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City Church

THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

Jan 15, 2021, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Psalm 139.1-5,12-18
1 Samuel 3.1-20
John 1.43-end

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

An Epiphany is a moment of revelation or manifestation, a moment when something becomes suddenly clear.

At the visit of the Wise Men, Jesus is revealed as the King of the Jews, and the universal, even cosmic significance of this kingship is revealed in the guiding of the star, in the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that the wise men bring, and in the very fact of their visit, the Wise Men being not Jews but Gentiles.

At the Baptism of Christ which we celebrated last Sunday, Jesus is revealed in His baptism as the Beloved Son.

Today on this second Sunday of the Epiphany season, what is the revelation about Jesus that we celebrate?

On the face of it, today’s gospel is a straightforward account of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. We have related accounts in all four gospels. But the account in John’s gospel has a number of distinctive features. Andrew and Simon Peter have already been called before today’s gospel begins. They are not called on the shore of Galilee as in the other gospel accounts, but Andrew is rather a disciple of John the Baptist. After John the Baptist identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God”, Andrew finds Simon Peter, his brother, and they both follow Jesus.

After Andrew and Peter, the next to be called in John’s account are Philip and his brother Nathanael. Like Andrew, Philip also goes to find his brother, but Nathanael is sceptical. “Can anything good come from Nazareth, he says?” When Jesus meets Nathanael, He already appears to know him: “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile”, Jesus says. Nathanael is baffled, and asks Jesus “How do you know me?” Jesus replies that He saw Nathanael under the fig tree, before Philip called him. We might wonder if the fig tree was somewhere nearby, that there might be a reasonable natural explanation for what has happened. But Nathanael’s reaction makes it clear that it is not so: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!”. Nathanael clearly perceives Jesus’ knowledge of both his character and the fact that he was recently under a fig tree as something extraordinary, something miraculous, even something divine.

Today we read from another beautiful and rich psalm, psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.

There is a wonderful intimacy in the words of this psalm, and a mixture of awe and confidence in the power of God.

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.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

The psalm can be read on a number of different levels.

In its original context it is associated with David, and it seems to express a sense of the divine foreknowledge of David’s destiny as God’s chosen king for God’s people. At the heart of the psalm is an appeal for God to defeat the enemies of the psalmist – these words are omitted from the selection of verses chosen for this Sunday. The psalm is an appeal to God on the basis that God knows the motives of the psalmist: “Lord, you know me, you have chosen me, you have been with me since before I was born: help me against those who hate me” is the essence of the psalm.

For Christians this psalm has long had a special association with Jesus. “You knit me together in my mother’s womb” cannot but put us in mind of the Incarnation, it cannot but remind us of the Word of God conceived in the flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And the appeal to God for help against enemies on the basis of innocence cannot but remind us of Jesus, the One who is without sin and yet is accused and punished as a sinner and a criminal.

And if we hear in the words of this Psalm the voice of Christ, we who are a part of Christ, united with Him in His body the church, we can make these words our own. We search our own consciences and call upon the Name of the Lord with reverence and awe; we acknowledge God as the reality that closely enfolds us and knows us. This penetrating knowledge of God is both comforting and discomforting for us. And yet the primary sense of the psalm is that of comfort and confidence in the knowledge and love of God.

And there is a still more generous and expansive reading of the Psalm as a prayer uttered on behalf of the whole of humanity made in God’s image.

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

We might detect here an echo of the story of Adam formed by God from the dust of the earth, a powerful story of the common origins of the human race, and on this reading, the plea for the defeat of enemies takes on a different meaning, ceasing to be about human enemies and opponents, and becoming instead a prayer for the defeat of the enemies of the whole of humanity, chief amongst them the sin that lurks within every human heart.

So we see that this is a rich psalm with multiple layers of meaning, but in each and every layer, on every possible reading that I have outlined here, the common element is the enfolding and penetrating knowledge of God. Whether we read it in the voice of David or Jesus or the Church or the whole of humanity, or simply as ourselves, the point is that God knows us deeply and utterly. This profound knowledge, this knowledge which encompasses all things and searches all things, this knowledge is the property of God.

And so we come back to Jesus, and to Nathanael, the true Israelite in whom there is no guile, who Jesus sees under the fig tree. And we ask ourselves again, what is the Epiphany in today’s gospel, what is it that is revealed to Nathanael and to us?

In knowing Nathanael’s character, and in seeing Nathanael under the fig tree, Jesus is powerfully associated with the divine quality of knowledge. Jesus is shown to possess that enfolding and penetrating knowledge which Psalm 139 so beautifully portrays as the property of God. And so it is that Nathanael acclaims Jesus as the “Son of God” and the “King of Israel”. Today we receive a further revelation of the nature and identity of Jesus the Beloved Son, who shares in the Father’s enfolding and penetrating knowledge of the human heart and of all things. As we read later in John’s gospel: “…He knew all men and needed no-one to bear witness of man; for He Himself knew what was in man”.

So today we draw comfort and confidence from the enfolding knowledge and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. He sees us, He knows us, He understands us, He calls us. But we acknowledge too that there is an uncomfortable element in this, that there are things that we would seek to hide from Him, that there are corners of our hearts that we would shield from His searching gaze. And yet the dominant note is one of comfort and confidence, knowing that He sees us with both knowledge and love, knowing that His purposes for us are loving and good, and longing for their fulfilment in us and in all things.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.