Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany – January 14, 2023
1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
All four of our lectionary readings for today testify to the fact that God knows us. In our first reading, before the young boy Samuel even knows the Lord or can discern his voice, God calls to him. God knows him. God has a plan for him, a calling on his life. In the beautiful words of today’s psalm, we learn that none of us are accidents. God himself has knit us together in our mother’s wombs, and each day that we live is known to God. Even our epistle reading, where Paul is chewing out the Corinthians for some really bad theology leading to some really bad behavior, it is revealed that God knows what they’re up to. Nothing is hidden from him. God knows how they aren’t living in accordance with their true purpose. They aren’t using their bodies to glorify God. (We’ll come back to this in a bit.)
And then there’s Nathanael. In our gospel reading for today we hear how Philip told Nathanael that they had found the Messiah – the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asked, with obvious skepticism. “Come and see,” Philip told him. Nathanael then met Jesus face to face, prompting Jesus to say, “Now here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus seemed to have some insight into Nathanael’s character. He knew he was a straight shooter. He knew he was blunt, that he told it like he saw it. Jesus showed that he knew him. “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael replied. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Jesus said.
Like Samuel, before Nathanael knew Jesus, Jesus knew him! And in that moment when Nathanael realized this, when he understood that he was known by Jesus, his heart was moved from skepticism to faith. “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel,” he said.
The fact that God knows us – really, really knows us – isn’t automatically good news for us. In fact, some of you might be hearing this and saying to yourself, “Oh no!” Some of you look a little pale and sweaty as you contemplate this idea. “You mean to say God knows even that! This is terrible! I’m doomed!” It’s true – God does know even that. God knows the you you try to hide from others. God sees deeper into us than the best version of ourselves we usually try to put on display for others. God knows what you really think. God knows what you muttered under your breath against that person who made you angry, even if you were smiling and polite on the outside. God knows how you spend your money. God knows how you choose to spend your time. God knows every thought and every action of every moment of every day. As we say in our Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” The fact that God knows us, by itself, is not good news!
But there is a clue right in the middle of this gospel reading which begins to point us to what is good news for us. The clue is the fig tree.
Jesus saw Nathanael under a fig tree. Now sometimes a fig tree is just a fig tree. Not every detail of every verse of scripture needs to be symbolic. However, we’re in John’s gospel – where most every detail does in fact point to something deeper!
Some Bible commentators say that “under the fig tree” is a phrase rabbis used as a metaphor for meditating on the scriptures. They believe the fig tree is a symbol or a metaphor suggesting that Nathanael had already been searching for the Lord when Jesus found him. But that’s not what the early Church Fathers thought was going on here. That’s not what the first interpreters of this text believed was happening. In a sermon on this text from the fourth century, St. Augustine argued that the fig tree in this gospel reading represents the tree in the Garden of Eden, under which Adam and Eve sinned against God. What did Adam and Eve do after sinning? They felt exposed. They felt naked before God. They felt ashamed. And so they attempted to cover their nakedness with fig leaves. For Jesus to see Nathanael “under the fig tree”, then, was for him to see Nathanael under the curse of sin. It was to see the shadows of his life under that tree, in the darkness.
This might seem like a stretch, but this is what one of the most insightful theologians in all of Christian history believed. And it wasn’t just him – other Church Fathers like Chrysostom and Gregory the Great believed the same thing!
This, St. Augustine argues in his sermon, is where Christ finds all of us. He finds us in our sin. He finds us in our shame. He finds us trying to cover things up, hiding behind fig leaves.
But he doesn’t leave us stuck there. Even knowing everything there is to know about us, Christ comes to us. Even knowing everything we try so desperately to hide, he calls us to himself. Jesus knew Nathanael completely, and still he promised him that he would see the heavens opened.
The good news is not just that Jesus knows us. It is that he knows us and loves us anyway. It is that he knows us and has come to call us out from beneath the fig tree and into a new life with him. It is that he knows us and has come to save us from our sins, thereby opening up heaven to us, drawing us into a relationship with God that begins now and continues forever. It is that he knows us intimately, with all our faults and flaws and failures, and still he comes to us in love and calls us to follow him.
Some of the Christians in Corinth seem to have believed that because Jesus saved them from their sin, that they were free to continue to indulge in it. They seem to have believed that because Jesus had saved them from the condemnation of the law, that it no longer applied to them at all.
“All things are lawful for me,” they argued. “Ah,” Paul wrote back to them, “but not all things are beneficial.” Some of the Christians in Corinth had burned their fig leaves and were now engaging in sexual immorality, thinking it was all fine now. They believed that grace meant that anything goes, that any sexual behavior was okay. Paul wrote back to tell them that they were dead wrong.
To follow Jesus is to walk in the light of truth. And the truth is, going back to our psalm for today, that our bodies are intentionally and intelligently designed. They have been made by God for a purpose. Paul points them to the purpose and meaning of sex, which is for two to become one in holy matrimony, not for one to become one with one, and then another, and then another, in various configurations at various times. When it comes to sex, the math shouldn’t be that complicated! “Your body is a temple,” Paul tells them, “Not an amusement park!”
This is by no means to say that sex is inherently dirty or bad, which is how some Christians have swung the pendulum too far the other way. After all, God invented it. God thought it up. Paul’s Spirit-breathed argument here is that sex has a purpose and a meaning from God. When it is set in the context God intended, it is holy. It is good – for by it, the two become one. When it is misused, on the other hand, you are back under the fig tree. You are in the shadows, in the darkness, under the curse of sin.
(I know this is an uncomfortable topic, but if we don’t have a little teaching around sex even when the lectionary is prodding us to do so, we end up letting popular culture set the agenda – and how is that going for us?)
But this case study in First Corinthians is not only a lesson about how Christians should regard sex. In the broader context of the letter it is another example of Jesus knowing people and loving them anyway. It is another example of Jesus coming to sinners to call them out from under the fig tree and into newness of life. Because when things got crazy in Corinth, Jesus didn’t send fire and brimstone. He sent a preacher! Jesus sent Paul, his personally chosen apostle. He sent Paul to correct them, to teach them the truth, and in so doing, to call them into the light. And by the end of the letter, Paul is showing these sinners how the heavens have been opened to them because of what Jesus has done for them.
The letter to the Corinthians is itself is an example of Jesus knowing people completely and coming to them anyway – to bring correction, to be sure, to call for a change in behavior, absolutely – but none of that could happen without there first being a love that was bigger than their sin, without a savior who came to them with grace and mercy and forgiveness.
God knows you. Yes, you – each of you here today. God knew you before you ever knew him or could discern his voice. God knit you together in your mother’s womb, personally overseeing every intricate detail, and you are wonderfully made. Each day, each moment you live is known to God.
This isn’t, by itself, good news. For it means that from God no secrets are hidden. God knows the parts of our lives that, like our ancestors Adam and Eve, we try to hide behind fig leaves. As St. Augustine once preached: “Our Lord Jesus Christ found the whole human race under the fig tree.”
The good news isn’t just that God knows us. It is that God knows us and loves us anyway. And he proves his love for us by coming to us in Jesus, who calls us out from under the curse of the fig tree through his forgiveness and into a new life with him. By his gracious call he opens up the blessings of heaven to us, today and forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church