A Simple Man
The answer to living in a complicated world found in serval songs is be a simple man. That's what Lynyrd Skynyrd has a mom advising her only son in their 1973 song "Simple Man". And there is some wisdom here.
Be a lover of horses. That's what the Greek name Philip means "lover of horses (Morris, John, 162). He's the Homer Simpson of the disciples. He has more "doh" moments in the New Testament. One commentator concludes from the incidents that John records, "Each time he seems somewhat out of his depth, and it is probable that he was of limited ability" (Ibid.). He was no rocket scientist we'd conclude.
And we'd be right. In the Feeding of the 5,000. Jesus purposely puts him to the test asking him, "Where can we buy bread for these people to eat?" All Philip can say is, "Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little." During the Passion Week when Greeks come to him asking to see Jesus, Philip doesn't know what to do, so he consults with Andrew. And it is Philip on Maundy Thursday who responds to Jesus saying, "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also" with "Lord, show us the Father and it is enough for us." Jesus responds with tired disappointment, "Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know Me, Philip?"
Yes, Philip was a simple man. And isn't it comforting that Jesus goes of His way to find the simple man Philip for an apostle? Our text opens with Jesus having decided to leave for Galilee, but He purposely seeks out the lover of horses first. You can't determine from the text whether Jesus finds him on the way to Galilee or even in Philip's home city of Bethsaida, but find this simple man Jesus does.
In Skynyrd's "Simple Man" most of the resources for being such are within you. This is in accordance with the highest wisdom of men. "Don't live too fast"; "find a woman"; "forget your lust for the rich man's gold all that you need is in your soul"; "find yourself"; "follow your heart." This is Baby Boomer gold, and the problem is not only did we sing it, but we believed it. This isn't the simple man of Scripture. That's Nathanial.
Nathaniel means "God has given" (Ibid. 163). All we know about him from Scripture is he was from Cana, and he was one of the fisherman who accompanies Peter after the resurrection. These were two incidents where Jesus gave abundantly, unexpectedly, and unasked. At Cana Jesus gave lots of wine and after Easter He gave 153 large fish, and in both cases Nathaniel was one of the receivers.
In our text, Nathaniel is shown to have simple, guileless honesty. When simple Philip tells Nathaniel that they've found the one Moses and the prophets wrote was to come and He's Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaniel responds with, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Jesus isn't insulted but pleased with such candor saying Nathaniel is an Israelite in whom there is nothing false. Jesus is probably referring to Genesis 27:35 where Jacob is described as being deceitful. One commentator translates Jesus saying, "'An Israelite in whom there is no Jacob'" (Ibid. 166).
Before the Lord wrestles Jacob into the faith, Jacob was a complicated, manipulative, wily man never bested by another. He outsmarts his brother and his father-in-law. Not Nathaniel. He's a simple man. His piety is simple. Jesus sees him while he was under the fig tree before Philip called him. We know in later times that Jews planted fig trees near their homes as places of prayer, mediation, and study. There is every reason to think this practice went back to the time of our text (Ibid. 167).
So, Jesus tells simple Nathaniel I saw you while you were praying. No other disciple is found by Jesus doing such. Matthew is at work collecting taxes. Peter, Andrew, James, and John are at work fishing. Nathaniel is found doing daily devotions. He's a simple man just like the simple shoemaker St. Anthony was pointed to as example of Christian piety which our Lutheran Confessions use as an example for us all (AP, XXVII, 38).
And this simple man comes to be the most complex, profound conclusion just from Jesus saying I saw you in prayer. Because only God could do that, Nathaniel concludes, "You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel." You ought to hear a boom!' here. But this is what happens when you're a simple receiver of God's Words. Jesus told Nathaniel how He knew him, and Nathaniel received those words in faith and look how much more Jesus says that leads to? Jesus promises" You shall see heaven, open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."
You knew where this is going, didn't you? Our search for a simple man ends with the simplest man of all, the Son of Man. Did you hear the astounding titles given to Jesus? The simple lover of horses refers to Him as the One Moses and the Prophets wrote about. The simple man who receives God's gifts calls him the Son of God and the King of Israel. But Jesus doesn't refer to Himself using any of these royal, divine, majestic names. Nope, the simplest of men simply refers to Himself as "the Son of Man."
We've just been looking at this title in Luke Bible Class. Outside of its use in Ezekiel, it's only used in Daniel once in the majestic scene in heaven where the Son of Man is given all rule, glory, and dominion. In the New Testament it's only used by Jesus except in Passion Week when His enemies can't figure out who the Son of Man is and why He must be crucified.
Jesus is the Son of Humanity. All humanity is in Him. In the same way that all of humanity was in Adam, and therefore in Adam all men sinned, and all men died, so in Christ all men are regarded as having kept the law perfectly, satisfied God's wrath, and been made alive. You see how though simple, Nathaniel, wants to talk about Jesus divine, royal nature, but Jesus points Him to His human nature? Nate wants to talk about glory; Jesus wants to talk about His suffering. How can I conclude that?
When are the 2 times we know angels descended specifically to Jesus? Matthew tells you that the angels came to Jesus after the Devil had beat the stuffing out of Him in the desert. And where does Luke tell us an angel came to strengthen Jesus? In Gethsemane while Jesus is sweating not bullets but blood as the brimming cup of God's wrath against just your sins of this morning is being handed to Him. The angel descends not to knock the cup out of the way but to strengthen Jesus, so He can drink it, drink all of it.
Of course, there are other angel incidents simple Nathaniel, Philip, and other simple people who take God at His word are party to. We will be there when, in order for the guiltless Jesus, to be handed over for the guilt of the world's sins, in order for Him to be damned to hell and buried in the grave like sinners deserve, Jesus won't call on the legions of angels to rescue Him that are at His beck and call as God the Son.
And simple people will be there in the empty tomb when angles say that Jesus has been raised to life which means God has accepted Jesus' sacrifice for our sins and put away His wrath. If you got this picture of a wrathful God just looking to get you, then you simply haven't gone into the empty tomb and heard the angels. And that probably means after Easter you haven't gone with the risen Jesus to the Mount of Olives either; you haven't seen the Man Jesus received into heaven; and you haven't heard angels tell you to stop gazing up into heaven as if Jesus is no longer any help on earth. No, He is in heaven where He lives to hear your soul's complaint, pray for your deepest needs, and defend you before God the Father. And He is there as the connecting point between heaven and earth.
The simplest of all men, the Son of Man, is the only ladder God has ever let down from heaven. His flesh which is just as real as yours is the only link men or angels have between heaven and earth. O men try to climb up using the power of the mind, the power of the hands, or the power of the heart. They try to reach God with their profound thoughts. They try to reach Him by complex good works. They try to get to Him by having deep feeling about Him. But none of these efforts make it into the real heaven, to the real God. On such manmade ladders, men do climb, but it is not into heaven but hell they poke their heads. Only those who use the Baptismal Waters that cloth them with Christ, only those who believe the words that Jesus speaks on earth do forgive their sins, only those who eat and drink His body and blood on earth trusting it is for their life and salvation, reach into heaven on earth.
In 1989 The Charlie Daniels Band also released a song titled "Simple Man". Their simple man is one who doesn't put his Bible away, doesn't live by the laws of the jungle but the law of the land, and practices what the good book says, "an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth." I'll bet though I don't know that this country music song is sung as a hymn in a cowboy church somewhere.
There is a Christian sheen to Charlie Daniels' simple man, but their answer to this complicated world is still us, men, what we do, think, say, resolve. And that, you'll recall, is Lynyrd Skynyrd's answer too. However, Skynyrd's version is better. In one line, and one only, they rise above men. His mom says, "And don't forget son, there is someone up above." This is not a specifically Christian thought, but it is above the human-centered view of reality championed by all men apart from the Son of Man.
The specifically Christian truth, which is profoundly simple and completely comforting, is that the Someone who is up above came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost in the virgin Mary, was made Man and was crucified for us. As a consequence, we can believe in the forgiveness of our sins, the resurrection of this body, and that we will have a full, real life in a world without end. So, the answer to living in complicated, doomed world is not in us being a simple man, but in the Son of Man having taken our place, still being for us, and always being with us. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday after Epiphany (20180114); John 1: 43-51