Obstacles, life is full of them. They’re challenging and difficult to maneuver. There are walls that are too high to scale, hindrances that are too heavy to move, and hurdles that are too big to get over.
Obstacles cause us to slow down and at times they’ll make you want to give up and just throw in the towel or not even try at all. And sometimes obstacles keep us from drawing near to God.
In other words, there are obstacles - valid reasons – that some of us keep God at arms-length or don’t believe in God at all.
Some might say, “I’ve heard that God is good, God is great, and that God is just, but I look at the all the stuff going on in the world; and there’s just too much suffering, too much injustice, and I just can’t reconcile a good and just God against what I’m observing”. That’s an obstacle.
Maybe you’ve known difficult people who have wronged you in some way and yet claim to be a Christ follower and you’re thinking, “Why would I want to be one of those?” That’s an obstacle and it’s valid.
Some take issue with the exclusivity of Christianity. Christians think that they are right and everyone else is wrong, and they just have a problem with that. That’s an obstacle.
There are those who have started to believe this whole Jesus thing but their family doesn’t; the obstacle is an emotional one because they think, “If I embrace Jesus that’s admitting that my family, whom I have so much respect for, got it wrong.”
It might be that the narrative of scripture doesn’t line up with scientific theories that you’ve been taught, and you just can’t get past what you see as discrepancies between science and Christianity.
Or it could be the whole notion of somebody paying for somebody else’s sins and you just don’t buy it.
Sometimes obstacles aren’t even that specific. I think there are a lot of people who fall into this category. It isn’t that you have some big issue with God, you simply don’t care. You don’t feel any draw towards God or a need for God and certainly not his church. It just isn’t a big deal.
The obstacles that stand between people and God are real, and they’re big. There are questions that haven’t been answered and things you just can’t get past.
But what I want to suggest as a starting point for this sermon series is that resolving your questions and overcoming your obstacles is not the thing that will draw you near to God. In fact, very few people embrace Christianity because they’ve worked through or overcome their obstacles.
In other words, if a person says to me, “My obstacle is suffering in the world” and I would try to resolve that obstacle, to the best of my ability, and give them books and articles to read, do a sermon series on the steps to overcoming obstacles, and introduce them to people who’d had the same objections, at the end of those conversations and sermons they might be a little more informed, but most likely wouldn’t be any nearer to God.
If someone is going to become a Christ follower, chances are it won’t be by working through a list of obstacles. Something will happen that’s so personal in nature that it will shrink their obstacles.
One of those things is tragedy.
Take for example, someone who has all kind of obstacles and issues with Christianity, faith, the church, and what they feel are discrepancies in scripture and then suddenly tragedy strikes – that same person finds themselves on their knees arguing and negotiating with a God they weren’t even sure they believed in.
Suddenly, whether Adam and Eve were historical figures doesn’t matter, how did they get dinosaurs on the ark doesn’t matter, who wrote the bible doesn’t matter, were there 7 literal days of creation doesn’t matter.
All those things that were huge obstacles to faith – keeping God at arms-length, in the midst of tragedy, become much smaller. Suddenly, the idea of God – the category of God - gets really personal and it’s in that place that God moves from being a category to being the source of life.
So, instead of doing a series on why you should believe the bible and why there’s suffering in the world or why sometimes Christians do bad things, I want to talk about the personal nature of a relationship with God because I believe that when you experience God in a very personal way, those obstacles that were too big to overcome, get a little bit smaller.
This morning, I want to tell you about somebody in scripture that maybe you don’t know too much about. We are introduced to him when Jesus is beginning to build his team. You know, the 12 disciples. He hasn’t gotten up to 12 yet so this story is about how he adds one. And how it happens, is such great illustration of what I’m suggesting.
Let’s listen to our text: READ John 1:43-50
So, Jesus stumbles across this guy named Phillip, and he invites him to become a part of the team. And Phillip is like, “That’s awesome that you’ve invited me to be a part of your inner circle, I’m there.”
Now, Phillip is from the same town as Andrew and Peter – who are already a part of Jesus’ inner circle - and this is where the story picks up momentum. Phillip goes back to his hometown of Bethsaida and finds his friend, Nathanial and decides he’s going to invite him to meet Jesus because he’s so pumped up about all of this and he wants his buddy to know Jesus, like he knows Jesus.
He says, “Dude, we’ve found the one Moses wrote about in the law and the prophets fortold.”
Now, you’ve got to understand how huge this is. For hundreds of years, the Jewish people had been waiting for a Messiah, but it had been so long, some had given up hope. It had become an obstacle, and some had decided that God had abandoned them.
But here, Phillip is telling his buddy, “We found him” but then he says something that he probably wishes he hadn’t; “It’s Jesus of Nazareth.”
Now, like some of you might be, Nathanial is a little bit skeptical, and he should be. I mean, he’s just minding his own business and suddenly his buddy walks up and says, “We found the Messiah” and I’m sure he was thinking, “Yeah, right” and then when he said this Messiah is a guy from Nazareth, Nathanial says, “I don’t think so, nothing good comes from Nazareth. I mean, maybe Jerusalem, or Bethlehem but definitely not Nazareth.”
Now Nazareth may not mean much to us – because we know the story – but this place is a hole in the wall town. Nothing happened there. In fact, the town had a bad reputation, so Nathanial’s response makes sense when he says, “nothing good come from Nazareth.”
At this point, Phillip could have made a huge blunder. He could have sat down and said, “Ok, if Nazareth is your obstacle, let’s talk about Nazareth. And they could have spent all day talking about why it may be possible for the Messiah to come from Nazareth and at the end of the conversation, he may have actually convinced Nathanial that it’s possible – not probable – that the Messiah could come from Nazareth but he wouldn’t be any closer to meeting Jesus.
Fortunately, he didn’t start the conversation about Nazareth. He simply says, “Come and see”.
“But I have questions.”
“That’s fine, just bring them with you. I just want you to meet Jesus and once you meet him, you can ask him personally about the whole Nazareth thing.”
So, they make their way to Jesus and when Jesus sees them approaching, he says “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit”. Maybe your translation reads, “here is a man without guile”.
Let me explain what that means. This is a guy who isn’t going to pretend. If he has any issues, he’s going to bring them up. He’s going to be honest with himself and honest with the people around him. If he has questions, he’s going to ask them. He’s not going to follow the crowd blindly.
I love this because it’s affirming to those of us who have some major obstacles and questions about Christianity because it affirms intellectual honesty.
But here’s where we see a shift in the story. When Nathanial walks up, Jesus says, “What’s up Nathanial” and this kind of freaks him out a bit . . . “how does this guy know my name?”
A minute ago, Jesus was simply an intellectual puzzle – a category - that he was trying to figure out but now, this guy – this supposed Messiah – is calling out my name. How does he know my name?
Jesus says, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Phillip called you.”
So, Nathanial says, “That’s a really cool trick but can we talk about this Nazareth thing?” Now, those of you who were listening to the text know that I just made that part up.
You see, when it got personal for Nathanial, the Nazareth thing wasn’t an issue anymore. It still didn’t make any sense, but he just met a guy that knew his name, and suddenly, what was intellectual got really personal and that changed things for Nathanial.
Here’s his actual response. “Rabbi, you are the son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
I don’t know if he ever got the Nazareth thing figured out or not. We don’t even know if there are any other discussion between them. But this man “without guile”, who wasn’t going to pretend, who wasn’t going to play games, who was going to ask questions and expect an honest answer becomes a follower of Jesus because when it became personal, his obstacle just didn’t seem as big anymore.
My hope over the next few weeks is that some of the obstacles that might keep you at an arms-length from Jesus would begin to shrink as you get to know Him on a personal level.
As we wrap up, let me tell you about another interaction Jesus had with one of the religious guys – you’ll remember this is you were here last week.
He comes up to Jesus and asks, “What’s the greatest commandment?”
Jesus responds, “Love God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength.”
Now my struggle, and the reason I love this series, is that my tendency is to want to understand God with all my mind. And once I understand God with my all my mind, then perhaps I’ll give my soul, and perhaps I’ll allow myself to love him with all my heart and all my strength.
But Jesus says, that’s not how it works. It doesn’t begin with having all your questions answered. That will never, ever happen. God wants you to love him more than he wants you to understand him.
And what I’ve discovered and what many of you have discovered is this; once you love him, you begin to understand him.
So, Jesus’ initial invitation is not to get all your questions answered . . . His invitation is to trust him and to love him because as you learn to love Jesus, as you move into a relationship with Jesus, it becomes personal. And it’s not that these obstacles and questions go away, but over time they just get smaller.
And like Nathanial, you’ll say, “You know what, I never got this whole Nazareth thing figured out, I’ve never reconciled science and Christianity, and I still don’t understand why some Christians act the way they do, but I know that he’s my personal savior. Jesus loves me, and he knows my name. It’s very relational, it’s very real, and it’s very personal.
You may never overcome your obstacles, but don’t let that get in the way of God drawing near to you!