The Second Sunday of Epiphany January 17.21
Based on John 1:43-51, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
I’m beginning my homily this morning with today’s psalm, and I don’t often preach on the psalms. But I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this psalm over the years. It’s sometimes been titled The Inescapable God, which I think sounds a bit oppressive. Verse 5: “You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.” The NRSV translation uses even more unfortunate words: Verse 5: ‘you hem me in, behind and before’. And verse 7, which was omitted from the reading today increases my discomfort: ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from you presence?’ It’s like we can never get away from God, who’s always watching over you, and if we really wanted to flee from this brooding presence, we can’t escape it either. This God is a scary God, a presence to be feared, to avoid, who needs to be placated, like a schoolmaster or heavy-handed parent or boss always looking over their shoulder at you, constantly judging you. And some people do see God this way; I did for a long time!
There is another way to read this psalm, to look at this psalm, turn it completely around in your mind. Yes God’s presence is there, but not hemming us in; or pressing on us—it’s more like encircling us, surrounding us with love. It’s like, well, when you were a child, and you hid under the covers of your bed, and you felt that as long as you were under them you were safe. Remember that feeling? It’s like God’s encircling us in a safety zone! And even in our deepest darkness, God is there, because the dark isn’t dark for God, it’s our darkness, and God is light, God brings light to our darkness, like the light God brought to creation, it is good!
God does have an intimate knowledge of us, “God knit us together in our mother’s womb”—a beautiful visual image, so God knows our strengths and weaknesses, not just what we need and why, but God knows what we need better than we do, because God knows us intimately, kind of, well, like he made us!
Our God is a loving God, not something to try and flee from, to avoid or placate, God’s presence is reassuring, and God wants to embrace us, and bring others into that embrace. And here’s another thought — if God is always there, God is always accessible to us, so God’s love and light are always accessible to us. That is the grace of God’s love. This is something to always remember, to have in the back of your mind at all times, so during those times when we’re feeling in the dark, or overwhelmed emotionally, share it with God. Take it to the Lord in prayer, like that old hymn suggests. Because if God know us, God knows and understands how we’ve doing, or not doing. Even in the depths of our darkness, God is there. Hear the psalmist’s reassuring words: Where can I go from your Spirit? … if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. … even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, (vss 7a, 8b, 12). God knows our needs, and God’s presence is there, just waiting for us to ask for God’s help, God will come once invited—to bring strength to our weakness, and light to our darkness. Open yourself to God and God will provide what you need, because God knows us, better than we know ourselves….
…. Just as Jesus knew the ones he was calling to be his disciples.
Our gospel story begins with Jesus deciding to go to Galilee. The day before, two of John the Baptist’s disciples followed Jesus to where he was staying to hear his teachings, one of whom was Andrew. Andrew gets his brother Simon to come with, and Jesus sees something in him, and renames him Peter which means the Rock. Next John tells us, Jesus ‘finds’ Phillip, so we can assume that he must have been looking for him! Jesus invites Phillip to join him as one of his followers. Phillip goes immediately to Jesus, no questions asked it seems. There must have been something magnetic about this Jesus guy to have people want to follow him, just like that. Phillip very quickly comes to believe who Jesus is—the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Phillip is excited about his new relationship with Jesus, and wanting to share his new-found faith and knowledge, and so he seeks out his friend Nathanael. Ah, Nathanael, he doesn’t jump on this new Jesus bandwagon just on the say so of his friend, he’s a little more skeptical—wanting more information, trying to be sensible and rational and has trouble believing that anything good can come out of Nazareth! Nazareth, that town’s not big enough for anything as immense as the Messiah to come from! It would be like saying Jesus could have come from a village like, well Whitechurch or Walton! Nathanael is open minded enough to accept his friend’s offer, obviously intrigued and apparently trusts Phillip’s judgment sufficiently to go along with him when he says “Come and See”.
And Jesus, being Jesus, knows Nathanael’s true nature. Nathanael is a man of integrity, he is a man of honesty and truthfulness and Jesus tells him so. The still skeptical Nathaniel questions Jesus, how do you know me, where have you seen me? Jesus says simply that he saw Nathaniel under the fig tree, before Phillip introduced them. Now what kind of an answer is that, truly? Just because he saw me under a fig tree? Nathanael, perhaps in a flash of insight, or more likely in a flash of God given inspiration– realizes, and understands what Phillip knew instinctively — he is in the presence of a remarkable person—yes, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel (vs 49); an awareness that must have been truly incredible for Nathanael. Talk about an Epiphany experience!
And Jesus says: You think that was amazing, just wait, there’s more to come— “I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth.” (vs 51 NLT). What does he mean by that? Think back to your Sunday School days, and the old testament stories; who else saw angels coming and going between earth and heaven? Right– the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob, after he cheated his elder twin Esau out of his birthright so as to receive his father Isaac’s blessing, has to flee from his brother’s wrath. His mother Rachel tells him to go to her brother, and find a wife from among his uncle’s people. Along the way, Jacob stops for the night, grabs a stone for a pillow and has a dream about a ladder that reached up to the heavens, and angels using it as the pathway between heaven and earth. And God spoke to Jacob in that dream, telling him that the land on which he slept would be his and his offspring would be numerous and spread across the earth. Jesus, in referring to this familiar story, is telling these new disciples that he will be the pathway between heaven and earth.
So, what are we to make of this gospel story? It’s a story about people being called by Jesus and responding to his call. It’s also about how they wanted to share their understanding of Christ with their friends, wanting to share the joy of that knowledge of who Jesus was. But this is also a story of being known by God and being found and understood. Jesus recognized within Simon the strength that made him the Rock, on whom the church was to be built. Jesus recognized within Nathanael the integrity and goodness he wanted among his founding disciples. Jesus found Phillip, a man who instinctively and immediately recognized who Jesus was, and wasn’t afraid to bring others to Jesus.
We are called to faith, to belief by God. We are called by Christ to be in relationship with him. It is part of our calling as Christians to bring others to faith, to Jesus. We are strengthened by the Holy Spirit to fulfill our calling. But the choice is our, always. We can listen and follow or turn away. But God keeps calling us, Jesus doesn’t give up on us, and the Spirit’s empowering strength comforts and sustains us. And when we actually spend some time and ponder it, think about all that God is, the immensity of that can truly be overwhelming for us mere humans to understand. “How weighty to me are your thoughts O God!” our psalmist acknowledged in verse 17.
What I also find amazing, is that a God who is this immense, powerful and vast, really wants to even be bothered with having a personal relationship with me. That is most humbling, and exciting all at the same time.
The Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector
The Regional Ministry of Hope