Sermon for the second Sunday of Epiphany
Note: This sermon was preached by Jaylene Johnson. There is no audio this week.
A couple of weeks ago, after the liturgy, I shared with Catherine and Larry that I have had some very low moments these past couple of years – one might even say I’ve battled depression. I’ve sat on my couch at times, admittedly consuming a lot of Downton Abbey and potato chips, but also wondering about things I’ve always believed, praying that God would reveal His love to me in a way that I can feel and know for sure. I’ve wondered if, as I wrote in a song called “Not Forgotten” several years ago, God really sees me, hears me and knows my need as an individual. I mean, who am I, and who are any of us, really? There are billions of people on the planet, many with far greater woes than mine. God has a lot of people to take care of.
But when I read the scriptures in preparation to preach this week, I found the story of Nathanael’s calling very encouraging. We don’t get too many verses in the passage to paint the picture for us, but enough to observe that Nathanael was a straight-shooter – Jesus said there was no guile, no deceit in him. One might say of him “He tells it like it is”. I also read some cynicism into his nature, or, in the least, wry sarcasm. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks Philip rhetorically. Nazareth was not a well-respected region, and certainly not one any Jew would expect to produce a great spiritual teacher, let alone the Messiah. Then he meets Jesus, who tells him He saw him sitting under the fig tree, before Philip ever came to him. Nathanael is wowed – how could this be? Surely Jesus is the Son of God – the Messiah! And so, Nathanael believes.
Now, I think we can safely assume that Nathanael had sat under a fig tree more than once. Perhaps it was even a favourite place to be, to think, to pray. But he doesn’t say to Jesus, “When did you see me?” or assume it must have been some time when Jesus was physically passing by. The exchange here implies a deeper knowledge on Jesus’ part, and Nathanael knows exactly what that knowledge is. Perhaps something personal and private – a moment under that tree, a heart’s cry, a question, a prayer. Nathanael is moved beyond just being impressed with what seems to be a psychic ability on Jesus’ part. There was, I think, something more significant about being “seen” under the fig tree.
I find this story encouraging because Jesus knew what Nathanael, the sarcastic, perhaps cynic – needed. He connected with him as an individual, and Nathanael responded to this. I also find it encouraging, because maybe Jesus would say to me – I saw you, on the couch. I heard your heart’s cry, your questions and your prayers. Jesus might say to any of us, “I see you; I hear you…” wherever it is that we privately spill our grief and our doubts; wherever it is that we let the deepest desires of our hearts bubble to the surface.
But when it comes to being seen and heard, Paul speaks to something even more profound in the passage from 1 Corinthians 6. We, those who receive Jesus and call Him Lord, are the Temple of God. Our physical bodies house God’s very Spirit: pure, perfect, omnipotent, awesome, created-the-universe, all-wise, all-knowing, Holy Spirit – in us, through Christ. When Jesus told Nathanael he would see even greater works, it surely included the history-altering tearing of the Temple veil and the indwelling of God’s very presence in those who believe in Him. God no longer requires a physical building, and Ark of the Covenant – God lives in us.
Therefore, if God is in us, God is experiencing life with us – all aspects of life. God is not a far off superhero, circling the planet with a red cape, saving it one catastrophic disaster at a time but limited to time and place. Neither is God like a dear friend who calls us once a week to check in and see how we’re doing, or an old acquaintance who keeps in touch with a Christmas card every year. God is not seeing or hearing us from a distance, from some place outside of us – God is IN us. God sees, hears and knows it all, because He is within us constantly – not apart from us. Whatever we do, say or think, God is experiencing it all from this most intimate vantage point. In all my years of being a Christian, even though I’ve spoken the language of Jesus being “in my heart”, it has never impacted quite this way until now. Frankly, it’s as sobering as it is comforting.
I think it might be why Paul is so passionate with his words to the Corinthians.
Corinth, a city about the population of Winnipeg, the main trade and cultural centre of Greece at the time, was teeming with people indulging in vices of all kinds. It was, to use a contemporary term, “Sin City”. Paul spent about a year and half, getting the Corinthian church on its feet amidst vulgarity, rampant promiscuity and unapologetic gluttony. The Temple of Aphrodite was considered a highlight for many living in and traveling to Corinth – 1000 prostitutes available for whatever sexual fantasy one might want to play out. It was a city of feasting upon a banquet of earthly pleasures. In the church, people were seemingly taking for granted the grace afforded Christians: the stomach for food and food for the stomach – both will be destroyed. It’s just our physical bodies, they’ll perish anyway – it’s not the spiritual, eternal parts of us – live and let live! What does it matter what we do with our bodies? Besides, we’re under grace anyway…We have freedom!
Paul is appalled, and I don’t think it’s because he’s a prude or would deny anyone pleasure. I think it’s because the Corinthians seem to be disregarding the astonishing, indescribable reality that God dwells in them. The physical body is the Temple of God. What I read in his words is frustration and shock. How could they take the Presence of God that dwells in them into a prostitute’s bed? Paul doesn’t separate the body from the Spirit, as though one does not impact the other. Rather, he reminds them that their bodies are host to Holy God. Whatever they do with it, they do it with God inside of them. To be frivolous with the body, sexually or otherwise, is to be frivolous with the Spirit as well. Sexual intimacy is not simply a bodily function, but a joining of the whole person – mind, body and spirit – with another whole person – a person that God loves and would heal and redeem, not use for gratification.
There is a danger of taking this thought into an esoteric place perhaps thinking that purity of the body somehow makes our spirit pure. Not so. Only God can do that. But when Paul writes that sexual sin is a sin against one’s own spirit, it merits deeper reflection. Perhaps what Paul is getting at is that is that sexual sin hurts the deepest, most intimate part of us – the part where Spirit resides. It’s not a question of “right standing” with God. Indeed, all things are permissible in the sense that grace through Christ covers all sin – otherwise, God could not dwell in us at all. I do think, though, that sin affects our relationship with God – not on God’s part, but maybe on our part – in how we approach or avoid that relationship.
Sin causes conflict within us, because it’s incongruent with the Light that we have inside. Yes, all things are permissible, but God wants to show us what is beneficial, and guides us through the conviction of the Holy Spirit. So, when our sinful nature has its way, we feel, at a minimum, uncomfortable. It’s a disturbance of the peace. Rather than letting the Spirit have its way in us, though, we may avoid fellowship with God in order to carry on more comfortably with our sinful behavior. We may even lie to ourselves, minimizing the impact that our actions might be having on how we approach God. All things are permissible, right? But not all things are beneficial. Avoidance and denial when it comes to sin require deceit, providing, at most, false peace and temporary pleasure. Intimacy with God involves honesty and confession, and provides forgiveness and sanctification that leads to true peace and profound joy.
We are seen, and we are heard – our grief and our joys and our couch-potato prayers. There are no secrets with God. What we say, what we do, what we eat, what we view, what we think, who we criticize, use, hate, lust after or love – God, Holy God is experiencing it all with us, within us. God is not distant, nor desires to be, promising to never leave us nor forsake us (Heb 13:5) God so desired fellowship with us that Jesus died so that we could know His abiding, constant presence here and in eternity. The beautiful thing is that no matter what God may witness in us, we are still loved profoundly. Jesus bore our shame and we can still boldly approach the throne of grace according to Hebrews 4:16. But maybe the challenge for us is to remain honest with God and ourselves, and, as we are willing, allow the awesome, powerful, loving Holy Spirit within us to inspire how we live. For the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. (1 Cor 2:10)