Sermon for Second Sunday of Epiphany – HIGH MASS Sunday 18 January 2015
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
Christian life always begins with a call from God and the Bible gives us countless accounts of vocations. The first reading this morning is probably one of the oddest, in that it relates to a small child who has been handed over to a priest in the Temple to be brought up, because his mother did not expect to have a child. This child-priest appealed greatly to our Victorian forebears who made him a subject of sentimental statuary – you may remember, early in The Wind in the Willows, Mole visiting Badger’s splendid accommodation and, coming on such an ornament, exclaiming rapturously ‘the Infant Samuel’.
Probably the handing over of a child to an institution as a thank offering for his birth seemed a little less bizarre to the sensibility which was nourished with Little Nell and other Dickensian child heroes than it would to us. We now expend an amount of attention on childhood and the safety of children which most ages would have found surprising. But, since we do that, perhaps the story of the child Samuel is a salutary one. Because it reminds us that not only adults are called to faith: if we are expending so much care on children‘s safety, then perhaps we should also be careful to take the insights of childhood seriously. Here, in fact, could be an illustration of exactly what Jesus meant by commending to us the child’s response to God over the adult’s. The old priest doesn’t hear God and has to be prompted three times, in the best story-book fashion, to understand that Samuel is actually being called by God.
This is, of course, the type of story on which Harry Potter is based. But ours is not a fantasy story about magic, which benefits a few initiates. It is a story of faith and relationship with God, which is for everyone. Samuel will go on to lead an extraordinary life, including the making and breaking of kings, of which we know only a little. But his story is recorded for us not so much to wonder at for entertainment, but to know that God calls us all, children and adults, to listen to him and work with him. And it is recorded, like Jesus’ teaching on how to approach God, as a reminder that adulthood may add layers of misunderstanding rather than depths of wisdom to our spiritual growth.
The story is, of course, especially apt, when we celebrate the baptism of a child but, like last Sunday’s feast, it should also recall for every one of us our own baptism and the possibility of our own calling by God to some task which we have not yet quite understood.
In the Gospel we have the perfect foil for Samuel, in the urbane person of Nathanael, master of the throw-away put-down: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ The response to this Oxford Common Room irony could not be better: ‘Come and see!’ And that is the fundamental call which Jesus issues to every one of us, however jaded or sceptical adult life has made us; ‘come and see’. It is exactly what a child says to us all the time. And Nathanael is very important in this story because he moves from scepticism to recognition, jolted it seems by some apprehension of the exceptional person with whom he is confronted. Though we don’t know a lot about him, there he is again in chapter 21 with Peter and some others: the risen Christ takes them fishing. Whatever Nathanael saw, it sufficiently overcame his pose of cynicism to draw him to the cross and to fellowship with the risen Lord. And the crucial detail is that it wasn’t something he expected – he couldn’t imagine the Messiah coming from Nazareth, any more than some people might expect him anything good come from … Australia.
The point is that, like Samuel, he did respond to the call: he did ‘come and see’ and with a mind sufficiently open to be brought to faith, which is of course the opposite of the certainties he was mouthing.
Our certainties and our security are very much bound up with who we believe ourselves to be; with our sense of personal safety, control and power. The better we are at organising our lives, the safer we can make ourselves feel, even if that is a well-insulated illusion.
Calling, vocation, such as we hear of in these two stories, can cut through all that self-created comfort-zone every bit as convincingly as illness, personal disaster and death. The difference is that God’s calling is to ultimate safety, to what we call salvation – fullness of life with God.
We are being asked, this morning, to consider whether there might be something which God is asking us to do. At the very least we are being invited again to come into closer relationship with him, through his Son Jesus Christ, whom Nathanael saw, in one of those glimpses of glory when we see beyond what is in front of our face, as ‘the Son of God’. We are being asked, at whatever stage of faith we find ourselves, to drop our own carefully defended self-image and, childlike, to ‘come and see’.