In the Name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus promised Nathaniel that he would “see greater things.” Not everyone agrees.
Do you remember Steven Hawking, the great Cambridge mathematician? Before he died last March, he was quoted as saying:
I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark.
Do you remember Nietzsche, the most negative nihilist of the 19th century? He once declared, “God is dead.” No matter the context, what he really meant was that human enlightenment – human progress – had rendered the necessity of believing in God as old hat – i.e., incompatible with modernity. John Paul Sartre, the most popular 20th century French existentialist, proudly professed, “Indeed, we have no footing. We do not look to a Hereafter.”
Now, whether or not these words leave you cold or angry, or even if you’re teetering towards a similar disbelief today, we are all forced to admit that these men wrestled – truly went to battle – with the same question every human being must deal with at some point. We may not like what they concluded, but we know the battle.
And the battle I’m talking about is a question. And it’s one we’d rather not think about all the time, but our consciences keep on asking for us!
And it is this: what is the meaning – what is the purpose – of life?
Sometimes it comes out like this: “What is it, or who is it, that will give me lasting satisfaction?”
The poor Allman Brothers! They wanted to answer the question, but their lyrics just couldn’t. They just ended up blaming daddy and making excuses. Don’t you remember “Ramblin’ Man” in 1974? Oh my gosh:
Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man,
Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can.
And when it’s time for leavin’,
I hope you’ll understand,
That I was born a ramblin’ man.
My father was a gambler down in Georgia,
And he wound up on the wrong end of a gun.
And I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus
Rollin’ down highway 41.
Even Bono – even U2 – got frustrated with the question – with the search for ultimate meaning. In 1987, they put it like this: “I have climbed the highest mountains; I have run through the fields…But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
What about me? What about you?
Nicky Gumbel, the great contemporary evangelist and preacher, is a Tolstoy enthusiast, and he likes to tell the story of Tolstoy’s conversion as part of his series on Christian basics, the Alpha Course. You and I remember Tolstoy for War and Peace, which I was forced to read by a very zealous teacher in Linden, Alabama (she was unmerciful; she didn’t allow Cliff Notes!).
Tolstoy’s search for ultimate meaning is found in his lesser-known autobiography, which is titled My Confession. It reads as fresh today as it did a century ago. Nicky explains how:
[Tolstoy] rejected Christianity as a child. And then, as he went on through life, he became very ambitious. First of all he thought, `Well, maybe pleasure is the answer— just having a great time!’ He entered the social whirl of Moscow and St. Petersburg, drinking heavily, sleeping around, gambling — living a wild life. And he found it just didn’t satisfy. And he thought, `Well, maybe the answer is success, fame, importance.’ Encyclopedia Britannica described [War and Peace] as one of the two or three greatest novels in world literature’. But still, he said, it didn’t satisfy. He thought, `Well, maybe the answer is family life…He’d married in 1862 and had a happy family and thirteen children — which, he says, distracted him from his search for the overall meaning of life! He said he’d achieved all his ambitions and was surrounded by what was considered to be complete happiness; yet one question drove him to the verge of suicide. And the question was this: “What meaning has my life that the inevitability of death does not destroy?”
In the gospel appointed for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, it is Nathaniel who is the one searching for ultimate meaning. And we know he’s searching for definitive meaning, because the two sentences before where we began today at verse 47 make it crystal clear. Common sense also tells us that anytime one sits under the shade of a tree in the middle of the day one’s mind always drifts off to deep questions of ultimate significance.
Jesus had just called his first disciples, the fishermen Andrew and Peter. Jesus then called Philip, bidding him to “come and see,” which is always His invitation to you and to me. Philip happens to be Nathaniel’s brother, and his first recorded act is rushing off, finding his Nathaniel and saying, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth.” In other words, “Nathaniel, your search is over – your year in Jackson Hole trying “to find yourself” as a ski instructor is finished, because we’ve found the one you’ve been looking for all along.
Jesus sees the brothers approaching, and He says, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” In other words, look at this child of Israel who’s a straight-shooter – a guy who is openly and genuinely seeking the meaning of life – who is open to grace!
And in an instant Nathaniel is satisfied, even satiated, crying out: “You [Jesus] are the Son of God!”
The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels says decisively and definitively that, behind all the “wishing and hoping and thinking and praying” (Dionne Warwick!) that consumes so much of our daily lives, there is ultimate meaning, and it lies in discovering the grace, mercy and love of Jesus Christ.
I can’t believe that Loretta Lynn – and even the Beatles – ended up telling us this in a roundabout sort of way. Loretta was an open book (too open?). She sang:
Well, I was born a coal miner’s daughter
In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler
We were poor but we had love
That’s the one thing that daddy made sure of…
And the Beatles (hello, the Beatles!) finally took a chill pill and figured it out: “All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.”
If you have Jesus – no matter the situation and/or the suffering – you have the love of the Father…and you have mercy…and you have grace.
John Lennox, like Steven Hawking, is a mathematician. But he knows Jesus Christ; he knows we will “see greater things.” Lennox replied last year to Hawking, saying, “Atheism is a fairy tale for people afraid of the light.”
Sermon preached by the Rev. Charleston D. Wilson
Church of the Redeemer
St. Michael and All Angels (tr.)
29 September 2019