1/14/18: A God Who Knows, John 1:43-51
A God Who Knows
First Lesson: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Second Lesson: John 1:43-51
Rev. Scott Dickison
Each of the gospels tell the story of the calling of the first disciples. Matthew and Mark are probably the most well known: Jesus standing at the lakeshore and telling these fishermen, “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” We’ll look at Mark’s telling of this in just a few weeks. Luke is similar, only this time Jesus gets into the boat with Simon, who we be called Peter, tells him where to drop his nets to bring in a big haul of fish, which he does, and then follows Jesus.
But in our passage today, John remembers things differently, as he so often does. The image isn’t fishing, but seeing. And the promise of following Jesus isn’t that the disciples will catch others, but that they themselves will be known, intimately and deeply by the God of creation.
We actually pick up this story halfway. In the verses before, we’re told John the Baptist was there with his disciples when Jesus walks by. John points to him and says, Look, here is the Lamb of God! At which point two of his disciples get up and start following after Jesus. Seeing that these two are following him, Jesus turns and says to them, What are you looking for?—Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of John. For Jesus, this is where the call to discipleship begins, with the question of your hearts deep longing. What are you looking for? he asks them. They ask him where he is staying and he responds with the invitation of discipleship: Come and see.
Which leads us to our passage today. It’s the following day and Jesus has turned toward Galilee. He sees Philip and says to him those familiar words of invitation, Follow me. Philip does, and not only that, he invites another, Nathanael, and says to him, We’ve found the one for whom we have waited: Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth. To which Nathanael responds cynically, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? And this assessment deserves some attention.
Nazareth, and the area of the Galilee in general, were not highly regarded places in ancient Palestine. They were rural areas, poor areas, and the people there had funny accents and were thought not to be as cultured as their brethren in the areas to the South around Jerusalem and other ancient cities. Even within Judaism there was a stigma reserved for Jews from the Galilee, which made it all the more unlikely and surprising that it would be from the Galilee, from Nazareth, the place from which nothing good was thought to come, filled with a people who were so commonly and easily dismissed and devalued, that God sends the Christ, the savior of the world. And friends, that the messiah would come from such an unlikely place is essential to gospel, attested to throughout the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures before it. In the reign of God, and in God’s grand imagination and divine sense of humor, the world will be flipped on its head. The first will be last and the last first, the servant will the greatest among us, the kingdom will belong to those with faith life a children, and all our prejudices and assumptions will be exposed. Even in Jesus’ coming from a backwater town filled with lackluster people we’re reminded not simply of the inherent worth of all people but God’s special closeness, God’s special blessing, for those whom we would be tempted to dismiss or cast aside.
As I saw it put this week by Elizabeth Bruenig of the Washington Post, “It's not an accident that Jesus came from nowhere in particular, or that he was poor. God knows the hearts of people, and knows we're inclined to worship wealth, power, and prestige. The life of Jesus counsels against those impulses. The image of God is in everyone.”
Nathanael offers the world’s assessment of Nazareth and places like it and all those who would be thought as disposable: Can anything good come out of Nazareth—and Philip’s response offers God’s holy invitation to experience something different—Come and see.
Come and see, Philip tells him, and Nathanael does come, and when Jesus sees him still from some distance off, he calls out to Nathanael, Here is truly and Israelite in whom there is no deceit, or, my translation, Here’s someone I’d like to know. And Nathanael, just a moment before cyclical but now suddenly disarmed, says to him, Where did you get to know me? Jesus tells him, I saw you there under the fig tree.
Nathanael—awestruck—says to him, You are the Son of God.
And Jesus says to him, Is that all it took? Me to notice you?
You’ll see greater things than these.
And we’re off.
What are you looking for?
Come and see.
Where did you get to know me?
I saw you.
You will see greater things than these.
Do you see what’s happening here? Do you sense what John is telling us about the call to discipleship, and what we will find when we accept that call? And even before this, what he knows about what it means to be a human—our basic needs and desires, and how the gospel speaks to that?
On the one hand, Jesus knows we’re all looking for something. Something greater than what we see most of the time. Something greater about the world, something greater about ourselves—about our life: our life’s purpose, its meaning, its goal. The gospel he brings speaks to the heart’s deep longing.
And yet Jesus seems to understand it’s not just that we want to find something. It’s that we ourselves want to be found. It’s not just that we want to see something greater, but that we want to be seen. We want this something greater to be seen in us. We want our gifts to be acknowledged and named. We want to be understood. We want to be known. And one of the great promises of Scripture that we perhaps don’t lift up as often as we should, is that we are. We are known.
I’m told that James Forbes, the longtime pastor of Riverside Church in uptown Manhattan, has said during his days as a seminarian in his 20s, he was being consumed with the study of theology and the perfection of his professional skills, when a professor gave him a different challenge: to read Psalm 139—which we heard verses from earlier—every single day for a month. To memorize and internalize its words, to repeat them again and again:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me,
You know when I sit down and when I rise up.
For it was you who formed my inward parts,
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
And Dr. Forbes says to this day, that little exercise changed his life. It impressed upon him the great truth of his life that he is known by God.
You are loved, yes. But before you are loved, you are known by God. And doesn’t this make the love even greater? We’re told that God knows us deeply, intimately—God knows us as one who formed us in our inward parts, who knit us in our mother’s womb—and yet even knowing us in this way, God loves us. Because God knows us this way, God loves us.
We need to say, too, there’s something terrifying about this, about God knowing us in this way. Similar to how Thomas Jefferson once remarked, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” there’s something that should give us pause about the Biblical promise that God knows us. But of course its also deeply comforting. In fact, the more terrifying this truth is initially, the more comforting it will be in time.
Jesus, too, it seems, as God’s son, has this gift of knowing. Nathanael immediately feels it. How did you get to know me? He asks. But pay attention to what really happened here. As best I can tell, this isn’t a miraculous knowing. There will be other times in the gospel of John when Jesus seems to have some divine foreknowledge of the people with whom he is speaking—the Samaritan woman at the well comes to mind. But that’s not what we have here. Here, it wasn’t that Jesus miraculously “knew” Nathanael, but rather, he took the time simply to “notice” him. He sees him, not so different from how you or I would see. Or could see.
Jesus was always doing this in the gospels, he was always seeing people. He saw people for who they were and loved them. He saw people no one else would see—the poor, the sick, the disabled, the outcasts, women, tax collectors and prostitutes, and loved them. Here he sees Nathanael and tells him something about himself he apparently needs to hear. You’re a good person, he tells him, essentially. I see you. Nothing earth-shattering, and yet Nathanael hears it as something more. You have value, you have worth, perhaps. Maybe, You’re a beloved child of God. And Nathanael, having been seen, maybe for the first time, sees now who Jesus is, and follows after him.
And it doesn’t take the Messiah to see that someone is a beloved child of God, because we all are. We all are. It’s just that we don’t always get around to seeing each other that way. We don’t always notice.
Like many of you, I imagine, I was watching the National Championship game in college football this past Monday night. I was casually scrolling through my Twitter feed to see what folks were saying about the game when I saw the headline from the Telegraph that I woman had been found dead in Macon’s first homicide of the year. I didn’t read the article. I’ll confess I hardly ever read those articles.
It wasn’t until the next morning when I got a text from Joe Johnson that I learned the woman was Ida Ford, who served as a custodian on our staff here at the church for the past three years. I was stunned. We were all stunned, as a staff. We remain stunned. I wrote more about Ida on the blog this past week, and we’ll remember more about her next Saturday when we’ll host her funeral service, but for now let me just say that Ida was a beautiful person with a big heart and an infectious laugh who we will sorely miss.
But in the days since, along with grieving her loss, it’s also occurred to me that Ida lived and was killed in a part of town they may as well have been Nazareth—over there off Pio Nono near the intersection with Mercer University Drive. As the crow flies, not far from here, but for most of us, it may as well be in two states over. One of the parts of town we too often assume, with Nathanael, that nothing good could come from. And so when a headline pops up about a shooting death in one of these parts of town, it’s easy to brush it aside as tragic but expected, and not having to do too much with me. But of course, it turned out to be different for us this time. We knew Ida. And we were grateful that the paper and one of the local news stations reached out to us upon learning Ida worked here so we could tell them about her and fill out the initial nameless, faceless image reported.
So others could know her too, and perhaps not turn the page so quickly.
And there’s more to say about these larger questions of gun violence and the disparity in crime within different parts of our community, how certain neighborhoods and demographics carry much of that pain and burden while others do not. And I’ve wondered over the past week if part of the way our church might respond to this tragedy in our midst is to take some of these questions on. But for now, for us here this morning, I think it’s enough to say that whatever is to be done to address this violence that happens in our community, even if not in our own neighborhoods, it must begin with the rest of us noticing.
And maybe that can begin with us. Maybe we can be known as a church who notices. A church who sees. Because it’s only a church who knows that can hope to be a church who loves. Amen.
 Elizabeth Bruenig, in a tweet, 12:24, January 12. https://twitter.com/ebruenig/status/951882609277263872
 Thanks to dear friend Alan Sherouse, pastor of FBC Greensboro, NC, for passing this along.
 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, query 18, in The Complete Jefferson, ed. Saul K. Padover. Found in William C. Platcher, Mark, from the Belief commentary series, WJK, 19.