Encounters with Jesus – Nathaniel

Fig Tree

A fig tree, Nathaniel’s hangout. Image courtesy of Wikkipedia Commons.

I’ve been teaching adult Sunday school this fall and we’ve been looking at things that will help us “return to our first love,” Jesus. So far we’ve talked about reclaiming our love of God’s Word, reclaiming God’s promises, and we just started in on learning to hear better from God. To do this, we’re back in the Bible, specifically, the Gospels where Jesus encounters ordinary people who get their minds blown by what he has to say.

Today, let’s take Nathaniel. Jesus first calls Philip, and then Philip tells Nathaniel, hey, I found the guy who the law & the prophets talk about. (Read the full story in John 1:43-51.) This is where Nathaniel famously makes his remark “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” As Nathaniel is walking down the road towards Jesus, Jesus says

“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathan′a-el said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathan′a-el answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”

I have always found this an obscure passage! Why did Nathaniel make that comment about Nazareth? Why did Jesus say Nathaniel was “an Israelite indeed?” Was he being sarcastic? And why was it so important to Nathaniel that Jesus saw him under the fig tree?

One thing that is clear, however, is that Nathaniel recognized something different about Jesus, something that he was open to. And Jesus, in turn, was able to say exactly the thing–the very specific thing–that caused Nathaniel to have a revelation of who Jesus truly is. An incomplete revelation, but nonetheless very full and rich. Nathaniel proclaims the Gospel as he understands it in that moment. It is because of Nathaniel’s openness and recognition that Jesus promises him even greater things–Nathaniel is going to have his spiritual eyes opened wide to see the comings & goings of heaven.

There are three things I want you to note from this passage. The first is that Nathaniel spent time in the scriptures. This is implied in two ways; first, it’s clear Philip and Nathaniel have studied the Torah (the law) and the prophets together. We also know (from a note in a good study Bible) that a fig tree is known as a place for study and prayer. Nathaniel was a good student of the Word of God. Secondly, Nathaniel expected to see God at work in the world. Again, Philip’s message that the one written about in the law & prophets was here indicates that both he and Nathaniel were on the lookout for the Messiah. Granted, their idea of a earthly kingdom wasn’t what God intended, but they were on the lookout and that’s the important thing here. Third, it appears Nathaniel called it like he saw it. He had no guile, no deceit. Even his comment, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was an honest one. Jesus recognizes this about him–he is a “true Israelite,” a model Israelite, if you will.

Nathaniel is studying the scriptures, looking for God at work, and making honest assessments about the world around him. Jesus affirms these traits in Nathaniel and because of them is able to reach something deep inside him that makes him proclaim the truth of who Jesus is.

What do we need to hear from God, to encounter Jesus? Immersion in the Word, openness and an honest expectation that God is at work.


foliagehatThose of you who are my friends on Facebook will recognize some of the images in this post. As September and the end of summer approached, I decided to do something I’m really bad at–namely, finish some projects.

I’m not sure why I’m so bad at completing things. When I was in college, I came across a Charlie Peacock song called “Finishing Mood.” He describes my attitude exactly:

All my good ideas are so grand and complicated.
Maybe they have no endings
Only beginnings
I’m not in a finishing mood, no, no, no, no
I’m not in a finishing mood.*

Deadlines help me to finish things, so things without a deadline languish. There’s a quilt whose squares I completed but never got any farther with it. I gave them to my mother, an avid quilter and as far as I know, she’s never completed it either.

This must be a symptom of being a person who lives too much in their head. Envision a thing complete and you already have the satisfaction of it being done, without the work. So, my challenge to myself these past few weeks has been to complete things and find satisfaction in their completion. After all, there are benefits to completing things: A comfortable place to sit on your front porch. A gift for a friend. The pleasure of the feel of a thing. Complements!

Spiritual discipline? Maybe not, but definitely a growth edge for me, and important for some reason I can’t yet name.


*Read more: http://artists.letssingit.com/charlie-peacock-lyrics-finishing-mood-mcnqc7v#ixzz3Cm3ww3Ge
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Slowing down

15716662_sI am driving down the interstate 94 between Deerfield and Kenosha. Cars are passing to the left of me and on the right. I am driving at a leisurely 65mph for two reasons; the first is that I have Wisconsin plates now, and as a former resident of Illinois I know that anyone speeding with out-of-state plates is more likely to be pulled over for speeding than an Illinois resident. But there’s another reason I’m driving so slowly; it’s that my pace of life has changed.

I used to live here. I know these roads and I used to hurl myself along them at the fastest speed I thought I could get away with. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about being here, being in the hectic pace that catches you up into it, even without realizing it. There’s no question that the pace of life in the Chicago suburbs is frenetic, hectic. To live here is to be busy, to be moving, always be late, always having something more to do, more to cram in before your day is through.

I am no longer constantly immersed in this chaos. I now live in Wisconsin, in Kenosha, just over the state line from Illinois. That makes all the difference–crossing that invisible line from the Illinois hyperlife to the culture of Wisconsin was what I needed to move from stressed to measured.

I have embraced the pace of life in Wisconsin. It is more forgiving, more human. It allows me time to listen, to reflect, to be present to the people around me. The change didn’t happen overnight, but the recognition was there immediately. (All you need to do is drive through the streets of Kenosha and rush hour and it suddenly hits you that no one is tailgating you.) For the settling to come, I had to let go of the internal drive I brought with me from Illinois. It is only recently that I have fully adjusted. I can move slowly when I get up in the morning, I can pace my work, I can respect the limits my body imposes on me. I can switch from a hard task to an easier one when I’m tired, and yes, as you might expect, I can slow down and listen to myself, others and most importantly, God, with a greater sense of calm and quiet.

I haven’t “heard more” from the Lord in Wisconsin, but I can be more attentive, embracing the quiet and the calm, the doable, the attainable, the walk rather than the run. This is building into me a kind of spiritual endurance that I haven’t experienced before. In the quiet, God is there. If he is silent, we both enjoy the silence. I am learning that even silence speaks when we have the luxury of listening to it.

Today I attended a meeting in the western suburbs of Chicago and my host was practically vibrating with excitement at the conclusion. It was a great meeting! I enjoyed it immensely, but my gladness is more in keeping with my own internal clock: regular, sustained, full. My excitement hasn’t come from winding itself up, but looks more like the hiker, who, knowing the distance that must be traveled, sets off at a measured pace, ready to alternately rest and walk, marveling at the sights along the way.

I am on my way home now. Cars are passing on my left, and cars are passing to my right. And I continue at my sedate 65mph, glad to have visited, looking forward to home, but not impatient to get there.

the cure of the falls


Take a look at the people in this photo. How do they strike you? What can you tell from the expression on their faces?

This photo was taken at Niagara Falls just last week. It was a strange place to be! It was crowded, people were, well, not exactly shoving, but “close,” moving quickly, not bothered about each other, impatient to get on with their sightseeing. Not only was the atmosphere thick with people, but there were also many languages and nationalities represented. I heard more Japanese, Korean and Chinese than I think I’ve heard anywhere but San Francisco’s Chinatown. I heard Arabic, German and (much lower down on the list) Spanish. The diversity of nationalities were as dense as the people. It wasn’t a melting pot so much as a chafing dish and chock full of different “ingredients.” How could this mass of people and breadth of language be appealing to anyone? How did it become a positive description of what it means to be a United States citizen?

As John & I rode the Maid of the Mist–the cruise near the falls–all of us on the ship were united in awe, looking first at the American Falls, then riding into the center of the Horseshoe Falls, pointing, taking pictures, fleeing the sudden spray when the wind changed, laughing.

This was nothing compared to the Cave of the Winds tour. We got up close and personal with the Bridal Veil Falls, trudging up and down the stairs, admiring the little falls and protected areas beneath the rubble and then at last reaching the Hurricane Deck where, in the top
corner of the deck, the Bridal Veil Falls lash out at you with the force only tons of falling water can have…and you feel exhilarated by the forces of nature, amazed by the feel, the smell, the sight, the taste. You laugh out loud. You feel joy.

Take a look at the photo again. This was taken just to the side of the Hurricane Deck. Do these people appear full of cares? Disturbed? Worried? They aren’t. These are the faces of people who have tasted joy due to awe-inspiring and fully experienced beauty.

If I had any doubts about the ability of all humans to be able to worship God with their entire beings, it was cured by a day at Niagara Falls.

Transcript 1.b: Mary M. con’t

Things were getting tense. The Pharisees were obviously pooling their mental resources and coming out to ask Teacher questions merely to trip him up. How he managed to keep his cool through all that, I’ll never know. Especially when they brought the woman they’d caught in adultery to him! I was so angry and appalled and felt shamed for her. I wanted so much to go out there and just stand with her, but I was so scared. [Pause.] I wish I could have done that. Maybe I could, now. [Clears throat.] Well, in the end the Teacher had the last word. “Let anyone who’s never sinner throw the first stone.” How do you respond to that? You don’t, you can’t. What they did was really all they could do, really. They just left, all of them. And then the teacher asked the woman “where are your accusers?” And she responded “no where around here.” She was in shock. Teacher said, “I don’t accuse you either. Go and don’t sin this way again.” She left quickly, but just like someone who’s been staring down a knife. She didn’t quite understand how it was her life was spared. I don’t think any of us really understood except the Teacher.

That’s just an example of how bad things were getting before the Passover, as we were pushing towards Jerusalem.

Then the Teacher sent some of the men out to find a colt and we all thought “this is it.” What it was, I’m not sure, although I think most of us still thought it was going to be a political overthrow. Kingdoms are about governments, right? That’s what we thought would happen–I figured it would be a bloodless coup, since none of us could really fight, but I think many of the men thought Teacher would just turn them into warriors, like he healed people, with a word.

It was amazing and glorious and tense, that entry. All those people, waving palm branches, putting coats in the road, shouting “Hosanna!” In the end, we didn’t even stay in the city overnight–it was so crowded because of the Passover and I think Teacher knew things would come to a head too quickly if we stayed. So we’d spend the night in Bethany and go into Jerusalem during the day so the Teacher could preach and teach again. And cleanse the temple one last time!

I was there at the Passover meal–his last meal. I made myself useful by helping to cook and serve the meal. It was worth it to be near the Teacher. And then he did the thing that shocked us all. Have you heard about it? That he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed the disciples’ feet? It was shocking. It still takes my breath away. Here was the man we were looking forward to crowning as King, washing our feet, lower than the lowest servant.

His arrest. No, I wasn’t there. Isn’t that crazy? As someone who worked so hard to stay as close as possible to the Teacher…I wasn’t there. In a way, I’m glad. I don’t know how I would have responded. Would I have tried to grab a sword, like Peter? Actually, I suspect I would have screamed and tried to in front of him–the mothering instinct, I guess. I heard what had happened while he was being “tried” at the Sanhedrin, if you can call it there. I couldn’t get too close, it was so crowded–and to be honest, we were frightened. [Question.] Oh, me and the other two Marys. We had seen Peter, but he acted like he didn’t know us–he was really struggling…

Anyway, we followed from the Sanhedrin to Herod’s palace. We’d hardly arrived when Herod shunted Teacher off to the Roman authorities. It was awful. Pilate kept coming out…it was clear he didn’t know what to do with the Teacher. He’d try and release him, but the Pharisees convinced the crowd to agitate for the death penalty. When Mary (Teacher’s mother) first heard this, she almost fainted. We all protested, but we were shouted down by the crowd. That was the closest I have ever been to a riot. [Makes a shuddering sound.] After a while it was like the crowd had become a single entity, a beast, just out to consume Teacher Jesus.

That’s when Pilate attempted to release Jesus. By then it was too la175px-Eccehomo2te, the Pharisees had incited the crowd to the point that they’d settle for nothing less than death for the teacher. That was where John joined us, about the time Herod had sent the teacher out to be flogged. It was excruciating. He received the maximum number of lashes allowed under Roman law, you know. I don’t see how anyone could endure that kind of treatment and remain alive, let alone standing. I don’t know how the Teacher did it…

Then Pilate released Teacher to the solders to be crucified.


Transcript 1.a: Mary M.

Pietro Perugino's Mary Magdalene, c. 1500.

Pietro Perugino’s Mary Magdalene, c. 1500.

Hi, it’s nice to finally meet you. Oh, are you recording all of this? Wow, that’s impressive–and actually I really appreciate it. I’ve heard so many oddball stories about the Teacher floating around. I’m glad you’re taking the time to get things right.

My name? Mary. There are so many of us “Marys” around the teacher most every called me Mary Magdaline. Occupation? Really? OK, well, let’s just say “disciple.” How did I meet him. Mmmm. There’s a lot there….let’s just say I was as desperate as anyone who came to him. I had 7 demons cast out of me, you know. There are plenty of people happy to bend your ear with stories of my past–and most of them are true! [Laughs.] But it’s not good for me to dwell on those. That’s all I want to say about that.

[Out of range question.]

Right. Sure. Well, I can only really give you my own story. If you want particulars on his teaching you’ll need to track down Matthew–he’s more the record-keeping type. Me, I’m more about relationships. I just wanted to be around Teacher, that’s all I wanted. I can tell you why that’s true, if you like.

After he removed the demons from me, I felt such freedom! I’d never experienced anything like that before. You’d think someone like me, who didn’t care a fig for anything anyone said about them would know what freedom is, but that just not true. Demons are not about freedom–it’s like being in a cage that’s slightly to small for you with 7 tigers added in…only worse. [Shudders visibly.] Sorry, I need to leave that alone. [Pause.] Yes, freedom. But it was more than freedom. I felt clean. That wasn’t even something I was looking for. It’s like what the prophet Ezekiel said, about being sprinkled with clean water and being cleansed of all your impurities and idols. That actually makes sense to me now. [Trails off.]

Pardon? Sorry, I miss him a lot. Yes, I followed him from that point on. I just couldn’t get enough! The freedom that I experienced in the moment those demons left me, the cleanness, the sense of rightness of all that–I only found that in the Teacher. So I just didn’t leave. I followed him everywhere. I pushed to the front of the crowds, I sat at his feet, quite literally. I gave money to support him. And when he’d go off to be with the Twelve–and understand, I don’t begrudge a man his male friends–I would find any way I could to stay close. I’d serve dinner, I’d sit outside the door…whatever.

[Out of range question.]

You’re right, that is a delicate question. Or perhaps it would be more proper to say an “indelicate” question. Trust a Roman to ask it. Look, the Teacher was the embodiment of our Law. I’ve never seen someone so single-minded, so put together. As far as I can tell, he never fell short of the Law. There were things that he did that looked like law-breaking to others, like the time when he cleaned out moneylenders and sacrifice vendors from the temple–but when he explained that he was cleansing the temple, how these vendors were leaving no place for the Gentiles to worship, it made perfect sense. And he told us that the Law was made for man and not man for the Law. I’m still unpacking THAT one! But whenever one of the Pharisees would point out some niggly way in which he was law-breaking, he’d turn it on its head and show them how they were law-breaking. His law-breaking got closer to the heart of the Law, the Decalogue you know. Then he even boiled that down further and said the essence of the Law was to love the Father with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. He was always turning things to show you a way of thinking of it that you’d never done before.

I’m sorry? Right, yes, fine. The answer is NO, I never saw the Teacher deal any woman–or man for that matter, Roman–in any way that was inappropriate within the Law. I won’t say there weren’t women among us who wanted a more intimate relationship with him. But if you got to thinking that way you’d have some encounter with him where he made you feel so honored and respected, even loved–you’d suddenly feel like it was possible to live your life without a husband, just to be close to him. That’s how satisfying it was just to be with him. We gave up the comforts of home and the protection and love of family just to be with him.

So for a while, things were great. We all traveled together from place to place, listening to the Teacher, marveling at his healings, looking out for each other. We never lacked for food. Sometimes we’d end up sleeping on the ground outside, but no one ever had to do that alone, and I don’t think anyone begrudged it. We all wanted to be there, you see, and we all supported each other–just like Teacher wanted it.

[Next segment: 1.b: On Jesus Christ's death & resurrection]

The answer to Jesus’ question

You say:cathedralupper
“Knock and I’ll answer. Seek and find me.”

I can’t rise from my chair to reach the door.
Seeking sounds like work.

You say:
“Come to me when you’re weary and worn out.
You’ll find real rest with me.”

I roll from this lazy-boy into a loveseat with you.
You take my troubles, you calm my fevered thinking.
Is this what an easy yoke is?

You say:
“I’m standing at your door. I’m knocking.
I’m calling your name. Won’t you come?”

I will answer the door, but I’m not sure I can leave the house.
Are you wooing or cajoling me?

You say:
“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Watch and pray with me.”

I say:
“Lord, your disciples couldn’t stay awake for a single hour!
What makes you think I can?”

You say:
“Parents on this planet know how to give good gifts to their children.”

I interrupt:
“We’re talking fish and bread here.”

You finish:
“How much more will our Father in Heaven give
the Holy Spirit
to those that ask?”

…How much more…

I will ask, I will seek, I will knock, I will pray.
Come Holy Spirit.