Once again we find ourselves not in the Gospel of Mark! In this season of Epiphany the lectionary wants us to consider how those who met face to face with the adult Jesus responded to him, as well as the visitation of the Magi to the infant Christ. Today we are asked to think about Nathanael and his response – quite an intriguing one – the thing is, Nathanael isn’t mentioned in Mark’s gospel. Mark recalls how the four fishermen instantly responded, dropping their nets and becoming ‘fishers of men’; also Levi who gave up the lucrative tax collecting business, but none of the others’ stories are recorded. Philip who features in this passage from John alongside Nathanael is at least listed amongst the 12, but Nathanael isn’t (unless he is hiding under a pseudonym – there are many suggestions that Nathanael is referred to as Bartholomew in the other gospels.)
So why is Nathanael so important?
Well Nathanael is one of those very special types of people who we might call ‘the salt of the earth’, ‘a rough diamond’, someone who would call a spade a spade, someone without any airs or graces, or as John writes, ‘an Israelite in whom there is no deceit’.
Nathanael doesn’t seem to hold any airs or graces, he is certainly not one to have the wool pulled over his eyes. His first response to Philip’ invitation to ‘come and see’, is rather a rude scepticism, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’.
And yet, when he sees Jesus face to face, it is clear that they have already met. Nathanael seems to like the way that Jesus describes his character, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ he asks, which I can imagine him saying with a bit of a grin and a wink, as if to say ‘my reputation goes before me’, as if to own the description as being true.
Jesus answers him by saying, in a round about way, that they have met before, ‘I saw you under the fig tree’. Fig trees were known as places of prayer. Nathanael may be a rather sceptical rough diamond who doesn’t hold back, but he is also devout and faithful – a strong combination for a disciple, and he now recognises that Jesus is the one to whom he has been praying all this time. He declares,
You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!
Long before Peter makes his declaration of Jesus as Messiah, Nathanael has nailed it.
Underneath his fig tree, Nathanael has found a ‘thin space’ between heaven and earth, here, in his devotions he has found a connection with the heavenly realm, but that is nothing compared to what is to come. Jesus promises this descendant of Jacob, that he too will see
heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending
but, for Nathanael, the prayerful, the ‘ladder’ that connects the two will be Jesus himself.
This is Nathanael’s epiphany moment: Nathanael meets the man of his prayers, finds himself loved and accepted and called into a purpose. What is our epiphany moment? Nathanael’s began with prayer, devout and regular prayer in a place of peace, set aside from daily life: not a monastery or a temple, but an easily found place that he could make his own. Nathanael, first got to know God in the ethereal realms of spirituality before coming face to face with the Son of God. If we want to discover God’s love and purpose for our lives then we too need to begin with prayer. Not just the prayers in church on a Sunday, but regular, personal prayer in your own set-aside space. There Jesus will come and find us, and call us, and there we will find his love and acceptance, and if we are willing to accept it, his calling too.
Read the gospel passage here.
Something to watch:
Something to think about:
- What to you would be ‘Nazareth’ – a place from which no good could come?
- Why do you think it was important for Jesus to have Nathanael in his ‘pack’? What attributes do you think his ‘lack of deceit’ could bring to Jesus’ ministry?
- Why do you think Nathanael is given so little column space in the other gospels?
- What unusual ‘attributes’ do you think you have that could be of use to God? If you are meeting in a group, spend some time thinking about each other’s attributes and perhaps, kindly, sharing them.
- How can you safeguard time for personal prayer? Where is your ‘fig tree’?
- Spend some time now, quietly waiting upon God – have something to hand to prayerfully fiddle with as you do so (a ribbon, some prayer beads, play dough..)
Something to pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, you know us better than we know ourselves, seeing us as we really are, with all our faults and limitations, our quirks and weaknesses, yet giving your all for us in love.
Help us simply to know you better – glimpsing a little more clearly who you are in all your glory, greatness, love and compassion – so that, in love, we might give back to you in love, offering our worship now, our time today and our discipleship always, in grateful response. Amen. Nick Fawcett