“Go and Listen” “Come and See”
Homily by the Rev. Andrea Budgey Sunday, January 18th, 2015
Many of my colleagues this morning are wrestling with today’s epistle, trying to present it in a way which is accessible to the hearers while remaining faithful to the text. I hope you’ll forgive me, however, if I don’t spend a great deal of time this morning here on Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to “shun fornication”, and focus our attention, instead, on the other texts we have before us...
“Go and listen”. In our Old Testament reading, the boy Samuel has been dedicated to the service of God since before he can remember, trained in attention and obedience, but he's still not prepared for God's call to him out of the darkness. He needs his master's guidance to recognise what's going on, and to know how to respond to God. Eli is blind – physically blind, and blind to the wickedness of his adult sons – but he still understands about listening in the darkness, even if his own darkness has been silent to him for a long time, and he accepts the idea that his family will decline, and the talented, holy child in his care will eclipse him, because he recognises the channel by which the prophecy and the judgement come. What he's trying to teach Samuel, when the boy wakes him in the middle of the night, is the receptivity of the contemplative, a kind of “naked intent” toward God, characterised not by praise or petitions, not by asking God for anything, but by pure attentiveness, mindfulness, a temporary withdrawal from distraction and even from human relationships to wait on the utterance of God in the soul. “Go and listen”, says Eli.
“Come and see”. Unlike Samuel, Nathanael isn’t undergoing any specialised training – not that the Gospel tells us about, anyway – and his first response, when Philip comes to him, full of excitement about the Messiah, seems cool, almost flippant, as if he’s trying to take the wind out of Philip’s sails. And that, in a way, makes his reaction to meeting Jesus even more surprising: when Jesus recognises him, Nathanael immediately changes his tune, and calls him “son of God” and “king of Israel”. What has happened to produce this apparent over-reaction? I think Nathanael probably recognises in this encounter the experience of God which today’s psalm describes: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me; you know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away”. We learn to love God because we have first been loved by God; we learn to recognise God, and to begin to know God, when we realise that we have first been known by God in our very making. Jesus promises Nathanael more wonders to come: the sight of angels ascending and descending upon the son of man. This image conjures up the dream of Jacob in the wilderness, the ladder between heaven and earth, but in the Gospel, of course, it is Jesus who becomes the ladder, the point of contact between our earthbound existence and the fullness of life in God.
There's a temptation to treat these two stories of the Old and New Testaments as contrasts, as opposites: Samuel obeys the call to “Go and listen”; Nathanael the call to “Come and see”; Samuel hears God as a mysterious voice in the darkness, while Nathanael meets God incarnate, and is drawn into personal relationship with God in Christ; Samuel becomes a prophet, proclaiming the bad news of God's disapproval, first to his master, and then, often, to the people of Israel, while Nathanael is called to be an apostle, preaching the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. These comparisons are not without some validity, of course, because in Christ's Incarnation God is revealed to as in as full a way as we are able to comprehend, more fully than ever before. (You may have noticed, by the way, over the past few weeks, the way the readings of this season present this revelation of Christ in a series of events of which become less impressive, but increasingly comprehensible: we start with angelic messengers at Christmas, and wise men with exotic gifts at Epiphany; then there's a baptism with a voice which not necessarily everyone can hear, depending which Gospel version of the story you read; this week, there's a very human meeting, and simple recognition between two people). I think it would be a mistake, though, and an over-simplification of scripture, to imagine that the new ways of knowing God which are made plain to us in the Incarnation somehow simply replace, or wipe out, the old. We are indeed called to encounter Christ on a very human scale, in our daily lives, and our relationships with other people, but that does not mean that we are to ignore our dreams and our visions – whatever form they may take – or that we aren't meant to listen for the “still, small voice” which speaks to us in the quiet of prayer, or even in the silence of emptiness. We need both to “come and see”, in the company of others, and to “go and listen” in solitude and mystery. And we are to be both apostles and prophets, called to proclaim the hope of the resurrection, and the fullness of new life in Christ, in our worship, and in the very patterns of our lives, but also called, when we see the image of Christ in any human person degraded by violence, oppression, poverty, or injustice, to be, like Samuel, prophetic, and to name the wrong, the bad news, so that the good may drive it out.
Samuel goes to the person he most trusts to advise him, and gets precisely the advice he needs to make him receptive to the word of God. Nathanael isn’t necessarily looking for advice, and at first he doesn’t even take his friend seriously, but he is receptive enough to follow him, to humour him, and I like to imagine, (although the Gospel doesn’t say so) that it was because of their friendship – the mutual love which connected them – that he did this, and met the shock of recognition which transformed his life. The same experience can come to us when we least expect it, when we do something reluctantly for a friend or a relative – or a stranger – out of love, and discover suddenly that God has walked into the relationship and recognized us.