Professor Jan Schnell Rippentrop writes that,
This (gospel) text (from John), which falls during the season of Epiphany, is an epiphany. Epiphanies tend to transform people. This is seen in Nathaniel’s change and in an epiphany-induced change that Martin Luther King, Jr. describes in his book, “Stride Toward Freedom.” (King writes):
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.1
Martin Luther King, Jr. was changed by this epiphany often referred to as his “vision in the kitchen.” (from “Working Preacher,” Jan 14th, 2018)
Nathaniel, too, was changed as he had an Epiphany about this Jesus of Nazareth. Nathaniel first hears about Jesus from Andrew, who has just been called by Jesus to come and follow him as a disciple. Nathaniel’s response to Andrew, when Andrew tells him about this Jesus of Nazareth, is to rudely exclaim, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
But God’s grace does not see fit to leave Nathaniel living with his prejudicial views. While the gospel text does not tell us how the transformation happens within Nathaniel, we know that somehow in encountering Jesus, who speaks just a few words to him, something in Nathaniel changes. Nathaniel’s epiphany cuts across his pre-judgments, and he becomes one of Jesus’ disciples.
These are two very different examples of epiphanies we have before us today, yet both remind us today that God in Jesus Christ desires to take who we are and make of it something new.
God desires to take our strengths and make them stronger, so that Christ’s light may shine from every kitchen table to combat every injustice and corner of darkness in this world. And God desires to transform our weaknesses as well! To enter into the places where we, like Nathaniel, need to be woken up and shaken up – to have the sometimes narrowness of our vision widened so that we can see the Christ who stands before us!
God in Christ has opened our eyes to see that indeed good, the very greatest good has come from Nazareth! And God in Christ is opening our eyes to see that the goodness of God shines forth from every nation and all the people of the world. Good comes from the Middle East and from the Congo and continent of Africa. Good comes from Haiti and the Caribbean and Australia. Good comes from our Asian and Canadian and European neighbors and good exists in the bones of the people of the United States of America.
It is human to create divisions and wrongfully judge and condemn, but God’s mercy will not let such divisions stand unchallenged! When Nathaniel’s prejudiced declaration, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” meets the grace of God in Jesus Christ, Nathaniel is transformed into a disciple for the Light. When Saul, chief persecutor of the Christians is met by Jesus on the road to Emmaus he is struck blind and then given new vision to become Paul, chief among the apostles to carry the good news of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross to the world.
And when the Martin Luther Kings and Mother Theresas and Doris Days and Dietrich Bonhoeffers despair at whatever their version of the kitchen table might be, it is God in Christ who gives them - and us - faith by the strength of the cross to journey onward. And where is Jesus leading us my friends? Certainly not to sit in fear and dejection; certainly not to sit idly by while hatred and enmity grow among our sisters and brothers in this world, be they Christian or otherwise.
For by God in Christ we are all brought to that mountaintop where stands the cross upon which our Savior bled. And this blood that trickled from our Savior’s hands and feet has become a river of new life that flows through our world this very day. And this river of life cries for justice and liberty for all people. It cries for all people to be given a chance to build a life for themselves and their children and their children’s children that is better than poverty and war and fear.
Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights leader’s cry for justice is a cry taken up by Christians everywhere as we seek to fulfill God’s call to love our neighbor as ourselves. And as we labor in God’s vineyard that is this world, we should not be surprised to find that hearts around us are changed by Jesus’s converting, Epiphany-by-the-Holy-Spirit work, nor should we be surprised to find that our sometimes tired hearts are renewed as we pray at the kitchen tables and here in worship and out on the streets.
The kingdom of love has come down to earth for all people in all lands. Andrew and Nathaniel and the early disciples were emissaries for the King of Love. Martin Luther King Jr. was an emissary for the King of Love who is also a King of Truth and Justice and we, we are also called to be converted as we are redeemed by this King of Love, and then sent, sent to cry out for justice and peace and love and mercy and liberty for all humankind.