“Don’t Be Afraid… of Jesus” – John 1:43-51
[The sermon was preached from ¾ way up a ladder.]
Introduction – The sky ladder and phobias
The theme slide today features a 40 meter long sky ladder between two mountains southeast of Salzburg, Austria. Sometimes known as the Stairway to Heaven, it does offer spectacular views but the top of the ladder isn’t literally in heaven. However, one misstep could see you plummet 700 meters… and in that case you would get to heaven – or maybe the other place – in about… 12 seconds. [Pastor Hautz climbs up a ladder at the front of the sanctuary.]
I can’t climb the sky ladder today, but I will climb this ladder to make a point. A lot of people have fears, and if they are intense fears, irrational fears, we call them phobias, which is just the Greek word for fear. If you were all in the church today, I would conduct a stand-up exercise about phobias. As it is, you’ll just have to think about it at home, or maybe self-identify verbally if you’ve got some family members there in your household. So… who has claustrophobia – the fear of enclosed spaces? Arachnophobia – the fear of spiders? Ailurophobia – the fear of cats? Hydrophobia – the fear of water? Trikaidekaphobia – the fear of the number 13? Trypanophobia – the fear of needles? Acrophobia – the fear of heights? That’s mine… I mean, I would never, ever EVER consider taking the first step on that sky ladder!! Acrophobia (and this long gown) is what makes it hard for me to preach this sermon on this ladder! But don’t YOU fear for me… that would be phobia transference… I’ll be OK… if not… someone please call 911.
There are probably a whole set of new fears associated with the pandemic – corona-phobia, bankruptophobia, and I learned some new ones, real ones: isolophobia (that’s a real one… fear of isolation), vaccinophobia (that’s a real one… like the trypanophobia one), thaasophobia (that’s a real one – the fear of being bored – I’m actually afraid of developing that phobia when I retire!).
All right, I know… some of you can’t let it go – that I’m up on this ladder, and you’re wondering why, have I lost it, am I off my rocker, and what does this have to do with the Gospel reading. I’ll explain more fully a little later, but for now just consider Jesus’ picture of angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man and how that relates to Old Testament Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder that reached from earth to heaven. The ladder… hold on to that for a bit… that’s how it relates!
1. Angels and “Do not be afraid!”
Ten days ago, one of the participants in my Introduction to the Christian faith class made a comment / asked a question about lots of appearances of angels in the Bible. Yes, there are angels – in the story of Jesus’ birth: to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. And there are more angel appearances in the account of Jesus’ resurrection, but there are few in between. There is actually also lots about fear, and especially the phrase: “Do not be afraid!” It is literally found over 100 times in the Old Testament,, but the more familiar occurrences are found in the New Testament:
– An angel said “Do not be afraid” to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds in those Christmas accounts, and to the women at Jesus’ empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning.
– Jesus said “Do not be afraid” to His disciples during a storm at sea, and when He came to them walking on water, and at His Transfiguration, and at various times when He was teaching them. He also said it to Jairus whose daughter was dying.
2. Nathanael’s fears about Jesus # 1
a. Jesus is a nobody from no where
So, as we consider Jesus calling Philip and Nathanael to become disciples in John 1, well, Jesus does not directly say, “Do not be afraid,” but he calms some fears before they might arise. He does that for us, too, as we consider becoming or being His followers.
The first fear that Nathanael expressed, and a fear that we might express or ponder is that Jesus was a nobody, from no where. Maybe you’ve heard that thought expressed in a writing called “One Solitary Life” – attributed to James Allen Francis.
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant. He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was 30. Then, for three years, he was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home. He didn’t go to college. He never lived in a big city. He never traveled 200 miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his garments, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave, through the pity of a friend.
Nathanael didn’t know all that on the day when his friend Philip invited him to meet Jesus of Nazareth – potentially “the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.” Nathanael’s gut reaction was “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” He was saying that Jesus grew up in an obscure and unimportant village – no where, really. You wouldn’t expect anyone significant – certainly not a religious expert or heavy-weight – to come from Nazareth. He had never heard of this Jesus before, He didn’t have a reputation that preceded Him. So, Nathanael’s conclusion was that Jesus was a nobody. Without even meeting Him, Jesus was a nobody! But Philip must have been persuasive, for Nathanael agreed to go and see Him.
b. Jesus is more than a nobody – He’s GOD!
Before this account goes much farther, Nathanael’s assessment of Jesus changes. He realizes that Jesus is NOT a nobody from NO WHERE! He proclaims that Jesus is the King of Israel – that’s a SOMEBODY!! He proclaims that Jesus is from heaven – that’s SOMEWHERE noteworthy!! He is from God, He is the beloved Son of God – as we heard last week in the story of Jesus’ Baptism.
Something interesting in this brief account is two terms that are used to describe Jesus. Nathaniel’s assessment of Jesus is that He is the Son of God – that is… divine, holy, powerful, authoritative, someone worth listening to. Jesus’ own assessment of Himself in the last verse is that He is the Son of Man – that is… a human being, flesh and blood, someone like us, that we can touch, and see, and listen to. Both of those assessments complete the picture of Jesus: Jesus is God and man in one. He is the mediator between God and man. He is man so that He could relate to us, and we to Him, and so that He could suffer in our place. He is God so that He could take up and die for the sins of the WHOLE WORLD, thus satisfying the demands of the righteous wrath of God for our sins!
So… bottom line… we don’t have to fear Jesus being a NOBODY from NO WHERE Nazareth. Jesus is God in human form – the one who certainly did fulfill everything written about Him in Moses and the prophets, the one who died to be our Saviour, the ladder… OOOPS, not yet.
3. Nathanael’s fears about Jesus # 2
a. Jesus knows me
Another potential fear of both Nathanael and us is that Jesus knows you, that Jesus sees you, that Jesus sees right into your heart. That can be a scary realization. Jesus saw Nathanael approaching Him and said, “Now, here comes a true and honest guy, with integrity and no deceit or hypocrisy. He’s what an Israelite is supposed to be, a genuine man of God.” That would be unsettling for Nathanael – they hadn’t even had a conversation together. He asked, “How do you know me?” Jesus replied, “I saw you over there,” implying that He could read a person just by looking at him or her.
Just one chapter later, we hear that expressed directly when it says of Jesus that “He knew all people” and that “He knew what was in a person.” That was scary for Nathanael, and it’s scary for us, too. Jesus knows your heart. He knows you inside and out. He knows the evils of your thoughts. He knows your secret sins, the ones no one else knows about. He sees them all. When we remember that Jesus is coming back one day to judge the living and the dead – as it says in the Apostles’ Creed – well, that is a tad more than uncomfortable. It’s a bona fide phobia!!
b. And that’s for our own good – SALVATION!!
But to counter such fears, Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid!” You see, the fact that Jesus knows you is for your own good. Jesus saw Nathanael, He knew Nathanael, He knew that Nathanael had a Godly heart. He knows that about you, too. He knows that, despite your secret sins of thought, word and deed, and despite your fears of whatever, He knows that you believe in Him, that you want to come to Him, that you want to be His. It’s because He knows your moral failings and sins that He came to this earth to die for your forgiveness, and to be raised from death for your salvation!
Some people think they have to climb up an imaginary ladder to heaven with their own good works, good intentions, good words. Some people think they have to somehow pay to get to heaven with their time spent in prayer and Bible reading, or with their offerings in support of the church. The truth is – we heard it in 1 Corinthians 6 today – the truth is that Jesus paid! He paid it all. St. Paul wrote “you were bought with a price.” The price paid was Jesus’ blood spilled for you as He was whipped, and Jesus’ body broken for you as He hung on the cross. Jesus saw you, before you saw Him. He knew you, and He loved you. He knows your sins, but that’s a good thing, because He came from heaven to earth to do something about them… to forgive them, to forgive you!
OK, let’s deal with this ladder. In the Old Testament, Jacob was doing double duty – escaping His angry brother and going to find a wife. Out in the open country, he fell asleep, resting his head on a stone. In a dream, he saw a ladder that reached from earth to heaven. Angels of God were going up and down on that ladder. God spoke to Jacob in that dream. He didn’t say, “Don’t be afraid,” but He may as well have. What He did say was: “I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father Isaac. I will be with you wherever you go.” Those words gave Jacob confidence for the rest of his life. When he woke up, Jacob said, “God is in this place, and I didn’t even know it.”
As he met Jesus, Nathanael also realized that God was in that place, in that person. And then Jesus connected the dots for him. “You know that story of Jacob, and the dream, and the ladder, and the angels going up and down? I am the ladder to heaven. Angels go up and down on me. People go up to heaven on me, because of me. Don’t be afraid… come along.”
I don’t know… I think today God might have used the image of an escalator or elevator. We just get on board with Jesus, we put our trust in Jesus, and we go along for the ride – through life, through death, to eternity with Him. We need not fear. He is solid and secure. He takes us certainly and faithfully to heaven.
4. Nathanael’s fears about Jesus # 3
a. What’s it going to cost me?
OK, maybe there’s one more fear for us to talk about. Some people – like Nathanael – might be afraid of Jesus, of discipleship, of following Him, of going along for the ride – Who is he? What’s He going to ask of me? What’s He going to expect of me? Is it going to hurt to become a follower of Jesus? How much do I have to pay or pray?
b. Nothing and Everything!
Well, the answer to those questions, the answer to that fear is paradoxical – it costs you nothing and it costs you everything… at the same time. The answer is found in that little succinct verse of 1 Corinthians 6:20. The first half says, “You were bought with a price.” That’s how much it costs to BECOME a follower of Jesus – nothing, nada, zilch. Jesus paid it all. The second half says, “So glorify God in your body.” That’s how much it costs to BE a follower of Jesus – everything, your whole life. Paul said the same thing a different way to the Christians in Rome: “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” Jesus wants ALL of us – our bodies, our minds, our thoughts, our words, our actions, our love, our relationships, even our very life if that’s what it boils down to.
A couple of thoughts from my morning prayer book capture that intention. One says, “Let me keep nothing in my heart that might embarrass Your presence; let me keep no corner of it closed to Your influence. Do what you will with me, God; make of me what You will, and change me as you will, and use me as You will.” The second one says, “Let me today embark on no undertaking that is not in line with Your will for my life, nor shrink from any sacrifice which Your will may demand. Suggest, direct, control every movement of my mind.”
5. You are a temple of the Holy Spirit
That’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus. But don’t be afraid. There is one more phrase from 1 Corinthians 6 that can give us confidence and courage in our discipleship: “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” We can count on the Holy Spirit to guide and shape and mold us to be faithful followers of Jesus who confess with Nathanael: “Jesus, You are the Son of God, the King of Israel, my King, and my Saviour, the One I trust to take me to heaven.”
Oh, I really should finish that little piece called “One Solitary Life.” After explaining how humble and not memorable Jesus appears to be, this is how it ends:
Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today Jesus is the central figure of the human race. I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned–put together–have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one, solitary life. Amen.