Summary: For each of us, like Nathanael, our movement to full discipleship in Jesus Christ takes us through periods of skepticism and doubt, but if we look for the signs and work of Christ, we will never be empty of words to share as disciples of Christ!
I suspect that Nathanael wasn’t the first person who had some doubts about Jesus the Christ. And he certainly wasn’t the last. We have plenty of records of people who, throughout history, have questioned the validity of Jesus’ role as Messiah. But even among people of faith, there are still times of when we deal with uncertainty about the role of Jesus in our lives and in the world around us.
Just look at the Apostle Paul, the greatest evangelist of the early church. Prior to his Christian conversion, Paul, like Nathanael, has been “zealous for the law,” working to experience God’s acceptance, but never feeling he had done quite enough. It was only after a very profound encounter with the risen Lord on the Road to Damascus that Paul came to understand, accept, and then articulate the truth of salvation by grace through faith. Paul was able to let go of his desperate attempt to win God’s favor, of the constant nagging doubt that he was doing enough, and he was able to receive the gift of God’s salvation in Christ Jesus.
Then there was Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation. For years, he experienced deep and terrifying spiritual struggles he called Anfechtungens, a German word which roughly translates to “trials” or “spiritual crises,” and could be described as “dark nights of the soul.” Like Paul, Luther was plagued by this doubt until one evening when he was reading Paul’s own letter to the Romans. In the first chapter, Paul speaks of the righteousness of God that is ours by faith. Suddenly, Luther “got it” and he began to trust God’s righteousness and acceptance. It was his newfound faith which spurred him to nail his “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Church.
After Luther, there was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley was raised in the home of an Anglican priest. He went to Oxford to study theology, and then stayed on there to teach others, even as he himself became a priest of the Anglican Church. For decades, he immersed himself in studying scripture, praying, fasting, and worship. Then, in his early 30s, he answered a call to go to the new colony of Georgia and serve there in mission to the natives and the colonists. As I’ve shared with you before, Wesley’s work in Savannah was a complete failure, and he returned to England after only two years with his proverbial tail between his legs. He was ready to give it all up, when he sought out the guidance of some Moravian Christians he had come to know in his travels to America. Wesley shared with their leader, Peter Boehler, that he intended to give up preaching. To that Boehler responded, “Preach faith till you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” So that’s what Wesley did. And just two short years later, as he sat in a Society meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, listening to a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s letter to the Romans, Wesley recorded, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” For the next 50 years, Wesley would preach and teach about the gift of salvation and God’s great grace. We sit here today, in some way a product of his work.
More recently, you may have heard of Mother Teresa’s struggles. Even as she worked among the poor and outcaste, the “Untouchables” of Indian society, seeking to share God’s love with them, she wondered about God’s presence and love for her. She knelt in prayer multiple times a day everyday, and yet she reflected in her writings that more often than not, her prayers reached no further than the ceiling above her head. Still, she continued to serve her Lord faithfully.
Two-thousand years ago, Philip, the newest disciple of Jesus ran to find his friend, Nathanael. “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.” I’m not sure how Philip could have been anymore clear, he identified the Messiah in about four different ways: “the one Moses wrote about in the Law and Prophets,” “Jesus,” “Joseph’s son,” “from Nazareth.” Now, just after this, Jesus identifies Nathanael as a genuine Israelite, so we can know that Philip’s words describing Jesus as “the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets” would have carried great weight with someone like Nathanael. And yet, Nathanael gets stuck on the very last and perhaps most insignificant fact that Philip draws out--“from Nazareth.” You can almost hear the gall in Nathanael’s response, “From Nazareth?!? Are you kidding me??? What a joke! Can anything good come from Nazareth?”