Sermons

Sun, Jan 14, 2018

Seeing... and being seen

Series:Sermons

Growing up, my earliest experiences of church were not very positive.

Our family attended a Lutheran church...

and, as a young child, I found its services wordy, dull, and boring.

I thought the chanting odd, and the hymns dreary.

But going to Sunday School wasn't much better.

It was all so... Germanic!

Mostly, what I remember about Sunday School is stern, school-ma'am-y teachers...

who drilled us in rote memorising from the Catechism...

and who inflicted frequent tests upon us--

just like regular school--

and who gave stern looks of disapproval over each and every mistake.

I certainly don't remember there being much that was interesting or fun.

Then, when I was about eleven or twelve, we started attending a Methodist church...

which eventually became Uniting.

The congregation was small and mostly elderly.

There were no youth activities.

We went because Dad insisted that we go.

It seemed a little less rigid than the Lutheran Church.

The music was a bit better;

and the minister was nice--

in a sort of insipid, inoffensive way--

but I didn't really enjoy it.

Attending was just part of the weekly routine--

it was important for Dad.

Following a hiking accident that I had--

in the time between finishing school and starting university--

I made a promise to God to take 'religion' a bit more seriously.

So I started attending the Christian group in the University college where I was living.

On the whole, they were nice and welcoming people...

and, at least, they were my own age...

even if they were a little, shall we say, straight-laced.

It was through them that I experienced something of a spiritual awakening--

although I wouldn't describe it as a 'conversion experience' as such.

But the brand of Christianity that they imparted to me was theologically very conservative:

the Bible was to be taken literally;

morality was black and white;

Jesus died to save us from eternal punishment;

and we were all supposed to go around trying to convert our friends and family.

It was hard work!

And, far from providing a sense of comfort or peace...

I felt like I was constantly failing to live up to what God expected...

or demanded of me.

In many respects, that was still--

more or less--

the mindset that I had when I started at theological college.

So, in my first year or so, I was very cautious and careful in selecting my subjects...

desperately trying to avoid anything that seemed too 'liberal' or critical--

anything that would challenge my way of thinking.

And yet, gradually... 

almost imperceptible...

I began to change.

There's no single subject that I did...

no single lecturer that I had...

no single experience that I can point to and say, 'that was it'.

But, slowly, I began to rethink--

and, in many cases, repudiate--

what I had once held so firmly.

And the more study that I did, the more that my thinking changed...

and the more that my experience changed.

I began to see God--

and to experience God--

as loving, compassionate, and inclusive...

in a way that I could never have imagined before. 

That, in essence, has been my spiritual journey.

 

And, in a sense, I think we see something of that same sort of journey...

in our story, this morning, from John's Gospel.

Writing some seventy or so years after Jesus lived...

the community that produced this Gospel were not trying to write history--

in the sense that we understand it.

Rather, they were creating symbolic stories--

stories that were never intended to be read as "realistic" or "factual"--

stories that invite us to enter in...

stories that are trying to teach us something about ourselves... 

and about God.

And the characters that we meet in these stories are meant to be typical or representative.

That's certainly the case with Nathanael, in our story.

When his friend, Philip, invites him to come and meet Jesus--

whom Philip describes as "him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote"--

Nathanael replies, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

At first glance, this disparagement would appear to be a blatant case of first-century Palestinian bigotry--

and, perhaps, paints Nathanael as a racist, Trump-like character.

And yet, the context of the story suggests otherwise.

Later, Jesus says that he saw Nathanael "under the fig tree"--

for ancient audiences steeped in Hebrew symbolism and tradition...

that's a clear reference to Nathanael studying scripture.

Although couched in ancient idiom...

his apparent disparagement is simply a statement that he knows his scripture well.

He knows that the Messiah is to come from Bethlehem...

not Nazareth in Galilee.

Symbolically, it's portraying Nathanael as devout and scholarly.

And yet, despite that...

when prompted by Philip with a favourite phrase of the author's--

"come and see"--

Nathanael does just that.

For the author of John's Gospel...

then...

Nathanael is a true Israelite...

or, indeed, a representative of true Israel--

someone who is earnest and devout...

and yet...

rather than simply remain with the truths that he has inherited...

or with what he has assumed to be true...

he is willing to go;

he is open to the possibility of new insight.

Indeed, he is open to a profound paradigm change.

And yet, there's also a certain irony.

Nathanael does, indeed, 'come and see'.

But, in so doing, he discovers that it is he who has been seen.

"When you were under the fig tree, I saw you".

In a sense, then, the author suggests that Nathanael's spiritual journey doesn't involve him coming to know Jesus...

but, in a sense, coming to know that he is known by Jesus.

He puts his faith not in one he comes to know but in one who knows him.

And perhaps, the author is suggesting...

that's something that we often get wrong in our spiritual journeys, too.

So often, we think that we're searching for God...

but we're really searching to know the one who already knows...

and loves...

us.

 

Furthermore, the end point of this particular spiritual journey is not a promise of eternal life--

let alone of being saved from some fearful, eternal punishment...

through Jesus' bloody, sacrificial death.

No!

The end point is, in fact, greater sight or insight.

According to the author--

and in language borrowed from Jacob's vision in the book of Genesis--

the promise is of further...

and deeper...

insights into the nature of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

That's what the author of John's gospel suggests that faith--

that religion-- 

is really about.

 

Faith is, fundamentally, a journey.

It's not about subscribing to some set of dogmatic beliefs...

nor is it about adhering to some rigid moral code.

And it's certainly not offering some sort of cosmic reward...

or 'pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die'.

It's a journey of spiritual self-discovery.

It's coming to know more deeply and fully than we realise...

that we are already known and loved by God;

and, resting safe in the knowledge that we are known and loved...

we are then able to see and discern deeper truths and insights about God...

and about ourselves.

And that all begins, perhaps, by putting aside what we presume that we know...

and being willing and open to 'come and see'--

again...

and again...

and again.

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