Text: Psalm 139 and John 1:43-51, preached at St Andrew Memorial, London Ontario.
I want to start by telling you a story.
It may be a familiar story, it may be not.
It is a story that I grew up with – my Sunday School had it on flannel graph.
It wasn’t directly in our readings this morning, but it was there, hovering in the background.
It’s a story that all of the individuals in today’s gospel would have been very aware of. Jesus would have known it, educated as he was in the stories of the history of his people. Philip and Nathaniel surely would have known it. It is likely one they grew up with on cold evenings around the fire before bed.
It is a story everyone in Israel would have known because, even though it had taken place centuries earlier, it was a significant story of the founding and establishing of their nation, of their people.
The setting of this story is centuries earlier than where we are with Jesus, Philip, and Nathaniel. To get to its location, we must go a little ways south of where the gospel is set in Bethsaida, south past Samaria and towards Jerusalem, but not quite that far.
It is mountainous country here, rocky and cold; the kind of barren land that makes it an unlikely place to stop and spend the night. But when you are fleeing for your life, anywhere that seems safe will do.
Fleeing for your life.
Jacob, the younger twin son of Isaac and Rebekah, is fleeing from his brother Esau. Esau the hunter, whose hunger for lentil stew was more important than his birthright. Jacob the deceiver, who tricked Father Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, and thus earning the hatred of his elder brother. To escape being killed by Esau, Jacob runs.
The Psalmist (139) says, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night.”
Jacob runs until he can run no more, until he is covered by the night – both a night of darkness and a night of despair. At night it is cold – as cold as the angry brother left behind – and having nothing soft to lie on, Jacob takes a stone and makes it his pillow.
But, again, as the Psalmist says, “You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways … You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me … Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast … For even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
Jacob may be able to flee from his angry brother, but he cannot flee from God.
So Jacob sleeps using a stone for a pillow. With an uneasy resting place like that, it is no wonder that Jacob has a vivid dream:
He dreams of a ladder set up on the earth. It must have been a ladder without end for its bottom rested on earth and its top rungs reached all the way to heaven. If that were not enough to make it an unusual ladder, the angels of God were ascending and descending on the ladder: crossing between heaven and earth. Heaven’s gate, where the earth becomes heaven’s door.
God has found Jacob – he cannot flee from God – and now God is standing right beside Jacob:
He speaks: You may be called the deceiver, Jacob, but I am the God of your father and your grandfather, and I know you. I know you and now I want you to know that I bless you. I promised to Abraham, I promised to Isaac, and now I promise to you: I am with you always. I am with you and your descendents – even when it seems all hope is lost and I’m not there, I am. And from your descendents will come the one who will end all of our exile…
Jacob awakens and takes the stone that was his pillow and makes it into a pillar and calls the place Beth-El – the house of the Lord. And it is at this place, Beth-El, that God changes Jacob’s name from Jacob – deceiver – to Isra-El – God is triumphant.
Centuries later, where we began with our gospel, this is the vision that Jesus presents to Nathaniel:
“Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
You are no Jacob, the deceiver; you are Israel – you speak your mind and you speak the truth.
“Where did you get to know me, Jesus?”
“I formed your inward parts and knit you together in your mother’s womb. You are fearfully and wonderfully made – your frame was not hidden from me when you were being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” (Ps. 139)
“I saw you under the fig tree,” says Jesus. I saw you… sitting, enjoying figs, philosophizing with the best of them … I saw you scoff in disbelief when Philip told you that they’d found me in Nazareth; that they’d found the one about whom Moses and all of the prophets spoke – the Messiah, the Anointed.
And as Nathaniel glances around, trying to remember if he’d seen someone hiding, eavesdropping, in the fig tree while he and Philip had been speaking, he has an epiphany – his sudden and striking realization:
“Teacher, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” It is YOU!
Jesus, in turn, offers him a further vision: “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Remember the dream of your ancestor, centuries ago? I am the ladder, says Jesus. Come and see, heaven is open. The kingdom of heaven is upon us.
Come and see.
And that is how we got here, in Bethsaida, with Jesus and Philip and Nathaniel:
Philip sought Nathaniel and told him they’d found Jesus.
Philip’s only reply:
“Come and see.”
Come and see
That is all that is asked of us, and it is especially relevant that we get reminded of that in the gospel this morning, during the season of Epiphany.
Nathaniel came and saw and found Jesus and, in finding Jesus, found himself as a disciple.
The shepherds came and saw and found a baby, lying in cloths in a manger and, in finding Jesus, found themselves his messengers proclaiming what they had seen.
The magi came and saw and found an infant king and, in finding Jesus, found themselves the bearers of extraordinary gifts for a king.
God sees us – where we are, who we are, what we are.
God knows us – every single intricate part and all of the thoughts we daren’t even voice aloud.
God calls us – calls us by name. Our deepest names. Because of, and in spite of, knowing us, God calls each one of us.
All we need to do is come.
Because it is in answering the “come and see” that we have our own epiphany – our sudden realization: we find Jesus and Jesus finds us. In that finding, we realize who we are – who we are as Jesus’s followers and we learn what it means to believe.
Come all you who are faithful, and all who would like to be faithful.
Come all you who walk in darkness and hunger for the light.
Have faith enough, hope enough, despair enough, disbelief enough to draw near and see for yourself.
Come and see.
Come and be found.