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.