January 17, 2021 /2nd Sunday of Epiphany / Richard Holmer
1st Reading 1 Samuel 3:1-10 / 2nd Reading 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 / Gospel John 1:43-51
To Be Seen, Known and Loved
I want to begin where today’s gospel reading ends. Jesus says to his newest disciple, Nathanael, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Of course Jesus knew the bible very well – and the image he presents of angels ascending and descending from heaven calls to mind a story from the book of Genesis:
Isaac was the son of Abraham and Sarah. Isaac had twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Though Esau was born first, Jacob persuaded his brother to sell him his birthright as the eldest son – and deceived his father into giving him his blessing. Having swindled both Esau and Isaac, Jacob had to get out of town, so he headed off for the home of his uncle Laban. Along the way, Jacob found himself alone in the wilderness. When night fell, he lay down to sleep out in the open, using a stone for a pillow. That night a vision came to him in a dream. It was a vision of a ladder reaching from that spot, all the way to heaven, with angels of the Lord ascending and descending. When Jacob awoke the next morning, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.”
Jacob was surprised by the presence of God in an unexpected place. Jacob’s discovery is the same realization that came to Nathanael: God was present where and when he did not expect it. He encountered God present in this man from Nazareth – of all the unlikely places! It came as a transforming surprise. Nathanael was moved from doubting that anything good could come out of Nazareth to a declaration of faith in Jesus: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!”
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Time and again in the ministry of Jesus, people who encounter Jesus experience in him the presence of God.
Jesus meets an outcast Samaritan woman at a well. After their conversation, she announces to her neighbors: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
Jesus heals a man born blind – and that man says to the Pharisees, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” And to Jesus he says, “Lord I believe.” And he worshiped Jesus.
A thief on the cross says to Jesus, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Having witnessed Christ on the cross, a Roman centurion says, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”
When I try to imagine what it was that drew people to follow Jesus, it comes down to this: In this otherwise ordinary Jewish man from Nazareth people recognized the fullness of the grace and truth of God. In him they encountered the presence of the living God in this world – and in their lives. For Nathanael and for all of them this was life changing.
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Today we live in a world full of persons who are variously cynical, skeptical, anxious or despairing. At times we see such a person staring back at us in the mirror. This world has an abundance of threats, contradictions and disappointments. It’s a world crying out for some sign of hope, some sign of the presence of God. You and I are called to offer such signs.
Today we have heard how God called Samuel to be his prophet, his chosen spokesman to the people of Israel. We heard how Jesus called Philip to follow him and how Philip in turn called Nathanael to come and see Jesus, the Christ. Week by week we are sent on our way with the reminder that God also calls us: You and I are called by God to follow Christ, to make disciples, to live the gospel.
As I said last Sunday, our beliefs have consequences. I hope that the words of our mission statement have not become so familiar that we do not really take them to heart. We are not passive observers – we are called by God to be active instruments of his grace and peace. We have come to know and to trust in the presence of the fullness of God in Jesus Christ. It is now our calling to be signs of this presence in our world. How is this possible for us? We are not called to work wonders or to perform miracles.
The lives of persons like Nathanael and all the rest were changed by Jesus because Jesus saw them truly – as they were; because Jesus wanted to know them; because it was clear that Jesus loved them – unconditionally. As believers, our calling is to help people to realize and to trust that they are seen, known and loved by Jesus. Humans share a deep longing to be seen and recognized, to be known and acknowledged – and above all to be loved. In order to be loved a person must first be seen and known. I suspect this is a major motive for the endless cascade of selfies that people post of themselves on Facebook, Instagram and all other forms of social media. They want to be seen, recognized, and ultimately, to be loved. Isn’t this why we bother to celebrate birthdays? We take a day to let a person realize: we see you, you matter to us, you are loved. Beyond the cake and the candles and any gifts we receive – the message we need is the assurance that we are loved.
Today’s psalm, Psalm 139, emphasizes that we are seen and known by God:
“Lord you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.”
God sees us as we are. God knows us better than we know ourselves. And God loves us as we are. By coming in person in Jesus, God helped people to believe this is true. Jesus sees the ones who are overlooked by many: the poor, the hurting, the despised, the outcast – people like the woman who was about to be stoned for committing adultery, or the tax collector Zacchaeus. Being seen and known and loved by Jesus transformed their lives.
Writing about Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus, one commentator observes:
“Being seen and known by Jesus turns this ordinary encounter into a life changing experience that opens Nathanael to the light that has come into the world to reveal heaven itself…
“In Jesus we can trust that God sees us, and in the redemptive line of God’s sight, we have new life.” (Cynthia Anderson)
Friends, you and I can help someone to realize that they are seen and known and loved by Jesus. How can we do this? By taking the time to see them, to know them and to love them. This is how we can be signs of Christ’s presence in this world.
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Jesus did not transform the world magically or suddenly. Sin and suffering did not immediately vanish when he rose from the dead. However, the hearts and minds of Christ’s followers were dramatically and forever changed. Faith, hope and love replaced doubt, despair and fear in their lives. The good news of God’s saving grace spread from one person to another as more and more came to realize that they were truly seen and known and loved by Jesus Christ.
In this world filled with people deeply longing to be noticed and to be loved, you and I can bring this blessing – one person at a time.