Psalm 139: 1-18, 1 Samuel 3:1-20, Revelation 5: 1-10, John 1: 43-51
This time last year, when we were allowed to travel, I was on holiday in South Africa, and went on an organised game drive hoping to spot some animals in their native territory. A group of us set off at dusk in an open top Land Rover, with a game park ranger, equipped with a 2-way radio and a pair of binoculars. On either side of our vehicle were powerful hand-held searchlights which could spot animals in the darkness.
At about 6pm, we left our hill-top camp and drove off into the bush on a fascinating three hour adventure in search of Africa’s ‘Big 5’ - lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. We’d only been driving for about 5 minutes when we saw a small group of Cape buffalo and a solitary male at some distance from the rest. The Land Rover pulled over, and we admired the great beast at close quarters - majestic with its dark grey horns making a centre parting across its forehead, giving it a primitive warrior-like appearance.
It grew dark quickly, as it does in Africa - and I began to wonder how we were going to see anything at all once the light had gone. And, it happens quickly, as I say - there’s not much twilight; and there in the bush, miles from anywhere, there weren’t any stars visible that evening. Once or twice during our night safari, the driver stopped the Land Rover, turned off the engine and the headlights - and there was total blackness - nothingness. Without moonlight, you won’t even see your hand in front of your face, but you will hear things. The bush is alive with sounds at night - insects, cicada (amazing how such tiny creatures can make such much din!), birds - and movement which is more heard than seen.
I initially thought this was going to be a rather unpromising evening, at least to my untrained eye, then I realised that there is an art to seeing - and I saw far more than I expected. From the moment we open our eyes first thing in the morning until we fall asleep at night, our eyes are functioning. But how do we sharpen our power of observation? On safari, you rely on the eyes and ears and specialist knowledge of a guide. And what you think you see, may not be quite what it appears: that half submerged log in a swamp you’re about to step on may turn out to be a crocodile. Or the tall, slender branches of a plane tree you opened your car window to look at could be the legs of a giraffe! On safari, you learn to keep still and wait... you must also be quiet and listen, especially at night when it’s likely that some animal in the darkness has heard you first. And you will see more when you are in the company of someone who knows where to look - a guide who knows from instinct and experience where game are likely to be.
You can’t predict with any certainty what you’re going to see, and you might be so fixated with seeing Africa’s ‘Big 5’ that you miss a scaly aardvark or catching the reflecting green eyes of a genet up in a tree watching you or the silly mincing walk of a gnu, making him the subject of comical songs or that hyena laughing behind your back.
If you’re wondering how what I discovered on safari last year has to do with this morning’s service, the point is that all three of the Bible readings are about seeing. The Old Testament is the story of the calling of the boy Samuel during the time of the prophet Eli whose eyesight we are told ‘had grown dim so that he could not see’, at a time when the people needed their vision of God re-kindled - by prophets and ‘seers’ like Samuel. The New Testament reading opens with St John’s apocalyptic vision of the kingdom of God, revealed when he was imprisoned on the island of Patmos. The gospel reading has the telling phrase: ‘Come and see’. Jesus invites Philip to follow him, and Philip goes to find his friend Nathaniel and tells him excitedly: ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth’.
Philip’s response is simple and direct; ‘Come and see!’ Relying on someone else’s report is no substitute for going to see for yourself. Notice, Philip didn’t say: ‘Go and find out for yourself’. He said: ‘Come and see’ -he offered to show him. How often our spiritual perception is sharpened; seeing - in the sense of understanding - is deepened through others showing us, just as my safari guide pointed out what I couldn’t see for myself.
Returning to the gospel story, as Jesus saw Nathaniel approaching, his remark implied he recognised him. Nathaniel was curious to know how: ‘When did you come. to know me’? ‘Jesus told him: ‘I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you’ And with those words, Nathaniel’s eyes were opened there and then: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel’.
What was it about the way in which Jesus looked at Nathaniel under the fig tree? Did he see him as God saw him - his value, his potential? It was the same with someone else, you remember- Zaccheus, not under a tree but up a tree - hiding, and watching like that timid genet. Jesus must have looked at him with more than a passing glance - he saw him with the inner eye of compassion and knowledge , recognising his beauty and potential. And so Zaccheus, set free from fear, climbed out of the tree and came over to Jesus.
My safari experience taught me to notice what a trained eye can see. but it did more. It helped me to see in the sense of understand, seeing without seeking to possess, or exploit, or frighten or dominate. There are some lessons here about how we regard not only the animal kingdom but our own human species too.
Thomas Aquinas, the great mediaeval theologian, famous for his sharp philosophical mind and an unrivalled output of systematic theological discourse, once remarked; ‘I have seen things which makes all my writing seem like straw’ Even for the greatest religious thinkers, religion begins with delight and ends in doctrine. It is about the art of seeing and the capacity for wonder. But you don’t need to go to a game reserve in Africa to discover that. We have Kew Gardens on our doorstep. We are being encouraged once again during this current period of lockdown to exercise; to walk if possible. So, go for a walk - in an unhurried way, look intentionally at what is around - you may see things you hadn’t noticed before.
And, by the way, I did see all the creatures I’ve mentioned!
Rev Canon Nick Darby
Cover image by Amit Karkare from Pixabay