A Sermon preached on Epiphany II January 17, 2021 at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
1 Samuel 3:1-10, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51.
Mark’s Gospel often seems to be written by someone in a hurry – it is brief, very brief compared to the Gospel of John, it is intense, and it jumps right into the story of Jesus’ ministry, beginning with his Baptism. Yet if we ignore the prologue, so does John’s Gospel. And John squeezes the calling of the first disciples into just three days. First Jesus calls two men who had previously been followers of John the Baptist: Andrew (Simon Peter’s brother) and an unnamed disciple – possibly the so-called “beloved disciple”. The two of them decide to follow Jesus and recognise him as their teacher (rabbi). The next day Simon Peter is called: Andrew brings his brother to Jesus, “who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).” (John 1:42) And then comes the passage we heard this morning. On the 3rd day Jesus decides to leave the river Jordan and go to Galilee, there he first finds and calls Philip, who then finds Nathanael, presumably a good friend, and introduces him to Jesus. That’s five followers in 3 days – not bad without social media!
As is appropriate for the season of Epiphany – meaning revelation or manifestation – each successive encounter with new disciples reveals a little more about who Jesus is. John the Baptist calls him the Lamb of God (John 1:36) – one who will die a sacrificial death for the world; Andrew and friend call him Rabbi (1:38) – a teacher; Andrew calls him Messiah (1:41) – the anointed one; Philip says he is the Prophet like Moses (1:45); Nathanael calls him the Son of God and King of Israel (1:49) – come to liberate his people; and finally Jesus uses the term the Son of Man (1:51) – to whom according the Book of Daniel will be given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” (Daniel 7:14)
When Jesus tells Nathanael that “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” (John 1:51) he wants him to think of Jacob’s dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth (Genesis 28:12) and to see Jesus as a new connection between the two. The Evangelist John does not leave us in the dark, he has no Messianic secret, he presents the whole truth about Jesus in each episode of his gospel.
It is also interesting to see the different reactions of the disciples. Andrew and companion, Simon, and Philip just turn and follow without question. Nathanael on the other hand is not so sure and initially resorts to light sarcasm: Can anything good come out of Nazareth, he asks. Nathanael comes from the nearby village of Cana, so his question is a bit like someone from Cologne asking, can anything good come out of Düsseldorf, or someone from Frankfurt saying, can anything good come out of Offenbach, or even someone from Mainz asking, can anything good come out of Wiesbaden? [Not Brian, I hope.]
Anyway, Nathanael quickly changes his mind when he actually meets Jesus. He may not know Jesus, but Jesus already knows who he is: a true or genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit! A man who spends time studying scripture – under a fig tree – looking for God, looking for clues about the Messiah and how Israel will be saved. Nathanael means “one who sees God.” It seems that while he, like Andrew and Simon Peter, thought they were looking for the Messiah, the Messiah was already looking for them. ‘What are you looking for?’ Jesus asks. But knowing them, he knows the answer – they are looking for him, for his teaching, for his example, and for his love and so his invitation is simply ‘Come and see.’
Jesus does not care if people turn and follow the first time he calls, or the second, or the third or more. He is as persistent with Nathanael as the Lord was with Samuel in the Temple in the Old Testament passage. The Lord calls four times before Samuel answers, and is finally ready to listen, follow and obey. Samuel struggled to hear God’s call because he “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” (1 Samuel 3:7) Eli had to help him and tell him what to do. In those days, we heard, the word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread. (1Samuel 3:1) Not just in those days, I fear.
As John tells the story of how the first disciples were called, we discover that they do not come to Jesus on their own. They are all introduced to Jesus. First John the Baptist, standing with two of his disciples, exclaims ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ as he watches Jesus walk by. (John 1:35-26) Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus. Philip brings Nathanael to Jesus. They were all looking for a saviour, a Messiah, a King. John, Andrew, and Philip help them find the one they were looking for.
People have not stopped looking for someone to follow, for a saviour, for a vision of truth. but too often they look in the wrong place, and find and follow false prophets: fearmongers, prophets of doom, leaders who feed our prejudices, men – mostly – who claim not only to have, but to be the answer. The later 19th century American social reformer Susan B. Anthony once said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” Like the disciples in John’s Gospel, our role is to point people in the right direction, to bring them to Jesus, to introduce them to him with the simple words: Come and see!
But when we tell people to “come and see,” when we bring them here to this church for example, what do we show them? How do we show them Jesus today? We can and should point them to the Bible, to that written record of the acts of the Word of God. But that alone will not convince them unless we can show them that the word, both the written and the living word, that this Jesus who we claim to know, and be known by, makes a difference in our lives: In how we interact as a community, in how we welcome strangers, in how we reach out to those in need, in how we put the needs of others first, in how we acknowledge our weaknesses and mistakes and ask for forgiveness, in how we recognise and follow and in the end rely on a power much greater than ourselves.
Our Collect today also addressed this question – how do we show Jesus to the people we invite to come and see; how do we make him known? Let us pray it once again:
Almighty God, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever.