Psalm 139: 1-18, 1 Samuel 3:1-20, Revelation 5: 1-10, John 1: 43-51
This week, five epiphanies for the price of three.
First, it takes Eli three goes to realise that God is speaking, and Eli is the High Priest.
Secondly, God in all his glory and wisdom is revealed to Samuel, still a small boy, working in the tabernacle.
Thirdly, and perhaps the most surprising epiphany of all, all the hosts of heaven have the most amazing epiphany when the lamb of God is revealed to be worthy to take the scroll from the hand of the Almighty, and to open its seals.
Fourthly, Philip recognises Jesus as the Messiah, which leads him to fetch his friend Nathanael, and bring him to Jesus.
And fifthly, Nathanael overcomes his cynicism when the Christ reveals himself to him and promises him a vision of heaven as a reward.
Brilliant for the people there, what on earth do we make of them for ourselves? Do we expect a voice from heaven, calling us, like Samuel? Or a vision of heaven, a dream sequence that makes sense of Christ’s death and resurrection? And wouldn’t it be great if we could simply meet Jesus and obey his call to follow – it would all be so straightforward.
But we live in today’s world, the other side of the cross, the other side of resurrection, the other side of Pentecost. We have 20 centuries of Christian witness to fall back on, we have generations of faithful servants of Christ who have passed on the faith to us – what need we of epiphanies?
We need them every day, we need them when we are together in church, we need them in our homes, we need them at work, we need them in our leisure time. Samuel was asleep when God revealed himself to him, Nathanael was taking some time out under the fig tree when his epiphany occurred, and as for the hosts of heaven, well, they were in the middle of worship when they discovered the true nature of God.
A true epiphany surprises us, pulls us up short in the middle of the ordinary, when God is revealed when we least expect him. We should be prepared to meet God here, in this place, as we worship together – that is why we have come. But the delight of the surprise visit of God to us when we are least expecting it – that is to be desired and wondered at too.
The problem is that these epiphanies cannot be sought, cannot be engineered. I cannot say to you, “Go to such and such a place, in such and such a state of mind, and it will happen”, because it doesn’t work like that, and never has. God creeps up on us in the most unlikely places, and God makes sense to us when we are not looking for sense.
So do we just bumble through this world, going about our business, with no great expectations of God, and wait for the amazing to happen? No, God challenges us every day with situations where his standards, his ways, have to be sought out and put into practice. The demands of divine love will always confront us, day in, day out, in the people we meet and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And as we respond, as we demonstrate Christ’s self-giving love, so God will be revealed to us in other people’s responses, in our realisations that we do actually walk in Christ’s ways, that we do actually know him in the reality of human contact, in the challenges of this world.
It all sounds desperately whishy washy, sometimes, all vague and nebulous, but moments of epiphany are like that – they come out of seemingly nothing, and return to reality. Samuel, once he has understood that God is speaking to him, receives the most dreadful news possible – that Eli and his family, the people who have brought him up in the tabernacle, who have nurtured his service of the Almighty – these people are all going to be punished by God for their sins of omission and commission. The lamb who has been slain may well be worthy to open the seven seals on the scroll in heaven, but with the opening of those seven seals will come mayhem and destruction upon the earth. And Nathanael will follow the Son of God, the King of Israel, to Calvary, to Christ’s death and resurrection, and ultimately to his own martyrdom in modern-day Turkey.
Epiphanies are not necessarily easy, and their consequences can be earth-shattering and long-term, so beware what you wish for. But may we be so alive to the Spirit of God that we meet the risen Christ in our daily lives, in the people we encounter, and may we rejoice in each realisation of his real presence with us and in the people with whom we share this world, and may those encounters be transformative and love-filled, to the praise of his glory.
Rev Peter Hart