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Readings: 2nd Sunday of Epiphany

09 January 2015


1 Samuel 3.1-10 [11-20]; Psalm 139.1-5, 12-18 (or 1-9); Revelation 5.1-10; John 1.43 - end

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

NEARLY everything that could be said about the central questions of this Sunday's readings is summed up in Psalm 139. Here, the psalmist meditates on what it means to be known by God. The psalm grapples simultaneously with wonder and terror. On the one hand, it calls us to marvel at the purposefulness of the God who searches for human beings, protects them and accompanies them (Psalm 139.1, 2, 4, 9). On the other hand, it imagines what it would be like to try to escape from such absolute knowledge (Psalm 139.6-8). Against this background, whatever we might try to say reciprocally about the way we know God must seem limited and timid. Yet the stories of the call of Samuel and the call of Nathanael suggest that God longs to be known.

The narrator of Samuel's experience in the temple at Shiloh is careful to point out the rarity of divine self-revelation (1 Samuel 3.1), and reinforces this by emphasising the failing eyesight of the priest Eli (1 Samuel 3.2), the darkness of the temple -- apart from the lamp burning before the ark (1 Samuel 3.3) -- and the fact that the boy Samuel "did not yet know the Lord" (1 Samuel 3.7). It takes three attempts before Samuel distinguishes the Lord's voice from that of Eli (1 Samuel 3.10), an event that tells us much about the limits of what we see in relation to the information at our disposal, and the ideas that are containable in our imaginations. Here is an asymmetrical situation, in which God knows Samuel, but Samuel does not know God.

When God does speak, it is not to say anything personal to the child, but to make him the bearer of difficult news. He must relay to Eli the fact that his sons' abuse of the priestly office will result in perpetual punishment for the whole family (1 Samuel 3.11-14). Out of this will come a new start for Israel; but all that still lies ahead. For the moment, it is a frightened little boy who lies awake through the small hours, and gets up to open the temple doors in the morning, afraid to relay God's words to Eli (1 Samuel 3.15). Eli's insistence on knowing what has been said marks the moment when Samuel begins to grow up, and to take on the authority and responsibility of truthful vision and truthful speech (1 Samuel 3.19).

Another revealing divine encounter takes place on the shores of Lake Galilee, some centuries later. Where sight, or the failure of sight, is a dominant motif in the account of Samuel, the Gospel of John is interested in seeing as discovery. Jesus finds Philip, who finds Nathanael, and reports to him that he and his compatriots have found the one foretold by Moses and the prophets (1 John 43-45). Philip, that most endearing of evangelists (see John 12.20-22, and Acts 8.26-38), is immediately ready to introduce the Messiah to his friend. His charming absence of self-consciousness in naming the longed-for figure, in the next breath, as "Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth" (John 1.45) is also the gospel-writer's signal that divinity and humanity are fully realised in this person.

Philip is not put off by Nathanael's ironic quip, insisting, "Come and see!" (John 1.46). But there is a vast disparity in the way Nathanael sees, and the way Jesus sees. Jesus makes it clear that, even before Philip brought Nathanael to meet him, he had marked him out (1 John 48). These seem slender grounds for the acclamation that Nathanael makes in response: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" and Jesus' reply suggests that he is not anxious to be hailed as a clairvoyant. Instead, he wants his followers to see, just as he sees them. He longs to share the vision of glory (John 1.50; see also Genesis 28.10-17 and Acts 7.56).

The rest of this gospel will show how this longing is gradually and painfully realised, through moments of clear vision and moments of astonishing obtuseness (see especially John 14.4-14). God's invitation to full knowledge is a work in progress, a slow transformation, to which Sunday's collect is a powerful accompanying prayer: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory.


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