For the next two Sundays, our Lectionary focuses on the Epiphany theme of responding to God’s call. The Old Testament passage describes the call of the boy Samuel, who as a prophet would become one of the central figures in the life of Israel. The story of Samuel illustrates that a call is not dependent on age or a previous relationship with the Lord. Both Samuel and Eli are models of those who hear and obey God’s call.
There’s a lot of “finding” in John’s account of the calling of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus finds Philip. Philip finds Nathaniel. Philip tells Nathaniel that they have found Jesus. Then Nathaniel finds that Jesus knows a lot more about him than he imagined.
Let’s back up and take a closer look at this passage from John’s Gospel. At this point in the narrative, the brothers Andrew and Simon Peter have already committed themselves to Jesus (Jn. 1:35-42). As Jesus traveled on to Galilee he saw Philip and invited him to “Follow me.” Philip then went to Nathaniel to say he had found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote: “Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Nathaniel, whose name means “gift of God,” responds to Philip with apparent sarcasm: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was an insignificant village in Galilee, not even mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. Expectations for the Messiah were focused on Bethlehem, the City of David, and later there would be attempts to discredit Jesus on the basis of his origins (Jn. 6:42).
Philip continued to urge Nathaniel to “Come and see.” As Nathaniel approached, Jesus declares him to be “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” This statement reminds us of Jacob, also known as Israel, who deceived his brother Esau to receive his father Isaac’s blessing (Gen. 32:28-29). Jesus was uniquely able to see the true character of would-be followers, perceiving the light of the soul with what seemed to be supernatural insight. He saw Nathaniel as one whose house would be filled with light, a “genuine Israelite in whom there was no Jacob.”
When Nathaniel asks how Jesus came to know him, Jesus answers that he had seen him under a fig tree. In rabbinic tradition, a fig tree was a proper place to meditate, pray and study the Torah. Nathaniel was incredulous that Jesus could possibly know anything about him. He realized that Philip was right: Jesus was the Messiah, even if he was from Nazareth.
Jesus then declares that Nathaniel will see even greater things: “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (v. 51). This is a reference to Jacob’s dream at Bethel where the angels ascended and descended upon a ladder (Gen. 28:10-22).
Now heaven will be opened more clearly than in Jacob’s dream. The bridge to God will no longer be an inanimate ladder from the realm of the unconscious to be climbed. Now the Messiah will connect his disciples to God’s kingdom as a “ladder joining heaven to earth.” Followers of Jesus will have as their link to the realm of the Spirit a person who can lift them up, who can respond to them in their trials, who will even know their needs before they ask.
One of the promises inherent in this passage is that God keeps seeking us, all of us, whether we are looking for God or not. Notice that there is no compulsion in these biblical stories of “calling,” just a gracious invitation, “Come and see.” For those who respond, the heavens open up, new horizons emerge, and lives are transformed.
Perhaps today’s lessons give us reassurance in this terribly troubled time we live in: the pandemic, rampant injustice, intense political and social division, a disregard for verifiable facts, and a readiness by some to resort to violence to achieve deplorable ends. If we do indeed stake our theology on the incarnation, then Jesus, God has something at stake as well. Maybe that’s what this particular season of Epiphany is all about.
God has chosen to be found, to be known, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. If God chose to be truly human then we should not expect that God is immune to our fears. When God chooses to reveal God’s self in Jesus this season of Epiphany, God chooses to be with us on our journey, just as he did with those early disciples. As we travel, let us seek and respond to the greater light that is always in front of us, keeping us on the path, the way of love.
Let us pray: “Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfillment of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (A Collect for Grace, The Book of Common Prayer, 1982).
Resources: Synthesis, 2018, 2015; David Loose, 2021.