2 Epiphany: What Good Comes Out of Nazareth?

Last week we talked about Epiphany, about the season that we’re in, and that the word Epiphany means manifestation. Throughout this season we are hearing stories of the manifestation of Jesus to various people. Not just encounters with Jesus, but moments in which Jesus’s true identity is revealed, moments when people realize that He is the Incarnation of God in this world. We began this season with the story of the Magi and the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles; then we heard the story of Jesus’s baptism where the heavens opened up and that voice said This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. The manifestations continue today in the story of the calling of two of Jesus’s disciples.

The first is Phillip, and Phillip’s story is quite short: Jesus comes and says Follow me, and that’s the end of the story. You have to fill in some of the gaps here. It doesn’t even say if Phillip followed him, but it’s fair to say that that happened. We learn that Phillip knows a good deal about Jesus, that he is from Nazareth and knows who his parents are. So we can assume that either Jesus and Phillip had a conversation about it, or perhaps Phillip and Andrew and Peter had a conversation. However it happened, there is more to the story since Phillip was able to learn all this.

So Phillip follows Jesus, and then goes to find his friend Nathaniel. He tells Nathaniel, we have found the one of whom Moses and the prophets speak. Moses and the prophets, those two great pillars of the faith. They spoke of a Messiah and we have found him. It is Jesus of Nazareth. And this shocks Nathaniel; red flags start going up. Nazareth? Seriously? Nazareth? It is a little hard for us to understand the emotional reaction that Nathaniel has, because we are so distant from 1st century Nazareth. Nazareth was a backwater town, a village really, with maybe a few hundred people. The largest estimate is about 400 people living there in the 1st century. Quite possibly, it could have been only 80 – 100, a very small town with a few families, uneducated, with not much going on there. I’ve been trying to think of some analogies that could help you emotionally feel this, but every analogy that I could come up with felt too offensive. So I’ll let your imaginations go wild with whatever analogy connects best for you. But this is an offensive thing that Nathaniel says; this is pure and simple prejudice. Nathaniel does not think that anything worthwhile could be found in the people from this worthless town of Nazareth.

But Phillip says Come and see. I guess Nathaniel must trust Phillip enough to agree to go check it out. And Nathaniel has an epiphany, a manifestation experience in which he completely changes course. He ends up confessing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. This reversal is so stark, so shocking, that even Jesus is surprised: Really, Nathaniel? You believe this because I told you I saw you under a fig tree? You have a really low bar, son. You are going to see far greater things if you come and follow me. You will see the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, a reference that should remind us of Jacob out in the wilderness, and his dream of the angels ascending and descending on a ladder, and encountering God face to face. Here, at this moment, Nathaniel has a face to face encounter with the Incarnation of God.

I think what’s going on here is that Nathaniel recognizes Jesus’s identity, because Jesus tells Nathaniel that he knows him fully, in a way that no person could know him. Jesus knows him in a way that only God could know. I’m reminded of that verse from I Corinthians, several chapters later than the verses we heard today, in Chapter 13, that great ode to love: Love is patient, love is kind. And later faith, hope, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love. Between these two great testaments to love there is a verse Now I see through a glass darkly, but then I will see face to face. Now I know only in part, but then I will fully know, even as I have been fully known. Nathaniel has this experience of being fully known, and it’s like someone polished that dark glass, or dim mirror in some modern translations, so for a brief moment Nathaniel was able to glimpse more clearly through it, and know fully that this was the Incarnation of God. He was able to know that because he was fully known by the God who knows us, that God from whom no secrets are hid as we pray every Sunday.

I don’t know about you, but being fully known is a little bit scary. There are probably a few things I do not want anyone else to know; there are probably a few secrets I do not want even God to know, or especially God to know. We are afraid of the judgment that comes along with that. What we are reminded of in the Gospel reading today is that it doesn’t matter. In being fully known, with all our successes and failures, all of our gifts and flaws and limitations, that none of it matters to God. God loves us unconditionally, even with all the flaws and limitations and sins. God knows us fully, and through Jesus Christ still invites us to follow Him. We are fully known, and that is no barrier to God inviting us to come know God fully. Jesus knows about Nathaniel’s prejudice, and yet Jesus says come and follow me. You are going to see great things. You will see God face to face.

 God knows us fully. As we heard in the psalm, God knows our journeys and our resting, God knows our rising and our sitting, God knew us as we were being knitted in the womb, that dark place that no one else gets to see. God saw us every moment. God knows every ligament and every muscle. God knows every hair follicle. God knows every cell of our being, and God still loves us for who we are, the one whom God made, the one whom God made in God’s own image, beloved children of God. God knows Nathaniel fully, God knows you fully, and God loves you. God wants you to know God back just as fully, so He offers through Jesus Christ the very Incarnation of God in this world. God offers the invitation to follow Him.