Menu Close
29th January 2023

Nathanael- the Scholar

Passage: John 1;verses 42-51


Remember the seven good fairy-godmothers who turned up for the Sleeping Beauty’s christening, each bringing a special gift? Which seven special gifts would you ask for Bethany? Good health would be high on the list, and, if we are honest, so would beauty. We might not wish for huge wealth, but we would ask that she has enough to be free from money worries, hunger or homelessness. Love would certainly be on the list. And we would hope for some special talents, whether they be for ballet or football or advanced mathematics; we would like to see her enjoying something and being good at it. And, of course, we would ask for goodness- that she has a kind and happy disposition. Is that seven? I’ve lost count….
But what about the bad godmother in Sleeping Beauty, the one who is waiting in the wings to put a curse on the child? What would we most fear for Bethany? There is a lot to be afraid of in this life and I guess it could be summed up as anything which prevents her from using and enjoying her good gifts.

We see children born into lives with plenty of money use that money to ill effect; girls who are incredibly beautiful hating their reflection in the mirror; people with exceptional gifts struggling to handle them. I remember at college in Wales, moving into a cottage, hearing the landlady rant about the previous tenants- the mess they had left, which included unwashed milk bottles in double figures and empty beer bottles in treble figures. “I wouldn’t mind” she said, “but one of them has a first class degree in geography.” What is the use of having first-class academic ability if you can’t cope with basic life skills?
King Solomon of Israel had every good gift you could think of: money, power, knowledge. When God asks what further gift he would like Solomon asks for “An understanding heart” to use it all well. So yes, we pray that Bethany be blessed with many special gifts, but we also pray that she may be given the grace to use them well through all the ups and downs of life.

Nathanael- a disciple of Jesus who appears to have been something of a scholar. We are told that he was “sitting under a fig-tree” and this place, in his Jewish culture was a recognised place of learning and study. The Jews took their religion very seriously, and quite rightly. What is the good of having a religion if you do not take it seriously? Their laws and theology went back centuries, and they had the good sense to know that although God was the same God, the world had not remained the same world. Religious and social practices which had worked for a travelling community (which was where it all started) would not work quite so well for a settled nation running a country. In the same way, religious rituals appropriate when you had your own country, free access to your temple, a priesthood with political as well as spiritual power were not going to work so well under Roman occupation. (We are finding this out for ourselves aren’t we? A model of church and teaching of faith which worked well in the British culture of the nineteen fifties is not working so well in the 2020’s.)

So, back to Nathanael. In his day, there were small groups of scholars who would spend long hours studying their scriptures, working out how best to apply them to everyday life. They would then teach this to their people. It was not just about repeating all their holy texts, passed down from generation to generation but about understanding how these texts might shape lives and the faith community where they were right now. Nathanael seems to have been one of these scholars and Jesus needed at least one person with these skills in his band of disciples; someone who “knew his stuff” when it came to religion but also knew how to make it relevant in his culture.
Today we received Bethany into church of Jesus Christ, an institution at least two thousand years old. And we have prayed for grace and wisdom that we may enable her to receive the Christian faith as relevant to her life right here, right now.

Jesus’ first comment about Nathanael was that “here is a true Israelite.” The name “Israel,” was first given to Jacob, who wrestled with an unknown assailant all night and was told in the morning that he had “wrestled with God.” Israel means “wrestles with God.” It was meant as a compliment. Jacob was dealing with a lot of difficult issues in his life at the time, some of which were of his own making. And he was not just going to sit back and accept everything he had been told about God. He needed to wrestle with life and its meaning; with himself and the person he was; with God and what God was doing in his life. Jacob wanted to know God for himself.

In the same way, Nathanael was wrestling with the holy scriptures, seeking out the truth of God for himself, rather than just repeating, parrot- fashion, what he had been taught. But Jesus adds “a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’
Jacob had been in trouble because he had cheated his brother and deceived his father. He had been forced to run away from home and ended up living with his uncle, who cheated him, leaving Jacob feeling justified in cheating him back. Jacob was still living in a “dog eats dog” world, where life was about self-preservation and one upmanship at all costs. And this was not enough for Nathanael. He was in search of truth. A true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.

It is frighteningly easy to fall back into “dog eats dog.” Not always physically but professionally, socially, intellectually. When life becomes a matter of self-preservation, of proving yourself at all costs. Even religion falls into that trap. Jesus once spoke of religious leaders who took the rule of tithing-giving ten percent of your income to the work of God- so seriously that they worked out the most miniscule ten percent of garden herbs like mint and thyme. “Look at us! Aren’t we great?” Yet the next moment they would be turning poor widows out of their homes. Their religion was no more than a cover-up for their dog-eats-dog world.
Our hope for Bethany is that she will never be satisfied with anything less than truth and honesty before God.

Nathanael’s first response on being told about Jesus was to declare in shocked horror, “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Lady Bracknell- A Handbag?)
Even the most erudite of scholars can be surprised at times. Again, there is a reference to Jacob’s story: the ladder up to heaven with angels ascending and descending was what Jacob saw in his dream when he was sleeping rough in the desert, on the run from his family. Jacob had encountered God in the place he least expected to. Nathanael was meeting the Messiah, the Saviour from God in the place he least expected.

And this was the start of a long and complex journey for him. Nathanael was to learn that the ultimate truth about God and the reality of God were to be found not in academic study but in a relationship with Jesus Christ. And this relationship would lead them through pain and injustice; through misunderstanding and persecution. There would be times when nothing, absolutely nothing would make sense. This “Messiah” from Nazareth would end up crucified.
Yet there is no evidence that Nathanael ended up saying, “I told you so. I said nothing good would come out of Nazareth and nothing has. It has all been an illusion.” Nathanael had, as Jesus promised, seen far greater things. He had witnessed miracles of sight to the blind, healing of the lepers, calming of the mentally ill, restoration of self-respect to the fallen. He had seen miracles of feeding the hungry, calming the storm, cheering the wedding guests with new wine. And he understood that here, in this person, was the kingdom of God, brought alive. Rules and rituals had their place, as did study and knowledge, but all needed the infusion of God’s living power to bring them to life and to keep them alive in the face of even the worst evil and injustice. In Jesus, God himself was wrestling with life, wrestling with evil and would overcome. And because Jesus overcame, those who followed him, came to know and to love him would do so too. Which is why our prayer above all for Bethany is that she will come to know Jesus and in knowing him, come to know herself as loved and empowered by God, living in and co-creating the kingdom of God.

Words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer again: it is only by living completely in the world that one learns to have faith…. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings but those of God in the world- watching with Jesus Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith, that is metanoia (a change of heart); that is how one becomes a true human and a Christian.”