Monday, 16 January 2012

Sermon for Epiphany 2

 1 Sam 3:1-20
Ps 139
1 Cor 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Heaven and Earth

I was visited a few days ago by an old friend traveling in New Zealand and for reasons to lengthy to go into now – we ended up talking about ghosts and the suchlike. Her husband, not a belieiver and being of an enquiring but skeptical frame of mind asked about what I thought of them.

Well this led to some interesting reflections, for my experience in the past led me to believe that perhaps we didn’t see such things because we had been trained not to. I remember back in my old parish a family I knew well who lived in an old 17th Century farmhouse – their 3 year old son regularly saw the ghost of a dog. He kept saying to his parents that he’d seen a dog and they wondered what he was talking about till an older farmer said that tales of a ghostly dog had been associated with the house for many years!  An elderly member of my congregation was woken one night to find a cowelled figure, perhaps a monk stood at the foot of her bed – she was most upset – not because of the presence of a ghost but because all her life she’d wanted to see one particular ghost, that of an old lady who had lived in the house and had been seen from time to time. So upset was she that it was the wrong ghost she didn’t give the monk the time of day, or night and turned over in a huff and went back to sleep.

Well that brings us to the boy Samuel who was ministering to the Lord at Shiloh under Eli the Priest. Now I have to make it clear at the outset that I don’t think Samuel has an encounter with a ghost – he hears the voice of the Lord and he learns to respond. As I said last week, we are to learn to grow in response to the Voice of God as Christ does so perfectly and as does Creation though less so. But there are some interesting parallels.
            Little Charlie Wear didn’t know he was seeing a ghost, he just thought he was seeing a dog. He had no other way to interpret what was happening – and so it was with the boy Samuel. He needed the counsel of Eli to interpret for him what this call in the night was – but even Eli took time to discern what was going on for ‘the word of the LORD was rare in those days and visions were not widespread’ Hearing the Voice of God takes training, we need to be helped to discern it.
            And secondly, Samuel was a child – my friend Myfanwy who was not in the least impressed with the ghostly monk had an incredible childlike quality to her which I think had been part and parcel of her entire life. ‘I didn’t want to see That ghost, I wanted to see The Old Lady!’ And that childlike quality can be expressed in the word Openness – an alertness to the reality of things that few adults possess – our lives become so filled with . . . well filled with ourselves, our thoughts, our activities our plans for our life – and that we become not simple but Sophisticated – like Nathaniel, not open to possibilities. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

He has been tutored like the rest of us Not to see. Samuel is yet to young to hear a voice in the night and not respond – Nathaniel has been taught by experience not to pay attention – as perhaps has Eli. I think that in this story of Samuel it is perhaps Eli who best exemplifies us as Christians today. In our World, the Voice of the LORD is rare and visions are not widespread. Three times Samuel has to respond to the voice until Eli realizes what is happening – it is as though he has forgotten that the LORD will speak. For Eli, reality is that the voice of the LORD is rare and visions are not widespread – he has no expectation of hearing from the LORD. And I suggest that that is our situation also – how many of us think that the word of the LORD is common? How many of us understand Visions as part and parcel of our regular Christian experience? But that is Not Reality

It may well be that we believe that the LORD does speak – we may have no trouble at all believing that in principle, but in practise we do not expect it – and it is the practical set of our lives that reveals what we believe in our heart of hearts.

There may be special times – perhaps we face a special challenge and Need to hear the Voice of the LORD – we need to discern His Voice, but when those occasions of Need arise we struggle to attune our hearts. It is as if having moved into the digital age of Radio we are faced with an old fashioned valve radio and we are turning through the frequencies saying ‘I know the voice of God is somewhere here – I remember in the past people used to be able to hear clearly’. Thru Advent and on into the rest of the summer we have been trying to hear what the LORD has to say to us about His future for our church – but I guess that as much as for me, this has been difficult, out of the ordinary, unusual. And in an important sense that is not right, for we should moment by moment be living in accord with the Spirit, the Voice of the living God. Be attuned to the Life that is in us by virtue of our Baptism
As I sat writing this I was watching a tree outside of my window and how it moved in response to the wind – if you remember those dramatic verses from Psalm 29 last week, they exemplified a Creation in tune with and responding with as much grace to the Voice of the LORD as I saw each leaf and branch moving in the wind. Yet this is God’s desire for us, to be as alert to his presence and voice as the tree is alert to the motions of the wind. But we are called to move even beyond that.

The alert amongst you will have noted that there was one particular way in which the ghost stories diverted from the story of Samuel – the people Saw the ghosts, Samuel only Hears the voice of the LORD. As we move into the New Testament and specifically the gospel reading for today – the theme moves from hearing to Seeing. At Christmas midnight we heard these words – And the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, and we have seen his Glory – John’s gospel has perhaps as its key related themes ‘Seeing’ (a whole chapter at the heart of the gospel is given over to the healing of a blind man – Nicodemus is told that only if he is born again can he See the kingdom of God)  - and Glory. We have Seen his glory – John the Baptist says ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!!’ Look!! Our NRSV completely loses this with the very bland, here is the Lamb of God – I came baptizing ‘that he might be revealed’ – ‘I saw the spirit descending’ – he who sent me said – ‘he on whom you See the spirit descend’ – I myelf have Seen and have testified – and so it goes on until we come to todays incident and the Rich imagery of the angels of God ascending and decending on the son of Man. Just listen to how the theme of Seeing is woven through this passage

Jesus finds a lost sheep, Philip – Philip finds Nathanael ‘We have found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth’ – ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Nathanael does not see – Philip says to him – Come and See  - then Jesus Saw Nathanael (I’ll come back to this at the end) -  Nathanael says – where did you get to know me? I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you – Nathanael sees! Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel – Jesus said ‘ you believed because I Saw you . . . you will see far greater things than these – Seeing who Jesus is opens the door to see something more – Very truly I tell you – literally Amen. Amen. I tell you – this is the most profound truth – You will See heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man

Now Immediately I hope we know to what Jesus is referring in this image, of the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of Man – what Old Testament incident does it refer to? Jacob’s ladder – you remember the story, Jacob is fleeing his brother Esau and ‘weary with travel’ he lies down with a stone for his pillow and ‘dreamed of a ladder upon the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it’. In his dream the LORD speaks with Jacob and when Jacob awakes he says “Surely the LORD is in this place and I did not know it!” – and he was afraid and said “How Awesome is this place! This is non other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”

‘You will See angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ What Christ does is to renew once more the connection between heaven and Earth – that Earth is once more The dwelling place of God – the house of God, the gate of heaven.

Back at the beginning of the story, the Lord God walks in the garden in the cool of the day – the dwelling place of God is earth – heaven is on earth. Man broke the connection – God in Christ has restored this – but we have been trained out of seeing this. In a very real sense our understanding of who Christ is, is far far too weak and thus our Gospel lives are but a shadow of what they should be.

Imagine for just one moment that we are in heaven? How do we live in heaven? What do we do in heaven? What is present in heaven? What is absent in heaven? All the answers to those questions are found in Christ, Present amongst us. Risen and Living – How do we live in heaven? How does Christ Live? What do we do? What is Christ doing? What is present in heaven? What do we find in Christ but the very Life of God? What is absent in heaven? Anything that denies that Life?

Imagine if you would further for one moment what a group of people would look like who saw as it were heaven about them, or the Life of Christ and lived in accord with what they saw? Would not such a group of people live lives together of such radical difference that others might be drawn to them? Imagine such a group of people – Imagine the church – the body of Christ.

Finally I said I would come back to Nathanael and Jesus encounter with him – what transformed Nathanael – you see the church in its splendour is the community of people who have come to see, but like Nathanael they come to see one by one. What is it that as it were triggers that Seeing in Nathanael? What was it that turned this weary skeptic into one who would see heaven opened? It is the recognition that he is known by Christ
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’

In our culture it is not unusual to say ‘how are you?’ and then go on to talk about anything and everything apart from how we are. Frankly not to want to be know or be known. In some less talkative cultures folk do not say this, they say ‘I see you’. Nathanael comes to See because Christ sees him – he is held in the childlike gaze of Christ.

Folk often say to me – well yes, but how?? How do we come to see? I suggest that this often puts things round the wrong way for it starts with us – rather we come to See because like with Nathanael - God in Christ first sees us and that profound revelation opens our own eyes. He sees us and the knowledge of that opns our eyes too. We are seen and so learn to see

Our Psalm today, 139 is a wonderful meditation upon this and to take time to Hear these words, at once the words of a human being but at the same time the words of God, might open our eyes ‘Oh Lord, you see me and you know me – you know when I sit and when I rise – such knowledge is too wonderful for me – too lofty for me to attain – where can I go from your presence?’

You Oh Lord have brought the life of heaven to earth – you know us intimately, give us grace that we too may see heaven opened, that we might see Christ and that we might see and more perfectly reflect your glory, that our lives be more perfectly aligned with the Heavenly life he brings once more to Earth. Amen

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