Here is the sermon I preached for last Sunday, the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany. The gospel reading is the story from John about Jesus meeting Nathanael who becomes one of the twelve. Nathanael only appears in John’s gospel. Bartholomew is listed as one of the twelve in the synoptic gospels but not in John. Traditionally it has been assumed that Nathanael and Bartholomew are therefore one and the same.
Sometimes when you hear a joke it simply isn’t funny. No matter that other people laugh at the joke – you simply don’t get the punchline.
Take the joke that won the award for the funniest joke at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, as voted for by the public. I looked it up this week as I was preparing this sermon, but it didn’t seem funny at all – not to me, at any rate. It’s from the comedian Tim Vine:
I’ve decided to sell my Hoover … well, it was just collecting dust!
The problem was that this week we had to have a visit from the nice man from Dyson (a popular make of British vacuum cleaner), because we have a vacuum cleaner that is most definitely not collecting dust. Having taken down the Christmas tree at Epiphany, and needing to get rid of the pine needles that seemed to have got everywhere, I discovered that there was no way our vacuum cleaner was going to suck anything up. So a phone call to the vacuum cleaner hospital later, out came the Dyson man. And having taken a look and said, “Of course, it’s a bit old!” – actually it’s very old – he persuaded us that we needed to splash out and buy a replacement – it arrived yesterday morning. So you can understand why jokes about getting rid of Hoovers that are collecting dust don’t seem all that funny at the moment!
There’s nothing worse than being with a group of people and someone tells a joke – and you’re the only one that just doesn’t laugh. Everyone else thinks it’s hilariously funny and you just don’t get the punchline. And someone tries to explain it to you, in the hope that in the end the penny drops. And then comes the moment of illumination and suddenly you can say, ‘Ah! I get it now!’ Even though you’re the last to ‘get it!’
Nathanael must have had a similar moment of illumination. Philip goes to him and says, ‘We’ve found the promised one – Jesus of Nazareth!’ Nathanael, knowing full well that Nazareth has a bit of a reputation, can’t see it. He simply does not ‘get it’ for there is no way that the promised Messiah could possibly come from somewhere like Nazareth.
A bit like someone from Manchester today being told that the Messiah was a Liverpudlian, or vice versa. Perhaps he thought Philip was having a joke. But at any rate Nathanael goes off with Philip, perhaps so he can show Philip just how wrong he is. He meets Jesus, hears what Jesus has to say and then suddenly the penny drops – he gets it!
As we heard Jesus tells Nathanael that he “saw him under the fig tree”; and that this was enough for Nathanael to declare, “Teacher you are the Son of God!” What did Jesus mean when he said he saw Nathanael under the fig tree? What was it that so changed Nathanael’s point of view that he stopped being sceptical about Jesus and became a believer in Jesus as the Saviour of Israel, the Messiah. What led to this moment of illumination? For Nathanael, far from being the last to ‘get it?’ actually ends up being one step ahead of everyone else. The author of the gospel records for us how Nathanael is the first of the disciples to declare to Jesus, “You are the Son of God!”
Obviously from Nathanael’s reaction, Jesus’ observation is surprising and supernatural. He isn’t simply saying that he had noticed Nathanael under the fig tree earlier in the day, for example. The writer’s use of a fig tree in this passage is quite deliberate. The fig tree was a well-known symbol of the nation of Israel, and it was a potent symbol for the Jewish people, much in the same way as the oak tree used to be a symbol for England in the days when the wooden ships of the Navy ruled the seas. Jesus, in his meeting with Nathanael, is revealed as the saviour of Israel – he is the fulfilment of the dream that Jacob in the Old Testament had of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven: “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”. Jesus bridges the gap between the earthly and the heavenly Israel.
And the encounter that Nathanael has with Jesus has a profound effect upon him – it leads him from scepticism to an immediate confession of faith: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” The experience changes Nathaniel’s whole mode of perception. His outlook on himself and the whole world is changed for good.
The same thing happened to the young Samuel as we heard in our first reading. In the middle of the night Samuel hears God calling him by name. He’s asleep in the Temple. Now I’ve always felt rather sorry for young Samuel, having to sleep in church. I hope it was warmer than St John’s! He has no idea what’s going on, so twice he responds to his teacher Eli who finally grasps that it is God who is calling the young boy. Then, following Eli’s instructions, the third time Samuel responds with a child-like trust and obedience to God’s call. This time, he ‘gets it!’ Samuel’s ordinary life – like Nathanael’s – is suddenly transformed. He can no longer view anything in an ordinary way. He’s been enlightened.
And this enlightenment, this moment of seeing Jesus for who he really is, is possible for everyone. The message of the Epiphany season is that the light of Jesus is given to the whole world, not just to a chosen few. As the reading of Revelation makes clear, the Lamb is sacrificed to redeem the whole world. The light of Jesus – the enlightenment of Jesus – is available because Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Because God wants us to meet with Jesus and to see him for who he is, to be able to say for ourselves, “You are the Son of God!”
For God wants us to ‘get it!’ Like the punchline of a joke, God wants us to ‘get it’ – to understand what it’s all about. Like Samuel, like Nathanael, God wants the penny to drop for each and every one of us, so that we truly understand why the Lamb of God was sacrificed and why he makes a difference and – like Samuel and Nathanael to act upon that difference. God wants us to get the point, so that like Nathanael we open ourselves to receive the light of Jesus and allow our lives to be changed as a result.
That’s why we look for enlightenment here as we gather around the Lord’s table to commemorate Jesus’ eternal sacrifice for us as he was lifted up on the cross. For as we share in the communion, as we share in bread and wine, the body and blood of our Lord, earth is united with heaven. The promise of Jesus that Nathanael would see greater things comes true here at this table – heaven is opened and the power of heaven is released to come down to bless, forgive and redeem this world. Jesus descends to earth to be with us, and we ascend to heaven to be with him and all the faithful.
Let us pray
Lord, open our ears and help us listen so that, like Samuel, you may speak to us. Open our eyes and help us to see so that, like Nathanael, we may see you do ever greater things. Open our lips, so that like Nathanael we may worship you as we proclaim, “Teacher, you are the Son of God!”, and that like Samuel we may say to you, “Speak Lord! For your servant is listening!”