The Danger of Waiting
November 16, 2014
I suspect that most of you have a tool around your house that is similar to the one that I hold in my hand this morning. For those of you who are sitting further away from the pulpit than others, what I am holding is a basic screwdriver. The only difference between this screwdriver and other screwdrivers is that the end of this particular one can easily be changed out. In other words, there is a compartment in the handle where the various possible end pieces are kept. In short, this allows for this same tool to be used whether one needs a flat head or a Philips screwdriver as well as to be used no matter how big or small the screw head that one needs to turn might be.
In essence, this screwdriver anticipates the need to change and adapt. From the outset, this tool is designed with the realization in mind that all situations are different and that different approaches and different tools will be needed along the way.
Life happens in a very similar fashion. As human beings, we have to be able to adapt. We must anticipate change. And, we must live expecting that things won’t always happen in reality in the same way that we envision them taking place in our minds.
But, knowing these things doesn’t make change or the unexpected any easier for us to deal with. Most all of us struggle with those moments when life throws us curveballs and we must adjust to the ways things are rather than simple being able to respond to life as we thought it would be.
This need to make adjustments and to be willing to adapt have a deep spiritual component to them and they are ongoing themes in the scriptures as well with our text for today serving as a classic example.
The disciple Nathanael, who really only appears in this one passage in John to any pronounced degree, had to adapt for his meeting with Jesus defied all expectations and preconceived notions that he had in regard to what the Messiah would be like.
Jesus wasn’t from a prominent family or place as many Jews anticipated. In fact, if Nathanael was from Cana, as John’s gospel seems to indicate, then Nazareth, which was Jesus’ hometown, was a community only 8 miles away and a bit of a rival to Cana. In turn, not only was Jesus from a common home and an insignificant town, he was also apparently from a rival community to the one Nathanael called home. In turn, one can easily understand why Nathanael struggled to embrace Jesus as God’s son — he just didn’t check any of the boxes as to what Nathanael or any of Nathanael’s contemporaries were looking for in the long promised Son of God.
Interestingly though, at the same time that Nathanael wanted to dismiss Jesus things were also happening that forced him to have to sit up and take notice. In an uncanny way, Jesus seemed to know Nathanael and to understand him. Despite all of the things about Jesus that were unorthodox and far different from what he expected, Nathanael felt drawn toward Jesus and wonder of wonders began to sense that maybe his friend Philip was right — maybe, just maybe this was the promised Messiah standing in his midst. It was a precarious place to be. Would Nathanael remain true to his long held beliefs or throw caution to the wind and accept this Jesus in spite of what logic suggested?
Back in 1783, the first flight of a hot air balloon took place in France. In a real, general, historical sense, this was one of the very first human forays into the world of flight. What is so fascinating about that event is how the flight was received on both the front end and on the back end – that is to say at both the point of its launch and at the point of its landing. When the balloon first left earth its launch was celebrated by dignitaries and with great cheers and hopefulness as the balloon drifted into the noon day sun ultimately reaching a height of 6,000 feet. When that same unmanned balloon landed, several miles away and sometime later, those who lived in the vicinity of the descent, having never seen a balloon before, rushed to the scene, attacked it with pitchforks and tore it into a thousand pieces — in their minds, this was an object of evil that had descended from the sky into their midst. (From Today in the Word, July 15, 1993)
Again, in a real sense, Nathanael was caught in a similar situation — would he embrace Jesus as an agent of good, as the promised Messiah and as someone worthy of his focus and attention? Would he embrace the change that he brought with him? Or, would he dismiss him, remain loyal to his preconceived notions of what it meant to be the Messiah while seeing Jesus as an agent of evil rather than of good?
In the end, we know the courage that Nathanael exhibited. Despite his long held beliefs, he embraced Jesus for who he was. In so doing, he not only adjusted his ideas and long held opinions but he also acted on the opportunity that Jesus offered him to be his follower.
Again, what is so interesting here is that Nathanael not only adjusted his thoughts but he also seized the opportunity to adjust his life by following the God who showed up in his life rather than ignoring the decision in front of him since what had happened was so unexpected.
There are numerous very basic, practical points here about our relationship with God that are worth our reflection. Let me simply name three. First, God rarely comes into our lives exactly as we expect. God often speaks in unorthodox ways, God often uses messengers we had not expected to be instruments of his word and God often invites us to do things we would not have imagined. Second, these moments lead us to crisis of belief. That is to say, they lead to our being forced to wrestle with a basic life question — will we adjust to what God is saying and to who God is calling us to be, or, we will remain so wrapped up in how things must be, at least in our minds, that we fail to embrace God’s presence and direction. And third, these moments require a decision. As with Nathanael, what will we do with what is in front of us? Very often in such moments, we must decide how we will respond. Waiting isn’t always a luxury that we have at our disposal.
I believe these truths were lived out not only in Nathanael but in all of the twelve to some degree or another. All of them had to wrestle with a Messiah that was different from what they had expected. All of them faced a crisis of belief. Would they remain fixated on the way they wanted things to be or would they adjust to the way things were. And, all of them ultimately had to make a decision. In each case, Jesus invited them to follow and they had to decide if they would or not. They did not have the luxury of waiting. Had any of them said no, it is my strong belief that Jesus would have moved on and asked someone else.
I think the same is true for us. Our faith daily leads to decision points. God’s presence in our lives affords us opportunities to follow but often in ways very different than anticipated. We must decide. More often than we realize, we really don’t have the luxury of waiting.
I love the old story about the devout man of faith sitting on his roof during one of those hundred year floods. The waters had risen to the place where he had nowhere else to go. All that was still visible of his house and all that he could see in regards to the other homes in his neighborhood were the tops of the roofs. As he sat, he said very confidently to himself — “God will rescue me!”.
As he sat there, two of his neighbors happened by in a canoe. “Sam,” they said, “we’ll ease up to you. Just hop in the canoe and we will take you to safety.” “No worries,” Sam replied, “God will save me. You fellas go help someone else.”
A bit longer, a search and rescue unit from the police department pulled up in a boat. “Sir,” they said. “We will drift near to your home. Walk slowly down the roof and ease yourself into the boat.” “Oh, don’t worry about me,” said Sam. “God will deliver me! Please go and help someone else.”
Finally, a helicopter hovered overhead and a member of the National Guard shouted down using a bullhorn, “Sir, we are lowering down a rope, please grab hold.” “No thank you,” Sam shouted back. “God will take care of me.”
Well, all of this time, the waters were rising and ultimately Sam succumbed to the floodwaters, was overwhelmed and died. When he reached the Pearly Gates, St. Peter came to greet him. Sam was obviously frustrated and while dripping wet said to Peter, “I don’t get it. I demonstrated incredible faith. Why was I not rescued?” To which Peter responded, “Sam, what in the world are you talking about. We sent a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. What on earth were you waiting on?”
The same is true for us, God does try to get our attention. God, in our day mainly through the Holy Spirit, calls us to God’s work. Will we listen? Even when it requires tremendous adjustments to hear what is said, to follow the directions we receive and to embrace the method through which God speaks, will be obey? Or, will we simply turn a deaf ear assuming that since things didn’t happen as we expected, it must not have been God that we encountered? Waiting really isn’t a luxury that we have. We must decide this day and every day. Amen.