A sermon by Canon Treasurer Sarah Mullally DBE
The Second Sunday of Epiphany
Revelations 5:1-10 and John 1:43-end
Jacob had always had one eye on getting one up on his twin brother Esau, trying to trip him up even in the womb. He tricked Esau out of his birth right and out of his father’s blessing. Eventually the tables turned and Esau tried to kill Jacob. Jacob fled and when running away with not a penny to his name, he had a dream. He saw a ladder with its foot on the ground and its top reaching to heaven and God’s angels were ascending and descending. The Lord stood beside Jacob and promised him that he would bring him back to his land in peace and prosperity.
It is this account which Jesus is referring to in our gospel reading this morning, when he tells Nathanael that he and the other disciples will see heaven opened, with angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
What a strange image to use as Nathanael is called by Jesus. The point of the ladder to Jacob was that it showed that God was there with him in that place and so Jacob called the place Bethel, that is Gods house. So why does Jesus use it when talking to Nathanael after his call? For the same reason, to show Nathanael that God is with us.
The beginning of John’s gospel is concerned with the way in which Jesus fulfils the promises of God – God present with his people. John uses a number of images to explain this - the word became flesh and lived among us and that the light that shines in the darkness will not be overcome.
And so, in the call of Nathanael, we again see that God is with us but we are also told more – that God knows us.
When Nathanael is called to follow Jesus he is called from under the fig tree, that imagery of home, and as he approaches, Jesus indicates that he knows him. ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asks ‘where did you get to know me?’ Jesus answers, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Jesus saw him in his home before he was called. Before he was called, God was with him and so he is known to God. What a marvellous thing that we should be known by God – even before we know him.
The psalmist in Psalm 139 explains it ‘Lord you have searched me and known me. For you created my inner most parts. It was you who formed my inward parts, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:1,2,13-14).
Archbishop Justin Welby talked on Radio 4’s dessert island discs on Sunday 29th December 2014 about the re affirming knowledge of knowing that there was someone who knew him better than he knew himself and who love’s him more deeply than anyone, despite knowing everything about him, including those things he deeply dislikes. In a world which often challenges our self-value and identity, it should be affirming to us that God knows us and loves us. Even Jacob with his manipulating behaviour, God remained with him.
Last week Tom talked about how each one of us will have a different story of how we encountered God and grew in our knowledge of him, but the psalmist and the account of Nathanael and others’ call suggest that God knew us before we knew him and longs to be known by us.
For some of us Tom suggested, there will be that rare moment of clarity when we know that we have encountered God and when we know that we want to change, to develop, to mature, to grow to the likeness of God. Here in our gospel reading Nathanael recognises in Jesus that he was the messiah - “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathanael in that moment of clarity sets on a path along which he is changed and the next time we see Nathanael he is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in one of those mysterious post resurrection events.
In that moment of clarity, Nathanael recognises that Jesus was fulfilling the purposes of God – his purposes unchangeable and divine, as reflected in the image in the Revelation of John. Jesus the lamb who sits on the throne, who is worthy to open the scrolls, the promise of the Kingdom of God.
However, in the shadow of the terror we have seen over the past few weeks, some of us will question where is the kingdom promised by God, where is the peace and justice that God promised?
The kingdom of heaven on earth began to be a reality with Jesus being made man and with his death and resurrection. Jesus started the work of recreation and healing, joining us in the unutterable pain of the world where Gods Kingdom has not yet fully come, but in which he calls us like Philip and Nathanael to be involved, ‘come and see’.
As we join with the Saints in John’s Revelation echoing their prayers when we pray ‘your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’ and as we pray we need to recognise that we may be the answer to prayer and in praying we may find ourselves changed.
As we pray for the cessation of violence we should see ourselves as part of the solution. Rather than hating people who we think are war makers or terrorists, we should hate the appetite and disorder in our own soul that are the causes of war and terrorist acts.
When Philip told Nathanael about Jesus he wasn’t impressed. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” There is a point here where Nathanael’s prejudice and arrogance could have meant that he missed an opportunity – an opportunity to be part of the kingdom of Heaven on earth.
It was Philip who cut through Nathanael’s cynicism about Nazareans, “Come and see.” Here we see Nathanael choosing to grow. It could be so easy in the light of the events of the past weeks to let our actions be dominated by prejudice but we have a choice and Jesus calls us to bring his kingdom to earth – our actions can create that Kingdom.
In Australia, in the wake of the terrorist attack of the gunman in a Sydney café, they began to see an Islamic phobic backlash. This sparked support for Muslims in a campaign called #I’ll ride with you. It was started on Facebook by Rachael Jacobs, who said she'd seen a woman she presumed was Muslim silently removing her hijab while sitting next to her on the train: "I ran after her at the train station. I said 'put it back on. I'll walk with u'. She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute - then walked off alone”. Thousands of people have now joined the spontaneous campaign, offering to meet Muslim people at their local stations and to ride with them on their journey - Angels ascending and descending. Small actions building the Kingdom of God on earth.
We can be confident that we are known by God and that he has chosen to make us part of bringing the Kingdom of heaven to earth - these are the places where angels descend and ascend to heaven. And like Nathanael, we have the hope of seeing greater things than these.
Let us echo in the coming weeks the words of the collect this morning ‘transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory’. Amen