Epiphany 2 Sermon from Ginny Royston 14th January 2018
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread”.
Words from this morning’s Old Testament reading.
The reading from Samuel tells the story of Samuel’s response to God’s call. But there is an interesting backdrop to this story. Eli, whom Samuel was pestering, was a priest at the shrine of Shiloh. It seems he was not particularly engaged with his priestly vocation- when a young woman Hannah came in to pray in desperation for the gift of a child he misreads her despair as drunken ravings.
And it takes the priest Eli three encounters to take seriously the call of God to his servant Samuel.
I think the secret of this reading lies in the phrase I have just read “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread”.
It is strangely reassuring to hear that phrase- there is a sort of fantasy that we live in a godless time now- and nostalgically we can imagine there was a time when God was near, and we were a God-fearing nation- responsive and faithful to God’s message of love and reconciliation.
But that probably was a fantasy. Human beings were just as complex, fearful and mistrusting then as we can be now.
The interesting question for me is – how do we listen to God? Do we expect that God will speak to us, that God will find us- or that God even wants to bother with us?
We are rightly cynical of the person who claims to hear divinely inspired messages from God that conveniently fit in with living life exactly as they want to. Or even worse to act in ways that are cruel and destructive.
And I don’t think many people hear the call of god so directly in their lives as Samuel, as John the Baptist or as St Paul.
But what seems important is that we learn to listen, and learn to see God in our lives.
How can we do that? Its probably different for everyone but I think it does involve allowing ourselves to slow down and try to look. Christmas at Cotham and St Pauls this year without Richard was pretty busy and by Christmas I was desperate for some space. And when I did stop I felt quite wound up, found it hard to relax and felt very uncomfortable. When we stop being busy we can sometimes stop relying on things outside to give us meaning- and have to rely on what is within- sometimes complex longings, hopes and unresolved things in our lives. It took a few days of discomfort and a sense of emptiness to restore some inner balance. For me- that balance comes by sitting in silence, looking at something beautiful, walking or swimming. It is then that the glimpse of God can slip in and open my eyes
Listening to God is about developing an attitude of readiness, expectation, awareness. About opening our eyes to see beyond the obvious. Trusting that we might be faced with something that needs attention- not always comfortable. But I think we must learn to trust those inner promptings when we feel that we are still and receptive. The Jesuits have a handy way of listening and making decisions. They say that you should never make a decision in a state of desolation- i.e. when you are unsettled or unhappy- much better to make a decision when you are in a state of consolation- calmer and steadier.
Making the switch from medicine to ministry for me was not a dramatic bolt from the blue- but more like an insistence “this is what you should be doing”. Eventually I had to take it seriously.
And in the end- it can all feel quite simple. Look at the reading from John’s gospel today. Jesus simply says to Philip “Follow me” and he is compelled to do exactly that. And he then tells his cynical friend, who doubts that Jesus is anyone significant, to just “Come and see”. No coercion, no guilt. A simple invitation given in love and hope.
Ultimately, we are all homeless and Jesus invites us to share his life-to let his love and hope flower in us- whatever we do with our small lives.
This poem takes God’s appearance from the point of view of the shepherds- how they learn to see with eyes transformed by God’s beauty, and how that continues to light up their life.
Song of the Shepherds Richard Bauckham
We were familiar with the night.
We knew its favourite colours,
its sullen silence
and its small, disturbing sounds,
its unprovoked rages
its savage dreams.
We slept by turns,
attentive to the flock.
We said little.
Night after night, there was little to say.
But sometimes one of us,
skilled in that way,
would pipe a tune of how things were for us.
They say that once, almost before time,
the stars with shining voices
the new born world.
The night could not contain their boundless praise.
We thought that just a poem —
until the night
a song of solar glory,
eclipsed the luminaries of the night,
as though the world were exorcised of dark
and, coming to itself, began again.
Later we returned to the flock.
The night was ominously black.
The stars were silent as the sheep.
Nights pass, year on year.
We clutch our meagre cloaks against the cold.
Our aging piper’s fumbling fingers play,
night after night,
an earthly echo of the song that banished dark.
It has stayed with us.