Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jesus' Stone Pillow, and ours

A sermon on John 1: 43-51


There’s a lot of wisdom in today’s Gospel about what discipleship is about, which isn’t so much about accepting God or believing the right truths about God or even doing certain things for God, but it’s about the life transformation that happens whenever we know God.

That’s what today’s Gospel is about – Nathanael coming to know God for the first time. And so here’s the question I’d like to ask this morning. What happened in Nathaniel’s life and what has to happen in ours for us to know God and be transformed?

Now first a little background, because today’s Gospel is actually alluding to and building on another story from Genesis 28; And that’s the story of Jacob running away from his brother Esau. Now as you may recall Jacob didn’t have what we’d call a really stable family life. Jacob blackmailed Esau and stole his birthright; Esau then made plans to kill Jacob and Jacob was forced to run away from home. And when Jacob fled he had nothing. In fact, he fell asleep that first night with his head on a stone – a symbol for how hard his life had become. And so Jacob is alone and feels utterly forsaken. But that night Jacob has a dream on that stone pillow, where God stands at Jacob’s side, and tells Jacob that God is calling Him, and in that dream Jacob sees a ladder that connects heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending on top of it. And so it was actually that night, in Jacob’s weakest, most desperate moment, at his very worst, as he slept on a stone, that he saw the heavens opened and God Himself standing at His side.

And then there’s Nathaniel. Like Jacob, his life is not going well. I mean, something had to happen in Nathaniel’s life that made him the sour, curmudgeon that he is. When told that the Messiah’s been found in Nazareth, he sneers. “Nazareth? That back water place? Where they watch NASCAR and wear wife beaters and where everyone’s related?” “Forget the Messiah,” he says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Personally, I think he was depressed – not because he’s cynical, but because of what Jesus says to him. “Nathanael, I saw what happened under that fig tree just before Philip called you.” And because Nathanael immediately worships him as the Son of God, we can safely infer that whatever happened under that fig tree was so personal and so private that for Jesus to have seen it and still welcome him was enough to melt his heart. Maybe he had a panic attack or a moment of excessive guilt or threw up a weepy prayer of last resort. But because Jesus goes out of his way to allude to Jacob’s dream, we can safely infer that whatever happened under that fig tree was a low point in Nathaniel’s life, his “stone pillow” that no one else knew about. But when it dawned on Nathaniel that Jesus knew about it, and that Jesus understood, well, that’s what I think changed his life.

Do we know what Nathaniel and Jacob did? That Jesus Christ sees us under our fig tree; that God stands beside us on our stone pillow, that Jesus knows us at our worst and yet still delights in calling us?

CS Lewis was once asked by a group of his colleagues at Oxford about the uniqueness of Christianity. He responded with a single word. “Grace.”

Christianity is about grace. Jesus isn’t a talent scout looking for strong moral athletes to help his team win. In fact, Jesus does not ask us to change the world. But he does ask us if we’re willing to let Him change our world. And that’s why Jesus isn’t looking for people that know they’re strong but people who understand that they’re weak, and who are willing how to live in this world relying on His strength. And that’s why it’s a spiritually dangerous thing to forget that we too have a stone pillow. You see it is out of that weakness that we hear the call of God.

There’s a humbling verse in the Book of Revelation where Jesus is pleading with the church because they’re rich and prospering and think they need nothing. And Jesus says, “You forget that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” You forget, he says, that Christianity is about grace.

And that’s something easily forgotten in today’s world. It’s easy to stay pre-occupied with projects and people and pop-culture and our performance to live an entire life without ever knowing that, spiritually speaking, we’re a beggar. And if we miss our stone pillow we at the same time miss the Savior that stands beside it – the One who knows us at our worst and yet still delights in calling us.

I mean, have you ever noticed that the Gospels only have two “stock characters?” There’s the religious rule-keepers. I’m thinking of the Pharisees, Scribes, temple officials, etc. And this group is always portrayed as judgmental, joyless, critical, and legalistic. Always; And on the other hand there’s the desperate – the “morally, socially and physically despondent.” These are the prostitutes, tax collectors, the blind, the lame, the leper, the prisoner, the demon-possessed, and the Gentile. And the second group knows really well what their stone pillow is, and they know that Jesus knows about it, and that He loves them and calls them. And their response is always like Nathaniel! Rabbi, you are the Son of God!
You see the great mystery of our faith is not that Jesus stands beside us on our stone pillow, as wonderful as that is. The mystery of our faith is that Jesus knows what it’s like to fall asleep on that stone – whatever “our stone” happens to be.

And that’s the irony of today’s Gospel. Jesus origin wasn’t Nazareth but as the pre-existent Word that became flesh is true origin is with God. And yet the scandal of our faith is that he entered our world not as a general or a philosopher or a king but as a carpenter; that Jesus was born not in a palace but a feeding trough. You see Jesus knew what it was like to fall asleep on a stone.

“Foxes have holes, birds have nests,” he said, “but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was homeless. He was abandoned. And as He took His last breath on the cross not one person stood beside Him, as he bore in his body the sins of the world. Not even the Father He so loved and relied on. In other words, Jesus became wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked so that in Him we might be rich and prosper and need nothing.

And to the extent that we know that, we’ll trust Jesus enough to let him show us our fig tree, our stone pillow – a metaphor for our weakness, our fears, our mistakes, our prejudices, and our sins. Because – the “me” that Jesus loves is not the same “me” I now see. As St. Paul put it, “now we see in a mirror dimly.” But not Jesus – he sees us as we are, at our very worst, and yet that’s the person Jesus delights in calling; that’s the person Jesus longs to transform.

And you know what the irony of all this is? Today’s Gospel isn’t just about discipleship, it’s also about evangelism. It’s about becoming the type of person and the type of church that lives in this world with a message, “come and see.” Come and see someone that sees you. Come and see someone that loves you. Come and see someone that stands beside you. As someone once put it, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” I mean, isn’t that what Philip did for Nathanael?

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said to Nathaniel, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

What happened in Nathaniel’s life and what has to happen in ours for us to know God and be transformed? Well, here’s what I’d offer. There is a ladder that connects heaven and earth; and it isn’t a ladder we climb up, it’s a ladder that God’s climbed down so that He could live and die as one of us and to save us. What this means is that we do not need to save ourselves, or to hide from ourselves, or to hide from God. Jesus sees us under our fig tree. Jesus stands beside us on our stone pillow. Jesus knows us at our worst, and he knows us at our best, and yet still delights in calling us.

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