Sunday Sermon, January 15, 2012

John 1:43-51

Blessed Are The Naysayers.”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To listen to the podcast of this sermon:  120115SermonPodcast

To see a video of this sermon, go online to:

“It’ll never work.”

“All good things must come to an end.”

“Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do?”

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Oh, we tried that once and it didn’t work.”

“That’s easier said than done.”

“Get real!”

“No one is indispensable.”

“You’ve got no room to talk!”

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“And what, may I ask, do you think you are doing?”

“If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”

“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

“It is what it is.”

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

“What is wrong with people today?”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Don’t we just love to knosh with the naysayers in our world?  Aren’t we pleased to party with the pessimists?  Isn’t it wonderful to warm up to the worrywart or sip espresso with the cynic.  Every family needs a fussbudget, or a few.  I, for one, really like to go out with “Gloomy Gus” or take a long walk with a wet blanket.  Skeptics and doubters make my life simply divine!


This wonderful little interaction between Jesus, Philip, and Nathaniel contains some of the most honest and realistic reflections in Holy Scripture on how we humans interact with one another.  I must confess, I don’t remember ever having preached on this text before today.  I don’t know why, because I’m really taken by these short few verses.  I think I like it because it is both candid about how many of us have a natural disinclination to explore new things, visit new places, or meet new people, and yet offers a genuine, not syrupy, movement towards possibility and hope.

In it Jesus meets Philip and calls him to “Come, follow me.”  Philip is an optimist, and is clearly excited about this newfound vocation and the one who has called him to it.  Thus Philip does as most of us would do when we get energized about something new, and he goes and tells a friend, “We’ve found the one Moses wrote of in the law, the one preached by the prophets.”  And then, in a sweet gentle description, “It’s Jesus, Joseph’s son, the one from Nazareth.”

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). Nathaniel Under the Fig Tree (Nathanaël sous le figuier), 1886-1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum,

Well, that was all Nathaniel needed.  Much like saying, “Hi, I’m from Cleveland,” the dredges of history and the muck of past experience immediately and effortlessly get dug up and slung around.  “Do you all just like losing?”  “Do you pay your coaches/players/politicians/insert-public-personality-here to mess up?”  Nathaniel smirks, “What good ever came from Nazareth?!”

I appreciate Nathaniel, and all the Nathaniels of the world.  Please note, I said “appreciate,” not “like.”  For a positive-thinking, appreciative-inquiry, naturally upbeat guy like me, naysayers (oh, excuse me, “realists” and “pragmatists”) like Nathaniel grate on my nerves.  But, I’ll admit, their perspectives help balance things out.  Sometimes their naysaying is grounded in reality (even if an outdated or limited reality).

But Nathaniel’s natural born resistance to optimism and hype doesn’t end when they are talking “theoretically” about Jesus.  Even when he is face to face, and Jesus comments, quite knowingly about Nathaniel’s honesty, he replies “How do you know me?”  I love some of the modern translations of this: “You don’t know anything about me!” or “Where did you get that idea?  You don’t know me!”

If there is one thing you do not do to a naysayer/realist it is to try to describe their character.  They are the very first to want to avoid being pinned down.  Whether it is because they are truly in touch with the rich complexity of their inner lives, or they are just in love with being difficult, either way, they resist description zealously.

So up to this point, the exchange is familiar, even if slightly humorous.  But the tone changes quickly, and few commentators are really sure why.  Jesus simply answered that some time ago, scripture says “long ago,” he had seen Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree.  Now, seeing someone sitting in the shade is hardly credentials for “knowing” someone.  But there is something deeper that touches Nathaniel’s heart and flips a switch in his mind, for now Nathaniel is falling all over himself to give accolades to Jesus, “Rabbi! You are the son of God, the King of Israel!” What was it that made such a difference?

We cannot know for sure.  It may have been simply that Jesus noticed him, and remembered.  I have found this to be absolutely true in my ministry.  Just noticing people has great power, and not just in the sense of stroking someone’s ego.  One of the most wonderful things ever said at my going away banquet from the church which I served in New York City was said by the Director of the Day School which was housed in our church facilities.  She said that I “noticed” the children.  She had observed (and I was a bit shocked that she, a very high-powered Manhattan socialite had even noticed me, the lowly Associate Pastor), but she had observed me kneeling down when I wanted to talk to the children.  She felt that I truly noticed the children.  Maybe Nathaniel was just taken by the fact that this popular preacher and rabbi had actually noticed him.

But there is also some speculation that the image of sitting under the fig tree might be an ancient shorthand reference for being a rabbi.  There is some research that indicates the act of, or, at least, the phrase describing someone “sitting under a fig tree” was a way of saying they were a rabbi, a religious teacher, or at least someone with wisdom to share. (1) Whether or not this is really true about the phrase or regardless of whether or not Nathaniel was actually a rabbi, perhaps it was simply that Nathaniel was responding positively to the fact that Jesus was able to see a good and worthy quality, that of wisdom, in him.  Isn’t it true that when someone is able to see deeper than our public personas (and we all have them), that we are touched, moved, intrigued.

I believe that for a split second Jesus showed Nathaniel that he knew he was more than met the eye: he was a child of God who could not be defined simply by his proud and brazen naysaying attitude.  Surely being a realist was part and parcel of who Nathaniel was, but it was not the sum total.  He was more complex, richer, deeper, and Jesus simply acknowledged that richness and depth.  This simple awareness was all Nathaniel needed to offer his own observation, “You are the Son of God!”

Beloved, this should be a lesson for all of us who wish to follow in the ways of our Savior, Jesus.  Just as no one of us ultimately wants to be seen or known superficially or two-dimensionally, but for the multifaceted selves we are, neither should we box-in our sisters and brothers as only this or only that.  There is great power, life-changing power, in observing a person for all they are, and all they can be.  As God told Samuel when he was seeking a new king for the Israelites, “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7b)  The least we can do is try to go deeper, be a little more patient, offer a bit more honesty with one another.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll see the naysayer or the idealist for what she or he is: Blessed.


(1) Commentary, John 1:43-51, Paul S. Berge, Preaching This Week,, 2012. Found online at: