Sermon for Lent 3 Evensong & Benediction Sunday 28 February 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie Lent 3 E&B
Nathanael wonders whether anything good can come from that proverbially inconsequential place, Nazareth. There is only one way to find out. Philip’s ‘Come and see!’ recalls John the Baptist’s ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ (Jn 1.36). Testimony to Jesus Christ is not a matter of going on about him but of getting out of other people’s line of sight so that they can see and decide for themselves.
Saint Augustine, for whom two and two sometimes made five, thought that Nathanael must have been a dreadful sinner. Why? Because he was lurking under a fig-tree when Jesus saw him? Adam and Eve tried to hide their shame behind fig-leaves. Why else, said Augustine, did Nathanael choose this pitch? Jesus, as usual, is kinder than Augustine. For Jesus, Nathanael is a ‘guileless’ child of Israel, that’s Israel the person – the patriarch formerly known as Jacob. Unlike his famously shifty forefather, Nathanael is a straightforward character, a blunt northerner in fact. Guile is primarily a sin of the tongue – saying one thing and meaning another. It is the sin of spin-doctors and shameless PR people. And if guile is smooth-talking then perhaps an even greater compliment is being paid to Nathanael: John may well intend an allusion to the suffering servant in Isaiah, one of the biblical types of our Lord’s Passion, of whom it was said ‘there was no guile in his mouth’ (53.9); a text cited, about Our Lord, in Hebrews, 1 Peter and 1 John.
What Jesus already knows about him strikes Nathanael as miraculous. This is one of John’s recurring themes – compare the coda to the story of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets at the well in three chapters’ time: [John 4.28f.]
She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’
For Nathanael this remarkable knowledge, rather than the next episode at Cana, was the ‘first of the signs’. He piles on the effusive praise, ascribing to Jesus several titles of the Messiah (notice the same reaction in the Samaritan woman). It is significant that Jesus is unimpressed by tributes based on his apparent powers of clairvoyance: here is a first hint from John of a health-warning found in all the gospels. Miracles can be dangerously misleading.
Nathanael is told he will see ‘greater things’ than displays of ESP. Like Jacob in our first Lesson, he will see a ladder of mercy set between heaven and earth. This ladder is not like Plato’s ‘Ladder of Love’ by which one ascends by stages to the vision of the Beautiful and the Good. Nor is it the ‘Ladder of Perfection’ described by the English mystic Walter Hilton, the staircase the ardent soul must mount from the darkness of sin to union with God. It is most certainly not any rung-by-rung method of self-improvement. Images of Jacob’s ladder, of heaven opened, of hurrying angels attending on the Son of Man, belong with all the other figures with which this Gospel teems, the characters with whose help John unfolds the mystery of who Jesus is. As John’s Jesus did not say, but might have, ‘I am the true ladder’.
Having perhaps over-extended that metaphor I should note in passing that the translation here is speculative. The word we heard as ‘ladder’ occurs nowhere else in Hebrew – it is what students of ancient texts delight to call a hapax legomenon, a word ‘read only once’. So the King James translators, following both William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale (much of whose work they simply plagiarized) took a stab at it from the context and came up with ‘ladder’. But since we have a vision of two-way traffic here, it must surely be more in the nature of a stairway, predating Led Zeppelin by a few millenia (ask me afterwards if that doesn’t resonate with you).
This two-way traffic of angels is significant, because it anticipates the interplay of ascending and descending in which John so delights: recall especially chapter 3:
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
At the cross, that counterpoint is at its starkest, the paradox most acute. Christ’s descent to our depths becomes an ascent to his throne. The thing about ladders (and stairways) is that they must rest securely at both ends. The Jesus of John’s Gospel is at once the Word who is God and the Word made flesh. Both ends are secure. And the ladder or stairway is grounded where we are. This is good news, especially if where we are isn’t very nice and if, as is the case for us, there is nowhere else to start anyway. A weary W.B Yeats wrote,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
[The Circus Animals’ Desertion]
We know little about Nathanael and his fig tree, except that he does not return to its shade. He reappears once in John’s story, in its haunting epilogue, where he is named among the disciples to whom Jesus ‘showed himself’ by the Sea of Galilee (John 21.2). Why had Nathanael gone back to his fishing? At the start his taunt about Nazareth as a place of origin was that of a sceptic. Now, when all seems over, there are these tales of an empty tomb. Is his scepticism once more aroused? If so, the invitation to breakfast on the beach echoes the earlier one. ‘Come and see.’ ‘Taste and see.’ There’s still only one way to find out.