|2rd Sunday in Epiphany||
January 16, 2000
Choosing TeamsIf there was one course requirement that I could remove from the high school curriculum, it would be P.E. Personally, I enjoyed P.E. during high school, but as a youth pastor, I realized how psychologically damaging it is so many students whose bodies has not matured physically. They suffer put downs, rejection and humiliation that carries over into the classroom. The most devastating moment is when the instructor selects captains and then they hold a mini-draft to choose their respective teams. Certain jocks were always the first to be selected; kids who were strong and coordinated. Their names would be called out quickly. They would form the core of the team. After the cream of the class was chosen the second tier of names would be called out, students with less talent but friends of those already selected. Finally, the dregs of the class would be drafted. We all knew that they were only being chosen because, everyone had to play. It is tough to always be in that last group, especially when it was not their fault. Their bodies were maturing at a slower pace than the others were. Their parents may not have spent the time teaching them to throw a football. Or, they simply lacked interest in the great American pastime.
Early in his ministry, Jesus began to call people to become followers, you might say, to join his team. His selection method was considerably different than the one used in the typical boy's gym class. He was not looking for the physically strongest or the most talented or even the popular. He was looking for people who were different from the crowd. People whose attitude towards life would prepare them for a particular task. Often times I have read sermons expounding upon the weakness and deficiencies of each of the disciples. Such messages are encouraging. They remind us that God calls us to service even in our weaknesses. Each of us feels an inner sense of inadequacy when we consider the work to which God has commissioned us. We need messages that tells us that God can use even us. However, our Lord also saw special qualities in the men he first called to be his followers. Attributes and attitudes that would make them particular effective in their future mission. This morning I would like us to consider some of those traits that Jesus saw in Phillip and Nathaniel and as we consider them, to ask ourselves if Jesus would see those same traits in us.
SEARCHERS FOR TRUTHWhile the text does not indicate any previous contact between Jesus and Phillip, it also does not prevent us from assuming that prior conversations may have taken place. Phillip may have heard Jesus teaching and spent some time with him, asking questions and absorbing the thoughts of our Lord. At some point Jesus saw something in Phillip so Jesus went searching for him. When Jesus found him Phillip became convinced that Jesus was more than an itinerate preacher. Phillip responds to Jesus call by searching for his friend Nathaniel and urging him that their search was over.
Phillip's words to Nathaniel reveal the character of both men. He says, "We have found the One Moses wrote of in the Law, the One preached about by the prophets." The question contains the clear implication that both Phillip and Nathaniel had spent long hours discussing with the rabbis in the synagogue the teaching of the law and the prophets. They had heard the promises about a messiah and they wanted to discover everything they could about the One who had been prophesized. Their persistency was rewarded by their recognition of the true identity of Jesus.
The wife of a pastor was browsing through an old bookstore one day in search of certain a secondhand book. To her surprise she discovered a biography about Daniel Webster published in 1840. Having a love for biographies she purchased the book.
The well worn outside cover conveyed the notion that the book had been well read. She imagined that perhaps it had been loaned out on a number of occasions. It may have been passed from one generation to the next. She could only guess the number of readers who may have gained new insight into the life of this famous politician.
Not so! Upon opening the book she discovered that the printer had failed to cut the pages properly. They could not be opened until she took a knife and cut them apart. The uncut pages were clear evidence that the book had never been read. Its tattered appearance gave the impression of constant use. But if it had ever been used, it was only to grace a library shelf, or hold down a stack of papers, or serve as a doorstop. The book may have been used, but it certainty had never been read. 1
Many people treat their Bibles in much the same manner. The books may graceful lay upon a coffee table or occupy a strategic location on a particular bookshelf but year after year they go unread. The first step of discipleship is to be people of the book; people who study the Word of God and search the scriptures for the truth. The session has set a goal for 80% of the congregation to read through the gospel of Mark this year. A majority of the Scripture lessons for the lectionary will be taken from this gospel and will serve as the basis for my sermons. I invite you to join us in reading through the entire gospel at least once. I also want to encourage you to read the Scripture prior to Sunday morning. Each week Kathy will print the scripture text for the next week's message in the bulletin. This will allow you to prepare for the message and guide you in your reading. May we imitate Nathaniel and Phillip by searching the scriptures to discover the ways of God and thereby prepare ourselves for a life of service.
AN HONEST MANOur approach to this passage will hinge our understanding of Jesus' words to Nathaniel. In the past some scholars have distorted this story by presenting Jesus ability to see Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree as the exercise of omniscience of his deity. That is he literally saw Nathaniel, even through the man was physically hidden from sight. This may have been true but I would like us to consider another more likely scenario. Rather than exercising his divine attributes Jesus was demonstrating his human ability to read people and draw conclusions about them based on his observations.
Each of us knows that we communicate our thoughts and feelings through our body language. We have all had experiences when someone looked at us and said, "I know what you're thinking." And they were right. They were reading our body language. Some people are so good at this we feel almost naked in their presence. We have also met people who can draw remarkable judgements from simple observations. Sherlock Holmes displayed this remarkable ability. From the spot on a man's coat he could describe in great detail the man's morning schedule. Ray Stedman, pastor of the Pennisula Bible Church and noted author, argues rather convincingly that it was a miracle of a different sort when Jesus told Nathaniel that he had seen him under the fig tree. Nathaniel was probably not in another town or village when Phillip went in search of him. He could have easily been in the same village allowing Jesus to observe from a distance the two of them talking. Our Lord may have watched their body language as one tried to persuade the other to join him. He noticed how Nathaniel hesitated under the shade of the tree. He observed Nathaniel slowly rising to his feet and as the friend of Phillip walked toward him, Jesus saw in his eyes the look of an honest skeptic.2
He was without pretense. He did not conceal his reservations or objections behind an evasive cloak of polite words. He would not pretend to be religious simple because it was socially acceptable. He would not affirm a viewpoint because it was politically correct. If he did not agree with the status quo he had no reservation about stating his objections. This is a trait that many people value but few people demonstrate.
A group of scientist conducted an experiment to determine the impact of peer pressure on a person's decisions. Imagine yourself as a participant in the experiment. You are brought into a room with five other people and shown a piece of paper with four lines drawn on it. The first is labeled line x and the other three Lines A, B, and C, respectively. Each person is then asked to identify which of the lines, A, B, or C is closest in length to Line X. They ask the first person and he confidently says, "Line A." Your mouth falls open and you ask yourself, "How can he think that it's A when any fool can see that it is B?" The second person is asked to respond and she says without a moment of hesitation, "Line A." You begin to feel like you are Alice in Wonderland. "How can it be, are they all crazy or am I blind?" But then the next person affirms the response of the first two. Now you think that you need new eyeglasses. Then the fourth person is asked the same question and she gives the same obvious answer, Line A. Now it is your turn to identify which line is closest to the original. Which one do you choose.
The task seems easy and the choice clear but when faced with a majority of their fellow students agreeing on an incorrect response, over 35% of the people conformed at least once to the erroneous judgement. The researchers concluded that when we are faced with two important goals: the goal of being correct and the goal of staying in the good graces of other people by agreeing with their opinions, we will often choose the latter. Few of us will hold onto a contraire opinion. In his honest skepticism Nathaniel demonstrated his willingness to be a contrarian. Jesus was looking for followers who were willing to swim against the tide. He was looking for people who were willingly to state honestly, what they believed to be true, even if it meant voicing opposition to the status quo.3
A MAN OF PRAYERThe fig tree indicates a third quality that Jesus saw in Nathaniel-a man of prayer. Fig trees served two vital functions in Palestine. First they were a valuable source of food and shelter. The people planted them in front of their house to provide food and shade from the hot sun. They also served as a prayer closet. It was the custom of the day to assume that a man sitting underneath the shade of the fig tree was a man in prayer.
The life of discipleship begins with the practice of prayer. A disciple who does not pray is as unlikely as a professional basketball player who does not practice foul shots between games, or an accountant who does not accurately record an itemized list of income and expenses, or builder who does not review the blueprints of the building under construction. Prayer is the essences of discipleship.
Six decades ago a man wrote a book on
contemplative faith. In one section he explains the importance of a life
of prayer. Gordon MacDonald records his words:
When we read the lives of the saints, we are struck by a certain large leisure which went hand in hand with a remarkable effectiveness. They were never hurried; they did comparatively few things, and these not necessarily striking or important; and they troubled very little about their influence. Yet they always seemed to hit the mark; every bit of their life told; their simplest actions had a distinction, an exquisiteness which suggested the artist. The reason is not far to seek. Their sainthood lay in their habit of referring the smallest actions to God. They lived in God; they acted from a pure motive of love towards God. They were as free from self-regard as from slavery to the good opinions of others.4
CONCLUSIONBefore it became politically incorrect, the Marines told us that they were looking for a few good men. One day many years ago Jesus found two who had a heart for the scripture, a spirit of honest and passion for prayer. Through the lives of those two men, he turned the world upside down. I wonder if he could find two people today in our congregation with the same qualities?
1. Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World, Expanded edition. (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson, 1985), p. 100.
2. Ray Stedman, "The Man Who Knew Men," The Gospel of John Series, Message No: 5 Catalog No: 3835, (Palo Alto, CA: Discovery Publishing April 24, 1983), http://www.pbc.org/dp/stedman/john/3835.html.
3. Elliot Aronson, The Social Animal, (San Francisco CA: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1972), p. 100.
4. MacDonald, p. 144.
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