Epiphanies (1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139; John 1:43-51)
This is the Second Sunday after Epiphany. Epiphany is the time in which we start with the coming of Jesus to earth at Christmas and say, “So what”? Jesus was cute and cuddly in the manger. “What’s next”? How do we see Jesus, not only as cute and cuddly, but as the one who liberates us from narrowness, hatred, bigotry, greed, and all the rest. And when I say Jesus liberates “us,” I mean “the big us,” all of us, the world. How in this multicultural, multi-faith world, does Jesus liberate “us”? What insight does he bring to “us” in our everyday lives? That’s another way of saying that Jesus is the saviour of the world. Let me leave that for a moment.
The word “epiphany,” more generally, is used for a moment or even moments of clarity when we suddenly grasp something in a new way. There is something or someone that brings this clarity, and it may be a little thing, a seemingly unimportant and drab experience at the time, but somehow, whatever it is becomes a catalyst that puts our lives (or portions of them) into a meaningful pattern, that helps us to be grasped by something greater than we. Such an epiphany gives clarity and purpose going both backward (we understand some things that have happened in new ways) and forward (we are given clarity also about our goals and can see how past goals contribute to a pattern). Do you have such moments of clarity? Such epiphanies? I don’t have them as often as, perhaps ministers and religious people are supposed to (or as I think we should, given the books that some ministers write and stories that ministers and religious people tell when they’re together).
My epiphanies have always been funny things. I’m much less inclined than, say, Samuel seems to have been (even as a boy) to see the way forward clearly. I don’t often know what I’m supposed to do all of a sudden. Rather, my epiphanies almost always are to help me see what the past meant. It’s many times, only after years that I recognize that God was directing me toward a course all along. It didn’t seem like it at the time.
My epiphanies also never have been of the magnitude of Samuel’s or those of the disciples in the Gospels. I’ve never heard a voice in the night in a big lonely place that becomes the voice of God instructing me to do something. Samuel seemed sure that God instructed him to tell his beloved mentor Eli that God was not happy with the way things were and was about to visit his family for ill. I don’t know whether all this was an attempt to scare Samuel or what. Let me take a moment to tell you a little story.
I, like many of you, did learn the first part of this story of the boy Samuel in Sunday School. I didn’t discover the outcome of the story until a bit later when, for some reason, I chose to read the Book of 1 Samuel. Then it was, I found out that God spoke to Samuel to tell him to instruct his beloved teacher Eli and his whole family that their days were numbered. It terrified me. Was God going to speak to me in such a way? I decided not to read any more Bible. Later, this experience guided me to read and understand such stories more thoroughly, critically, etc., so that, the unpleasant experience became a paving stone on the road to my lifelong vocation of teaching people to read the Bible carefully and understand its background. I’m still doing that. It also made of me a life-long advocate of age-appropriate Christian Education. So all this was, in its way, an epiphany for me, but it took a long time, and was painful.
The Psalm lesson is the centrepiece of what I want to say about all this. Principles here can be helpful for our thinking. It is probable that the Psalms toward the end of the book were collected and edited at a time late in Israel’s history, after the nation had fallen and simply become the pawn of a whole range of world powers. Israel had little real government or independence. The people didn’t count for much in their land, they were maligned by their neighbours, and existed without adequate jobs, adequate opportunity, adequate food, shelter, clothing, or safety. It’s maybe not surprising that we find angry words, lashing out in frustration, in many of these late Psalms, including this one. They come because, in such situations, we may feel that we don’t understand life anymore, and so we cry out for vengeance against somebody.
O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me…Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? Do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred…
In any case, from a profound place of not-understanding the current situation and a long-lasting lack of direction about what to do in it, the Psalmist has taken a long time to reflect on how it is to experience God. The suffering becomes the catalyst, at last, for an epiphany.
And here it is. In the parts of this text we read, the Psalmist says that God is a personal partner who searches and knows us. God has looked straight through us and has understood us completely. This is not intended as a statement to be rattled off in a list of “right things I believe.” No, this is the result of a long and strenuous relationship with this God in the times of not-understanding things. God sees all of us and knows all of us.
Some readers and communities, it seems, have wanted to emphasize this reality in an unbalanced way, so that they paint a picture of God who knows all of us in order to catch us at something we ought not to do and punish us, perhaps eternally. If we don’t remedy those things by this, that, or the other religious thing, then there’s even more punishment. It is important, therefore, to balance our belief that God who knows us totally (including those dark nooks and crannies), with the conviction that God loves us totally, not because of what we do, or have done, but because of who we are – creatures that God loves. Of course that doesn’t mean that God approves all those dark nooks and crannies, or even some of the brighter spots. It does mean, however, that God will love us to the truth, if we’ll allow it.
It is truly difficult to grasp how these things can be, so it’s not surprising that the one who gave us Psalm 139 confessed that “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” One of the things that used to bother me more than it does now is that I often come to an end of my understanding long before I plumb the depths of God, even as I experience God in my life. Good theology is often known more by what it doesn’t say or can’t say than by what it does. As I have lived life my personal theology has shrunk to fewer and fewer things. Here’s one: Christians trust that we can gain most insight into an encounter with God by encountering Jesus of Nazareth, and following his way of life and his teachings. But, alas, we often run out of light before we come to an epiphany, or even begin to understand as we’d like. At the end of the day, the Psalmist learned to say, “I cannot come to the end of God. I cannot exhaust God.” When I think of this psalm, I also think of a hymn I grew up singing (it’s not in our current hymnbook):
O the deep, deep love of Jesus,
Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean
In its fullness over me,
Underneath me, all around me,
Is the current of your love
Leading onward, leading homeward
To my glorious rest above.
(Words: S. Trevor Evans 1834-1925)
The Lesson from John’s Gospel is the story of the call of the disciples Philip and Nathaniel, especially the latter. It seems that Nathaniel had character-flaws. When Jesus called Philip he responded, easily it seems, and went off to tell his acquaintance Nathaniel and told him that “We (including others like Andrew and Peter) have found the one about whom Moses…and the prophets spoke, Jesus…of Nazareth.” You can almost hear Nathaniel who was from the little village of Cana, saying, “Yeshua (salvation) is a good name for such a one, but Nazareth, oy, can anything good come out of Nazareth”? Nazareth, in Jesus’ day, was a very small, insignificant place. Now Cana was about the same kind of dump as Nazareth, but it was Nathaniel’s dump. Nathaniel was a bit of a bigot. Jesus approached him and said, “Here’s a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” It’s hard to know how he said that. Was he simply saying that Nathaniel was a straight shooter, or was he being a little sarcastic, responding to Nathaniel’s bigotry with a retort in kind? Anyway, Nathaniel went on the defensive, “Where did you get to know me”? Jesus said, “Easy, I saw you under a fig tree before Philip spoke to you about me.” Well, Nathaniel, then, responds, “Wow, Rabbi (title of honour), you must be the Son of God and the King of Israel if you can do that.” Does that seem like a bit of an over-reaction for Nathaniel at that point: “If you saw me under a fig tree, you must be a rabbi, the Son of God, and the King of Israel.” Really?! Jesus might have thought, “You guys from Cana must be easily impressed, you haven’t seen anything yet!” The point of the exchange was that Nathaniel saw in Jesus one who knew, not only about him, but knew him. As I said, epiphanies are funny things, and the catalyst is often just a little tiny thing. Perhaps, a benefit of reading this story after reading Psalm 139, is that we can see the same ability to know people attributed to God there, attributed to Jesus by John. John tells his story in order to give the impression that Jesus knew what was in people (see John 2:25).
We also see here in this story and some of the ones that precede it that Jesus doesn’t just command people to follow, but invites people to “come and see.” This sounds to me like what we call the action/reflection mode of learning. Do something, and afterwards, reflect on what it meant. In John’s Gospel, especially, the disciples are invited to discover what Jesus was about rather by following him than simply being commanded and pronounced to be “called.” Or “saved.” Or whatever.
Sister Antona of Centro Latino is a wonderful person. We were talking about the Place of Grace that serves all kinds of needy folk in our communities. The ministry has a principle: each guest that comes in to that place is Jesus to the staff. At the end of the day, some interesting discussions are held (I was told and can imagine) of where and how the staff saw Jesus that day. Epiphanies are funny things. Perhaps it would be good to try to think of the people we see in one day, each one, as Jesus for us. What might we find? Might we treat them differently than we do?
Might one “epiphany outcome” of being a follower of Jesus not be just this, that he shows us that he knows us, and that, though he does, this does not lead him to shun or punish us, and kick us out of his flock, but to remain with us in whatever situation we find ourselves. In other words, Jesus reveals God to be as Psalm 139 claims, the one who knows us all, and loves us all completely. May our little community of faith come to an epiphany about this and seek to reflect such faithfulness and love toward one another and the world in Jesus’ name, and in his power.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.