2 Epiphany-Year B
January 14, 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51
Back in the day I loved riding roller coasters. As a kid it is easy to imagine that I’m on this wild, scary ride, even though it is on a track and does exactly the same thing every time. As kids we’re taught that tracks are good things. We’re taught to follow the straight and narrow, in order to learn how to navigate safely in this world by avoiding destructive decisions. In our teenage years we may still enjoy the rides, but we grow tired of the straight and narrow of the track our parents set us on. So we may experiment with jumping off the track, but usually once we are through with school and get a real job, we settle down again on a conventional track, so that each day is pretty much like the day before. Each trip starts in one place in the morning and ends in the same place in the evening, because we’re on the same track–day after day, year after year.
But, then, for many of us there emerges this desire that makes us wonder if this routine, as positive and healthy as it may be, is all there is to life. Some deal with this emerging desire by narcotizing it—putting it to sleep with drugs and alcohol that give the illusion we’re free of the track but in fact we’re simply asleep on the track, unconscious and unaware.
Others deal with it by changing relationships, locations, or jobs, but often we find we’re still on the same track, going in the same circle, this time with different seatmates.
What we’re really looking for, I believe, is transcendence. Something that enters our life from outside to jerk us awake, so we can live our ordinary life but in a new way.
In the 5th century Saint Augustine describes this thirst in his Confessions, the first modern autobiography, by saying: “You have made us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”
That’s it: our hearts are restless until there is transcendence breaking into our lives. Or to put another way, we don’t find the freedom we’re looking for until we live according to our true nature—which is to be in union with our Creator.
Philip knows Nathanael is struggling with this issue, so he tells him about Jesus of Nazareth.
But though he may be hungry for transcendence, Nathanael is also well defended against it, because there is one really serious problem with this life-changing transcendence: If God really does crack me open, I fear I will lose control of my life. I may hate my old life, but at least I’m in charge of it. Following Jesus sounds a lot like losing control.
So, even the great Augustine tells us as he is drawing closer to surrendering to Christ, he prays: “Make me chaste, O God, but not yet!”
Nathanael knows that when you give up your old life to follow Jesus, you get a new life in which you are not in charge.
So Nathanael hides behind his prejudice: “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Notice Philip doesn’t argue the point, but simply says, “Come and see.”
Nathanael comes and sees.
As he approaches Jesus complements him on being a person without guile. But Nathanael wants to know how Jesus knows him and Jesus says, I saw you under the fig tree.
Nathanael says: You are Son of God and King of Israel” which means you are the Messiah, not that you are a divine being.
Then, Jesus begins to really crack open Nathanael’s tightly scripted world: you think that’s something: “you’ll see greater things than these.” In fact, the next thing that Nathanael sees will be in his hometown of Cana, when a wedding party runs low on wine.
Jesus invites Nathanael into the experience of transcendence: He says, “Truly I tell you, you will see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of man”, which means he is going to have the same experience that the patriarch Jacob had two millennia ago.
You remember the story in Genesis 28: Jacob has a dream in which he sees a stairway to heaven with angels going up and down, and right next to him is Yahweh, the God of Abraham, and Isaac, his father, promising to be with him always.
When Jacob wakes up he calls the place Beth-el, which means House of God.
Now, Jesus says even a nobody like Nathanael is going to see the same thing, only this time the ladder isn’t in a dream or in a sacred city, but in a person, in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the ladder–in which the earthly realm and the divine realm are in communion with each other. This ladder is not something Jacob needs to climb up to find God, but the way God brings transcendence down to him—into his ordinary life.
Transcendence—God breaking into our lives—is not stopped by Nathanael’s hardhearted prejudices. The Living God is willing to put up with anything from us, even death on a cross, in order to fill our lives with God’s self.
The hard thing for us is to believe is that such a possibility is real. One prejudice every person has is the prejudice against oneself. Nobody wants to belong to any club that would have someone like us in it.
Surely my situation is too ordinary for transcendence. Don’t you have to be from a special family, or attend some special school, to receive this blessing? Don’t you have to crawl on your knees over broken glass or spend your life with the poor in Appalachia to merit God’s transforming presence?
It’s ironic that year after year children reenact the story of the baby Jesus being born in a humble stable, but we still don’t get the message that Jesus has also come into the wretched stable of our own heart.
This is precisely what Paul is trying to convince Greek Christians living in Corinth to accept: He writes: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”
Paul tells them, the Spirit is already theirs, ready to lead them into a new kind of life, a life that heals the restless heart by connecting them to their true nature in God.
The transcendence we seek is to be connected with our True Self which happens when we are connected to our creator who knows us best:
Psalm 139 tells us today:
“Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
2 You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.
As has been said, “It’s not the journey, or the destination, it’s the seatmate.” The seatmate on the rollercoaster of life that makes all the difference is Jesus—who knows us best and loves us best.