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Second Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Stephen's Anglican Church
The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar, January 18, 2015


Knowing Jesus

Text: John 1: 43-51

We are in the midst of the season of Epiphany. This season is about people seeing the light. It is about people encountering Jesus and having their eyes opened to who He is. We are reading through John’s Gospel, where the evangelist shows us several such encounters. He begins in the early part of Chapter 1 telling us that Jesus is the light that has come into the world. He then takes us to the Baptism of Jesus, where we see the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, and the Father revealing that Jesus is His beloved Son. And then, beginning in verse 35, we see Jesus gathering His first four disciples, Andrew, Simon, Philip and Nathanael. And as they answer His call to follow Him, they make statements that show their understanding of who Jesus is:

• Andrew says to Simon, whom Jesus renamed Peter, “We have found the Messiah.” [John 1:41]

• In the passage we read this morning, Philip says to Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets wrote.” [John 1:45]

• And Nathanael, meeting Jesus and believing, says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” [John 1:49]

These men met Jesus, knew who He was and set aside their lives to follow Him.

This morning, we’re going to take a close look at the story of Nathanael meeting Jesus. As we do, I want to be thinking about knowing Jesus versus knowing about Jesus. It is an important distinction for each one of us. Knowing Jesus, rather than simply knowing about Him, changes the way we live as His disciples.

Jesus apparently went looking for Philip and Nathanael. They had been down at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan when He met Andrew. And the text tells us the next day they left for Galilee. That is where Andrew and his brother Simon were from, the town of Bethsaida at the head of the Sea of Galilee. In Bethsaida, Jesus found Philip and said, “Follow me.” John doesn’t give us any more detail on that. But then he tells us about Philip finding Nathanael and telling him to come and see Jesus.

Nathanael had been sitting under a fig tree, which is a significant detail. The shade of a fig tree was a favorite place for people to sit and read the scriptures. I think it is safe to infer that Nathanael was reading about Jacob in the scroll of Genesis. The reason I say that is that there are two references to Jacob in what Jesus said to him. The first was Jesus’ remark that Nathanael “was an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” That would have been understood as a reference to Jacob, whom God renamed Israel. He was famous for his deceit. You recall he stole his brother’s birthright by deceiving their father. Perhaps deceptiveness had come to be known as a trait of the people of Israel. In any case, Nathanael wasn’t like that, and Jesus knew it. The observation was, of course, a shock to Nathanael. How could Jesus have known that that simply from seeing him? And that opened Nathanael’s eyes to who Jesus was. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” he exclaimed.

The second reference to Jacob was the intriguing image Jesus painted, when He told Nathanael, “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” [John 1:51] This is a reference to what we like to call “Jacob’s ladder.” (Genesis 28:10-15) This was a dream that Jacob had at a place he named Bethel, when he was on his way back to the old country to find a bride. This is a mysterious dream, but it was apparently meant by God to reassure Jacob that, even though Jacob was far from home, God was there with him. The stairway in Jacob’s dream connected Jacob at the bottom, with God at the top. And going up and down the stairway were angels, who had jobs to do on earth to carry out God’s will.

What Jesus was saying to Nathanael was, “I am the stairway. I am the connection between God and man. I am the pathway to the Father.”

The account ends there, and we don’t hear Nathanael’s reaction to this revelation. But he must certainly have been blown away. He dropped everything and followed Jesus.

Let’s go back to the moment when Nathanael’s eyes were opened. Jesus’ response was priceless.

Because I said to you, “I saw you under the fig tree,” do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”

Clearly, Jesus was pleased that Nathanael “got it” so readily. But He had to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” “Come with me and you will see wondrous things.” That is where the transformation occurs—in being with Jesus, in spending time with Jesus, in coming to know HIm. We can know about Jesus. We can say that we understand all these titles for Him,

• Messiah

• King of Israel

• Son of God

• Prince of Peace

• God with Us

That is certainly an epiphany to be able to confess that Jesus is all those things. But if we don’t know Him personally, the epiphany isn’t complete. It’s like being able to pass the standardized tests in school but not really learning anything that will prepare the student for adult life.

Those first disciples set aside their lives to follow Jesus, to walk the dusty roads with Him, to sleep on the ground with Him, to take the risks with Him, and share His limited rations. And that is when they came to know Jesus. That is when they came to love Him. That is when they came to serve Him. That is when He became the priority in their lives.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet, Nathanael.” So Nathanael followed Jesus. And what did He see? Oh, he saw wondrous things!

• The very next day, He saw Jesus change water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.

• He saw blind men get their sight.

• He saw the lame walk.

• He saw the dead flesh of lepers restored.

• He saw people raised from the dead.

• He heard profound teaching with authority no one had ever heard before.

• He experienced acts of compassion

• and forgiveness.

• He witnessed Jesus’ amazing obedience to the Father.

• He witnessed Jesus nailed to the cross to atone for the sins of the world.

• He saw Jesus rise again from the dead.

• He saw Jesus ascend into heaven.

• He saw the explosive growth of the Kingdom.

“You believe because I saw you under the fig tree?” That’s wonderful, Nathanael. Now get on board, and buckle up and hang on, for you are in for an amazing ride.

I grew up in an military family that moved quite a bit. I went to a lot of schools. In the 8th and 9th grades, I was at Groveton High School in Alexandria, Virginia. One day as I was walking down the hall at Groveton, a girl came up alongside me and asked me, “Do you have a personal relationship with Christ?” I knew this girl, but not very well. I didn’t know what to say. I had never heard such talk. I went to church every Sunday. Everybody in my extended family was a Christian. What is a personal relationship with Christ? I guess I wasn’t ready, because I don’t think I went with her to the Methodist Youth Fellowship. That is why she was asking. But her question never left my mind.

I was pretty religious later in high school. I was an acolyte. I went to worship every day in Lent with my Dad. But I never could say I knew Jesus as personally as I did my best friends. I never thought about “loving” Jesus. At university, my religious inclinations took an intellectual turn, and I learned more about what Christians believe. But still, the girl’s question didn’t have a good answer.

After my time in the Army, I came back and finished Law School. I got heavily into my professional career, and Jesus was sitting somewhere in the background. He wasn’t my love or my priority. Until one morning in 1982. I was 36 years old. It was an October morning, and I was recovering from a night of overindulgence. I woke up in a funk, perplexed about what had become of my life. I was standing looking out the window thinking woe is me when I turned and saw myself in the mirror. And suddenly, I heard Jesus say to me, “This isn’t what I want for you. Come, follow me.” I fell to my knees, and cried and prayed. And at that moment, I started to know Jesus personally for the first time in my life. If He had spoken anything more, I’m sure He would have said, “Your epiphany is now complete. And you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

How true that is.

• He has taken me to India and five times to Africa.

• He has introduced me to wonderful Christians doing amazing things for Him, relying on His provision and power.

• I have seen miracles and deliverance from evil spirits.

• He has healed me miraculously on two occasions.

• I have watched the Lord birth the Anglican Church in North America through a long series of miracles and the faithful sacrifice of a lot of people.

• I have been along for the ride here at St. Stephen’s—soon to be Light of Christ Anglican Church—as we have discerned God’s will, and as He has moved us toward His vision for us.

• I have seen the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic come together, with a Bishop who is a true man of God. And we have grown to 40 congregations, and we are planting more and more all the time.

• I have seen people’s lives transformed by the Holy Spirit.

And through it all, I have felt Jesus’ love for me. I can feel His forgiveness. I can trust His guidance. And I feel a deep love for Him. And for the Father. And for the Holy Spirit. I wish I could remember who that girl was who planted that question in my heart back in 8th grade, so I could thank her. I don’t even know her name anymore.

My friends, the Christian faith is not an intellectual exercise. It is all about relationships. God Himself is the fundamental relationship: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And God insists on a loving relationship among Christians, and a loving relationship between us and Him. When Jesus prayed for His disciples on the night before He died, He prayed for the Church:

I pray... that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. [John 17:20-23]

Jesus talked to His disciples often about love.

• “As I have loved you,” He told us, “so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

• He said that the greatest commandment was that we love the Lord our God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. (Matthew 22:37)

• And, Jesus said, “The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love you and show myself to you.” (John 14:22)

Jesus wants a personal, love relationship with each of us. He wants that for Himself; and He wants it for us. And the rewards He bestows upon us when we have that love relationship with Him are more precious than silver and gold.

Maybe there is someone here who has never gotten to the point of a loving relationship with Jesus. Maybe you know the Bible and believe what it says. Maybe you know the doctrine of the church and you are committed to it. Maybe you want everyone to know the truth about God. But you haven’t completed the epiphany by falling in love with Jesus—because if you truly know who Jesus is, and you truly believe, there is no course but to love Him. Please give that some thought. And consider going up after worship to our prayer ministers, and telling them you want to know Jesus and love Him and turn your life over to Him. That’s my invitation to you. And Jesus will say to you,

You will see greater things than these. You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.

I’d like to close by singing you a verse from a song by Helen Howarth Lemmel. It has come up twice for me in the past week. The first time was at the vestry retreat, after we had come to agreement on the new name, Light of Christ Anglican Church. The second was yesterday in my daily devotional from David Jeremiah. It speaks to our personal relationship with Jesus:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Look full in His wonderful face.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

©2015 Jeffrey Cerar

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