St Peter’s Anglican Church, Maroochydore – 17 January 2021 (Epiphany 2B)
John 1, 43-51
How’ve you been? I haven’t seen you for several weeks. What’s been happening? Did you have a “Merry Christmas”? We had two of our sons join us via FaceTime for about an hour on Christmas Eve – one from Melbourne, the other from the UK. Our son in Melbourne spent Christmas with his girlfriend; but our son in England was alone. Previously, he has flown to Berlin to spend Christmas and New Year with my brother and his family. Not in 2020. He has worked from home for 10 months now; and that is likely to continue for who knows how long.
Hm. The “Happy New Year” wish that runs off our lips with such ease is limping a bit, too, isn’t it? COVID-19 doesn’t operate along the pages of our calendar:
- Statistics around the globe are horrendous
- Added to the UK and South African strains, there is now the fear that the virus has mutated yet further, in Brazil
- On a personal level, within one hour, yesterday, I received two messages informing me of close family members in southern Africa who have been struck down by COVID – my cousin and her husband in Namibia, after four weeks, are slowly recovering; my brother-in-law in Cape Town, however, has had to be hospitalised on Friday…
And then, no doubt, you will have heard of the tragic death of the past student of Matthew Flinders Anglican College, killed in the early hours of the New Year as a result of a hit-and-run accident. Twice in the past fortnight, we’ve had in excess of 200 grief-stricken people gather at the College.
By now you might be thinking that I’m here today to preach doom and gloom; but that’s not my intention. Rather: The Gospel is not about escapism. God’s good news comes right into the midst of our circumstances.
And what I’ve outlined is snapshot of where we are as a human race at this point in time.
And it is in this our everyday lives that we meet Christ.
In fact, that’s how it is at the start of our Gospel reading; it begins with such ordinariness: there’s Phillip, a fisherman from the fishing village Bethsaida – quite possibly still with the smell of fish on his hands and fish scales on his clothes. He’s going about his business, back on his way to Bethsaida, the same place where Peter and Andrew are from – except: they’ve just become followers of Jesus, down there on the banks of the Jordan.
And here’s the thing, you see, in one short sentence, Phillip’s ordinary day, his ‘normal’ life changes: “Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”
Which he does; but not only that, he calls Nathaniel to come, too.
Oh, he longs for the Messiah, alright. The first words Jesus says to him are to recognise that he is a true Israelite – someone who, not only is part of the God’s People by descent; but one who is fervent in the study of Torah, of scripture (that’s one thing hinted at in the reference to ‘sitting under the fig tree’), and one, who like Jacob truly “wrestles with God” – which is what the name “Israel” means.
And like his kinspeople, Nathaniel looks at the plight of his land – tossed, like a ping pong ball this way and that between the mightier political powers of the surrounds; currently oppressed by the Romans, weighed down by high taxes that are used for projects of prestige rather than social benefit; short-changed by some of their own people who, in cahoots with the Empire, look to cushion their personal existence. And, if that wasn’t enough, the constant threat and fear of diseases, famine and poverty with no Centrelink as support.
Oh, yes, Nathaniel longs for the Messiah to turn things around! And he believes that God will fulfill the promises made in the Hebrew Scriptures.
However: NAZARETH??!! Are you serious?! Nathaniel himself hails from the north (he’s from Cana, by the way); and he knows that the north of the country is not well-regarded in religious circles – the Jews there are of dubious descent, not a pure lineage there. And Nazareth, non-descript little Nazareth, with no claim to anything…?!
It’s like us nominating, say, Blackbutt, or some such out-of-the-way little place.
In fact, friends, we all have our own ‘Nazareths’. It doesn’t even have to be about a place. It’s often people, or particular circumstances, or even pieces of our own lives. Mostly, though, our ‘Nazareths’ have to do with our assumptions about us; about our fears, our prejudices, our guilt, our losses, our wounds.
And our ‘Nazareths’ are about our understanding of God: we just can’t see how anything good can come out of ‘Nazareth’. We struggle to see and believe that God could be present, active, and revealed in ‘Nazareth’, whether it be …
- another person – “I’ve seen his type before; he’ll never change.” – “She’s always so negative; I know what she’ll say.”
- A relationship or situation – “It’s always been like that; it will never get better.”
- Or our own life – “You know what they say about the Middle Child…”
It’s so hard to see life in the midst of death; so hard to see hope in places of despair; or the good and beautiful in what clearly looks bad and ugly.
What good can come out of Nazareth?
It just seems so unGod-like to show up in ‘Nazareth’ – whether that be a town, a person or situation. ‘Nazareth’ is too common and ordinary, even mundane. Shouldn’t the person or place of God’s coming be more deserving, special, acceptable, holy, better behaved, likable, better dressed, more regular at church, someone who prays more…?
“And she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, for they didn’t have any other room.”
Or maybe the Nathaniel in and amongst us today might say: “Yes, yes, I’ve heard the Christmas story countless times; and the traditions are nice, right, tinsel, tree, star and presents – and of course, I love prawns and pavlova – but let’s get real: it’s changed nothing. COVID is getting worse as we heard; and there’s been another earthquake and snowstorms and family tragedies and the Wyvenhoe Dam, I’m told, is only at about 35% capacity and… Do I have to go on? The Christmas wrapping paper is long gone to the recycling and the decorations are packed away. Gone! Finished, mate! Get real.”
To which Phillip replies: “Come and see!”
Amongst educators, this is called Discovery Learning!
It is in his encounter with the person Jesus that Nathaniel has the epiphany; he recognises Christ, the Messiah.
Ah! But before Nathaniel sees, i.e., to say grasps God revealed in Jesus, Jesus has already seen Nathaniel; and he knows him completely.
“Sitting under the fig tree”, one writer I came across when preparing today’s sermon, suggests, is like a code between Jesus and Nathaniel.
Yes, it (1) could refer to the diligent study of the Torah, as I mentioned.
Then again, (2) it could be a picture for personal peace and prosperity (Book of Kings) – with the flipside of ‘as long as I’m good, I won’t concern myself with the woes of others.’ Somewhat self-content but also self-focussed.
But then, (3) time spent under the fig tree could entail all manner of things!
We’re not told; but Nathaniel and Jesus understand each other perfectly.
Friends, just like we all have our own ‘Nazareths’, we all have our own ‘fig trees’, and just as we shared in the verses of Psalm 139 before, the divine eyes see and understand us completely.
But that doesn’t have to disconcert us.
Just as Jesus wasn’t put off by the sceptical rebuttals from Nathaniel, instead looking at him with kindness and affirming him verbally; so we may know that God’s gaze on us is one of delight. We may rest in God’s presence. We may be at ease.
>> Nathaniel gets it then. And he gives witness: “You are the Son of Man!”
But Jesus is not content with that remark, that level of understanding.
- Do you only believe because I said that I saw you under the fig tree?
- Do you only believe because it’s touched you personally and thus you feel important?
There are greater things! The Gospel is not a private exercise.
“You will see heaven opened and angels ascending (God’s messengers bearing up the plight of the poor and suffering) and descending…”
Just as the patriarch Jacob once experienced Bethel as a place where heaven touched earth, so from now on Jesus Christ is the one in whom the fullness of God is revealed.
And so, I want to finish by looking at this piece of art with you. (See at end of this document) It’s by a German artist, Stefanie Bahlinger is her name, and it can be helpful for us today.
- Hessian as ‘canvas’ – rough, raw, reflecting our worldly circumstances
- Our eye is drawn to the still point at the centre – baby, peaceful
- It is surrounded by warm reds and oranges – safe, loved, a space is created for peace
- “God so loved the world” – note the shape, womb-like: = God’s compassion >> life-giving! (see hint at globe/horizon)
- Shape also hints at flame of Holy Spirit, resting on this child, this person, Jesus Christ
- He comes so that we might grasp God’s love and mercy; but in coming, he makes himself completely vulnerable – see the cross, note the resemblance to a loaf of bread: “This is my body, given for you.”
- Now let’s take our view outward: note the outline of a (Gothic) window – it’s somewhat jarred, shattered in the bottom left – but towards the right it’s intact. >> this Christ child, this person Jesus Christ, in him we are given a window, a glimpse into the fullness of God’s Kingdom – note the white, the light beyond: The Kingdom we are co-workers in – Gospel is not a private affair.
You and I, we are invited to rest in this point of connection between heaven and earth – Christ Jesus.
This image, to me, captures the aim of Centering Prayer – no words, eyes closed and still for 20 minutes. It’s much harder than it sounds because our minds keep chattering, drawing us back continually into the mish-mash of this bottom left-hand corner.
But practising Centering Prayer invites us to:
> come as we are, surrendering the brokenness of our world and the shards of our own lives, laying it all bare in the gaze of love and delight.
> to see the GREATER, nourishing the living hope in the place of peace and space;
> to be present to God: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3)
> to allow the flame of the Spirit to work in and through us to guide and equip us for the work needed to be done here on earth – the work of justice and mercy and patience and love and care. >> again, in the bottom left-hand corner!
For we pray:
“Your kingdom come, your will be done…”
And so, dear friends, our ‘Nazareths’ and our ‘fig trees’ become places of God’s Epiphany, God’s revelation, God’s light.
And we hear again the invitation: Follow me! That is to say: Change your perspective and focus by being centred on and in me.
This will give you direction as to how you spend your energy, your creativity, and where and how you might employ your efforts.
Shortly, you and I are again invited to “Come and see!” (point to altar) – to discover anew how God sustains us for this way of being – of being disciples, being Church, whatever 2021 and beyond might hold.
Reverend Kathrin Koning
Matthew Flinders Anglican College