by Johnold Strey
JESUS' CALL WILL SURPRISE YOU
1. Because it is so simple
2. Because it is so profound
Text: John 1:43-51
On Sunday nights in our family, we usually watch the television show, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (that is, when it's not football season!). Given how much junk is on television, it's gratifying to watch a program where a community comes together to build a new home for a family that's seriously in need and living in poor conditions. The start of the show features the ABC design team traveling by bus to the family's home, and then giving them a "wakeup call" with a bull horn outside the house. I'm pretty sure the wakeup call is arranged in advance, because every family is conveniently dressed and ready to come out in every episode! But even if it is staged in advance, can you imagine the family's surprise when ABC calls them and tells them that they have been selected to go on a seven day vacation, after which they will return to brand new house with state-of-the-art appliances and technology that is entirely theirs? A call like that must be a total shock and a life-changing surprise!
Today's service puts us in mind of the way God calls us to faith. Perhaps the call to faith seems less exciting than a call from ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." But if we consider our lost spiritual condition before Jesus called us into his spiritual family, maybe we'll agree that Jesus' call is quite surprising. And as we study Jesus' call to two of his disciples in today's Gospel, we will come to the same conclusion. Jesus' call will surprise you because it is so simple and because, at the same time, it is so profound.
In the Gospel for today, Jesus is in the middle of calling his disciples. Before our reading, Jesus called Andrew and John to be his disciples. They had been disciples of John the Baptist, but the Baptist had pointed others to Jesus all along, and so they had no trouble leaving John the Baptist behind and following the one he called the "Lamb of God." After Jesus called Andrew and John, Andrew brought his brother Simon Peter to Jesus, and Jesus called Peter to be his disciple as well. Andrew and Peter were from a town called Bethsaida, and now Jesus calls another man from the same town, Philip.
There's hardly anything to the account of Philip's call. What I find interesting is what happens after Philip's call. "The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me.' Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote-Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.' ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?' Nathanael asked. ‘Come and see,' said Philip."
Since Philip was from the same town as Andrew and Peter, and since Andrew had been listening to John the Baptist, I assume that they knew one another and that Philip had some knowledge about Jesus before Jesus called him to be his disciple. You can also sense Philip's acquaintance with Jesus when he comes to his brother. He is convinced that Jesus is the Messiah that had been predicted to come to the Jews throughout the Old Testament Scriptures.
Before last week, if I had asked you what you thought about the city of Danville, you probably wouldn't have said much. It's just another Northern California city. There's nothing special that would put it on the map. Of course, that all changed this week when Danville resident and airline pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III became an instant national hero when he made an incredible emergency landing of a commercial aircraft in New York's Hudson River, and all 155 people aboard survived.
When Nathaniel heard his brother tell him that the long-awaited Messiah had come from Nazareth, he thought that was about as exciting as the city of Danville was before last week. Prior to last week, you wouldn't have thought anything bad about Danville, but you wouldn't have thought of it as particularly special. I don't think Nathaniel necessarily meant to say anything bad about Nazareth, but he could hardly imagine anything or anyone special coming from an average town like that. His brother told him to at least check it out, which he did, but at this point the idea of the Messiah coming from Nazareth seemed a lot more simple and ordinary than he expected.
There was nothing earth-shattering about Philip's call. Jesus said, "Follow me," and Philip did. There seemed to be nothing noteworthy about Jesus from all outward appearances. What's the big deal about a carpenter's kid from a regular city? But despite Nathaniel's skepticism, Jesus' call was a big deal. God incarnate called Philip, and later called skeptical Nathaniel, not just to discipleship but to apostleship. And when God calls you to faith and service, that's always a big deal whether it seems like it or not.
There was nothing earth-shattering about your call to faith, either. For many of you, the pastor merely said, "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," splashed some water on your infant scalp, and that was that. For others, you first heard Jesus' call as adults through simple words printed on a page or spoken by a person. This is not the kind of stuff that stops the presses or that makes the evening news.
That's why Jesus' call is so surprising. His call looks so simple. But behind the simple appearance is a tremendous miracle. For when Jesus called you to faith, he did not call a mild skeptic like Nathaniel. He called an outright enemy. We opposed him by nature, even before we took our first breath. And it wouldn't take long for us to look back at the past week and find words from our lips or actions from our lives or thoughts from our minds that prove our sinful condition's lust to do the exact opposite of God's will.
And so what does God do? So simply, and yet so surprisingly, he connects the righteousness of Jesus to the waters of the font, and declares us his holy children. So simply, and yet so surprisingly, his Spirit calls us to faith as we hear an old message from an old book that tells us about the incarnate Christ whose innocent death brings forgiveness and life. The whole thing seems so simple that some Christians unfortunately turn baptism into our commitment and not God's promise, or they turn faith into our decision and not the Spirit's work in our hearts. But don't let the simplicity of it fool you. Jesus' call surprises us in its simplicity, but even in simplicity, Christ calls you out of the darkness of sin and unbelief and into the light of faith and righteousness.
I'll give Nathaniel a little credit — humanly speaking. He listened to his brother's advice and actually checked out this Jesus fellow that Philip had told him about. And Jesus surprised Nathaniel even before he met him face-to-face. Nathaniel hadn't even said hello, and Jesus already had him pegged as a devout, religious Jew. "When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, ‘Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.'" If someone you had never met started talking to others about what a great person you were, you'd probably be as curious as Nathaniel. "How do you know me?" There are two different Greek words that both mean "to know;" one refers to general knowledge and the other refers to stronger, experiential knowledge. The second word is used here. Nathaniel wanted to know how Jesus could know him so well having never met him before.
In a day before surveillance cameras and satellite images, Jesus' answer had to surprise him! "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you." It was not an uncommon practice in that culture for a devout Jew to sit at the base of a tree and turn that into a place of meditation and prayer. But when Jesus knew that Nathaniel was seated under a tree at the very time Philip had called him to come and meet Jesus, Nathaniel knew that he was dealing with someone whose knowledge was profound and divine. "Nathaniel declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.'"
Jesus hadn't even formally called Nathaniel to be his disciple, but he now knew there was more to Jesus than meets the eye. But Jesus was just getting started! He called Nathaniel to faith in him, but now he was calling him to something far more profound. "Jesus said, ‘You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.'" And in the next verse, Jesus shifts his words so that they are not addressed only to Nathaniel, but to all those gathered around him. "He then added, ‘I tell you the truth, you (plural) shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.'"
It seems pretty reasonable that Jesus is referring to an incident in Genesis 28 from the life of Jacob, and ancestor of the nation of Israel. In that excerpt, Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau. He had fled from his home and was sleeping outside with a stone for his pillow. And in that context, God comforted Jacob in a dream that included a staircase from earth to heaven, and angels going up and down the staircase. Jesus' words to Nathaniel seem to refer to that dream, and seem to indicate that Jesus is the staircase. Jesus says that the angels will ascend and descend on the "Son of Man" — his favorite term for himself. Jesus is the one through whom we have access to heaven! His life has bridged the gap between God and human beings because his life met the standards of God's law that our lives never meet. His cross has bridged the gap between God and human beings because his death has removed the sin-barrier that stood between us and God. How profound! How amazing! No wonder Nathaniel was taken by surprise when he met Jesus. Not only did Jesus demonstrate how well he knew Nathaniel, but he demonstrated that he was the long-awaited Messiah who would finally bridge the gap between us and God!
Jesus' call to faith brings you profound blessings. It brings you forgiveness from the cross, victory over death from his empty Easter tomb, and the assurance of God's grace and love from his Word. Jesus surprises us with blessings we certainly do not deserve and hardly would expect! But that's the problem. We don't expect such profound blessings from God, or we fail to see that forgiveness and eternal life are profound blessings. And so we short-change Jesus' call and underestimate God's goodness to us. We come to expect different blessings, worldly blessings that seem more profound than Jesus' spiritual blessings, but in the end are not.
Let me read a quotation that will clarify what I mean. This comes from a new book, titled "Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church" by Michael Horton. Horton writes, "Only when God's law – his holiness, majesty, and moral will – creates in us a sense of our moral offensiveness to God does the gospel communicate deeper answers that our felt needs and cheap cravings only mask. Hardly unique, my children would be delighted if I told them that instead of their usual three meals today we would provide a variety pack of candies. When my wife and I decline their urges, it is because we know that they will make themselves sick if they just follow their immediate desires. Similarly, God wants to fill our lives with joy, but before we allow him to tell us the story, we have already decided within the narrow confines of our limited experience what joy is from" (page 34).
Jesus' call to faith is so surprisingly profound! Don't sell it short or substitute your ideas for Christ's blessings! Don't turn Jesus merely into your life coach who gives you good advice for day-to-day living. His Word does direct our lives, but if that's all you are looking for, you will miss the profound miracle accomplished at the cross. Don't turn Jesus into your psychologist who helps you cope with life's challenges. Jesus does help you cope, but if that's the extent of your Jesus, then you will miss the profound miracle of his resurrection that won eternal life for you. Don't turn Jesus into your buddy who pats your back and makes you feel good when you're feeling down. Jesus certainly has comfort for hurting souls, but the profound comfort he has to give comes in the font's forgiveness, in the Supper's pardon, and in the Word's promises. And Jesus' profound blessings don't expire in this life. His profound blessings of peace and forgiveness now will deliver you from this world and into paradise for all eternity!
When last week's story about the U.S. Airways plane that made an emergency landing made the news, many people were delightfully surprised that the exceptionally skilled pilot managed the water landing and, most importantly, kept all 155 people alive against the odds. If that fills us with joyful surprise (and it should!), how much more should Jesus' call, which saved us from something far worse than a bird attack on airplane engines. Don't let the simplicity of Jesus' call or the familiarity of faith lead you into complacency! Marvel at Jesus' profound call to faith, and rejoice that his call has placed you into his eternal family! Amen.
Waiting for the Savior
by Jose Kurian Puliyeril
Come and See
by Jim Parsons
An Israelite Indeed
by John Wesley
Found by Jesus, and Finding Jesus
by Charles H. Spurgeon
Son of God, Son of Man, King of Israel
by John Piper
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the 2nd Sunday after Denaha (Baptism of our Lord)
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