First Congregational Church
January 14, 2017
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Did you hear about the Italian chef that died? He pasta way. We cannoli do so much. His legacy will become a pizza history.
Today’s scripture passage falls near the beginning of the Gospel of John, the one that does not start with details about Jesus’ birth, but before that - “In the beginning was the Word.” There was a book published in 1844, by a Charles Spear, entitled Names and Titles of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Of the 80 different names that Spear explored, Jesus as Word was the 79th. The internet site bibleresources.org mentions 100 names for Jesus, but numbers aren’t the issue as much as the fact that there are a great many names for Jesus Christ.
Anyway, the writer of John’s Gospel goes from that eternal time of “In the beginning” right to John the Baptist proclaiming the coming Messiah and then Jesus calling Peter to follow him. It’s a lot of action in a short bit of time, and we are suddenly arrive this morning’s passage.
There is a detail that I’d like to prep up front, so that you hopefully don’t get stuck in the reading of it, at least how I’ve usually been stuck. There will be mention of Jesus seeing Nathaniel under a fig tree. Most of the time, when such a detail is pointed out, there is a reason. Fig trees were one of the most important trees in Israel. Its fruit was a staple food and it is very rich in symbolism throughout Scripture. It was a barometer of the health of the nation - taken away as punishment, and flourishing in times of restoration. Who know, maybe Jesus mentioned the fig tree with a little smile on his face. Maybe this fig tree thing doesn’t have any huge impact in this morning’s passage, except as Jesus reminding Nathaniel of a particular day and time.
Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Thank you, Rosemary. I think one of the interesting aspects of this passage is that Nathaniel moves so quickly from nay-sayer to advocate. First it’s all, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and then a few short sentences later, it’s “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Without trying to read anything into the verses between those proclamations, and dismissing any thoughts of trickery, I’d say that it’s quite possible that Nathaniel had an epiphany. Sometimes God comes to us as an epiphany and sometimes we know more about God through other epiphanies. And epiphanies transform us.
Martin Luther King, Jr wrote a book, Stride Toward Freedom, that described a point in which he was ready to give up. “With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have such epiphanies in our own lives? I don’t know about anyone else, but there have been times in my life that I would have given most anything for a mere post-it note on the bathroom mirror - from God, of course. Actually, there have been times I would have welcomed a 2x4 upside the head, but I like to think that we all mature a little as we age.
But, it’s also interesting that we don’t know the length of time between Jesus reminding Nathaniel of the fig tree incident and Nathaniel proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God - his epiphany. Maybe it was a really pregnant pause, a nano-second, maybe it was thirty seconds. But there was a space of time in which Nathaniel was able to comprehend what was actually going on.
We also don’t know if it was a pregnant pause, a nano-second or thirty seconds that lapsed when Martin Luther King, Jr. realized the presence of the Divine. But there was a piece of time in which he wasn’t talking as much as he was listening.
I wonder if we think that spiritual or divine epiphanies are for someone “more religious” than we think we are. Or maybe we think that there is some sort of formula we are supposed to follow, a certain place in which we need to be.
Calvin Seminary professor, Scott Hoezee mentioned his gratitude for Jesus choosing the disciples that he did. “The disciples were not, … from among society’s upper echelons. They were not highly educated, well-dressed, or outwardly impressive. The odds are that if you could have met up with Jesus’ band of followers, the first thing that would have struck you would have been their commonness. You would perhaps notice their dirty fingernails, the callous on Philip’s big toe, the missing teeth that were on such obvious display every time James grinned. You might be surprised at how short and stubby a couple of them were and would note the poor grammar that they often employed.” And, I might add, that if this was a somewhat adequate picture of the disciples, then don’t forget that there were perhaps some smells that would fit into those scenes with which we are familiar.
And why not a kitchen table for Martin Luther King, Jr’s epiphany? Or your favorite table, chair, or even your favorite coffee shop, waiting at a stop light, or sitting in the barber chair?
There are a good number of people who really come alive in the winter season, and I say bully for them - truly. But so many others regret this season of grey and continual shuffle-walking. Yet it’s also a time when we can snuggle in, play a fire on your tv with Netflix or sit in front of your own, and just be, to ask yourself, what you think God say to you at this very moment.
Some of us have been in church services for donkey’s years, and others of us are rather new to this idea of intentional family building with people you don’t really know. Regardless of the length of our pew sitting days, if we aren’t taking what we learn and applying it into our own situations, then we’re actually short-changing ourselves.
I remember, a number of years back now, when Dr. Phil Deloria gave a morning message on the cycle of life, or something like that. But I really remember him making the analogy of us and plants in winter, needing that time to rest before the next season of birthing and growing, in seeming absence of life, providing space - time - for life to happen.
God isn’t apt to have such big jobs for us like that of Martin Luther King, Jr. But God still needs each of us to stand for what is right, to listen to God’s still small voice - especially in those moments that seem most unlikely for God speak. God has need of us to review how we act and react to situations and people, so that if repairs or changes need to be made, we can make them on our own, rather than people needing to point them out to us.
I’m sure it’s been on other Facebook pages, but the timing was perfect when I read it off the MacKenzie’s page yesterday morning. It was a little micro-story, indicating that “you are holding a cup of coffee when someone comes along and bumps into you or shakes your arm, making you spill your coffee everywhere.
Why did you spill the coffee? "Well because someone bumped into me, of course!” Wrong answer. You spilled the coffee because there was coffee in your cup. Had there been tea in the cup, you would have spilled tea. Whatever is inside the cup, is what will spill out. Therefore, when life comes along and shakes you (which WILL happen), whatever is inside you will come out. It's easy to fake it, until you get rattled. So we have to ask ourselves... “what's in my cup?” When life gets tough or annoying, what spills over? Joy, gratefulness, peace and humility? Or anger, bitterness, harsh words and reactions?
And lest we think it’s only about us, it’s not. I’m guessing there are ___ vessels here today, and how we react - as a group - as a family - is also an indicator of the epiphanies that God gives us when we are willing to listen and pause and reflect in those moments God gives us. So let us pray.
Gracious God of all our days, in these that are grey and cold and seemingly dismal in so many ways, help us to listen for your epiphanies. Help us to reflect on who we are - as your people - that we can put down that which is not helpful to take up that which is helpful - forgiveness, patience, second chances, and faith - that all things will work for our good, even if we may not see it in the moment. Help all of us to fill our cups with what you need to overflow into the world, that we can be all that you’ve seen us to be. And thank you, for those epiphanies that have helped us to be where we are today. For these and all your gifts, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.