Reverend Philip Stringer
LET US PRAY: We ask, O Lord, that the words which we hear this morning, and the worship which we offer, may bear fruit in our hearts and be acceptable in your sight, our strength and our redeemer. AMEN
I found Jesus on the West Virginia toll road the other day. There he was, sticking out his arm from a tollbooth, and I didn’t even see him there.
I was on my way home from a trip to Indiana. There are three tollbooth stops on the Virginia Toll Road — and between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, I had driven 3 roundtrips to Indiana — so that was 18 toll stops! One thing I’ve noticed is that the attendants at the toll booths are almost without exception, cheerful and friendly. I’ll say, “hello,” and they will always answer back — “hello,” or “have a nice day.”
They don’t have to say anything, of course. And I think it could be a terribly boring job and saying “hello” all day could get very wearisome, but they say it anyway — and because of that, I think they must really mean it!
At this particular tollbooth — number 18 — the last one on my last round trip — the attendant and I had had the typical exchange:
“You’re welcome. Have a nice day.”
And then — as I was driving away — something a little extra came from the booth: “God bless you!”
Even beyond the usual cordialities, she had gone out of her way to speak that last sentence to me. She didn’t have to do that.
“God bless you,” she said.
This season of Epiphany is the season of “revealing” the presence and identity of Christ. It is a season of signs that point to him. And it is the perfect time for asking ourselves questions, like, “who are the people God has placed in your life to serve as signs that point you to faith in Jesus?” For me, the other day, it was a tollbooth attendant. How about you? And how is God using you as a sign to others, that they may come to faith in him?
Our Scripture texts today tell us three stories of people who didn’t see God in their midst. And in each instance, there are three people who serve as signs that point to the presence of God.
For Samuel, it was Eli. We are told that he was just a boy and “did not yet know the Lord.” He was ignorant of such things, so when God came to him -- he didn’t understand -- didn’t recognize God at all. It was Eli who recognized what was happening and gave him direction -- he pointed the way for him to go.
In our second reading, it was Paul who served as a sign for the people of Corinth -- Christians trying to apply the gospel to their daily lives but missing the mark. Someone had suggested to them that because Christ has removed the yoke of the law from us, that means anything goes -- carnal anarchy! They had been taught that God cares only about the soul and what happens in the body has no bearing on the soul. They missed the meaning of the resurrection. It was Paul who served as the sign, pointing them to a fuller understanding of the good news. He showed them that Christ came for today -- not just tomorrow. Paul encouraged them in holy living, that they might see Christ in every aspect of life.
And finally, we have our gospel reading. The gospel of John is a “book of signs” that point to faith in Jesus. In John’s gospel, signs are almost always necessary for coming to faith in Jesus.
In just the first chapter, there are many “signs” that point others to faith in Jesus:
Jesus’ baptism is a sign to John the Baptist that Jesus is the Messiah.
John the Baptist then serves as a sign that points to Jesus, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
Andrew points his brother, Peter, to the messiah.
The author of the gospel even sees what he has written as a “sign” that points the reader to faith in Jesus, “these things are written that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah…”
In today’s gospel reading, Nathanael is seated under a fig tree and meets the proclamation of Philip with cynicism and contempt -- “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” His comment doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t care. In fact, he makes this comment while seated under a fig tree, which was a traditional place for contemplation -- especially for scholars. Presumably, Nathanael is seated under a fig tree precisely because he IS waiting expectantly for the coming of the messiah -- he just doesn’t expect him to come from a no-account hick town like Nazareth, and certainly not as a carpenter. Nathanael is looking, but he too, fails to see.
It is Philip who serves as the sign that points the way for Nathanael to come to faith in Jesus. “We have found him,” said Philip. “Come and see!”
Three stories of people who didn’t get it. People who failed to see God present and at work in their midst. And three stories of people who were signs pointing to the presence of the Lord.
Today is a perfect time for us to ask the questions: What are the signs -- past and present -- which God has placed into your life to point you toward Jesus, and to bring you to faith in him?
And in what ways are you called and equipped to serve as a sign that points the way for those around you?
You likely can point to people in your life who have served as examples of faith and encouragement to you. But in this season of Epiphany, I challenge you to look for more signs. Sometimes, they may not be what you expect at all -- like my tollbooth attendant -- but they will point you to Christ. They will reveal his presence to you.
When Philip approached Nathanael, he said to him “we have found him of whom (the scriptures speak).” That’s not actually true. I told you that John is full of sings and that signs are usually necessary for people to come to faith in Jesus. But Philip is an exception. It is Jesus who comes to Philip and finds him!
I don’t think Philip is lying. I think that when he says, “we have found him,” he is saying that he has come to believe.
The truth is, of course, that God finds you -- not the other way around.
A friend wrote to me the other day and said that his New Year’s resolution is to pursue God. REAL JOY comes when you “discover” that God is pursuing you – relentlessly -- because he loves you. I hope that my friend knows this. What I hope he is REALLY saying is that he intends to actively seek out the signs of God in his life and seek to follow God’s will.
Truly, God is pursuing you in earnest. He goes to the cross in pursuit of you. He comes in this water in pursuit of you -- and he continues to meet you in your daily life.
“We have found him,” said Philip. But Jesus isn’t lost, of course. He is everywhere. And if he IS hidden -- then he has placed signs EVERYWHERE that we might find him. He wants to be found. Where are you prepared to look for him? The signs pointed Nathanael to a place where he didn’t expect to find Jesus -- in a Galilean carpenter from Nazareth. Where will you look for him?
Jesus surprised me a number of years ago while riding on a city bus in Taiwan! I was carrying a load of stuff from our apartment to my office at the church. I got on the bus and it was crowded -- and of course the elderly get the seats. But this tiny, little old lady got up. She was wearing a necklace of trinkets that represented gods of folk religion. She wasn’t a Christian, but she smiled at me and insisted I take her seat. “No, no, no,” I said. But she insisted and so I accepted her gift. As I was getting off later, she returned to her seat -- our eyes met -- she smiled again, and I thought, “I know that smile. Where have I seen that smile before? Ah, yes! That’s Jesus’ smile.
Where will you look for him? I saw his smile on the face of a nonbeliever. I also saw his smile on the face of a man holding a sign, “will work for food.” And if we will look still closer, we will find not only his smile. We will find his tears. We will find his hands. We will find his arms, and his voice. Where will you look for him?
And how are you being set forth as a sign to others?
Jesus says to Philip, “come follow me.” And what does Philip do? He leaves Jesus, and goes to get Nathanael!
Following Jesus isn’t about “sticking close to Jesus.” It’s about pointing to Jesus. And if we look at the example of Philip, we can learn a lot about how to be a good “sign.”
Pointing to Jesus (being a sign) doesn’t mean to convert people. Philip goes to Nathanael and shares his joy and his good news, “we have found him!”
When Nathanael poo-poos what he has to say, Philip doesn’t enter into an argument with him. No one ever got argued into the kingdom! Philip believes, and he simply shares his joy, and then an invitation: “come and see!” That’s GREAT evangelism.
You are a sign -- if you have “found” something of value, share the good news of it -- and don’t worry about converting. Just tell people what you have seen and believe -- let them see in you the difference that joy makes -- and invite them to come and see for themselves.
Someone once put it like this: we are like beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.
Where is God placing signs in your life to point you toward faith in Jesus?
How is it that you can serve as a sign that points others to faith in him? AMEN