2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
- Epiphany 2.21 “…Not What We Ought to Say” John 1:43-51
There’s a great line in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” that Fred Buechner has used beautifully in his writing, especially on the art of preaching. You may recall (if you don’t like reading, and since theaters are closed, there’s a recent film version of Lear with Anthony Hopkins that is highly watchable—I’m reliably informed there’s nothing in books that you can’t get faster and cheaper on TV. Failing that, there’s always Sparks Notes), but anyway, you might recall that King Lear, in the opening scenes of the play, foolishly demanded each of his three daughters tell him how much they love him. Goneril and Regan flatter their father shamelessly, even though they don’t love him at all but only wish to usurp his crown. Cordelia, the youngest (and Lear’s favorite daughter) refuses flattery, saying only that she has no words to say how she loves her father. She is exiled, while Goneril and Regan, sensing weakness and senility, quickly move to destroy their father. Driven mad by Goneril and Regan’s rebellion, and Cordelia’s absence, Lear is chased out onto a blasted heath in a storm, ruined, betrayed, deceived, undone by his own folly, really.
Meanwhile, Cordelia runs off with the King of France (who was always keen on her) and lands at Dover, leading a French army to try to save her father’s kingdom from her treacherous, lying sisters. (One of the sub-themes of the play, which seems evergreen, is that if you’re relying on French arms to save you, your cause is truly hopeless…)
Anyway, in defeat, Lear wises up—becomes something like a true King—discovers who his true friends are. One of these, Edgar, sums it all up at the end with this great line: “The weight of these sad times we must obey/ speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
A great line from a great story, well told by Fred Buechner in “Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale” which you really should read—there’s no TV, film, or Sparks Notes for that one, I’m afraid). And to find out how “Lear” turns out, you’ll just have to read or watch the play or the film version to find out just how sad the times it tells truly are. No more plot spoilers from me! (There’s also Sparks Notes, for the truly desperate). But what, you are quite right to ask, has any of that to do with Jesus and Philip and Nathaniel in our Gospel today? Well, I would say… everything!
I think most people hear this as a text about skepticism; but I think flattery’s the real trouble here. The skeptical reading has Nathanael doubting Jesus could possibly be the Christ because he’s from Nazareth which is not a great town; hardly Great David’s Great City! But Jesus does a miracle, seeing supernaturally far what Nathanael was doing. So the conclusion is miracles cure our skepticism because, hey: “God does miracles all around us and if you only can see that, you will believe too.” And Paul Maier’s books get plugged… Amen.
That’s not what I think is going on at all. I don’t think that the text is that pious and I certainly don’t think the point is that if we just have solid proof that Jesus can do miracles we will believe in him. Because the devil does miracles too, and St. Paul warns that miracles and wonders can be counterfeited. We should believe on more solid grounds…
Mmmm… what would those be?
Well, I think the text tells us, more King Lear than Paul Maier. Here’s how I read it: “The next day” which would be “today” in our narrative frame, 2 days after Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan as we heard last week in the Vicar’s delightful (neo-Pentecostal?) telling of it. The day before that, Andrew and John followed Jesus, spent most of it with him (we’re not told exactly what was said and done—a little mystery is great!). But Andrew and John are so impressed after spending a day with Jesus that they go and get their brothers, saying, “We’ve found the Christ!”. To which, Peter and James no doubt retorted: “I didn’t know he was lost!”. Andrew’s brother Simon got a cool new name too, “Stone” which is typically, quite boringly, translated as “Peter”. I like Stone better. That’s how I think of him, like a bass player in a Seattle grunge band.
Anyway, the day after that, which would be today in the narrative frame of our text before us this morning, Jesus decides to go back to Galilee. He finds Philip (we’re not told how exactly—a little mystery is good!) and says “Follow me.” And Philip follows, but not before he finds his buddy Nathanael (because every good road story is usually a buddy story too) and says “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael goes: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” because ancient Nazareth was like the Detroit of Israel. A place that is always “undergoing a renaissance”. Like soccer, in America, Detroit is and always will be the city of the future…
Philip says his great line “Come and see”. Because you will never talk anyone into the notion that anything good comes out of Detroit… uh, I mean Nazareth. But when Jesus sees Nathanael coming toward him he goes “Behold! An Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”. And Nathanael goes “Uh, how do you know me?” And Jesus answers: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael makes his confession. But Jesus is unimpressed…
Why? Well, any of you from Detroit? Then you’ve probably heard the old joke about the traveling salesman whose boss is riding with him for “performance review”. Coming into Detroit, the salesman goes “I hate this town. Nothing good comes out of Detroit; it’s just hookers and hockey players.” His boss scowls, and goes: “My mother is from Detroit”. And the salesman goes “Oh! What position did she play?”
Jesus brushes away Nathanael’s confession because he detects Regan/Goneril flattery of King Lear, not Cordelia’s Xn faith.What John doesn’t tell you, but implies is how Nathanael asks: “Can you hear as far as you can see?” And Jesus just smiles.
The modern church encourages us to flatter, like this, to save face, to say what we neither feel, nor believe, nor mean because it sounds good. But… don’t. Be Cordelia, not Regan, or Goneril! Seriously, if you have no words, keep your mouth shut. Truth be told: Detroit, Nazareth, aren’t the greatest places. Being caught in flattery is an opportunity to see and say what is true. And the truth will make you free, make you see.
So, say what you mean, not what you (think) you ought to say…
Nathanael says Jesus is the Son of God, King of Israel. But doubtful he believes it, yet. Because, as Jesus says: until we see heaven opened, the angels worshiping Jesus, we can’t really speak truly.
So, on what grounds could we say Jesus is Son of God, or King of Israel? Not because he works miracles! The devil works miracles too! No; look at Andrew, John, Philip. They speak truly of Jesus because they followed Him, spent their Days with him.
Following is the key. This is the way. Even if it kills you like Cordelia, following and suffering and struggling will finally show you how things really are with Jesus.
“The weight of these sad times, we must obey/ speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” “I believe, help my unbelief” is probably honesty’s limit, for us, right now. But; by Word, Sacrament, and Holy Cross, you can hang with him today and know God really, truly. In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.