Saturday, 17 January 2015

Knowing and knowing

Sts John and Bartholomew (aka Nathaniel, right) by Dosso Dossi
Psalm 139: 1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 

John 1:48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 

Nathaniel, one of the twelve Apostles, has a bit part in the drama of Jesus' life as told in John's gospel, but he has a cracking opening nonetheless.

Jesus is calling his team together. He's already nabbed Andrew, who told Simon Peter; and now Jesus calls Philip, who tells Nathaniel. 'We've found the one!' says Philip, finding his new enthusiasm for Jesus hard to conceal. 'We've found the one Moses and the prophets wrote about - Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth!' 

'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' answers Nathaniel, laconically.

I can't help thinking about Susan Boyle - the 47 year old spinster with wiry hair and dubious dress sense, who went out onto the stage of Britain's Got Talent back in 2009, to try her singing luck out on a skeptical British public. A more unlikely musical star it was hard to imagine. There were titters bordering on the nasty as she strode up to the mic and told the audience she wanted to be a famous singer, like Elaine Paige. In our celebrity obsessed culture, we've heard it all before. The weary judges looked down their noses and tried to hide their disdain for this unemployed Scottish nobody who'd never left her small town home till now, and whose efforts at humour were nothing if not embarrassing. 

The musical track started up, the audience went quiet, Susan Boyle took a deep breath, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Her rendition of 'I dreamed a dream' from Les Miserables was breathtaking in its power, emotion and technical ability - the audience went wild, the judges were speechless, tears were shed and apologies made for not believing she had anything to offer. She has gone on to be a Grammy nominated multi platinum award winning solo artist with 35 million record sales to date.

We all love the surprise of someone unlikely making good.

'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' asks Nathaniel wearily, as he sits under the fig tree. Nazareth was a northern backwater - not the learned and illustrious place from which the Messiah might emerge. Philip's response is a masterclass in friendship evangelism - 'Come and see', he says to Nathaniel.

In the next scene of Nathaniel's short part, he walks towards Jesus. He thinks he is sussing Jesus out, turing his razor sharp wit upon this unlikely candidate for Saviour of Israel. Let's see him prove himself then! Nothing gets past Nathaniel, with his nose for the ridiculous, his natural sceptic's feel for the fraudulent. 

Jesus spots him coming a way off: 'Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit'. This is a compliment. Because the impatience Nathaniel has with others' meaningless spin and jargon is also turned in upon himself. He's honest through and through. Even his name, Nathaniel, is in the prophetic tradition of Nathan, that hard hitting truth teller who revealed King David's adultery and deception for what they were: 'You are that man!'

Nathaniel's cool, suspicious exterior is penetrated by this personal knowledge Jesus has of him. 'Where did you come to know me?' he demands wonderingly. This knowledge is not passing knowledge - it's not casual, or merely factual. 

The French have two verbs for 'to know' - savoir, to know a fact (the earth is spherical) and connaitre, to know somebody. Knowing is a word full of possibilities. Adam 'knew' his wife, and it meant a lot more than remembering she was called Eve. 

'Where did you come to know me?' says Nathaniel to Jesus.
It echoes the psalmist who testifies, 

Lord, you have searched me and known me. 
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways. 
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely. 

Nathaniel was a good man, without deceit - a role model for public and political figures perhaps - but even he had completely underestimated the reach of the knowledge of God - the ability Christ has to search our hearts by his Spirit and to know us, inside out. 

'Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,

   when none of them as yet existed'. 

What do we do with this knowledge? What do we do with the fact that we know we are fully known?

We cease kidding ourselves, and others. No more masks. If we are known fully, we must be honest with ourselves - our motivations, secret hopes and fears. Listen to your soul. What is it saying? Listen to your body. What is it saying? Listen to your misgivings. What are they saying? And above all, listen to Christ. What is he saying to you? Were is he beckoning? 

If, like Nathaniel we get up from under own own shelters and follow Christ, we too will see that ladder from earth to heaven, the connection between our daily lives and the Incarnation, the birth of Christ amongst us. Christ dwells right here, right now. His Epiphany glory continues to be revealed. How will that transform your life today?

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