Greater things than these – Second Sunday after the Epiphany 2012

John’s Gospel is deceptive. The stories are vivid, the language fairly simple; but there is always much more going on than meets the eye. Sometimes when you try to make sense of what he is saying you find yourself really having to think it out – which I suppose is John’s purpose; to puzzle and intrigue and get us thinking.

Today’s story of Nathanael is a case in point. His friend Philip invites him to meet Jesus, who appears to be the Messiah. Nathanael is a bit sceptical, but goes along, and Jesus greets him with a fulsome character assessment. Asking how Jesus can claim to know him, and hearing that he had already seen Nathanael under the fig tree, he replies with enthusiasm: “You are Son of God and King of Israel!” And Jesus goes on to promise even greater things: “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

I suppose it’s quite likely that Jesus had a gift for reading people; and equally one can fall in love at first sight, there are such things as instantaneous likes and dislikes. But it all seems a bit odd, to me, and what is the fig tree reference about? It feels like the story has been squashed, and some of the bits are missing.

Now when John tells a story that seems a bit odd, as if we’re not getting it all, that’s probably a hint that we have to look harder, below the surface. The clue is in the last bit, the angels of God ascending and descending. If you remember your Sunday School days, you may have picked up on this reference to Jacob’s Ladder, the stairway from earth to heaven, on which the angels were ascending and descending. Jacob is the clue. Jacob, whose other name is Israel; Jacob who is renowned as a “cute whoor”, a plotter and trickster, full of deceit and guile. Nathanael is described as “a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile”. He is, so to speak, Jacob’s best self. He is a representative figure of all that is best in Israel. If “the Jews” in John’s Gospel are invariably hostile to Jesus, here is the opposite; the decent Jews who respond positively to Jesus. They recognise light and goodness because they have light and goodness in them.

There is a prophecy in Micah and Isaiah which pictures the whole world obedient to God and his Law, when swords and spears will be beaten into ploughshares and pruning hooks, and people will sit “every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid”. As I read it, Nathanael stands for the decent Jews who have such a hope for the coming of God’s kingly rule. If they have a fault, it might be an unwillingness to see God doing unexpected things. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I don’t know if obscure Nazareth had a reputation for uselessness; more likely that is doesn’t figure in the prophecies. Nathanael expects nothing from such an unknown source; but he is still open-minded enough to listen to Philip and come to see Jesus for himself. He responds well; but Jesus hints that he will need to expand his horizons and broaden his expectations. Jesus may well indeed be “Son of God and King of Israel”, although Nathanael has no idea exactly what the Gospel-writer means by those titles. The reference to Jacob’s ladder hints to Jesus as the point of contact between heaven and earth, the one through whom we come to the Father.

One of the things we explore in Epiphany-tide is the full extent of the dimensions of Jesus Christ. Whatever expectations of old Israel which filled our thoughts during Advent, when the man himself arrives we need to think bigger. This is Christ for the whole world, the Christ who is enthroned at the heart of creation, as we read in the Revelation. These readings try to expand our thoughts of God and Jesus, to see the big picture. Most of our lives are pretty ordinary, and so is our church life – small and ordinary. That’s ok, because it is in small and ordinary things that we live out our Christian calling. But there is always an inclination to shrink God to fit in with us, to get bogged down in our local issues and passing problems. Today’s gospel encourages us to perceive and to welcome the richness and greatness of the Christ who is more than we expect and possibly more than we want.

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