Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1–20 | Psalm 139:1–18 | 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 | John 1:43–51
“You will see greater things than these.”
Today we celebrate the second Sunday of Epiphany: a season of revealing… of finding & being found. Reminding us that the story of God often involves surprises, inviting us to listen and look for where He’s at work even now.
Our first reading begins with a pretty bleak assessment: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (1 Sam 3:1) Hundreds of years after Israel had been freed from slavery in Egypt, and had been brought by God to the Promised Land, Canaan, the people were again in a state of spiritual unease. There’s a sense in these words of a growing separation between humanity and God, even between the LORD and His chosen, covenant people.
But in this time when God’s voice seemed distant and remote, we are introduced to Samuel, who would one day become one of Israel’s greatest prophets, but who was now simply a boy serving the High Priest, Eli, at the Tabernacle, the sacred Tent which was, before the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the place signifying the Living God’s presence among His people… the place where heaven and earth were to intersect, so to speak. The High Priest alone, as the representative of all of God’s people, was only occasionally to go in and out of the Most Holy Place, the heart of this sacred Tent, to meet with God on Israel’s behalf… to ritually uphold their sacred connection, their covenant relationship. It was a place where the goodness and holiness of the Living God was to be encountered, and spread out through His people into the world.
But in those days, the Tabernacle had become a place where selfishness and sin had taken root, and had all but taken over. Eli’s sons, who served as priests, had grown wicked and corrupt; they were stealing from God and His people by seizing much more than the share from the sacrifices set aside for them, as well as sleeping with the women who came to serve at the Tabernacle. These sons of Eli, set aside to be holy priests of God, had let their greed and lust distort the core practices of Israel’s covenant relationship with the LORD. They had ceased to be agents of God’s holy love and mercy, and instead served only their sinful desires, causing all kinds of grief. Especially for their father.
Although he was disturbed by the conduct of his children, Eli failed to do anything to stop their outright wickedness. He let them carry on corrupting the sacred role they had been entrusted with, and harming the people under their spiritual care. The ones who were supposed to be faithfully leading God’s people had lost themselves in sin, threatening to lead all the people astray as well.
But at this time when it seemed God’s voice was absent, He finds Samuel. The LORD calls out to this small, confused young boy, and entrusts to him the true but challenging message for Eli: That his family’s unfaithfulness would no longer be ignored. The time had come for them to face the consequences of their corruption. God would find another way to make His purposes and presence known. “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest,” the LORD made known to Eli, “who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed one forever.” (1 Sam. 2:35). Through a surprising, small messenger, God makes His purpose and presence known: Even if those entrusted with caring for the Tabernacle, the place where heaven and earth came together, failed miserably, the LORD Himself will find a way to be among His people… to reveal Himself to them, that they may live with Him always.
Who this ‘faithful one’ will be, of course, is yet to be revealed. But that question points forward, through the centuries, to our Gospel passage this morning.
Our reading from John’s Gospel depicts a scene full of discoveries: It starts off by telling us Jesus, just beginning His ministry, finds a man named Philip from Bethsaida, calling to him: “Follow me.” The next thing that we know, Philip is running to find his friend Nathaniel, excitedly exclaiming that they had found the Messiah: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Nathaniel responds to his friend’s message about the news of Jesus: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Before we toss Nathaniel’s words aside as overly cynical, how often do we, or those we love and respect, respond likewise? Sickened by the dishonesty they have seen in politics, church, or other aspects of community life, how many have given up on expecting ‘anything good’ to come from them? We too live in a time when it seems there’s a strong sense of separation between our day to day existence and the presence and purposes of God… and so many of us give up looking or listening. For his part though, Philip doesn’t start to argue with his friend. He simply says: “Come and see.” He invites his Nathaniel to take a step, to ‘Come and find out for yourself.’ And as he does, Nathaniel finds much more than he expected.
It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t condemn Nathaniel for his initial hesitation… in fact, He commends him! “Here is truly an Israelite [He says,] in whom there is no deceit!” Unlike the sons of Eli, Nathaniel was not playing games with God. Confused as to how this man from Nazareth knew so much about him, Jesus tells him plainly: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Note: Before Philip went to find his skeptical friend and invite him to come and see the Messiah, Jesus already saw Nathaniel clearly… He knew him inside and out. Though he may have felt alone underneath that fig tree, he was not unseen or forgotten. He was not lost to the eyes of God.
And that’s enough for Nathaniel. At these words alone, he goes from cynic to convinced in the blink of an eye. But Jesus has more in store for him… far more to reveal, not only to Nathaniel, but to us as well. When Nathaniel exclaims: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Now what in the world is he talking about? Clearly Jesus (and the author of John) thinks this is an important revelation, something of significance we’re meant to understand.
Here’s another place where a healthy knowledge of the whole Scriptural story comes in handy. The Bible is full of interconnecting images and themes, all meant to weave together as God’s way of revealing Himself to us. In the case of Christ’s cryptic words about the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man, the theologian Leonard Klein can help shed some light on things:
“When Jesus promises Philip and Nathanael a fuller vision, “greater things than these,” he alludes to Jacob/Israel’s dream of the angels ascending and descending the stairway to heaven [See Genesis 28:10-22]. The original event guarantees the unworthy Jacob’s place in the life of Israel and in the ancestry of Jesus. And as that place became holy, Bethel (which means “house of God”), so Jesus himself is now the dwelling place of God. The angels will ascend and descend upon him as they did upon Bethel. The reference is subtle but not obscure; for Christianity Jesus is the holy place. As God dwelt at Bethel and ultimately in the temple at Jerusalem, so he dwells in the Word made flesh and wherever the Spirit makes Christ present in the church.” Or as N.T. Wright puts it: “When you’re with Jesus, it is as though you’re in the house of God, the Temple itself, with God’s angels coming and going, and God’s own presence there beside you.”
The surprising revelation here is that Jesus is not merely someone with deep insight, or supernatural knowledge, He is Himself the holy meeting place of heaven and earth. He is that ultimate faithful priest the LORD promised Eli would one day come, who would completely embody the heart and mind of God in the world, standing faithfully on behalf of His often-faithless people… and laying down His life on the cross as the perfect sacrifice, dying in order to open up the way of life for the world.
Despite how far-off God may feel, in Jesus Christ He is truly with us, and we can be with Him. Through His holy word and sacraments, in times of prayer and service, when faced with strong temptations, doubts, or even failures, the Living God has opened up the way through His beloved Son for us to hear and heed His voice, finding new life in Him, who first loved and found us. And like Samuel and Philip, when we answer the call of the LORD, and draw near in faith, may He speak through us, through our words and lives, to draw others to Him too. Epiphany reminds us that God’s story is full of surprises; and that He works in surprising ways, through surprising circumstances, and simple people like us. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts and eyes to see the “greater things” of Christ at work today, and help us to faithfully make His presence known in our world. Amen.
 Leonard R. Klein, “Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 487.
 Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-10 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 19.