Thursday, February 01, 2024

Come and See

This is a lightly edited version of the sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany. The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click the link below.

Come and See

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

John 1:43-51

Our readings in church on a Sunday follow a lectionary. As you will know, a lectionary is basically a list of all the Bible readings for our services throughout the year. The lectionary we follow at Christ Church is a three-year cycle with different readings for each year of the cycle. After three years, the cycle repeats. In each one of the three years, we read one of the first three Gospels: Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This year is the second year in the cycle, known as Year B, and we are reading through St Mark's Gospel.

Why, then, I hear you ask, is our Gospel reading today from St John’s Gospel and not from St Mark’s? This is because on certain Sundays in the year, the readings from one of the first three Gospels are supplemented by a reading from St John's Gospel, the fourth Gospel. Next Sunday, we will have another reading from St John's Gospel. It is one of my favourite readings, as it happens!

The first three Gospels have a lot in common. They look at the ministry of Jesus in a similar way. Any reader of the Gospels, however, can see almost immediately that St John's Gospel is different to the first three. I would love to take more time to explain the differences, but for now please just take my word for it!

St John himself seems to have been aware of the other Gospels and the stories in them, and what he is doing with his Gospel is similar to what we are doing through the lectionary. That is, St John is supplementing, expanding, and clarifying what people will have known from the first three Gospels. So, for example, St John doesn't describe the actual baptism of Jesus; he doesn't have to as many of his readers would already have known what happened when Jesus was baptized. Instead, St John explains how John the Baptist understood the baptism of Jesus.

One of the biggest differences, however, between the first three Gospels and St. John's Gospel is that in the first three Gospels most of the action before the last week of Jesus' life takes place in Galilee. In St. John's Gospel, however, while some of the action takes place in Galilee, a lot of it takes place south, in Judea and around Jerusalem.

So, in the first three gospels, the call of the first disciples takes place by the Sea of Galilee. And it comes out of the blue. Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee. He sees some fishermen mending their nets. He calls them, and they immediately leave their nets. They get up and follow him. At first sight that’s a bit strange, why would anyone just pack everything in simply because some itinerant preacher called them to leave everything and follow him? What St John tells us, though, makes sense of that call. St John tells us that the first disciples were previously disciples of John the Baptist. And it is John the Baptist himself who draws the attention of his own disciples to Jesus. The first words spoken in St John's Gospel about Jesus are spoken by John the Baptist who says, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). The ‘next day’, John the Baptist repeats the words, St John tells us, for emphasis (John 1:36).

When two of John the Baptist's disciples hear them, they immediately follow Jesus. They had joined John the Baptist because they were looking for the Messiah, the King of Israel, the Son of God, the one who would lead them to freedom, the one whom Moses and the prophets had spoken about.

St John continues to describe how those who were John the Baptist’s disciples become disciples of Jesus instead (John 1:35-42). One of the two disciples who hear John the Baptist point Jesus out is Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. The other disciple is unnamed. The first thing Jesus himself says in St John's Gospel is a question to these two disciples. Jesus asks them what they are you looking for. They reply by asking Jesus where he is staying. Jesus replies, ‘Come and see’ (John 1:39). They go to stay with Jesus that day. The first thing Andrew does is to find his brother, Simon, to tell him that they have found the one they were looking for.

In our reading from St John's Gospel today, Jesus decides to go to Galilee. We will see why next week. But before he goes, Jesus finds Philip and says to him, ‘Follow me’. The first thing Philip does is to find another friend, Nathanael. He tells him that they have found him who Moses and the prophets wrote about. Philip’s friend, Nathanael, is at first sceptical. Jesus doesn’t come from the right background. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ he asks, but he is quickly convinced for himself when he meets Jesus. Jesus tells Nathaniel that he has seen Nathaniel under the fig tree before Philip called him. Nathaniel realizes that Jesus is the one they have been hoping for and confesses Jesus as the one he’s been looking for: the Son of God, the King of Israel. Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see greater things than these.

And so, some former disciples of John the Baptist become the first disciples of Jesus, convinced that he is the One they have been expecting, and their journey with Jesus begins, a journey that will take them to the Cross. We will be following them on that journey.

All of which is very interesting as an account of the calling of the first disciples, but St John is writing his gospel for a purpose. And that purpose is not just to give us some interesting historical information. St John tells us, at the end of his gospel, that his purpose is that we, the reader, may believe for ourselves that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name (John 20:31).

At the beginning of St John's Gospel, we see the first disciples come to believe Jesus is the Messiah and as we follow them on their journey through St John's Gospel, we see how they discover that he, Jesus, has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). St John, by the way he tells the story of the call of the first disciples, is inviting us to find eternal life in the way they did. What Jesus says to them, he is saying to us. What he asks of them, he asks of us. What he promises them, he promises those who believe in him: we too will have life in his name if we have faith in him. Life in the sense of eternal life, that is. As we read through St John’s Gospel in the weeks ahead, we will see that eternal life is a major theme of the Gospel. As St John writes in John 3:16, the verse we read at every service:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

So today, Jesus asks us the same question he asked the first disciples, ‘What are you looking for?’ They were looking for the Messiah, the King of Israel, the one whom Moses and the prophets had written about. It’s unlikely that we’re looking for that. But we are looking for life. We are here on this planet for a very short period of time. Many of us don’t give it much thought. We just get on with life as best we can. But others of us, however, sense that there must be more to life than simply the 70, 80, or 90 years or so that we’re allotted.

Yes, there are many things that we experience during these years, things that we enjoy and get satisfaction from - family, career, money, possessions - but we can’t help feeling that there must be something else. Surely there’s more to life than this.

Well, the first thing I want to say about this today is that while we may be looking for something, Jesus was looking for us first. ‘Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree’, says Jesus to Nathanel. Nathaniel is overwhelmed by Jesus’ knowledge of him. It can be frightening to be truly known and to be truly seen. We are contradictory creatures. On the one hand, we want someone to notice us and to like us, and not just on Facebook and social media! We want someone to understand us and to appreciate us. And yet on the other hand, we spend time hiding, trying to keep ourselves private and hidden, pretending to be someone or something we’re not. But Jesus is the One who sees us and sees everything there is to see about us. And the incredible thing is that seeing us, he still loves us and calls us. Nathaniel responds to Philip’s words about Jesus, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Many today respond similarly. Can anything good come out of the church?

Can anything good come out of this group of people who worship an itinerant preacher who lived 2,000 years ago? What can Jesus contribute to my life and my existence now? So secondly, what I would say this morning is what Jesus said to Andrew and the unnamed disciple, ‘Come and see’ (John 1:39). Come and see! Philip says the same to Nathanael when Nathanael questions whether Jesus can be the One they were looking for, ‘Come and see’ (John 1:46).

Jesus sees us, knows everything about us, and he now invites us to come and see him. See who he is and see what he has to offer us. Many reject Christ without knowing the first thing about him. Today he asks us, asks anyone who is looking for something more in life, to come and see.

But thirdly and finally, what will we see if we do come and see?

We will see what Jesus told Nathanael he would see. We will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, that is, on him. You will all know the song:

‘Imagine there's no heaven.
It’s easy if you try.
No hell below us,
above us only sky.’

It's easy if you try. It turned out to be all too easy and so today people don’t have to imagine there’s no heaven. We simply assume there isn’t one. Heaven is to most people itself just a religious figment of the imagination. All we have now is the sky, that is, what we can see in the physical world around us. No hell below us, nothing else but this world. We have a very limited worldview. Jesus offers to open our eyes, to make it possible for us to see heaven opened, and to come into the presence of God himself. To enable us to see he is the One through whom we can enter heaven and come into God's presence because he is the One on whom the angels of God are ascending and descending. He is the very centre of heaven, and he is the One we are invited to come and see.

Those who imagine there is no heaven are the ones without imagination. They are the ones whose imagination has become limited and who in the process have become blind to the reality of the world we live in. How ironic that we can see billions of light years into the universe. We can see physical realities we never dreamt of in the past, but we cannot see a thing spiritually. We are blind! Jesus today says to us, Come and see!’ Come and see heaven opened. And in seeing heaven opened, we will see him who offers us life, who offers us what we’re looking for.