1 Samuel 3:1-10 / Revelation 5:1-10 / John 1:43-51
2nd Sunday of Epiphany / Year B
In this season of Epiphany we’re celebrating the ways in which God reveals himself to the world in Jesus.
Revelations come in many ways.
Some are small but persistent like the voice in the night that Samuel got.
Some are dramatic, scary and strange, like the visions of the Book of Revelation.
And some build up quite slowly but then become big, as with the one given to Nathanael.
This revelation begins with Jesus showing that he knows something about Nathanael’s character – that he’s an honest man.
John seems to be suggesting that this is a wry reference to Nathanael’s rather impolite question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”.
Nathanael is amazed because Jesus has never met him and shouldn’t know anything about him.
And Jesus wasn’t there for the Nazareth statement, so how does he know what Nathanael said?
This is the first step of the revelation – that God knows us inside and out even if we don’t know him.
Then Jesus says that he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree before Philip called him.
This apparently small thing refers to a prophecy about the coming of God’s Messiah in Micah Chapter 4:
“… they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no-one shall make them afraid…”
It’s subtle but to someone steeped in Scripture and Israel’s hopes the meaning is there.
Nathanael obviously gets the reference because he reacts by moving from cynicism about people from Nazareth to proclaiming this particular Nazarene to be the Son of God and the King of Israel.
This is the second step of the revelation – that Jesus is the Messiah promised to Israel.
And then Jesus promises more even than these things by referring to back to Jacob’s ladder.
Jacob appears back in Genesis, where we find that he’s the son of Isaac and Rebecca, the grandson of Abraham, and one of the great patriarchs of Israel.
He’s also a trickster and a liar who takes his older brother Esau’s birth right in exchange for some lentil stew, fools his father into giving him the blessing that should’ve gone to Esau, and then runs away to stay with his uncle when his brother threatens to kill him.
Yet it’s while he’s running away that Jacob’s life is changed by an encounter with God in his famous dream about a ladder between heaven and earth with angels going up and down it, in Chapter 28 of Genesis.
God himself then appears to Jacob in the dream and promises to bring him back home with blessing, peace and prosperity.
Now why God does this, and the further story of Jacob, are a tale for another time, but the relevance here is that it seems to be this dream of Jacob’s that Jesus is referring to when he says, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”.
The point of Jacob’s dream was that it showed that God was there with him, with angels moving up and down to bring heaven and earth together.
Jacob named the place where he had the dream Bethel, or the house of God, and later the idea grew up that when you worshipped God in his house he was really there with you in a special way, you were directly in his presence and linked with heaven.
This is why the Temple was so important – it was where the gap between heaven and earth was closed and God was among his people in a special way.
And now Jesus is here saying that he’s the place where heaven connects to earth – not the Temple in Jerusalem.
He’s the gateway through which angels pass to connect earth and heaven, and the place where God dwells.
Jesus is the real ladder between fallen humanity and a perfect God which Jacob’s dream was pointing to.
And he makes a further small change.
Nathanael has referred to Jesus as the King of Israel, claiming Jesus and the blessings of God for his own people.
Yet Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, pointing to himself as belonging to all of humanity.
He is a ladder not just for Israel and God to meet but for all people and God to meet.
We don’t know how Nathanael reacted to this, but it is the third step of the revelation – that God has come to draw all people to himself, not just Jews but also us Gentiles.
These are big ideas: God knows us completely before we know him; Jesus is the promised Messiah of God; Jesus bridges the gap between heaven and earth for all people.
And they are truths that shine brightly in a sometimes dark world.
If we wonder if we’re really good enough for God or other people we can be comforted by remembering that God has always known exactly who and what we are – and he has always loved us.
We are his children, whatever we do and wherever we go.
We can stop rushing round trying to prove ourselves with achievements and possessions, and difficult New Year’s resolutions, and instead focus on sharing the love we’ve received with others.
When we look at the news and see prejudice, death, war, division, disasters and cruelty we don’t need to lose hope.
Our hope and faith are that the world has a Messiah, one who has lived, suffered and died among us, and who lives now forever to lead us to a new world of peace and safety, justice and mercy.
Living in the light of this revelation we can be a source of hope for others by being people who offer the peace, love, forgiveness and help we received to those around us, without judgement or expecting anything back.
So may God lead us and all his people to his promised kingdom, in which everyone “…. shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no-one shall make them afraid…”.