First Congregational Church
January 17, 2021
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
It was sometime last month that I set aside these Analogies Written by High School Students. “Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.” “He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.” Our scripture passage for this morning doesn’t belong on any analogy list, just so we are all clear.
Last Sunday we read about Jesus being baptized by his wild and crazy cousin, John the Baptist, as is told in Luke 3. Today we continue with Jesus’ path, two days after his baptism, but as revealed in the book of John, still at the Jordan River. The day before, Jesus had “called” Andrew and Simon Peter to follow him.
The context of today’s passage feels like the warning some shows screen before they start: For Mature Audiences only. Or like the background before the Star Wars movies: Long ago, in a galaxy far away, was a town called Bethsaida, the place Andrew, Peter and Philip called home. It was also just outside Bethsaida where Jesus fed 5,000 men and their families, as well as the place where he healed a blind man. Although not all scholars agree on the precise location, the name Bethsaida means “house of fishing” or “home of hunting,” so it’s location at the north end of the Dead Sea would make sense, except that one wouldn’t expect fish to be found in the Dead Sea. So there’s that little bit of consternation. Our passage will mention Nazareth, where we associate Joseph and Mary taking Jesus to grow up, to avoid the execution of baby boys ordered by Herod. It probably didn’t even dawn on Herod’s henchmen to look for a baby Messiah in Nazareth, because it was like a place we would call in this country, ‘unincorporated.’ Even Elberta has a classification of being a village! The guesses are that there were maybe a couple hundred people in Nazareth who lived in housing more like caves and sod houses. On top of its tininess, Nazareth inhabitants didn’t particularly like paying exorbitant taxes, so the Roman tax collectors would come in every so often and rattle the slats of those who hadn’t abided by “the law.” So let that understanding assist your listening.
Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”
Thank you, Jim. I don’t remember who sent it along, but since I can actually vouch for it, Age 60 may be the new 40, bu 9:00 p.m. is the new midnight. When I say, “The other day,” I could be referring to any time between yesterday and 15 years ago. I remember being able to get up without any sound effects, and these days, the start of a brand new day sends me off like a herd of turtles. And now, when someone asks me what I did over the weekend, I squint and ask, “Why, what did you hear?”
In this film-esque lens through which we are catching this morning’s scripture, one could almost think that Jesus was a gaff operator, prompt person or make-up artist behind the line of the movie camera. There was Nathanael, sitting under a fig tree, probably minding his own business, and his brother comes along and tells him he’s got to see this guy from Bendon or Nessen City - for those who live in these here parts. Not knowing he was “being filmed” in Jesus’ mind, Nathanael must have thought that Jesus’ knowledge about him was nigh unto magical.
And then came the epiphany, the light bulb going off above his head, not so unlike Wylie E. Coyote. “You’re the Son of God! You’re the King of Israel!” I wonder if Jesus took Nathanael’s revelation like any really tall person when they go out in public. “Hey! You’re tall! You must play basketball! How tall are ya?”
But it’s not just a lightbulb going off in Nathanael’s mind, because Jesus sees more. Jesus said, “You believe - because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael didn’t just recognize Jesus, there was a movement of heart in that moment.
Maybe that movement of heart, that epiphany glimpse, was like hearing a piece of music that moves you to tears. Or watching an athlete do the smoothest, most beautiful move imaginable. Or the moment when all the columns of a spreadsheet come together and match a profit and loss statement. (You can tell where my head was this last week!)
There were some other epiphany glimpses this week, and one was The New Culinary Classics series of books. There is War and Peas. (Catch) Quiche 22, and Lord of the Pies. There is Animal Flan, Of Mice and Menudo (soup), Oliver Twix and Crimini and Punishment. I thought the most hilarious was Pride and Prune Juice, although The Lion, the Witch and the Waldorf Salad was quite clever, too.
So where have you seen some Epiphany Glimpses this past week? Now don’t get all worked up, because you weren’t given an assignment last week to look for Epiphany Glimpses, so no one needs to feel guilty or lost. But if you think back on it, I’m sure there is something that came together for you that stretched your brain a little bit. And no, I’m not talking about anything political or mind-tearing, either. Maybe it was remembering to take the mask with you before you went into the store. Or an insight of how utterly giving some people are in the caring of those who are ill these days - covid or not.
One of mine was a note from a friend of a friend, who wrote to say how much she appreciates being able to tune in each week and her being able to get used to going to “the other room” when her husband doesn’t feel like listening to her any longer. (I’m guessing that means singing, Mary?) Or maybe it’s akin to Monday morning quarterbacking - sort of like giving a score on a sermon point like an Olympic judge? That actually happened one Sunday. It must have been an Olympic year and two gentlemen held up the sermon ratings after the Amen. I kept the 10 and tossed the 9.5.
James Howell, over there at workingpreacher.org pointed out that Jesus “found” Philip, and that Philip “found” Nathanael, and that God “finds" people through God’s people. I found a layer of meaning in this passage this week that may well be part of an Epiphany Glimpse for you, too.
Verse 47, “When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” That word deceit, in the ancient Greek, can also mean guile, being crafty and/or underhanded. As James Howell said, the Old Testament’s Jacob, “always got ahead in life by his own wits. He relied on his own cunning and craftiness to snag life’s goodies. He outsmarted dim-witted (Brother) Esau, did an end-run on his nearly blind father Isaac, and then spent the better part of twenty years finding ever-more creative ways to snooker his Uncle Laban out of just about everything he owned.
For some reason, though, God liked Jacob. Once, when fleeing the wrath of Esau, Jacob had a dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. In that dream God assures Jacob that despite all the stunts Jacob had pulled, God was with him. And God would stay with Jacob, finally and quite literally wrestling him into an understanding that the best things in life come by grace alone. It’s not about the power to snag what you want. No, it’s about being humble to receive what only God can give.
“Here comes an Israel who is not Jacob,” Jesus basically said when he first saw Nathanael coming his way.” That’s a right interesting comment, seeing as how Nathanael had just sneered about backwater Nazareth. In fact, we know very little about ol’ Nate, so maybe his question, “How do you know me?” is a little closer to “Why, what did you hear?”
Bringing that epiphany glimpse closer to Nathanael, Jesus basically says, “I see the good in your heart, but there’s much more good waiting for you.” Jesus goes on to say, "you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
So that’s the scriptural surprise. Jacob, some 2,000 years before, had that dream of a stairway to heaven, with God at the top of the stairs. When you see the two scenarios together, it’s quite stunning: both passages describing angels “ascending and descending.” God is at the top of Jacob’s “ladder,” Christ is as the top of the stairway to heaven. Both Jacob and Nathanael had a moment where they were given a divine opportunity and the ability to make their choice. Both made choices that changed their lives. Dimes to dollars, each of us will be given opportunities and abilities this week to make choices that will change lives.
Life-changing choices aren’t the brand of toothpaste to choose or the regular or fat-free Triskets. Those moments of epiphany glimpses will be quick, almost inconsequential. A word in an exchange with the under paid, unacknowledged front-line workers behind the grocery store cash register could be one of those opportunities. There are a lot of people that you will drive past this week, or who will drive past you, who may be on the verge of losing their job, their home, not to mention a loved one to whatever malaise you wish to mention. Maybe your Epiphany Glimpse is to not wish a person bad, but to wish them consciousness.
These days may seem like we either have to bring out our longies and woolies and armor up our hearts and minds in protection, or we may be holding our breath like when fragile butterflies that may or may not fly off our hand at any given moment. Just like Jacob and Nathanael, God gives us new opportunities to make decisions that can help others find the love we are commissioned to share. Every day is a new chance that is not dependent on the day before. May God help each of us to catch the epiphany glimpses that ascend before us each and every day, throughout the day and night as angels bring them to us and as we pray.
Holy God of Grace, thank you for the surprises you give us, surprises that are good and can lead to encouraging others to come and see and follow you in your love and grace. It is no secret that we blow those opportunities more often than we’d like to admit. And for that, we ask your forgiveness. We are grateful that you absolve our miscues in the grace you give us to start each day anew. When life seems overwhelming, send an extra abundance of your presence, peace and patience to those who so desperately need it. For all the glimpses of your light and the revelation of your love, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.