SCRIPTURE The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” [John 1:43-51]
MESSAGE “I Saw You” Rev. James Renfrew
In preaching there are two general approaches to Scripture. “Exegesis” means digging deep to discover what the text has to say on its own terms. “Eisegesis” means finding something in Scripture that that supports an idea I already have, so that I present the Scripture on my terms. Exegesis is the obvious goal, but the truth is that we always bring in our own biases even when we’re trying not to. It’s always a constant struggle.
An easy example of this comes from the time of the Civil War when theologians in the southern states found in Scripture one rationale after another in support of slavery. That kind of Scriptural interpretation, eisegesis, bent and twisted the heart of the Gospel into something that it was not to support a nefarious policy of slavery, claiming that it was God’s will. To this day, as I scanned some news stories about race during the past week, there are still many who find evidence in support of their racial superiority in Scripture. It’s eisegesis, not exegesis.
Today’s reading is all about disciples, what they were and what they became after Jesus met them. So I could approach this through eisegesis, finding a Biblical rationale for being just who I am and then slapping a disciple identity on it. I’m good now, nothing needs to change, it’s all taken care of. Jim, the disciple! All of you, disciples! Wow, that was easy! Now, go on doing what you were already doing.
Exegesis, instead, gets us to a different place, where Phillip and Nathanael’s lives are turned upside-down and inside-out. They come out of the interaction with Jesus moving in a very different direction. And, just like last week’s reading, Phillip and Nathanael, Jesus says, they are going to see the heavens opened. They are now disciples, but it’s not something superficial. Being a disciple is at the core of what they have become.
Jesus had 12 disciples, 12 people to follow him from town to town, 12 people to help him as he taught, 12 people who would become his witnesses to the cross and resurrection. Why did they follow him? When they met Jesus they found what they were looking for. .
How long had they been looking? I don’t know — maybe a few weeks, maybe their whole lives. But here is something worth understanding about this story: as much as they were looking for someone like Jesus, Jesus was already looking for them. This means, of course, that as much as you look for him, he’s already looking for you! You’re trying to find him, but he’s already seen you.
Each of the four Gospels has stories about how Jesus found those twelve disciples. Today we have one of the stories from the Gospel of John. We usually hear about the fishermen Peter and Andrew, James and John, but here’s a story about Nathanael and Phillip.
One day Phillip told Nathanael about Jesus. When Nathanael came to see Jesus for himself, he was surprised that Jesus already knew who he was. “I saw you! I saw you studying and praying under the shade of the tree,” Jesus told him. Jesus already knew that Nathanael was looking for something. Jesus wasn’t looking at random, he could see the ones who were ready.
In the opening invitation for the service we heard these words: “He knows everything about you.” And that’s not something to worry about. Jesus knows about everything you’ve ever done, but he also knows better than you do what you need and what you can become. You’re the exact kind of person he’s been looking for.
Think for a moment about the places where Jesus has been looking for you – not where you would look for him, but where he’s been looking for you … in your kitchen, out in the barn, at your brother’s house, at a restaurant, at the bar, in the hospital, out in the field, at the park … where else?
For some reason I always had the impression that the religious life is something like a narrow path up a steep mountain, with many dangers and obstacles along the way. But that’s not how the gospel tells it: as much as you are looking for him, I think Jesus has seen you already.
My mother did family tree research for many years, trying to trace back both sides of my family as far as she could into the past. For the longest time one of the branches ended with a big question mark, because one the great-great uncles had gone west and was never heard from again. She has even traveled to tiny villages in northern Vermont looking for clues but the leads were all dead-ends. Then one day, she got a telephone call from a man in Texas. He explained that he was doing genealogical research that had brought him to the town clerk’s office in a small Vermont village. The man in Texas was trying to fill in a question about his family tree and his family was the part my mother had been missing. She was delighted to discover that the one she had been searching for had been looking for her at the same time, and the village clerk in that small town put them in touch. I hope that we can be like that village clerk in, helping the ones who are looking for Jesus to discover that Jesus is already looking for them.
“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks a penetrating, searching question, that pushes us to set our aim high, not low. He challenges us to be honest about who we are and what we lack and what we need.
“What are you looking for?” It’s a practical question. Andrew says that he wants to know where Jesus lives, so he can stop by to talk some more. Jesus responds, “Sure, stop on over any time!”
“What are you looking for?” It’s a spiritual question, too. Nathanael liked to sit under the fig tree studying the words of scripture, dreaming about a world at peace. Jesus detected the yearning for peace in Nathanael’s heart. “Come on, Nathanael, you’re a good man, you and I will dream about peace together.”
In my life I have met many who are looking. Maybe you have too. There was the man whose wife had left him. He came to church looking for a new future. There are teenagers I know who see too much confusion in the world. They come to church looking for ways to make wiser choices about friends, and school, and so much more. There was an elderly woman who told me of a tragedy that happened to her when she was very young. No one else knows about it, but seventy years later she’s still looking for healing. There are people of all kinds who come to the church looking for love and friendship and – why not – we have lots to share! There are people, maybe you’re one of them, who come looking for the strength to be better parents, looking for peace in the middle of life’s chaos, looking for spiritual food in hungry times.
What are we looking for? We are looking for truth, love and forgiveness in action. We are looking for something that we can count on. We are looking for love that is unconditional, we are looking for forgiveness that is never runs out, we are looking for truth that is unassailable. We’ve had enough of love that is temporary, enough of love that excludes or demeans. We’ve had enough of forgiveness that is self-serving and superficial. We’ve had enough of fake truth that no longer seems to know the difference between fact and fiction, between science and opinion. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asked them. “Come and see!” So they took a look. And they discovered that he was already looking for them.
Eisegesis – Jesus is looking for us, he is coming to tell us we’re OK just the way we are. Nothing about us needs to change. Only the knuckleheads of the world need to change, and praise God, we’re not one of them!
Exegesis – Jesus is looking for us, sees us for what we are, and he sees what we can yet become. Everybody needs changing, including, and especially you and me.
Well, look at that! The heavens are opening!