A sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany, given by David Barton at the Evening Eucharist on 17 January 2021.
The story of Samuel is a lovely one, and we all remember. But of course that story is as much about Eli as it is about Samuel. And both of these readings tonight are about the importance of spiritual perception. What Jesus calls “Having ears to hear and eyes to see.”
The point about Eli is, sadly, he has no ears to hear, and no eyes to see. Under his rule the once important shrine at Shiloh to Yahweh, the God of Israel, has fallen on bad times. He is slack, and lets his sons run a money making racket from the shrine itself. “The word of God was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread,” that passage says, rather sadly.
No indeed. When Samuel comes to ask the advice of the old man about this voice in the night, its only on the third time that it occurs to Eli that this could be of God. And even then…. surely a wiser Priest might have accompanied the child to such a momentous meeting. But Eli pulls the blankets over his head and goes back to sleep. Perhaps, in his deepest self Eli must have known that he would not – and could not – recognise or even hear the voice of God. His eyes and ears were closed to the mystery. A little later on we are told that Eli and his family come to a sad end, and God chooses Samuel to be his successor.
The gospel passage takes all this further. The point about Nathaniel is that he is a good man, a true Israelite. To be guileless, without deceit, is a reference to Psalm 32, where God can hold nothing against such a person. And the picture of him sitting under a fig tree means that he is a student of scripture – sitting in the shade, reading the scrolls. And it turns out that he is quite right about Nazareth.
Nazareth, archaeologists tell us, was a very poor and insignificant little hamlet – not the sort of place you would ever expect the Messiah to come from. But that is the point: by dismissing anyone who comes from Nazareth Nathaniel is putting a limitation on the power of God. God knows no limitations. Indeed, God is always pushing at the boundaries of human experience, waking us to possibilities we never imagined. So Nathaniel must open his eyes and see. Before him, from unprepossessing Nazareth, is Jesus on whom the angels ascend and descend. Just as they did to Jacob. In Jesus lies the gateway to heaven.
The fourth Gospel is about exactly this sort of perception. One of the things we have to get used to in reading it is the way in which the writer wants us to see Jesus. Throughout the whole narrative Jesus is crucified, risen, and Lord of the church and the world. Jesus is never anything other than what he fully is. Right from the beginning John makes it clear: “without Jesus nothing was made that was made. His life is the light of all people”. The discipleship the gospel teaches is about learning to be aware of such a presence – with us always.
These passages suggest two important things about how we might do that. The first is openness to mystery in every moment. The bible doesn’t mention childhood often but it’s always significant when it does. Children know they don’t know everything. They live in a world that is always opening up, revealing something, in that sense mysterious. Discipleship is about learning to live with the idea of mystery. To put it at its lowest: there is more to every moment than our often gloomy, cynical views allows for. Better however to think: the mystery of God is present in each single moment, offering possibility and life we never, of ourselves, think of. Discipleship is about learning to think that way and see each moment that way; opening our minds to far more possibilities than we allow for; and – importantly – also getting used to the idea that there is more to each of us than we imagine.
And notice the silence implied in these readings. Samuel sat in the silence of the night in the Shrine at Shiloh. Nathaniel in silence under the fig tree. Silence opens our minds to mystery.
And the other thing arises from that: be ready to be surprised, in unexpected places. Like Samuel, a voice in the night in the run down shrine. There, before Nathaniel’s very eyes, in the man from Nazareth of all places, was the gateway to heaven.
In the weeks before Christmas I regularly visited someone who was dying of cancer. She was a woman of great Christian faith, for whom the sacraments deeply mattered. In the last days before her death, she was in constant, severe pain, and the doctors seemed unable to get on top of it. She was brave, not at all self pitying, but there were times when it became so bad that she couldn’t help but cry out with it, and become restless. It was very difficult to watch.
I asked her once how she managed with it. And she said that the Jesus Prayer was her constant lifeline. “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me..”. And she started to say it then and there, first in English and then in Russian. It’s a prayer you repeat, mantra like, over and over, which she did. And then she went inwards, and became silent, and quite still, as if she had found a place of balance between the pain and the Love of God that she was clearly aware was holding her. And she stayed like that, still and quiet, her lips silently moving with the words of the prayer. The room was filled with peace. It was an utterly surprising, gifted moment.
We should be ready for such moments. Walking on the towpath on a gloomy day. Doing the ordinary jobs about the house. Gazing out of the window at the bare branches against the grey of the sky. A chance meeting in the street. Unprepossessing, ordinary moments. And yet…..Every moment gifted, a gateway into the mystery of God’s mercy and love.