I have always been jealous of people who get clear calls from God, clear marching orders as if the Holy One has picked up the phone and speed-dialed them. I’ve always been jealous of Samuel, who heard God calling in the night. Sure, he didn’t recognize God’s voice right away, and he did need to be called three times, and he was being called to a very challenging task, but he did get that kind of direct call which I’ve always coveted. Same thing with Simon Peter and Andrew in the gospel verses just before the ones we hear today. They get the invitation directly from Jesus: Come and see. Then Philip hears from Jesus: Follow me. And Philip never hesitates for a moment. Doesn’t that make you jealous?
(I do have a call story of my own, and I’m happy to tell it sometime. You have a call story, too, and I’d love to hear it, any time. It’s just that mine is not so tidy as Samuel’s or Philip’s.)
And then we come to Nathanael, and a more nuanced, interesting story, with something to teach us.
Nathanael is a skeptic. He is dubious. Full of doubt. Maybe like some of us, some of the time. Philip is so exuberant about his encounter with Jesus, maybe because of what he’s heard from Peter and Andrew, or because of something he sees in Jesus. But Fischer—Epiphany 2, 2018 Page 2 Nathanael dismisses Jesus because of where he’s from. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (I’ll be there next week; I’ll let you know.) As the hearers of this gospel, the audience on the sidelines, we are onlookers, and we can see what Nathanael doesn’t see. Hey, Nathanael, he’s the Messiah! This is not about Nazareth; he’s from God! You’re missing the point! The real irony, though, is that while we think we’re seeing Nathanael the clueless skeptic, Jesus gets all excited about Nathanael in ways that we don’t. He sees something completely different in Nathanael: Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit! This was important, high praise.
Jesus sees Nathanael. Nathanael asks: Where did you get to know me? And Jesus answers, of course: I saw you under the fig tree. Now it’s Nathanael’s turn to be over-the-top exuberant: Rabbi! You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel! Now who’s dubious?? It might be us onlookers if we respond: Hey, Nathanael, calm down.
But this is the essence of Nathanael’s call; no wonder he’s excited: Jesus sees Nathanael, and Nathanael has the experience of being seen.
Mark and I have a good friend who is a therapist whose work is mostly with adolescents who have spent their lives in the foster care system, or as wards of the state. She talks all the time about the essence of her work as seeing the fullness of each child, Fischer—Epiphany 2, 2018 Page 3 and helping their troubled parents to truly see them. Over the years when I’ve asked her for parenting advice she always says: “You just need to see each other.” I want to tell a story about a conversation I had early on in the process of developing Rahab’s Sisters, a street outreach to women marginalized by drug addiction and the sex industry, with a man named Joe Parker. Joe was singularly passionate about helping women battered by drug addiction and prostitution and in 2003 he was the only person doing this work. He was a character. (I’ll talk more about him someday if I ever preach on the prophet Jeremiah.)
I asked Joe for advice. He said there are three things to remember:
- Don’t ever tell the women they’re safe; they won’t believe you.
- Don't ever say “I Love you.” They’ve heard that their whole lives from people who beat them and cast them out.
- If you see them, truly see them, they’ll eventually catch on that you see them the way Jesus sees them, and that’s how their healing will begin.
That’s when I came to believe that seeing is a large part of Jesus’ ministry. And that that’s how healing happens, when people are truly seen. That’s how community happens. And that’s how discipleship happens.
Longing to be seen, in the biblical sense, is part of what it means to be human. It is a longing that draws us closer to God and to one another.
Not only does Jesus give Nathanael the gift of being seen, but he promises him the gift of seeing. You will see greater things than these, he says. You will see heaven opened.
Think about ways to practice seeing. Seeing is related to light, to call, gifts, and all of our Epiphany themes. So consider taking on an Epiphany discipline of daily eye exercises. Artists know this; think of Monet’s haystacks—all 30 of them. Writers know this, looking at an object and describing it in a hundred different ways, never using the same words twice. But we can all do it. Take a look at a person you see every day, and think about really seeing them. Or seek out people in your community who have been invisible. Try to see as God sees. Let me know how it goes for you, or let each other know. See what happens.