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Come and See
The Reverend Dr. Margaret Aymer
January 14, 2018
A Reading from the Gospel of John:
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Nothing had changed. If you had asked any Galilean whether the birth of Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth, had made any difference in their lives, back in the year we now call 30 CE, they would have thought your question strange. Nothing, my friends, nothing had changed. Sure, Herod the Great had finally died, but his sons had taken over where he left off, Herod Archelaus taking over control of Judea until the Romans kicked him out; and Herod Antipas ruling the Galilean hinterlands. But, in truth, nothing much had changed. Rome had gotten more powerful, more entrenched, more demanding at each year. And the little country towns of Cana and Nazareth had grown increasingly dependent on the big Roman cities like Sepphoris for their economic survival.
And one can imagine the vulgarities bandied about in the seats of power about such small-town folks from backwater towns. Whether or not such towns were unpleasantly compared to bodily orifices, the sense of their unimportance and worthlessness had not gone away in the 30 years since the nativity. Indeed, who in the Galilee besides the small circle of Jesus’ family had even heard of the nativity, of shepherds and angels, or magi and Egyptian wanderings? If anything, those small towns might still have repeated gossip about the relative virtue of Mary and whether or not Joseph had been duped by that girl into raising another man’s son in that little, four-hundred or so person, village of Nazareth. What else did they have to talk about? Nothing had changed. It was as if God had been silent forever. And even if God were to speak, surely God would not speak in Nazareth. After all, can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Honest Nathaniel. I’m surprised he hasn’t received this moniker over the millennia. Honest Nathaniel—not unlike doubting Thomas—speaks his mind to his friend Philip while sitting under a Galilean fig tree. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? And I wonder, if while he was pondering how to respond to his excitable friend from Bethsaida, he too was rehearsing this history, a history of God’s seeming silence, of God’s seeming absence, of God’s seeming inaction. The day of the Lord had not come. The prophets’ promise that everyone would get to sit under their own fig tree had not materialized, It was, as the book of Samuel had once said, a time when visions were rare. Unlike today’s world leaders, I do not think he meant to be unkind or defamatory. He was simply asking a question, a searing, powerful question. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
We also live in a post-Nativity world, don’t we? The Christmas 2017 decorations have been taken down, the crèche put away, and the gifts of the magi long forgotten. And what, what exactly has changed. There is still no peace on earth, with the threat of nuclear annihilation and planetary destruction more present now than ever in my lifetime. There are still persons in seats of power comparing regions of God’s creation they deem to be populated with undesirable people to bodily orifices, while majority black and brown populations of OUR citizenry live without clean water, without electricity, in conditions akin to the poorest nations on earth. Indeed, despite promises to drain the swamp, the muck in the capital city of our nation seems even deeper, stickier and more deadly than the mud that encases parts of Santa Barbara, California. And I wonder if Nathaniel, honest Nathaniel, were a Texan, whether he’d be found seating under a live oak sucking on a Rio Grande grapefruit and asking, “Can anything good come out of America?”
Nathaniel’s question is the turning point of today’s gospel reading. But, it isn’t the start. At the start is a journey. The freshly baptized Jesus, an unnamed disciple, Andrew and Simon Peter his brother, having left John in the Judean wilderness, have turned north, away from the seat of power in Jerusalem toward the multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual diversity of the Galilean hillsides, with its large Roman cities and its tiny hillside towns. And, just as they are approaching the “keep Galilee weird” sign, Jesus sees Philip and says, “Follow me.”
Follow me. Such simple words, and such an unlikely invitation. Yet Philip does. He gets up from whatever he is doing, this man from the fishing village of Bethsaida, and he follows this Galilean teacher, Jesus son of Joseph from the tiny village of Nazareth. But why? The obvious answer, if you are a 21st century post-Nicaean Christian is simple: he’s Jesus. But there’s more than that. On the dusty northbound road, at the portal of weird, multicultural, multilingual Galilee, Philip of Bethsaida experiences what can only be described as an epiphany, an unexpected inbreaking of the presence of God.
Friends, the days of the church year on this side of the magi, the days that take us on a journey from the star to the transfiguration, these days are known by some segments of the church as the season of Epiphany. In this season, our scripture readings invite us to keep alert for the signs of God’s inbreaking in the world. These signs, signs of epiphany, these are promises, promises that the Nativity is only the beginning of our story, promises that the proclamation Immanuel—God-is-with-us—still holds true. These are promises that, despite all evidence to the contrary in our post-Nativity world, the God of heaven and earth still appears among us, still knows our names and our stories, still invites us into a relationship that will change our lives forever.
It certainly changed Philip’s life. John’s gospel gives us no sense of how long it took for Philip to realize the presence of God in his midst. What we do know is that, once he realized it, once he had his epiphany, he took off to find his friend Nathaniel from Cana. And bursting with excitement, he asserts unequivocally that he has experienced an epiphany, that he and the other Galileans have found the very person that Moses and the prophets wrote about, the promised messiah of God.
Can’t you just see the conversation? Philip runs up to Nathaniel, under the fig tree: we have found him! Nathaniel looks up: Who? Philip, breathless, the One, the promised one!! Nathaniel, skeptically: Really? And who might he be exactly. Philip, scarcely containing himself: Jesus Josephson from Nazareth.
Insert the biggest possible eyeroll emoji here, right? Nathaniel’s Twitter feed at that exact moment. Nazareth?? #srsly. Nathaniel’s reaction is honest, and Jesus praises him as a straight-talking man of the people. Nazareth is an insignificant place in a suspect, and frankly weird region. And can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can it? And Philip, undeterred, looks his honest, skeptical Galilean friend in the face and says, “Come and See.” Come and See.
Friends, this is the invitation of Epiphany. Epiphany invites us to listen for the invitation: come and see. Epiphany invites us to take the risk of opening ourselves once more to the God who breaks in among us, not only when all is going well and we are on the mountain top, and not only when we are going through the valley of the shadow of death. Epiphany invites us to listen for the God who calls to us in the times that we suppose to be perfectly ordinary. Epiphany invites us not only to see the deeply problematic nature of the world we live in; it also invites us to come and see, in ways that will astonish and change us, God’s presence among us in the midst of these very ordinary, very troubling times. Epiphany invites us into relationship with a God who sees us even before we know God is with us, calling to us from under our own fig trees, inviting us once more, to follow, and moreover to go tell someone else that they may follow also.
This isn’t an intellectual call. This isn’t something you can read and take apart. This isn’t something you can logically unpack. This requires risk, trust, and putting your body on the line to follow. This is the work of getting on the bus and going to the border between Texas and Mexico; this is the work of flying off to Cuba, or Haiti, or Ghana—not to save them, as though they were the planet’s latrine, but to see them and their people as fearfully and wonderfully made, and to come face to face with the God who is already present and active right there in the midst of these places. Moreover, this is the work of putting down our phones and looking up at the café and on the bus, in traffic and at our children’s dance practice or basketball practice or martial arts practice, looking into the eyes of each other, into the eyes of our families and friends, and the stranger who brings us coffee, and cleans the toilets, and picks up the compost. This is the work of paying attention to people of the world, the walking, rolling, talking, signing, laughing, loving people images of God, even as we listen for God calling us to raise our own voices on behalf of ALL of the least of these, whether they live in Botswana, or Haiti, or Norway.
What this church season reminds us is that epiphany happens not only here in this place, surrounded by music that calls us home and prayers that direct us heavenward. Epiphany happens in the most ordinary, most backwater, most seemingly uninteresting or undesirable places imaginable, and among precisely those people we deem to be the most unlikely of all. And in those moments of epiphany, God beckons to us, in the words of Philip, Come. Come and See. Come and see the one the prophets have spoken about. Come and see the inbreaking of God’s promised realm, not in ways we have ever imagined in, but in the most surprising ways possible.
Come and see God breaking into the world in the work of the rescuers of Southern California. Come and see God breaking into the world in the work of those trying to save us from our own planetary annihilation, the peacemakers and the scientists, those who serve us with a hope stronger than death. Come and see, come and see God breaking into the world in the actions of a black queer psychoanalyst refusing to let a hospital abandon a twenty-two-year-old mentally disabled black woman at a bus stop in nothing but her nightgown and socks. Come and see God breaking into the world through the hands of doctors and nurses, soldiers and architects, women and men and children, refugees, and dreamers, of African, and Haitian, and Latin American descent. Come and see God breaking into the world not only as he did when he revealed himself to a young, highly educated preacher from Montgomery Alabama whose birthday we remember this weekend and whom we will celebrate next Sunday. Come and see, as God continues to reveal the divine call to preachers and ministers, ministers like you and me, ministers of every age, and ability, and nationality, and race today and every normal, unchanging, ordinary day.
For just as God came to Philip and Nathaniel not in a shiny Roman chariot in the purple garments of royalty, but in plain, backwater, Jesus son of Joseph from that insignificant town of Nazareth, God continues to inbreak into our world in ways we cannot imagine and never saw coming.
And when we come and see, Jesus turns to us as to Nathaniel, and promises all of us even more. For Jesus promises us that we, all of us, will see the heavens opened. We, all of us, will see God’s messengers ascending and descending on the son of Man. For when we come and see, in all of our honesty and skepticism, our fear and our hope, we find that right in the middle of the least desirable place we can imagine, God has already established Beth-el, the place where Jacob dreamed of a stairway to heaven, the place that, when Jacob woke, he called the very house of God. Just as we think that nothing can possibly change in our post-Nativity world, the way to God’s realm appears. We, like Jacob, find ourselves confessing, surely God is in this place and I did not know it.
And this, friends, is the message of epiphany. It is not, finally that desperate, honest question from Nathaniel. No, instead epiphany rings with Philip’s urgent, joyful response. God is with us. God is with us. God. Is. With. Us. Come and See.