In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Come and see,” is all Philip says to Nathanael. Come and see, in response to Nathanael’s dismissal of Nazareth as a place from which anything good could come. Can anything good come out of Nazareth, Nathanael says in response to Philip’s words that Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth, is the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. We have found Him, Philip says—though, of course, it is Jesus who finds Philip and says, “Follow Me.”
Come and see, Philip says. That’s it. No evidence, no proof, no frustration at the fact that Nathanael dismisses his claim. Just, Come and see. Come and see that Jesus is indeed the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote; He is the one who fulfills all those promises and prophecies. So Nathanael goes. And though Nathanael doesn’t know Jesus, Jesus knows Nathanael. How? “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
I still don’t know what exactly those words do to Nathanael’s skepticism. Maybe it’s Zechariah 3, where God says that everyone will invite his neighbor to come under his fig tree (3:10). Maybe it’s Micah 4, where God says that everyone will sit under his fig tree and no one will make them afraid (4:4). Or maybe it’s neither. But something changes, and Nathanael suddenly says, “You are the Son of God and the King of Israel!” Jesus says that he will see greater things than this: he will see heavens having been opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. No longer will it be as it was in Jacob’s dream, where he saw a ladder with its foot on the ground and its top in heaven, and God at the top, and angels going up and down (Genesis 28:10-22). No, God will no longer be up in heaven looking down on the earth. Jesus, the Son of Man, is right there on the earth. He has come down and dwells with His Israel on earth.
Nathanael comes and sees, and he believes after Jesus speaks to him. It seems clear that the best thing to do when skeptics question our claims about who Jesus is to simply say, “Come and see.” But if we do that, what are we asking them to come and see? None of us has seen Jesus in the flesh. People who come with us are not going to see Him in the flesh. So if we say, come and see, what is it that they will see if they come?
Are we trying to sell them on our church, talk it up, convince them that they should be in our pews, rather than in a seat somewhere else? Are we telling them to come and see how much better our lives got after we joined this church? Come and see how much greater our music is, how much better our preacher is, how much more uplifting is our worship experience? If so, we’ve missed the point. And because we miss the point, perhaps that’s why we hesitate to say, “Come and see.” Maybe we suspect people are a little like Nathanael: “Can anything good come out of a Lutheran church?” Can anything good come out of this old liturgy, and these old hymns? And we’re not so convinced ourselves, so we keep our mouths shut.
While those things aren’t bringing in the masses, if we’re worried about what people will think about our humble, less-than-exciting Nazarene—I mean, Lutheran—practices, what we’re really asking them to come and see is us. And that is the worst thing we could invite them to see. Not because we aren’t nice, or aren’t friendly, or don’t care about them, but because no one should ever be invited to see sinful human beings. Philip doesn’t try to prove to Nathanael how smart he and Andrew and Simon are that they’ve found the Messiah. He doesn’t feel any need to prove anything, because he knows exactly what he’s inviting Nathanael to come and see: Jesus.
That seems obvious, but we had better remind ourselves often what it actually is that we’re about here. There are a thousand peripheral and semi-important things about a Christian congregation, but there’s only one central and essential thing: the Son of Man, who is the Son of God and the King of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth. Come and see Jesus. But what sort of Jesus? Because we do not see Him standing here as Nathanael did.
John, the Gospel-writer, has something else in mind. Later in the Gospel, Philip is involved when some others come and want to see Jesus. Some Greeks, in Jerusalem for the Passover, come to Philip and say, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” Philip finds Andrew and together they go and tell Jesus. And what does Jesus say to this request? Does He come out and shake hands with them and say nice to meet you? What would you like to know? No. He says something that, at first, doesn’t seem to answer their desire at all. He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain. But when it dies—when it’s buried in the ground—it bears much fruit… When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to Myself” (John 12:20ff.)
You want to see Jesus? Here He is, in His glory, crucified, suspended like a ladder between heaven and earth. Come and see this Jesus, enthroned in the bloody glory of His crucifixion to give life to the world. And no one—no one—will ever believe that this Jesus is the Son of God and the King of Israel, except those to whom the Holy Spirit grants faith by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that’s why Philip wasn’t worried about proving anything to Nathanael. Either the Word of Jesus will create faith, or Nathanael will resist the Holy Spirit. And neither of those things are within Philip’s power. He says Come and see, because that’s the only thing he can say. It’s what Jesus says that’s important and necessary. It’s Jesus says to Nathanael that brings out his confession, and nothing else.
So nothing has really changed since then, whether people could see Him in the flesh standing before them, or not. Jesus Himself says that the one who believes and does not see is blessed. And John says that everything that he writes down is so that you, like Nathanael, will believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name (John 20:30-31). To see is to believe, and faith comes by hearing the Words of Jesus. In those words we hear of a crucified Man, from whom pours blood and water for the cleansing and forgiving of the whole world, to give life to the world in His own flesh. Yes, Jesus is risen from the dead. If He weren’t, I certainly wouldn’t be here. He is risen, but we have that only by His word of promise. It is His death that confronts us, as John knew. In this creation, full of our sin and death, we can only see Him as the crucified one. So Paul says that we have resolved to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified. It’s so absurd that only true faith can follow such a Jesus. And the one who follows this Jesus will also give up his or her life. When we say, Come and see, we are saying, Come and die. Come die with us, because we have died with Jesus. And dying with Jesus means life forever in the resurrection of Jesus.
Can anything good come from any of this, any of these things we do week after week? Only one thing—the same, singularly good thing that came out of Nazareth: Jesus, the son of Joseph, the Son of Man and the Son of God. Come and see, come and see.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/13/18