Posted by: Johnold Strey | January 18, 2009

Sermon on John 1:43-51

1. Because it is so simple
2. Because it is so profound

Text: John 1:43-51


On Sunday nights in our family, we usually watch the television show, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” (that is, when it’s not football season!).  Given how much junk is on television, it’s gratifying to watch a program where a community comes together to build a new home for a family that’s seriously in need and living in poor conditions.  The start of the show features the ABC design team traveling by bus to the family’s home, and then giving them a “wakeup call” with a bull horn outside the house.  I’m pretty sure the wakeup call is arranged in advance, because every family is conveniently dressed and ready to come out in every episode!  But even if it is staged in advance, can you imagine the family’s surprise when ABC calls them and tells them that they have been selected to go on a seven day vacation, after which they will return to brand new house with state-of-the-art appliances and technology that is entirely theirs?  A call like that must be a total shock and a life-changing surprise!

Today’s service puts us in mind of the way God calls us to faith.  Perhaps the call to faith seems less exciting than a call from ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”  But if we consider our lost spiritual condition before Jesus called us into his spiritual family, maybe we’ll agree that Jesus’ call is quite surprising.  And as we study Jesus’ call to two of his disciples in today’s Gospel, we will come to the same conclusion.  Jesus’ call will surprise you because it is so simple and because, at the same time, it is so profound.


In the Gospel for today, Jesus is in the middle of calling his disciples.  Before our reading, Jesus called Andrew and John to be his disciples.  They had been disciples of John the Baptist, but the Baptist had pointed others to Jesus all along, and so they had no trouble leaving John the Baptist behind and following the one he called the “Lamb of God.”  After Jesus called Andrew and John, Andrew brought his brother Simon Peter to Jesus, and Jesus called Peter to be his disciple as well.  Andrew and Peter were from a town called Bethsaida, and now Jesus calls another man from the same town, Philip.

There’s hardly anything to the account of Philip’s call.  What I find interesting is what happens after Philip’s call.  “The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee.  Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’  Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.  Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote-Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’  ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked.  ‘Come and see,’ said Philip.”

Since Philip was from the same town as Andrew and Peter, and since Andrew had been listening to John the Baptist, I assume that they knew one another and that Philip had some knowledge about Jesus before Jesus called him to be his disciple.  You can also sense Philip’s acquaintance with Jesus when he comes to his brother.  He is convinced that Jesus is the Messiah that had been predicted to come to the Jews throughout the Old Testament Scriptures.

Before last week, if I had asked you what you thought about the city of Danville, you probably wouldn’t have said much.  It’s just another Northern California city.  There’s nothing special that would put it on the map.  Of course, that all changed this week when Danville resident and airline pilot Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III became an instant national hero when he made an incredible emergency landing of a commercial aircraft in New York’s Hudson River, and all 155 people aboard survived.

When Nathaniel heard his brother tell him that the long-awaited Messiah had come from Nazareth, he thought that was about as exciting as the city of Danville was before last week.  Prior to last week, you wouldn’t have thought anything bad about Danville, but you wouldn’t have thought of it as particularly special.  I don’t think Nathaniel necessarily meant to say anything bad about Nazareth, but he could hardly imagine anything or anyone special coming from an average town like that.  His brother told him to at least check it out, which he did, but at this point the idea of the Messiah coming from Nazareth seemed a lot more simple and ordinary than he expected.

There was nothing earth-shattering about Philip’s call.  Jesus said, “Follow me,” and Philip did.  There seemed to be nothing noteworthy about Jesus from all outward appearances.  What’s the big deal about a carpenter’s kid from a regular city?  But despite Nathaniel’s skepticism, Jesus’ call was a big deal.  God incarnate called Philip, and later called skeptical Nathaniel, not just to discipleship but to apostleship.  And when God calls you to faith and service, that’s always a big deal whether it seems like it or not.

There was nothing earth-shattering about your call to faith, either.  For many of you, the pastor merely said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” splashed some water on your infant scalp, and that was that.  For others, you first heard Jesus’ call as adults through simple words printed on a page or spoken by a person.  This is not the kind of stuff that stops the presses or that makes the evening news.

That’s why Jesus’ call is so surprising.  His call looks so simple.  But behind the simple appearance is a tremendous miracle.  For when Jesus called you to faith, he did not call a mild skeptic like Nathaniel.  He called an outright enemy.  We opposed him by nature, even before we took our first breath.  And it wouldn’t take long for us to look back at the past week and find words from our lips or actions from our lives or thoughts from our minds that prove our sinful condition’s lust to do the exact opposite of God’s will.

And so what does God do?  So simply, and yet so surprisingly, he connects the righteousness of Jesus to the waters of the font, and declares us his holy children.  So simply, and yet so surprisingly, his Spirit calls us to faith as we hear an old message from an old book that tells us about the incarnate Christ whose innocent death brings forgiveness and life.  The whole thing seems so simple that some Christians unfortunately turn baptism into our commitment and not God’s promise, or they turn faith into our decision and not the Spirit’s work in our hearts.  But don’t let the simplicity of it fool you.  Jesus’ call surprises us in its simplicity, but even in simplicity, Christ calls you out of the darkness of sin and unbelief and into the light of faith and righteousness.


I’ll give Nathaniel a little credit — humanly speaking.  He listened to his brother’s advice and actually checked out this Jesus fellow that Philip had told him about.  And Jesus surprised Nathaniel even before he met him face-to-face.  Nathaniel hadn’t even said hello, and Jesus already had him pegged as a devout, religious Jew.  “When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, ‘Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.'” If someone you had never met started talking to others about what a great person you were, you’d probably be as curious as Nathaniel.  “How do you know me?” There are two different Greek words that both mean “to know;” one refers to general knowledge and the other refers to stronger, experiential knowledge.  The second word is used here.  Nathaniel wanted to know how Jesus could know him so well having never met him before.

In a day before surveillance cameras and satellite images, Jesus’ answer had to surprise him!  “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” It was not an uncommon practice in that culture for a devout Jew to sit at the base of a tree and turn that into a place of meditation and prayer.  But when Jesus knew that Nathaniel was seated under a tree at the very time Philip had called him to come and meet Jesus, Nathaniel knew that he was dealing with someone whose knowledge was profound and divine.  “Nathaniel declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.'”

Jesus hadn’t even formally called Nathaniel to be his disciple, but he now knew there was more to Jesus than meets the eye.  But Jesus was just getting started!  He called Nathaniel to faith in him, but now he was calling him to something far more profound.  “Jesus said, ‘You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.  You shall see greater things than that.'” And in the next verse, Jesus shifts his words so that they are not addressed only to Nathaniel, but to all those gathered around him.  “He then added, ‘I tell you the truth, you (plural) shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.'”

It seems pretty reasonable that Jesus is referring to an incident in Genesis 28 from the life of Jacob, and ancestor of the nation of Israel.  In that excerpt, Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau.  He had fled from his home and was sleeping outside with a stone for his pillow.  And in that context, God comforted Jacob in a dream that included a staircase from earth to heaven, and angels going up and down the staircase.  Jesus’ words to Nathaniel seem to refer to that dream, and seem to indicate that Jesus is the staircase.  Jesus says that the angels will ascend and descend on the “Son of Man” — his favorite term for himself.  Jesus is the one through whom we have access to heaven!  His life has bridged the gap between God and human beings because his life met the standards of God’s law that our lives never meet.  His cross has bridged the gap between God and human beings because his death has removed the sin-barrier that stood between us and God.  How profound!  How amazing!  No wonder Nathaniel was taken by surprise when he met Jesus.  Not only did Jesus demonstrate how well he knew Nathaniel, but he demonstrated that he was the long-awaited Messiah who would finally bridge the gap between us and God!

Jesus’ call to faith brings you profound blessings.  It brings you forgiveness from the cross, victory over death from his empty Easter tomb, and the assurance of God’s grace and love from his Word.  Jesus surprises us with blessings we certainly do not deserve and hardly would expect!  But that’s the problem.  We don’t expect such profound blessings from God, or we fail to see that forgiveness and eternal life are profound blessings.  And so we short-change Jesus’ call and underestimate God’s goodness to us.  We come to expect different blessings, worldly blessings that seem more profound than Jesus’ spiritual blessings, but in the end are not.

Let me read a quotation that will clarify what I mean.  This comes from a new book, titled “Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church” by Michael Horton.  Horton writes, “Only when God’s law – his holiness, majesty, and moral will – creates in us a sense of our moral offensiveness to God does the gospel communicate deeper answers that our felt needs and cheap cravings only mask.  Hardly unique, my children would be delighted if I told them that instead of their usual three meals today we would provide a variety pack of candies.  When my wife and I decline their urges, it is because we know that they will make themselves sick if they just follow their immediate desires.  Similarly, God wants to fill our lives with joy, but before we allow him to tell us the story, we have already decided within the narrow confines of our limited experience what joy is from” (page 34).

Jesus’ call to faith is so surprisingly profound!  Don’t sell it short or substitute your ideas for Christ’s blessings!  Don’t turn Jesus merely into your life coach who gives you good advice for day-to-day living.  His Word does direct our lives, but if that’s all you are looking for, you will miss the profound miracle accomplished at the cross.  Don’t turn Jesus into your psychologist who helps you cope with life’s challenges.  Jesus does help you cope, but if that’s the extent of your Jesus, then you will miss the profound miracle of his resurrection that won eternal life for you.  Don’t turn Jesus into your buddy who pats your back and makes you feel good when you’re feeling down.  Jesus certainly has comfort for hurting souls, but the profound comfort he has to give comes in the font’s forgiveness, in the Supper’s pardon, and in the Word’s promises.  And Jesus’ profound blessings don’t expire in this life.  His profound blessings of peace and forgiveness now will deliver you from this world and into paradise for all eternity!


When last week’s story about the U.S. Airways plane that made an emergency landing made the news, many people were delightfully surprised that the exceptionally skilled pilot managed the water landing and, most importantly, kept all 155 people alive against the odds.  If that fills us with joyful surprise (and it should!), how much more should Jesus’ call, which saved us from something far worse than a bird attack on airplane engines.  Don’t let the simplicity of Jesus’ call or the familiarity of faith lead you into complacency!  Marvel at Jesus’ profound call to faith, and rejoice that his call has placed you into his eternal family!  Amen.



  1. It’s that old troublemaker again 🙂
    I loved this paragraph:
    “Don’t turn Jesus merely into your life coach who gives you good advice for day-to-day living. His Word does direct our lives, but if that’s all you are looking for, you will miss the profound miracle accomplished at the cross. Don’t turn Jesus into your psychologist who helps you cope with life’s challenges. Jesus does help you cope, but if that’s the extent of your Jesus, then you will miss the profound miracle of his resurrection that won eternal life for you. Don’t turn Jesus into your buddy who pats your back and makes you feel good when you’re feeling down. Jesus certainly has comfort for hurting souls, but the profound comfort he has to give comes in the font’s forgiveness, in the Supper’s pardon, and in the Word’s promises. And Jesus’ profound blessings don’t expire in this life. His profound blessings of peace and forgiveness now will deliver you from this world and into paradise for all eternity!”

    To which I would add, Don’t turn Jesus into your get-out-of-hell-free card. What he did for us is unutterably amazing, but there is more to him than just forgiveness. He is all of these things, and so much more!

  2. It would help to know what you specifically have in mind with the last paragraph.

  3. What I specifically have in mind is the idea that a lot of people (and I would say Lutherans in particular) see their salvation as “I’m baptized so I’m going to heaven, and the rest is just for those ‘extra-spiritual’ people” and so miss out on the other things being a Christian involves.
    To use the analogy of his calling the disciples, he did not just ask him to believe in him, he also asked them to follow him. I would assume that most of the people in your congregation are believers, and while it’s good to remind people that it is their faith alone that saves them, I think you are missing a chance to help them grow in their faith.

  4. I’m not sure I buy into the idea that Lutherans “see their salvation as ‘I’m baptized so I’m going to heaven,'” if by that you mean that baptism is treated as a magic charm that gives you eternal life whether or not one’s faith continues to be nurtured by the Word and Sacrament. If someone needs spiritual comfort, I will point them to their baptism (something that probably isn’t done enough) as a testimony to God’s commitment and forgiveness to them. If someone is taking their baptism and/or the means of grace for granted, then they need a good dose of the law to wake them from their spiritual complacency. But in that case the problem is not baptism, but our sinful nature.

    I would be curious to know what you meant by the phrase, “[they] miss out on the other things being a Christian involves.”

    Exegetically, I would be hard-pressed to say that Jesus’ call to “follow me” in John 1 was a call to the Christian life (i.e. sanctification). It was more like a call to “enroll” in “Jesus Seminary” for the next three years, and subsequently a call into the public ministry as Christ’s apostles. And since the call into the public ministry is not received by every Christian, it would be somewhat of a stretch to apply the text in that way to the whole congregation.

    The last statement in your comment concerns me the most. First, the idea that people are missing a chance to grow in faith because I’m not preaching more about the Christian life (I assume that’s what you mean) isn’t true. The gospel message about Jesus creates and strengthens faith (John 20:31, Romans 10:17), so much so that it was the one message that mattered most to Paul as far as his preaching and ministry were concerned (1 Corinthians 2:2). The gospel is not just a fact that we learn and occasionally remind our people about; it is the “power of God” (Romans 1:16). Many churches and pastors have turned the gospel into more of a fact to know (a quick mention of which gets shoved somewhere into the topical sermon) than the power to absolve sins, nourish souls, and strengthen faith and life. So when I take people back to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, I do that not simply “to remind [them] that it is their faith [in Christ] alone that saves them”; rather, I do that because it is the only message and means that the Holy Spirit uses to work in our hearts.

    (Tangent, loosely related to what I just said but not in response to any comments: I cannot believe how many people think the Holy Spirit talks to them in prayer. I even hear this quite a bit from Lutherans. “I prayed a lot about this, and then…”. My emotional state or mental processes after praying says absolutely nothing about what God says to me. If you want to know what God says, open up his Word. That’s far more objective than any post-prayer presumptions. But I digress…)

    I don’t know if you mean to do this or not, but it seems to me like a distinction is made between believing in Jesus and faith (cf. the last two sentences in your response). English doesn’t help us here because the two words don’t appear to be the same thing, but they are in Greek (noun: pistis; verb: pisteuo). If I rewrite your last sentence to reflect that, maybe you can see where I’m a bit confused: “I would assume that most of the people in your church are believers, and while it’s good to remind people that it is believing alone that saves them, I think you are missing a chance to help them grow in their believing.”

    I get the impression from that final phrase that preaching something beyond Christ crucified will help people to grow further in faith. If that’s the case, then I’d end up preaching works. I don’t see any way around that.

    Finally, no one should get the idea that a strong focus on the gospel means that we’re not concerned about the Christian life. Rather, the Christian life is fueled by the gospel. Telling people how to live godly lives without taking them to the cross and empty tomb of Jesus would be akin to attempting to start a car with no gasoline in the tank. Paul makes that point in Romans 6, where he connects our new life as Christians to the blessings we have received from Christ in Holy Baptism. To paraphrase Paul’s thinking: Who would want to dive back into a life of sin after the new life and forgiveness that Christ bestows on us in Baptism? But notice how Paul thoroughly weaves the gospel into that discussion. Something similar happens in chapter 12, where, after he had masterfully laid out many facets of the gospel, he says, “Therefore, in view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” It is in light of God’s mercy that the Christian life is enabled and empowered.

    I’m quite content to preach law and gospel on Sunday morning and then let the gospel nurture faith and drive the Christian life. If a particular sermon text has clear, prescriptive encouragements toward sanctification, I have no problem encouraging that in light of the gospel, as is the pattern in many of Paul’s letters (encouragements toward sanctification appear at the end of his letters after he has expounded on various points of Christian doctrine). But if the text is a basic law and gospel pericope, then I will preach law and gospel, say “Amen,” and let the Spirit do his work.

  5. I’ve been listening to WELS preachers for the past 25 years, that’s over 1,300 sermons. Preaching that we are saved by faith alone is a biblically accurate statement. The point is well taken that we also need works that are in fact signs of a strong faith, and of having a servant’s heart driven purely out of love for the price that Jesus paid for each one of us. That is the message that us Parishioners get out of listening to WELS Pastors. Sometimes, by reading just one sermon, we might hear a strong leaning towards one extreme or another. We need to keep in mind the scripture text that is being preached for that particular Sunday and circumstances that might be prevalent in the local congregation. Personally, I enjoyed this sermon.

  6. Oh, I also enjoyed the sermon! As I said, that was a great paragraph. I just felt the need to tweak it a bit. 😉


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