John 1: 43-51
Good morning, grace and peace. Second Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany and so the 25th Day of Christmas, for those who are keeping count--on the way to the 40th Day, Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, and the day (I promise, Susy!) when I will finally start taking down our Christmas decorations and carrying them to the basement!
As I mentioned last week, our 3-year lectionary, in Year B now, will have our Sunday gospel reading for most of these weeks in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, as we began last Sunday, but with this one excursion from Mark to St. John. Last week we had Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, and we’re in the same time frame here in the first chapter of John. In the time immediately following the baptism of Jesus.
Our passage this morning begins in the first chapter of John at verse 43 with the words, “The next day,” and it’s helpful I think as we hear this to look back just a bit, to see that this is the second half of the account in John of the calling of the first disciples. In John’s gospel one day after the baptism John the Baptist is standing with several of his followers and Jesus walks by. John remembers that moment in the river, as he with his own eyes saw the Spirit descending like a dove and abiding with Jesus, and he says to the two brothers, Andrew and Peter, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
They are moved by John’s testimony and go after Jesus to see what this means. They ask him where he is going, and Jesus then invites them to join him. “Come and see.” And they follow. That’s one of the readings we sometimes have actually for St. Andrew’s Day, so it seems especially familiar to us here.
In any event, then we come to verse 43, “the next day,” so days after the baptism as John tells it, and Jesus goes out again, and immediately runs into Phillip, who is from Bethsaida in the Galilee—near the home of Peter and Andrew, all of these little rural villages, Bethsaida, Capernaum, Nazareth just a stone’s throw from one another—and Jesus enlists him as well. “Come follow me.”
And then Philip. He seems to have heard something from John the Baptist also, or maybe from the disciples who had joined Jesus yesterday, because he immediately becomes an evangelist, going out and finding Nathanael, to say, “we have found the One promised in the scriptures, the one we’ve been waiting for. Jesus, from Nazareth.”
Which news catches Nathanael by surprise. For these Galilean men Nazareth seems to have the reputation as the most backwater of their own backwater neighborhoods.
They’ve come down to the big city, the sophisticated Judean region, near the metropolis of Jerusalem, and now here is this assertion that the One they’ve been waiting for here with John at the Jordan is a hometown guy, a fellow Galilean, even from Nazareth. Like going to New York, London, Paris, to find out that the one you’ve been looking for is from McKees Rocks. So Nathanael. “Come on, Philip, get real. What good can come from Nazareth?”
And then finally beginning in verse 47 the pivotal encounter between Jesus and Nathanael. Philip introduces Jesus to Nathanael, and Jesus says, “Oh, I’ve had my eye on you, Nathanael. I saw you yesterday, as a matter of fact, sitting under the tree.” And Nathanael—I don’t know, I guess I’ve always heard a cynical, even a little rude and disrespectful tone in his reply. Following on from the comment about Nazareth. Rolling his eyes. “You saw me yesterday? Wow, that’s incredible, Jesus! You must really be the Messiah, the Son of God. We should go out and start planning your enthronement ceremony right away.”
But in any event, Jesus doesn’t react to that, but he comes right back at him. Homes in. “You’ll see more than this, Nathanael. Just hang around for a while and see.”
And then Jesus evokes the image of the dream of Jacob in the Old Testament, the 28th chapter of Genesis, the Father of the Twelve Tribes, the man who wrestled through the night with God.
You know, as a side note, in Luke 24 on the afternoon of Easter Day the risen Jesus meets up with a couple of his extended group of disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They have a conversation about the events of that day, and the disciples really seem in the dark about what it all means. And Jesus tells them that it all was foretold in advance in the scriptures. In what we would call the Old Testament. They’re still puzzled, so then in verse 27 Luke says, “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them, in all the scriptures, the things concerning himself.” A conversation I’m sure every Christian would love to overhear. But we get hint of it here.
This is a pivotal moment in Jacob’s story. He’s just played a strange trick on his father and managed to acquire for himself the special blessing of inheritance that had been intended for his brother Esau. When Esau finds out he is enraged, and Jacob has to run for his life. Without any sense of where he can go to find safety, Jacob is out on the road until nightfall. And then that night, his dream.
Jacob left Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed [and here it is] that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So, Jesus. Hang around, Nathanael. Walk along this road back toward our little country villages. And see Jacob’s dream come to life and fulfillment, in what you see in me. The joining of heaven and earth, the miracle of Christmas, the Manifestation of Epiphany.
An unexpected place, not because it is so far away, but because it’s right here, just a campsite on the open road, nothing special. But revealed there: open your eyes to see it, the gate of heaven. God acting to restore and renew all things, and each of us. God revealing himself. Not the way we expected, not at some expected hour or in some dramatic technicolor rain of lightning bolts pouring down from heaven, but right here with us in our real world. Jacob’s dream leaping over centuries, anticipation and foreshadowing, to catch this glimpse of what God would do once and for all. Christ, the ladder. Word made flesh-- his life-giving body, the door, the House of God, the gate of heaven.
On the Roman Catholic Calendar these weeks after the Epiphany and the weeks after Trinity Sunday are called “Ordinary Time.” Not a very poetic phrase, but one to pause with. Because that’s where we are. Ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary time. And right here, midwinter Highland Park, or in any place, in every place, when we are in the presence of Jesus, “the house of God, the gate of heaven.” Which is what Christmas and Epiphany are all about, really. It is a miracle, and it can be a miracle for us. Invitations for each of us to follow Peter and Andrew, and Philip, and Nathanael, and to bring ourselves in heart and mind into his presence: This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Haste, haste, to bring him laud, the Babe, the son of Mary.