Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Second Sunday of Epiphany.

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

Reading: John 1:43-51

On Christmas Night, for the Gospel reading, we read, as we do each year, the opening verses from the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. They begin with the well-known words: ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1:1). In opening his Gospel this way, St John doesn’t leave anything to chance. He tells his readers at the very beginning of his Gospel who Jesus really is so there can be no doubt it.

And to make sure we today are in no doubt about it, the Lectionary will give us the same Gospel reading again in February on the Second Sunday before Lent! Jesus is the ‘Word’ who was with God at the beginning, and more than that who was God. Everything that exists came into being through him and nothing has come into being without him (John 1:3).

The amazing event we celebrated at Christmas was that the Word who is responsible for our very existence ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). In my sermons during Epiphany, I am looking at what it actually meant for ‘the Word to become flesh’. One of the things that I have been seeking to explain is that the Word becoming flesh didn’t simply mean the Word becoming human in a general sense. Jesus wasn’t everyman, he was this man. And being this man isn’t incidental, but essential, both to who he was and to who he is.

In his Gospel, St John will show us what the Word made flesh looks like. We will see his signs and hear his words. We believe in him who existed in the beginning with God and who is now reigning with God, but we can’t by-pass the life he lived with us. The One whom he became is still part of his identity, that is, of who he is. His life as the Word made flesh matters.

When the Word became flesh, St John tells us, ‘he came unto his own’ (John 1:11). We saw at Epiphany how the Wise Men came seeking him who was born ‘King of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:2).

Last week, for the Baptism of Christ, we saw how the Voice at Jesus’ baptism announced that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ (Mark 1:11). The title, Son of God, describes both Jesus’ role as the Messiah, the King of the Jews, and his relationship with God, his Father.

The opening of St John’s Gospel is so incredible that we sort of pass over the rest of the chapter, describing as it does the calling of the first disciples. We move quickly on to chapter two where the action begins at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee. By doing so, however, we miss a great deal.

The focus in the opening of the Gospel is on the Eternal Word who becomes flesh. It is, however, not until verse 17 of the first chapter that we are told who the Word made flesh actually is. St John writes:

‘The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’ (John 1:17-18)

Jesus Christ is both the Word made flesh and the One who makes the Father known. So, we need to know about this historical figure from Nazareth. In the opening of his Gospel, St John tells who the Word is in eternity; he continues by telling us about who the Word has become in history.

The phrase, ‘in the beginning’, with which the Gospel begins, reminds us of the first chapter of Genesis and its description of the first week of creation. After the opening of the Gospel, St John gives us his version of the first week of the new creation. He marks each day with the words ‘the next day’ (1:29, 35, 43). Significantly, as we will see next week, Jesus’ first miracle occurs ‘on the third day’ after the days St John has previously described.

So, let us go through the days and see what we learn about Jesus of Nazareth, the Word become flesh.

On the first day, Day One (verses 24-28), John the Baptist explains to some priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees that he is not himself the Messiah who people are expecting and hoping for. Ironically, the One they are looking for is standing among them, even as John speaks, and they don’t realize it or know who it is.

The next day, Day Two (verses 29-34), John sees Jesus and in the first words anyone says about Jesus in the Gospel, he announces: ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). The reason John came baptizing, he explains, was so the One who is the Lamb of God might be revealed to Israel. Not in the first place to the world, but to Israel, ‘to his own’. Not only did those who came from the Pharisees not recognize him, John himself had not recognized him. It was only when he baptized Jesus, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus ‘like a dove’ and ‘remained’ on him, that John realized that this was the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). The day closes with John testifying that Jesus is the Son of God.

The next day, Day Three (verses 35-42), John is standing with two of his disciples and points Jesus out to them. He again describes Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’. This title gets to the heart of Jesus’ identity and of what he has come to do. The two disciples need no further encouragement; they go after Jesus. When they first speak to him, they call him, ‘Rabbi’, which St John helpfully tells us means, ‘Teacher’. One of the two, whose name is Andrew, immediately finds his brother and tells him, ‘We have found the Messiah’. St John again helpfully tells us what the translation of this is into Greek; it is, ‘Christ’. St John expects us to remember every time he uses the word ‘Christ’ in the Gospel that it is the word for the Messiah.

These disciples of John had become disciples of John because they were looking for the Messiah, the One who would redeem Israel. Now they have found him. Andrew’s brother, Simon, has found more than he expected. Jesus renames him, Cephas, and St John, once again, helpfully translates it for us into Greek as, ‘Peter’, that is, the ‘Rock’.

The next day, we are now up to Day Four (verses 43-51), Jesus decides to go to Galilee. Interestingly, Jesus first seeks out Philip, who is from Bethsaida in Galilee where Andrew and his brother, Peter, also come from. Jesus already knows Philip. But how? The most likely explanation is that Jesus has himself been with John and John’s disciples a lot longer than sometimes we think. Jesus had, perhaps, been himself one of John’s disciples.

Philip, however, before they go back to Galilee, wants to tell one of his friends about Jesus. He finds his friend, Nathanael, and informs him:

‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ (John 1:45)

Nathanael is at first sceptical. He cannot believe that anything good can come out of somewhere like Nazareth. Nazareth was, after all, an unimportant little place in Galilee of just a few hundred people. It doesn’t, however, take too much for Jesus to overcome Nathanael’s doubts. Jesus convinces Nathanael that something good can indeed come from Nazareth as he demonstrates his supernatural knowledge of Nathanael. He had seen Nathanael even before Philip had called him to ‘come and see’ Jesus. Nathanael responds:

‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ (John 1:49)

Over the course of just four days, then, we have learnt that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. We have discovered that this Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth, is the Messiah that Moses and the prophets wrote about. He is the King of Israel and the Son of God.

It’s quite a lot for them – and for us - to take in. And yet in response to Nathanael’s recognition of him, Jesus tells them all that they will see even greater things than this. St John writes:

‘And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you [the ‘you’ is in the plural], you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”’ (John 1:51)

These first disciples, as people who knew the Scriptures, would have immediately understood what it is that Jesus is promising them.

In the Old Testament, the patriarch Jacob is given the name ‘Israel’ by God (Genesis 32:28; 35:10). He is given this name despite the fact that Jacob is known to be ‘deceitful’ (Genesis 27:35). Nathanael, however, is described by Jesus as truly an ‘Israelite in whom there is no deceit’ (John 1:47). Jacob, the original Israelite, had a dream of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28:12). When Jacob wakes up, we are told:

‘… 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.”’ (Genesis 28:17)

In his dream, Jacob had seen angels ‘ascending and descending’ on a ladder, but Jesus’ disciples will see angels ascending and descending on him who is not only the Son of God, but the ‘Son of Man’. He, the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph, is the ‘gate of heaven’.

They don’t have to wait long before they start to see these ‘greater things’ of which Jesus speaks. In chapter two, we will see that the reason that Jesus had decided on the fourth day to travel to Galilee is that Jesus has a wedding to go to. Three days later, Jesus and his disciples will turn up at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. At the very end of his Gospel, St John tells us that Nathanael is himself from Cana (John 21:2). The ‘greater things’ are about to begin and in the very place that Nathanael comes from. Both St John and Jesus have a sense of humour!

The excitement for these first disciples must have been great. They had been with John because they hoped that the Messiah, the King of Israel, would come. Now they have not only found him, they have become his disciples. While, however, this must have been very exciting for the first disciples, for us: not so much. We have heard it all before.

But St John is writing not simply to inform us of what happened. His purpose in writing his Gospel is to share the excitement and to persuade us to become a part of it. It is worth remembering what St John says is his purpose in writing:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31)

We have seen how the first disciples came to know Jesus. St John is writing this because he wants to show us how we too can come to know him. St John would encourage us to hear the words that Jesus speaks to these disciples as words he also speaks to us.

1. What are you looking for?

The very first words Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel are to the two disciples who respond to John’s identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God by following Jesus. Jesus says to them:

‘What are you looking for?’ (John 1:38)

What they were looking for is clear. After all, they had become John the Baptist’s disciples because they were looking for the Messiah, the one who would redeem Israel. On Day Two of St John’s week, John the Baptist explicitly says that the reason he has been baptizing people is so that Jesus might be revealed to Israel. Now that John has identified Jesus as the Messiah they are looking for, they want to know more about Jesus.

Andrew and the Unnamed disciple, then, are clear: they are looking for the Messiah. In St John’s Gospel, however, people will come to Jesus looking for many different things: answers to difficult questions, spiritual fulfilment, physical healing, forgiveness, eternal life, and more besides. Jesus will engage with people where they are: with Nicodemus at night, with the woman at the well, with the rulers of the people in the Temple and the synagogue, with the crowds on the mountain, and even with those who mourn at the graveside. The fundamental question he will ask people, he also asks us: ‘What are you looking for?’

Sometimes we know; at other times, it is hard to put it into words. It can simply be a sense that there must be more to life than this. Surely life must be about more than what we are experiencing. Jesus response to our longing and need will be to offer us the same invitation he gave to his first disciples: ‘Come and see’. Come and see what I can do for you.

2. ‘Come and see.’

Andrew and the Unnamed disciple responded to Jesus’ invitation to come and see. They not only came and saw; having seen, they stayed. They were serious. A major theme in St John’s Gospel will be the need to remain, to ‘abide’ in Jesus. For while Jesus will meet us where we are, he will also invite us to come and stay where he is. He doesn’t just answer our questions, he questions our questions.

After the feeding of the five thousand, the crowds pursue Jesus. Jesus says to them:

‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ (John 6:25-27)

What the crowds wanted was very much geared to life in this world and to finding material satisfaction. God does care about our well-being. Jesus tells his disciples that not a hair of their head will perish (Luke 21:18), but he also tells us our life does not consist in the ‘abundance of our possessions’ (Luke 12:15). We are created for a different purpose, and until we find that purpose, we are going to be unsatisfied, no matter how much we have. This is why many who become very rich end up taking their own lives.

Jesus is the One who gives not simply what we need for this life, but the food that endues for eternal life. Jesus is not for the mildly interested. He is not there to provide answers for the casually curious or those who want a quick fix. He is for the serious, and those who take him seriously will find what they are looking for.

And here’s the thing: Jesus already knows what we are looking for.

Jesus knows us before we know him. Nathanael is shocked that Jesus knew him. But not only had Jesus seen him, Jesus has seen into him. Jesus has seen him in more than a physical sense; he has seen who Nathanael truly is. He has seen into Nathanael’s heart and knows everything about him. No wonder that Nathanael responds so quickly and dramatically.

If, then, we are serious about finding the ‘food that endures for eternal life’, Jesus says to us what he said to the first disciples: ‘Come and see’. In coming to Jesus, we too will find what we are looking for.

The disciples are all overwhelmed with the excitement of finding what they were looking for. ‘We have found the Messiah,’ Andrew tells his brother Simon. ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote …’ Philip tells Nathanael. They have found what they were looking for.

3. ‘Follow me.’

We need to be aware, however, that when we come to Jesus, not only will we find what we are looking for, we will also find more than we are looking for. Our coming to Jesus may begin by us asking our own different questions of Jesus, but he will respond by asking the same thing of us: ‘Follow me,’ he says to us. This is not because Jesus refuses to meet our needs or to answer our questions, but because our needs can only be met and our questions only be answered by our doing what he commands: that is, by becoming his disciples and by following him.

Jesus says to Philip: ‘Follow me’. It sounds so straightforward, but following Jesus isn’t going to be easy as they will discover. For Peter, the ‘Rock’, Jesus is absolutely clear about what it will mean. The last thing Jesus says to Peter in the Gospel is:

‘“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”’ (John 21:18-19)

You shall be called Peter, the ‘Rock’. It sounds an honour, and to be called by name as Jesus calls his followers is the greatest honour there is. But Jesus’ honours are different to those of the world. For Peter, the honour will be to be able to glorify God by his death.

Most of us won’t be called upon to honour God by our death, but we are called to honour him by our life, and to make honouring him our goal in life. It can be easier to honour God by our death than by our life. Easier, that is, to die for him than to get out of bed for him; to go to Church for him; to give of our time and money for him; to go where we don’t want to go for him.

4. ‘You will see greater things.’

Nathanael is impressed by Jesus and by Jesus’ knowledge of him. It is always impressive when someone knows things about us that we thought no-one else knew. It is, perhaps, even more impressive when they know things about us that we didn’t even know about ourselves. People pay a lot of money to therapists and psychologists to discover the hidden truths about themselves. The money is often wasted. Those who would enlighten us about ourselves are often blind themselves.

The promise that we can find out the truth about ourselves, however, is sufficient to keep our interest. From taking quizzes online that are supposed to tell us what we are like to psychometric tests that tell us what career is the right one for us, we long for insight into ourselves.

The instinct is right. We do need to see the truth about ourselves. But too often, the truth we seek is not the truth that will set us free, but the truth that will give us what we want. The truth we seek is how we can be happy, meet the ideal partner, find the best job, make the most money, be successful, and fulfil our dreams.

The truth that Jesus tells us about ourselves is that we will never find what we are looking for until we find God. When we come to Jesus, we see the truth about ourselves and about our need, but the greater thing we see is how we may find God, who alone can meet our need. When we come to Jesus, we see ‘angels ascending and descending’ on him who is the only way to God and whom in meeting, we also meet God himself.

5. Come and See Too

And at this point, I was originally going to end the sermon. This opening chapter of St John’s Gospel has told us so much about Jesus the Word made flesh. No other chapter in the New Testament tells us quite so much. Not only that, it has also told us how we, like those first disciples, can come to know God through him.

By coming to Jesus, we see the answer to what we have been looking for. By following him, we will see even greater things.

But there is still unfinished business. We haven’t finished when we come to Jesus; we have only just begun. I have spoken about the excitement that, even today, we can still sense amongst those first disciples as they find Jesus. It is an excitement that they want to share, and Jesus wants us to share it with people today.

Many are nervous and not a little scared of sharing their faith with others. They are either embarrassed or worried that they don’t know enough. It need not, however, be all that complicated. Andrew told his brother Simon; Philip his friend Nathanael. ‘We’ve found him, come and see him too.’ The message was simple and, in their excitement, they couldn’t help but share it.

May we experience for ourselves the excitement of finding Jesus, and in our excitement, may we want to share it with others too.


No comments: