January 14, 2018 – 2 Epiphany B
1 Samuel 3:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” If this part of the gospel lesson sounds familiar, it’s not only because we read this lesson every few years. It’s also because it’s a direct quote from a very famous scene in the book of Genesis. Right after Jacob receives the blessing of his father he is sent out away from home to begin his journey and find a wife. On his journey, night arrives and Jacob curls up on the ground to get some sleep. During the night he dreams of a ladder reaching up further than he can see, as if the ladder reaches all the way up to heaven. On the ladder he sees angels going up and down, ascending and descending the story famously says, and the Lord stands above the ladder and speaks to Jacob. The Lord says, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Jacob, who later is renamed Israel, takes that vision as assurance that God will lead him throughout his life.”
Now we really can’t hear that story and just take it as a comforting sort of message that God is good and takes care of us. Underlying Jacob’s journey is that troubling fact that his father blessed him thinking he was his brother Esau. Jacob and his mother, Rebekah, trick the old man Isaac. So, as the story in Genesis is careful to say, Jacob cheats his older brother out of the blessing. The journey he is on is not just a journey to find his wife. It is a journey of flight and fear. Jacob is running away from his brother, away from his past actions, away from his father and mother, full of guilt and fear. He has been blessed but he knows in his heart he does not deserve the blessing. In that context he has the vision of the ladder with angels ascending and descending.
Even deeper than a story of comfort, it is a story of absolution and forgiveness, a story of promise and hope extended to a complete fraud, a story that says God really does choose Jacob and blesses Jacob, not because of anything Jacob has done but because God chooses to bless us in spite of ourselves. It is one thing to know that I am blessed with advantages or possessions. It is quite another thing to know that I am blessed by God.
We spend so much of our lives trying to find God, trying to do something that will bring about hope and blessing, and when we receive an assurance that God is with us and blesses us, we quickly realize it’s not because of anything we have done. God chooses us and blesses us because God wants to. I think it is true that every human being is seeking God. Sometimes we are looking so hard for God that we cannot find God. Our spiritual journey is not dissimilar to looking for a lost set of keys: the fact that we can’t find our keys becomes our total focus. Panic and frustration take over and we search in crazy ways. We look under the couch cushions we haven’t sat on in weeks and in the refrigerator or become convinced the keys are at the WalMart, forgetting that we actually dove home from the WalMart and had to have the keys to do that. Then typically the keys are somewhere we’ve passed by a hundred times. Spiritually our desperate search becomes less search and more desperate and we feel lost. Our search becomes more about what we haven’t been able to find than it is about what we hope to find. And then, what we are searching for pops into our lives, and we realize God has been here all along. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”
Nathanael in our gospel lesson is searching for God but God finds Nathanael, not the other way around. Nathanael is very skeptical when Philip tells him about Jesus. There’s some poetic imagery offered in this story that is a little hard for us to fully appreciate. When Jesus meets Nathanael he compliments him and Nathanael wants to know how Jesus knows him. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” In the day fig trees were kind of like the library is to us or used to be. Fig trees were where students would go to read and study the Torah, the sacred scriptures of the day. Nathanael is a serious student of the Torah. When Philip tells him about Jesus he says they have found the person the law and the prophets spoke of. “Hey, Nathanael, we’ve found what you’re looking for.” Jesus knows Nathanael is studying and seeking. And Jesus comes to him. Samuel, in the Old Testament lesson, doesn’t find God. God finds Samuel.
There’s another little inference here in the gospel lesson that St. Augustine mentioned in one of his commentaries. If I asked you to think about what a fig tree represents, you might think of shade and juicy fruit and maybe a few other things like jaybirds stealing your treasured figs. But if I ask you to think about fig leaves, what do you think of? “Then the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. They were ashamed and they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord.” (Genesis 3:7-8). St. Augustine invites us to hear that all of us in our searches for God carry with us shame and fear. As we desperately search for God or for what is missing in our lives, we are also desperately fleeing from our wounds and fears, our struggles, our guilt and shame. We are looking for something but deep inside we know we do not deserve that which we seek. And so our search takes us further away from that which we seek.
So God comes to us and finds us, forgives us, restores us, brings to us all that we have been seeking. A few weeks ago we celebrated the birth of the Son of God, an event that is purely the action of God. The world is hungry and searching and so God comes to us. Now in Epiphany we hear about various ways God continues to make himself known to us. Sometimes our searches in life focus more on what we don’t have than what is provided for us right here and now. Christ comes to us each and every day to save us and give us hope. Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.