18 January 2009
Second Sunday in Epiphany
A "Vision Thing"
Christmas is over and all the decorations are put away for another year; we've celebrated the arrival of the three wise men with gold, incense, and myrrh; last Sunday, we commemorated the baptism of Christ. We are now launched into Epiphany tide, that elastic season that separates Christmastide from Lent, expanding or contracting according to the date of Easter. But there is more to Epiphany than that - it takes its theme from the great revelation made to us at Christmas, the birth of a saviour Messiah, and from the gradual growth and extension of that revelation from a small group of family to an ever-widening circle of men and women. So in the readings for this season we look for aha-moments, for those moments of revelation when the light-bulb comes on and we catch a glimpse of what God is doing for us and our world through his Son.
Today's readings are very much about vision, especially the Old Testament story of Samuel and Eli and the gospel story about Nathanael, taken from the first chapter of John. In a way, the latter part of John 1 seems a little like the season of Epiphany itself - it seems almost like something just put in there to separate the high theology and poetic language of the prologue that we heard on Christmas Eve from the beginning of the Book of Signs, which starts with the wedding at Cana. But just as Epiphany tide is more than just something put in to the calendar to keep Christmas and Lent apart, these stories about John the Baptist and the calls of Jesus' early disciples are more than just 'filler' - they show us various stages of reaction and response to Jesus and his coming.
People -- couples and friends -- like to recall and retell how they met and other significant early encounters, and so it should be no surprise that we find a variety of stories, across all four gospels, about Jesus' disciples and their early encounters with Jesus. Here in John's Gospel, these stories are placed, as we have said, with John the Baptist's testimony about his cousin, in the final section of chapter 1. In this morning's gospel, we focus on Nathanael and his first encounter with Jesus.
Nathanael is a particularly interesting figure, although an obscure one -- there is a long-standing debate about whether he was one of the Twelve or one of Jesus' many other disciples. That would make this a nearly unique story in the gospels, since they otherwise focus on the calling of the Twelve. Those who count him among the Twelve tend to assume that 'Nathanael' is another name for 'Bartholomew', also an obscure figure but one usually associated with Philip in the listings of apostles, as Nathanael is associated with Philip here. And there are three very interesting things about his story -- first of all, the repeated use of the word 'see' (six times in as many verses); second, where Jesus first saw Nathanael; and third, the final image, of angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. Let's look at the story in more detail.
When Philip comes to get Nathanael and tell him about Jesus, he doesn't get a very positive response, likely because he made the mistake of mentioning that Jesus came from Nazareth, only 9 miles away from Nathanael's home in Cana of Galilee. It's local rivalry as much as anything that causes Nathanael to dismiss Jesus, in effect because he comes from Wullerton instead of Dog River. Philip just tells him to come and see for himself. But the seeing is done by Jesus, who compliments him on the difference between him and Jacob, also known as Israel -- Nathanael, unlike the wily and indeed dishonest Jacob/Israel, is without guile. The surprised Nathanael challenged Jesus' knowledge of him and is told 'I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.' Where he saw Nathanael likely told Jesus something important about him. A fig tree is a traditional place for rabbis to sit and study in the tradition -- can we assume from this that Nathanael was a learned man, a rabbi himself? Many early Christian writers did, and it was why St Augustine was convinced that he was not one of the Twelve, since the Twelve were deliberately chosen from among the simple and unlearned. But that he had been seen in advance told Nathanael something important about Jesus, because it is in response that Nathanael acknowledges Jesus as son of God and king of Israel -- we might say that this is Nathanael's epiphany.
Why did it make such an impression on Nathanael that Jesus saw him under the fig tree? Certainly it was an amazing thing, and even more so if, like many commentators, we think that Nathanael was studying the story of Jacob as he sat under that tree, and Jesus' remark about being an Israelite in whom there is no guile was his way of telling Nathanael that he knows that. But it told Nathanael not only that Jesus was a miracle-worker but that he was indeed the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, just as Philip had told him. And yet Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see greater things, and tells not just Nathanael but Philip and the others with him, 'you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.'
This is the second allusion here to the story of Jacob, specifically to the story of Jacob's vision in Genesis 28 -- 'And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.' Nathanael, and the other followers of Jesus, precisely because they are the true descendents of Jacob, will see the true link between heaven and earth, which is not a mystic ladder from earth to sky but a person. Jesus the Son of Man joins heaven and earth, indeed, he joins God and humankind. So Nathanael's response to Jesus' insight earns him a greater insight into the revelation that God has been planning and preparing.
In this story we are never specifically told that Nathanael saw Jesus, only that Jesus saw him. That may seem like an insignificant point, but I don't think it is. It is not in seeing God, but in being seen by God that Nathanael comes to know who and what Jesus is. Not that there is anything passive about Nathanael's role -- first of all, he had to listen to Philip and 'come and see' and then he had to respond to Jesus' insight -- but what changes Nathanael's mind is Jesus' knowledge of him. As the Apostle Paul writes, 'now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.' Our Old Testament lesson, on the other hand, is far more about seeing than it is about being seen. In the story of Samuel, the boy prophet is the seer and not the seen.
Samuel is a real transitional figure in the history of Israel -- he is the last of the judges and the first of the prophets and he anoints both Israel's first king, Saul, and her greatest king, David. Like John the Baptist, his birth is an unexpected gift to a childless woman, and he is dedicated to God's service from a very early age. That is we find him as a child working at the tabernacle (for the Temple in Jerusalem has yet to be built) for the priest Eli. Prophecy is rare in Israel at this time: neither visions nor the word of the Lord are common, the text tells us. I think that's a feeling we can all relate to!
So when the Lord calls Samuel, it doesn't occur to the boy that the voice he is hearing could be the voice of God, even though he is sleeping very near to the ark of the covenant. Even the priest Eli doesn't catch on until after the third try. But eventually Samuel responds to God's call and hears his words. They are not happy or comfortable ones, especially for Eli, but they represent the beginning of Samuel's long career as a prophet. Here as in the story of Nathanael, the key to what God will do is human response. Jesus waits for Nathanael to come and see; God speaks clearly to Samuel only when Samuel responds to God. As long as Samuel thinks that the voice he hears calling him is Eli's voice, God has nothing more to say to him. Only when Samuel replies as Eli had told him to, 'speak, for your servant is listening,' does the word of the Lord come to him. Samuel has to see what is going on first.
We are in a position a little like Nathanael and a little like Samuel. We have just heard the Christmas story once again and seen how the Word made Flesh shines into the darkness of our world like a light that cannot be put out, bringing fulfilment to the promises in the Law and the Prophets. We hear in the Epiphany message a voice for the whole world that will not cease to call out until someone responds. And now it is up to us. Like Nathanael, we have a choice -- we can stick with what we know (that nothing good comes from Nazareth) or we can get up and go see that light. Like Samuel, we can keep on going the wrong way or we can answer, 'Speak, for your servant is listening.' It's easier and safer to stick with what we know, to keep on going back to our own Eli's. Answering God's challenge and God's invitation is taking a step away from the easy and the safe -- Samuel and most of the other prophets who came after his got quite a ride for their pains -- but the same promise that Jesus made to Nathanael and the other apostles is open to us if we take that step.