In our Gospel lesson this morning we learn about a happy invasion of privacy. Two men, Philip and Nathanael, were found by the Lord, known by the Lord, and informed by the Lord. Jesus wants to invade your privacy for the same reason and in the same way.
The impression that many people have of God is that He is just sitting back waiting for sinners to find Him. However, that is not how the true God operates. We see that already in the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve fell into sin, God did not wait for His children to come to Him and confess what they had done. He went searching for them – not only to chastise, but also to share that He had a plan to get them out of the mess they had willingly and selfishly stepped into.
Likewise, when you look at how Jesus ended up with His twelve apostles, you will see that it is because He went searching for them. Of course, Philip would report to his friend Nathanael, “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” (John 1:45), but Philip had not found Jesus. Jesus had found Philip. And that is how it works for you and me too. We did not find Jesus when we came to faith. We came to faith because Jesus found us and invited us, and we accepted His invitation.
St. Paul explained this when he wrote: “But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions; it is by grace, therefore, that you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4, 5).
Sometimes, we are afraid to seek God out. This could be because we are ashamed of how we live our lives, or it could be because we have doubts, or because we do not even believe in God. I would propose that the more likely reason is that we are afraid, afraid that God may not welcome us or want us. Sin has so damaged us that by nature we do not even want to reach out to God. We think, or believe, that He needs to reach out to us if He wants a relationship with us. But, this is not the way it works.
God is always right in front of us. He stands there with open arms, waiting to embrace us and welcome us home, into His life. We just have to want it. Now, I am not talking about when we die. I am talking about right now, here and now. God is in front of us, here in this temple. It is He before whom we stand, and it is He who comes to us and invites to “Come and see!”
How exactly does Jesus find people these days? Obviously, He is not still physically walking the streets as He did two thousand years ago when He found Philip. But let us look at the way in which Jesus found His next disciple, Nathaniel. He did so through Philip. After Philip was brought to the faith he ran off and found his friend Nathanael to tell him about Jesus. This is how Jesus still finds people today: through the witness of faithful disciples like you.
Now, does the thought of telling another person about Jesus make you nervous? I mean, what if they ask you a question about your faith that you cannot answer? My answer to you is this: Don’t sweat it! Just use Philip’s evangelism approach. When Philip told Nathaniel that he believed Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah, Nathanael responded sarcastically: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). How did Philip respond? Did he try to convince his friend of the truth with a rehearsed evangelism presentation? No, he simply said, “Come and see.” That is still a great tactic when evangelizing today. Simply invite your friends to come and see the Savior for themselves. But do not just encourage them to come to church; share with them your joy and your conviction of faith. And invite them, again and again, and again.
If you have been the one invited to meet Jesus through His Word, respond as Nathaniel did. He went with Philip to meet Jesus. He did not say, “Well I’m busy right now Philip. Maybe later.” Finding the Messiah, the one who would take away his sins and open to him eternal life, was more important to Nathaniel than his work, his hobbies, and even his family. Do we feel the same way? Or when we are invited to come and see our Savior through a study of His Word, are we quick to come up with an excuse of why it is not convenient? But how do you know there will be a more convenient time? You do not. None of us knows when our end will come. Even as I speak right now Jesus is invading your privacy and reaching out to you through this message to learn more about Him. And I can tell you with all certainty and confidence, if you stop and listen to what Jesus has to say and respond positively to His invitation, you will not be sorry; you will experience joy and peace beyond description.
When Nathaniel came to meet Jesus, he was in for a big surprise, for he was already known by the Lord. John records the meeting like this. “When Jesus saw Nathaniel approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” “How do you know me?” Nathaniel asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathaniel declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (John 1:47-49).
Whenever I read this Scripture passage, I always wonder, “What exactly had Nathaniel been doing under the fig tree that it was significant enough for Jesus to mention and for Nathaniel to be impressed that Jesus knew he had been sitting there?” Perhaps that fig tree was Nathaniel’s getaway spot - the place he went to be alone. Then I think of how thousands of years earlier Adam and Eve had also sought refuge under a fig tree after their sin of eating the forbidden fruit. They took the fig tree’s leaves and sewed them together to make clothing. It was a lame attempt to cover their shame. Is that also what Nathaniel had been doing under the fig tree – hiding out because he was embarrassed by who he was and what he had done or failed to do? If so, it was a happy invasion when Philip found him there because if Nathaniel was ashamed of what he had become and was seeking God’s forgiveness, Philip had the solution. The Messiah had come!
Just as God provided better covering for Adam and Eve when He gave them sheepskin clothing, so Jesus, the Lamb of God, would provide a perfect covering to hide Nathaniel’s sins from the holy God’s view. That is in fact why Jesus could say of Nathaniel, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false” (John 1:47).
Jesus says the same of you this morning, that there is nothing false in you. He says that even if you lied to your teacher about why you did not get your homework done. He says that to you even though you lied to your wife about where you were last night. He says that to you even though you gossiped about your neighbors. He says that to you even though you uncharitably criticize an employee or co-worker. You see, Jesus knows everything about every one of us. Yet, He is willing to seek us out, to offer us His mercy, His forgiveness, His love, and life in Him and with Him. Jesus knows that we are weak and sinful. He simply wants us to be honest, to be cleansed and made whole. He wants us to admit that we need Him and that we are nothing without Him.
Nathaniel was impressed with Jesus’ omniscience, His ability to know all things – even where Nathaniel had been hanging out. But that is not what Jesus wanted Nathaniel to marvel about. Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:50, 51).
Philip and Nathaniel had both been found and known by the Lord, and now they were going to be informed by Him. They were going to learn the truth that we all need to know and believe to get into heaven. Jesus compared Himself to a ladder that connects heaven and earth – a ladder on which angels would ascend and descend. This was a reference to a well-known event from Jewish history. Jesus was thinking about the time when Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was forced to run away from his home. On his first night, Jacob lay down to sleep on the hard ground and had nothing but a rock to use as a pillow. It probably did not seem as if God was with him. And why should He be? It had been Jacob’s sin and his lack of trust in God’s promises that had forced him to flee in the first place. But instead of seeing nightmares, Jacob received a wonderful dream that night. He saw a ladder which stretched all the way up to heaven and on that ladder, angels went up and down. This was God’s way of reassuring Jacob that he was not alone. God had not abandoned him in spite of his sins. Jacob’s prayers were being heard and God was answering them by sending angels to attend to him.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus explains how He Himself is the ladder which connects heaven to earth. It is through Jesus that we ascend to heaven with the angels, and we do so on the ladder of His Cross.
We have learned today that there is such a thing as a happy invasion of privacy. We should be happy that God cared enough about us to break into our world and save us from our sins. Share that truth with the lost and the lonely, with all who are hanging out by themselves under their fig trees. Invite them to come and see their Savior who already sees, knows, and loves them.