Thoughts on the Second Sunday after Epiphany: the text (more or less) of a sermon preached in All Saints’, Sewanee
Year B: For the Old Testament: 1 Sam. 3:1-20; for the Gospel: John 1:43-51.
Our readings today continue the Epiphany themes of “manifestation” and “revelation”. In the Old Testament reading, God calls to the infant Samuel and reveals what is to come. In the New, Our Lord calls Nathaniel to follow him.
There are in the Bible stories of God’s call that sound as if they were moments of blinding certainty when everything was clear. Isaiah’s experience in the Temple at Jerusalem—his hearing the divine voice, “Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?” and responding, “Here am I, send me!” seems to be such a moment (Isa. 6:1-8). So does the angel coming to Mary in Nazareth—“The power of the Most High shall overshadow thee” “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord!” (Luke 1:26-38).
But not all the stories of God’s moments of revelation are like that, and certainly the two we heard this morning aren’t.
God’s revelation to the infant Samuel was so unclear that young Samuel kept thinking it was old Eli talking to him. Hence the quite comic scene we just heard about, in which the poor old chap keeps getting his beauty sleep ruined, and eventually tells young Samuel—surely not without a touch of exasperation – “Just stay still, son, and listen to God!”
And then there is Nathanael. He finds it hard to believe in the source of his revelation. Philip says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Jesus from where? Nazareth?! That, apparently, is just too much for Nathanael to swallow. Quite what Nathanael has against Nazareth I have no idea and neither, so far as I can see from the commentaries, has anyone else. But he clearly has something against it. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he says. Maybe we’ll get the idea if we substitute for “Nazareth” the most one-horsey and unpromising town we can think of. I’m not going to offer any suggestions, because I once heard Frank Griswold preach on this text in our seminary when he was Bishop of Chicago, and he named a town somewhere or other that he obviously regarded as the armpit of boredom and non-inspiration – and it turned out that two of our seminarians actually came from there and loved it very much, and after the service in the sacristy they gave him a right royal rollicking. So he said to me after they’d gone, “I shan’t make that mistake again.” So far as I know, he didn’t. And neither shall I.
The first thing, then, that this morning’s readings tell us is that God’s revelation is by no means always clear and straightforward. Indeed, sometimes it is quite confusing, and may be coming from the last place or person we’d expect. We may well find that we aren’t sure what is God’s voice and what is maybe a merely human voice – maybe even our own voice! So if we are finding ourselves in such a situation, unsure just what it is that God is telling us to do with our lives, or whether God is speaking to us at all, we should remember that we aren’t alone. People in the Bible had similar experiences.
So in the first place we have to do like young Samuel – be patient, and keep on listening. We must wait and see! Or else like Nathanael: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “Well come and see!” And being a decent sort of chap, he went, and saw. So perhaps we have to go and see.
But what will follow then?
In the biblical stories, Samuel and Nathanael did finally hear God’s call, and were sure of it, and it told them what they had to do. Right? Well, partly right. But think again of the stories! There was more to God’s revelation than that. My noble and learned predecessor as Professor of New Testament in the seminary, Dr Howard Rhys, was well known and revered for many things. One of them was that on occasion after he’d read a passage of Scripture to his students, and then he’d look up at them and say, “Well, there ain’t a hell of a lot of good news there!” I have no doubt that he did it in deliberate challenge to those who were constantly demanding of us when we studied theology in the 1950s and 60s that whenever we were presented with any passage of Scripture we must always look for “the good news” in it—an invitation to platitude and trivialization if ever there was one!
I suspect Howard Rhys would have said that about this morning’s story of the infant Samuel – “there ain’t a hell of a lot of good news there”! Because what Samuel hears about is the end of Eli’s priesthood and coming disaster for his people. In fact, this story, in chapter three of First Samuel, is a hinge between the story that precedes it in chapter two, where the priest Eli has been warned that because of the wickedness of his sons, his family will lose the priesthood—which was at this period effectively the role of rulers in Israel—and Eli’s sons will die; and the story that follows it in chapter four, where Israel takes the Ark of God into battle, born by the Eli’s sons, and Israel is roundly defeated by the Philistines, the Ark of God is captured, and Eli’s sons are indeed killed, as had been foretold. There is, of course, “good news” of a sort in this revelation. Samuel learns that God is watching over God’s own and God will act to vindicate God’s justice—but the cost of that vindication will be severe, at least in the short run. Unhappy indeed the nation—Israel or any other—that is willing to be ruled by such people as Eli’s sons—by the greedy, by thieves, by liars, or by the arrogant, which is to say by fools, for God is not mocked.
As for Nathanael: it turns out that once he actually sees and hears Jesus, he is quite easily convinced. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel,” he says (John 1:49), a change of mind which seems to surprise even Our Lord, so that there is an element of comedy in this scene too. Jesus says to Nathaniel,
“You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than that!” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-51)
Jesus is referring, of course, to the story of Jacob in the Old Testament (Gen. 28:10-15). Jacob, you will remember, thought he was alone and had good reason to be afraid as to what life might hold in store for him. But he wasn’t alone. In his vision he saw that there was a bridge between heaven and earth—a ladder, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. God was watching over him, and God would vindicate him. What Nathanael now hears, and we with him, is that Jesus is the ladder, the bridge between heaven and earth. God in Christ is watching over God’s own and working to vindicate God’s people.
The point is – and this is something that the story of Samuel and the story of Nathanael have in common—the point is, the first and main thing about God’s revelation is that it is essentially about what God is doing, and only indirectly or by implication about what we are to do. To put it another way, God’s call is not in the first place about us, either in our strength or our weakness. It is about God and God’s will, which is always gracious, and is always the best and most fulfilling thing for us in the long run, but may not always therefore be pleasing to us or what we thought we wanted in the short run. As the writer to the Hebrews famously put it, it is always “a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10.31); but yet, as the great New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd used to say, how much more dreadful it would be to fall out of them!
So is there then nothing for us to do? Of course there is always something for us to do! If we accept the grace of God, even God’s tough grace when necessary for us, and grant that we live by that grace, then certainly this means that we must try to be graceful too. Merely to pray “Our Father, thy will be done…” is to say that as children of God we put our hands into the hand of God and choose to go forth with God into the unknown, however frightening that “unknown” may be. And that, as King George VI reminded his people at Christmas 1939 in one of the darkest moments in British history, “shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
To put it another way, the fact that we are baptized into Christ means that we accept the identity of Christ as being essentially our identity. We have, as Saint Paul says,
been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:4)
Which is to say, we are called and destined, each of us in our own small but unique way, to seek to be in the world as Christ was in the world and for it as He was for it.
Occasionally that means taking some big step, making some big change in our lives—joining the Christian church, committing ourselves to a relationship, taking a new job, joining a religious order, going into politics, whatever. Most often, however, it means simply accepting the present opportunity for grace: the next act of kindness, the next task, the next challenge, the next duty, even the next pleasure, whatever it is that God is bringing upon us now. Like good actors, we must always seek to be in the moment, the present moment, for we have no other. The past is gone and cannot be changed. The future is uncertain and we may not even live to see it. What we actually have is now: the present. “Today,” as the Scripture says, “if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” And when we are in doubt as to what that voice is saying, we have always the paragon or touchstone which the prophet Micah outlined for us nearly three thousand years ago:
He hath showed thee, o mortal, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8)
And now let us confess our faith, as the church has taught us.
We believe in One God…
 Raymond Brown suggests the words may be proverbial, reflecting a rivalry between Nathanael’s own town, which was Cana in Galilee (John 21:2), and Nazareth (The Gospel according to John [New York: Doubleday, 1963] 1.83). That is of course possible, but we have no other evidence for it. John F. McHugh suggests that Nathanael’s words should be interpreted less sceptically and more positively: “So something good can come out of Nazareth?” (John 1-4 [London: T & T Clark, 2009] 160-61). He cites Augustine (On John 7:15-17) and Aquinas (Lectures on John 16.318-19). But even Augustine, though preferring the positive translation, conceded that the prevailing translation in his time was the sceptical one, and Aquinas actually was non-commital, noting Augustine’s view but setting Chrysostom’s sceptical view against it. Frankly, I would be more likely to be persuaded if McHugh had produced any Greek father who shared his opinion. It is always dangerous, so it seems to me, to reckon that we, or even the Latin fathers, could understand the rhetoric of these Greek texts better than those who in reading them were reading their own language.
 George VI’s Christmas Day Broadcast, 1939. The king was quoting from Minnie Louise Haskins, “God Knows” (known to many as “The Gate of the Year”), a poem that had been shown to him by his daughter (then) Princess Elizabeth. The opening lines of the poem are:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
First Sunday after Epiphany. Year B.
For the Gospel: Mark 1:1-11 (I’ve added the three opening verses, as permitted by BCP p 888 last paragraph).
Mark begins his book with words about a beginning: “A beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” he says, “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet”. In other words, if we are to understand the story he’s about to tell us, we must see it as part of a much longer story, the story that had been told in the Scriptures of ancient Israel.
After a brief allusion to Malachi 3:1, Mark refers directly to the prophet Isaiah and tells us of “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:3 citing Isa. 40:3). I think Mark assumed that those he addressed would know what that “voice” was supposed to talk about, and I dare say a good many of them did. There all sorts of ways in which we know lots of things those early Christians didn’t know, but they did know their Bibles. Any way (just in case you and I have forgotten) what the voice was supposed to talk about was this: it was to tell Israel that her sins had been forgiven (Isa. 40:1-2):
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak you comfortably to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received of the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
And that, Mark says, is what was fulfilled in the teaching and ministry of John the Baptist. “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,” he writes, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness.” The Baptizer came with an announcement that was all about the forgiveness of sins—just as Isaiah said it would be. He came, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”—or as we might paraphrase his words, “a baptism as a sign of repentance in view of the fact that God forgives our sins.”
What is “repentance”? The Greek word that our English Bibles translate as “repentance” is metanoia, which means literally, “a change of mind”. If it is true that God forgives sins—the sins of our people, and my own individual sins as a part of that—if forgiveness is the nature of the universe, then apparently the universe is a very different kind of place from what we normally take for granted. A great deal of the so-called wisdom of the world—“there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” “charity begins at home,” “nice guys finish last,”—suddenly appears questionable. No wonder we need to change our minds about much that we normally assume. No wonder we need to do a rethink!
“In those days,” Saint Mark tells us next—that is, while John the Baptist was preaching—“ Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
That sounds simple enough. But what did it mean? If John’s baptism was about “the forgiveness of sins,” and Jesus was sinless, why did he need to be baptized? If someone would give me an extra hundred dollars (or pounds, or euros—I’ve no prejudice against any major western currency) for every time I’ve been asked that question or something like it, I’d be quite a lot richer!
But the fact that we ask it shows that, died in the wool individualists as we are, we don’t really understand what either Isaiah or John the Baptist were talking about. What they were talking about was not the forgiveness of any particular individual’s sins—Jesus’ or anyone else’s—but the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. Jesus’ accepting John the Baptist’s baptism was an act of unity, of solidarity with his people, with the people of God. It joined him with those who did have things to repent—which is to say, it joined him with Israel—which meant, since Israel is also a part of the world’s history, that it joined him with humanity, with all of us. It was a sign that Jesus was, to use Matthew’s word, truly “Immanuel, God with us.”
And God greets that earthly sign, says the Evangelist, with a heavenly sign: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10). Just as the Spirit of God brooded like a dove over the face of the waters in the Genesis creation story, so the Spirit of God broods over Jesus in this union of God with us which is, as Saint Paul will later put it, “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5.17, Gal. 6.15), an act of God as wonderful and mighty, in its own way, as the first.
But at what cost?
“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:11). In Mark’s Greek these are the very words with which, in the Greek Old Testament, Abraham was told to take his beloved son Abraham and lay him upon the altar and kill him (LXX Gen. 22.2, 16). They are the words, again, that God will speak from heaven on the Mount of Transfiguration, as Our Lord is about to set his face to go to Jerusalem and death (Mark 9:7). And finally “God’s son” is the title that will be attested as Jesus’ own on Calvary, on this occasion not from heaven, but by none other than the pagan soldier who has just crucified him, whose conversion through the cross will stand as first fruit of the gentiles (Mark 15:39). That is how, being united with us even unto death on a cross, our Lord will finally fulfill that union of God with humankind which began when Mary conceived and as St John puts it, “the Word became flesh”: thereby binding God’s self to us in our weakness and sin, but by the same token also binding us to God in God’s glory and power.
And what is that to us? A millennium or so before Our Lord, King David sang, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Three centuries or so after Our Lord, Athanasius of Alexandria observed, “The Word of God… became human in order that we might become God.” Many centuries after that, Austin Miles the Protestant hymn writer sang, “for he walks with me and he talks with me.” Our Lord’s uniting himself with Israel in its “baptism of repentance,” his uniting himself thereby with us, was a sign of that faithful union of God with God’s people, a sign that David and Athanasius and Austin Miles were right. And that is the sign that we celebrate today.
And now let us confess our faith…