s not about you . . . it’s not about me. It’s about God.
It’s about this radical message of living life as servants, of turning the world’s view of success on its head. It’s about taking up your cross and following, no matter what the cost, just so you can be one little part of the grand and wonderful work of God to transform this world.
For Nathanael, it took a lot of questions. But when it finally clicked, when he finally realized that what he was looking for was not about him but rather about this one who stood in front of him asking him to follow, well nothing could stop him from gathering up his blanket, packing up his bag, scrambling to his feet to accept the challenge of discipleship, to really and truly have his best life right then . . . by giving it away.
It’s not about you. It’s about God. Turn it over, give it up and follow. You’ll never find a life that’s better. Amen.
Scripture quotations are the author’s paraphrase.
Copyright 2006, Amy Butler. Used by permission.