What are You Known for?
43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And 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.”
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
Have you ever been asked what your favorite verse or chapter in the Bible is? Perhaps this is an occupational hazard for me, but I find that I am often asked what my favorite verse or chapter of the Bible is. At conferences and meetings, it is an ice-breaker – you know, as people are learning each others names, instead of fruits or vegetables or animals whose names start with the same letter as our own, we are share about their favorite parts of the Bible. And, as everyone begins to answer, you hear the subtle agreements, the ‘oh yeah, that’s a good one,’ or ‘hmmm…so meaningful.’ Things like that. And, I can find myself answering differently in different contexts. If the setting is oriented more towards peacemaking or justice, I may go with Isaiah 58 – Is this the fast I choose? To loose the bonds of injustice and other beautiful language that conjures the image of a beautiful watered garden of peace and wholeness. But, if I’m being completely honest, the text that has had the greatest impact on my life is Psalm 139, our first reading for this morning. This Psalm has cropped up in important ways throughout my life – and often it has come up during unique times, some troublesome and some celebratory. It has become a touchstone for me – a comfort and a guide, a confidence booster when I feel low and a swift kick in the pants when I grow too arrogant or self-righteous. It has deep meaning both for my personal faith, my own spirituality, and it compels me to ponder the work of God in the world – God’s love for the whole world, not only for me.
I first remember hearing this text at the Montreat Youth Conference the summer after I graduated from high school. Psalm 139 was the theme text for the week and we studied various portions of the text daily. That week, as I worshipped and prayed and played alongside thousands of other youth in the gorgeous mountains of North Carolina, back at home, a leader in our community – a principal at one of our schools – was kidnapped and murdered. He was the treasurer at his church and one evening as he went to the bank to make the deposit of the collections for the week, he was picked up in the parking lot of the bank. His body was found days later, and all of this took place while I was having this mountaintop experience at Montreat, literally and spiritually. This was the moment I discovered that my faith was my own – it wasn’t my parents’, nor my church group’s. It wasn’t my pastors’. It wasn’t my friends’ or my youth leaders’ or my small group leaders’. It was mine to discern. And, Psalm 139 kept ringing in my ears as I grappled with the goodness I knew of God and the senseless devastation facing my community back at home. “Where could I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?…[All the places I go or could think of going or may find myself in] even there your hand shall guide me, your right hand shall hold me fast…I come to the end – I am still with you.”
The psalmist helps us to understand how intimately familiar God is with the world and with our human existence. There are no limits when it comes to God’s knowledge of us – not even the boundaries we attempt to create. We in the U.S. hold privacy in high regard – almost to the point of obsession. We have public identities and we have private identities, and we spend considerable time and energy crafting the image of ourselves we reveal to others. None of us are exempt from this habit – myself included. Oftentimes, we delude ourselves into thinking that we are convincing even God of who we want to be. But, even as Jonah discovered, “it is much easier to delude oneself than to elude God” (Timothy Beach-Verhey). We need not craft our own version of ourselves. God already knows the true version of who we are and God has called us good.
We also see this in our Gospel text this morning, in the call stories of Phillip and Nathanael in Galilee. Jesus finds Phillip and tells him to, ‘Follow me’ and then it is Phillip who finds Nathanael and implores Nathanael to ‘come and see.’ A skeptical Nathanael approaches Jesus and Jesus greets him with words that demonstrate familiarity, words which indicate that Nathanael is already known by Jesus. Surprised, Nathanael asks Jesus, “where did you get to know me?” and Jesus tells him that he knew him even before he was called, before he was invited to come and see. And after Nathanael realizes that he is being called as himself, intimately known before he had a chance to create his first impression, Nathanael nearly bursts with confidence to speak of the presence of God in our midst.
The frame of Psalm 139 reveals to us that “God’s ultimate, transcendent power over us, God’s immanent, intimate relationship with us, and God’s absolute and accurate judgment of us are inescapably entwined” (Beach-Verhey). And, that’s important to remember here when we consider our call to follow Jesus because “God did not send Jesus in order to know what it was like to be human. Rather, because God already knew what it was like to be human, God sent Jesus. This psalmist declares that God knew every facet of our being, our frame, our innermost parts…long before the time of Christ” (Bland). And even still, God entered into humanity through Jesus, knowing who we are and how to care for us.
Unable to elude God, our unique existence is fearfully and wonderfully made, and we are known intimately by God. We, as individuals and as a whole people, are intentionally and intricately woven together as a tapestry of experiences and emotions, good deeds and bad, habits and foibles, mistakes and lessons learned. With each passing day, we learn more and more of God’s forgiveness and hope for the world through knowing ourselves more deeply as well as our brothers and sisters. And, if I believe that I am included in God’s creation, I must believe that each person is also included. When we encounter one another, we have the opportunity to acknowledge a new colorful thread which adds to our understanding of God – we have the opportunity to learn more about who God is in the world. And, this begins to hold us accountable to one another in order to piece together the kingdom which God calls us to be.
This weekend, as you know, is a time of remembrance and celebration of the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The ministry of Dr. King exemplifies a life lived according to the belief that each one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made. Trusting that God would be present with him in the streets and jails of Alabama, the pulpits and podiums of Georgia to Washington, DC, the hotels and motels of Oslo to Memphis, Dr. King lived boldly into his identity of being fearfully and wonderfully made and, just as Phillip called Nathanael, Dr. King called all who had ears to hear to witness to the hope of God in the world.
In his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King stated:
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant…
I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up.
I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed and nonviolent redemptive goodwill proclaimed the rule of the land. And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.
I still believe that we shall overcome.
This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.”
These are the days written in the Book of which the psalmist speaks. The days we are in and these are the days we hope for. These are the days known by God and we are called to come and see and to witness to the light that overwhelms the darkness. These are the markers by which Dr. King desired our world to be known: Darkness pierced by light. Injustice vanquished by persistent pursuit of equality. Peace that surpasses understanding reigning. This was his vision of discipleship. He heard the call of Christ and he called others to come along with him to labor on in confidence of God’s wonderful creation in us.
God’s intimate knowledge of each of us and desire for us to come and see indicates that we are called to be in relationship with one another – and that includes all people, not just the few we find most appealing or with whom we have the most in common. And, acknowledging our call to build genuine relationship among God’s people is difficult work, because when we live into our belief that every other person is loved by God, injustices are no longer tolerated, nor is war, nor greed, nor abuse, nor fear. Nathanael, Dr. King, you, me – we are all fearfully and wonderfully made by God. If I am and you and they and the other are fearfully and wonderfully made, how might the way we live and move and have our being in the world as individuals and as a community of faith, shed light on the darkness that shrouds us today? Would our interactions be different if we lived as though each person, every single person, was fearfully and wonderfully made? Would our world function differently if we could come and see and believe that people of all different life experiences, different races, different genders, different sexual orientations and income levels and religions – are fearfully and wonderfully made? If we, Church, were to live as fearfully and wonderfully made children of God, secure in the knowledge that God is with us no matter where we go, might we take more risks to more boldly point to the light?