Happily ever after

Sunday 15th January 2012
Year B, The Second Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
1 Samuel 3:1-10
John 1:43-51

The grand overture of Saint John's Gospel has faded into the background, and we have had a first evening scene of the Baptism of the Lamb of God. And now the curtain rises to reveal a beautiful lake, reflecting a deep blue sky and the rising sun and although at that time of the year in Palestine the corn isn't as high as an elephant's eye, you still expect the chorus to sing "O what a beautiful morning!" For, indeed, it is a lovely morning and not only because of the hope in the spring weather. On the previous evening Jesus had already  recruited Andrew and his brother Simon and now it is the turn of Philip and Nathaniel who is a bit of a wit, enjoying some nice by-play with Jesus. There is nothing messy or complex about the process as the new recruits are convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, although John does not indicate that Jesus told them so; and then Nathaniel affirms that Jesus is "The Son of God", whatever that means and "King of Israel", whatever that means. I put in these qualifications because it's all too easy to read back an Evangelist's conclusions, knowing what he knows of the whole life, death and Resurrection, into the text; and then there is the rather tantalising promise at the end of the passage that Jesus' followers will see heaven opening and the angels descending and ascending (the translation puts them the wrong way round) on the Son of God. Little could they have known then how matters would turn out.

Over Christmas I followed my usual custom of reading a Dickens novel which, as one would expect, ends happily ever after (except for those who die in the course of it); but I also read Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks which signals the beginning of the end of the happy ending in novel writing; and today no self respecting author would neatly tie all the ends together in a sparkling bow of contentment because, as we know, life is not like that. So if the early follower of Jesus had thought about it, they would have known that it would end in tears; it always does. If we were to extend our idea of a stage play, there would be a point more than half way through when they would be the distant bystanders at the death of Jesus and bewildered witnesses of his Resurrection but the play would end with each of them killed for the sake of their master in a different place in the world.

I suspect that, even as a boy, Samuel was much  more alive to his prospects than Philip and Nathaniel. He was, after all, God's child  in a very special way because his mother Hannah had been barren for many years until she made a promise that if she were to conceive a son he would be given to the Lord. So Samuel knew that he was special; and in the verses following today's Reading he hears what the Lord is going to do to his unfaithful people. The last line of the Book of the Judges, which chronologically precedes 1 Samuel says: "... and everyone did as he pleased" and in our passage we read: "The Word of the Lord was rare in those days" and the author notes that visions were rare, and so Samuel's vision was very special.

Ironically, for a prophet and king-maker, Samuel died in his bed and the last we hear of him is, improbably, a spirit called up by a medium on behalf of the demented King Saul whom Samuel, against his better judgment, had anointed as Israel's first king.

But while Samuel was lucky, all those around him faltered and fell except for David whose faltering and falling happens after Samuel's death. David is succeeded by the wise and splendid Solomon who enjoys ten chapters of adulation before the pivotal remark: "but Solomon loved strange women" and you know that,  from then on, it's all down hill, which it is. In fact, one of the superficially puzzling aspects of the books of the Kings is that your earthly fortune as a monarch bears  no relation to your  faithfulness to God; the faithful often suffer while the wicked thrive. But if we look into matters just a little more  carefully we will recognise that the whole corpus of the Old Testament frets about the relationship between faithfulness and prosperity without ever coming to a clear conclusion.

Our two Readings, then, are about being called by God, in both cases literally, in Samuel's vision and Philip and Nathaniel's encounter with Jesus after which, I suppose, our calling is somewhat pallid: most of us are baptised as young children when God makes his commitment to us through the Spirit which is quite different, incidentally, from the erroneous Evangelical claim that we should be baptised as adults because the Sacrament is our commitment to Christ; if that is the truth of it, then Baptism isn't a Sacrament. But I digress. Most of us acquire our religious allegiance, if I might put it that way, as part  of our parental nurture; it becomes a duty and, sadly, not so often a pleasure. It oscillates, I suspect, between modest affirmation and vague but nagging doubt, without going so far in either direction that we feel unduly disturbed. But what makes us different from Samuel, Philip and Nathaniel, is that our calling is a post Resurrection event. WE are not being asked to speculate, to take a risk, to put our reputation or our life on the line; we are being asked by God, in the light of the life and witness of his Son, to participate in the building  of his Kingdom on Earth, not because our faithfulness will bring us prosperity in this world or the next but because that is why we were created; to choose to build God's Kingdom here on earth is quintessentially creaturely, it's what we were made for; it should come naturally; and our sin, if so it can be termed, is to turn against what is natural and deny the purpose of creation.

Now I am not suggesting for a moment that we are a pack of deniers; we aren't, which is why we are here now; but in the matter of building the Kingdom, would it be fair to say that we don't always put in the hours and make the effort we should? Would it be fair to say that we frequently blame our tools, in the shape of our communal life in the Church, our sacred writings and our Sacraments? Are we guilty of too often excusing ourselves by saying  it's all too difficult, or time consuming, or expensive?

I believe that if we think about it for moment, we will be grateful that our calling has not been dramatic because dramatic moments set up to change our lives have a high chance of going in the wrong direction. In one respect, however, the old novels were correct. No matter how far we go in the wrong direction, Jesus will bring us back; and, one way or another - we do not know how - matters will all end happily ever after.