St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Epiphany 2, Jan. 17, 2020
Revd. Canon Claude Schroeder.
Lectionary: 1 Samuel 3. 1-10, Psalm 139. 1-5, 12-17, 1 Cor. 6. 12-20, John 1.43.51
Today is the Second Sunday after Epiphany in our church calendar. Epiphany, the season devoted towards celebrating “the manifestation” or the “showing forth” of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
For a lot of people mid-January in Regina is physically and emotionally a pretty dark time and place at the best of times, made worse this year by you know what…Is there light at the end of the tunnel? I’m not so sure. But then again, I’m not sure “at the end of the tunnel” is the right place to be looking for light.
“The light shines in the darkness “writes St. John at the beginning of his Gospel, “and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1.5). The place where the light shines is in the darkness. And as St. Paul writes, “The God who said, let light shine out of darkness, has shone in ourhearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor.4.6). Our task as Christians is to turn to the light that is right here and right now shining in our hearts, and to bathe ourselves in that light. This is the gift and the blessing of the season of Epiphany, the season of light. “With thee is the fountain of life,” wrote the Psalmist, “in thy light we shall see light.” (Psalm 36.9)
We began Epiphany with the story of the wise-men who saw a star rising in the East which led them to go into a house in Bethlehem, where they saw the child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped Him. (Matthew 2. 11). In this Epiphany Jesus is shown to be King and Lord not only of the Jews, but of all the nations of the earth. Then last Sunday a wonderful double epiphany at our celebration of the Baptism of Lord: “As Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens break open and the Spirit descend on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “This is my well-beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” (Mark 1.10-11). Here the Divine Sonship of Jesus and the worship of the Trinity, of God the Father, together with His Son and Holy Spirit, was manifest. So very quickly the Church, through these progression of feasts shows us the bedrock on which our faith rests. Jesus, the Savior of all, is fully God and fully man. The name by which God known is the Father of Jesus Christ, who together with His only begotten Son and all Holy, Good and Life-Giving Spirit we worship and adore.. Our epiphany prayer is that “we who know God now by faith, may be led onward through this earthly life until we see the vision of His heavenly glory. (BCP, 117)
This theme of the glory of God, that is His divine beauty, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is central to John’s Gospel. “And the Word became flesh, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1. 14). Our Gospel lesson today from St. John provides us with further glimpses of the glory, so that the light of the knowledge might shine in our hearts and lead us onward through the darkness.
John tells us that “the next day,” which is the day after His Baptism by John in the River Jordan in the region of Judea, Jesus decided to go up north to Galilee, from where he had come. The Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke all describe how Jesus, upon his return to Galilee, called his disciples: among the first were Andrew and Peter, and then James and John. But here in John’s Gospel Philip has the honor and distinction of being the only disciple to be called directly by Jesus to “Follow me.” Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke only mention Philip once in their Gospels, John mentions him no less than 12 times, where in three places he takes center stage. As we encounter Philip in John’s Gospel, we meet someone who is actually quite lost and confused, perhaps a little slow and a little simple. Philip is the guy from your Grade 12 class who was voted “least-likely-to-succeed.” What is John is trying to tell us here by drawing attention to Philip? It’s John’s way of telling us that the story he is telling is one of “Amazing Grace.” “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see!” Jesus went looking for Philip and found him, at the back of the class, and brought him to the front. And so it is with us.
It would be very interesting sometime, maybe when COVID is over, for us to get together and share with each other the story of how we came to “see and believe” and follow Jesus Christ. I think we would be simply amazed at the different ways this took place. But we would also look back with wonder and see how God had been on the look out for us, and was drawing us to His Son. (John 6.44) The name “Nathaniel” whom John introduces to us next, means “Gift of God,” and is not found anywhere in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but properly applies to all the disciples. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus, before His Passion, will pray to God for the disciples saying, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you.” (John 17.6-8)
Isn’t it lovely, how Philipp, voted “least likely to succeed”, immediately goes and finds his class mate Nathaniel, who would have been voted, “most-likely-to-go-to-Harvard-and-get-a-Ph.D! “Nathaniel is one smart cookie, and, like most smart cookies, is also deeply skeptical, not easily convinced by Philip’s “look-what-it-says-in-the-Bible” kind of faith: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph” (John 1. 45)
Here Philip bears witness to a kind of epiphany which is the most common among Christians, that is to say, if you want to find and come to know Jesus Christ, open up the Scriptures, that is the Law and the Prophets, and read them in light of Jesus’ Passion. When you do this, Jesus will show Himself to you.
But for Nathaniel there is a stumbling block. It had to do with the fact that Jesus was from Nazareth. Nathaniel said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If Galilee was regarded as the armpit of Israel, a dirty, sweaty, infectious place, then Nazareth was the boil in the armpit. Nothing good was ever known to come out of Nazareth.
How did Philip respond to his skeptical friend? How do you respond to the skepticism of your friends, when you tell them about what and who it is you have found at this little church at the corner of 15th Ave and Montague?
Philip said to Nathaniel, “Come and see.” Philip’s answer echoes earlier words of Jesus to Andrew who wanted to know where Jesus was staying. Jesus said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1. 39). The Gospel of Jesus begins not with an argument, but an invitation to come and see.
Skepticism is a normal and healthy first response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A certain skepticism is part of what it means to walk in the light. (1). Do you remember what Thomas said of the Resurrection? “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20.25)
But the skeptic must learn to suspend his skepticism, and willing to take a risk, the risk of faith and open himself up to a man from Nazareth. And this is precisely what Nathaniel does. With all his uncertainties, doubts, and questions, he came with Philip to see Jesus, proving himself to be an honest a man, and a true Israelite, which is to say truly a man who wrestles with God. (Genesis 32.28)
There is a delicious irony that enters the story now, because Nathaniel who has never seen Jesus and does not know Him, now comes to see him and to know him, only to discover that Jesus has already seen Him and already knows him!
When Jesus saw Nathaniel coming to him, he said, “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathaniel may know nothing about Jesus, but Jesus knows everything about Nathaniel! This a little unnerving for Nathaniel, who says to Jesus, “How do you know me?” Jesus answers, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” (John 1.48)
In the Scriptures, a fig tree is a symbolic place of prayer, study, and meditation, a place of peace and safety in the midst of cruel circumstances, a place of longing for the Messiah to show himself as King. (1 Kings 4.25, Zech. 3.10, Hab. 3. 17-18)
When Jesus says to Nathaniel, “I know you because I saw you under the fig tree” he is telling Nathaniel that he knows and sees what is in his heart. This, as we acknowledged in our Psalm this morning, is the supernatural knowledge that God has of each one of us. He sees, knows and understands each one of us, and the hopes, the longings, the secrets, the sins and the sorrows that occupy our hearts. In Jesus, God enters and penetrates our hearts, and transform then into the dwelling place of His Holy Spirit.
In 1536, the Swiss Reformed theologian John Calvin, in the opening lines of his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote, “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.”
Which comes first: knowledge of God, or knowledge of ourselves? Hard to say. But we do not come to a knowledge of God without coming to a knowledge of ourselves, and we do not come to a knowledge of ourselves with coming to a knowledge of God. And whether of God or ourselves, there is always more to know!
Here Nathaniel was given both, the knowledge God and knowledge of himself, and the foreknowledge that Jesus had of him, burst his skepticism. Nathaniel has an epiphany and acclaims Jesus with the highest titles of his Jewish faith: “Rabbi, “You are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel!” (John 1. 49)
How does Jesus respond to Nathaniel’s incredible confession of faith?
As the song goes, “You ain’t seen n-n-n-nothing yet!” (Bachman-Turner Overdrive, 1974)
“Truly, truly I say to you, beyond all shadow of a doubt, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1.51)
At this climactic point, all the titles so far ascribed to Jesus by the disciples, Lamb of God, Messiah, Son of God, King of Israel, the one whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote, are quietly set aside in favour the one title Jesus consistently used to describe Himself – the title of “Son of Man.” In its basic sense, Son of Man simply means “the human being.” But the Psalms speak of the Son of Man being crowned with glory and honour (Ps 8.5) and in the Book of Daniel there is a prophecy of a universal kingdom given to one like the son of man.” (Daniel 7. 1-14)
Jesus’ self-designation as the Son of Man contains within itself a question to the hearers, “Who do you say that I am?”
At the same time, Jesus holds out the promise of an answer that will come to us when we see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man, that is the vision of His heavenly glory,
This picture of angels ascending and descending recalls the encounter between Jacob- the first Israelite and God in the Book of Genesis. ( 28.10-17) Jacob learned in a dream in which he saw angels ascending and descending that the place where he had camped for the night was in fact – Beth-el, which means “house” of God, the place where God is no longer hidden behind the heavens, but encountered and known, and where there is actual traffic between the world of human beings and the life of God.
But it was only a dream, which according to Jesus here was now to become a reality. Jesus is now the dwelling place of God on earth, a mobile Bethel, where heaven and earth intersect. In the flesh and blood person of this Jesus Christ the presence and glory of God is revealed, nowhere more powerfully than in His suffering and death upon the Cross, in anticipation of which in John’s Gospel Jesus prayed, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17. 5)
“Now we see in a mirror darkly”, wrote St. Paul, but then “face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13.12) To see God face to face, to behold His glory, which is the depths of His suffering love for us, does that not correspond to the deepest longing of our hearts? “Now I know in part, “Paul continued, “but then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” (1 Cor. 13. 12) All of which is to say, when in glory we come to see God face to face, no introductions will be necessary. God will appear to us not as a stranger, but as a friend. (Job 19.27). We will recognize Him as the One who has known and loved us all along.
Let me pray.
This is a prayer from the 8th Anglo Saxon monk, theologian, and historian, St. Bede.
I pray you, good Jesus, that as you have given me the grace to drink in with joy the Word that gives knowledge of you, so in your goodness you will grant me to come at length to yourself, the source of all wisdom, to stand before your face forever. Amen.
St. Bede the Venerable (672-735)
- Leslie Newbiggin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 21.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles ( Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 35.