Sermon preached by the Reverend Rachel Blanchflower
Some years ago, in my pre-children ballroom-dancing days, I was at a Ball… As I was waltzing, I noticed someone familiar whom I thought I had not seen in many months. In the same moment I saw her, she saw me and we exchanged a smile of mutual recognition. After the music stopped, we rushed across the room to embrace and greet one another. But, extraordinary though it might seem, the instant we spoke, it clearly dawned on each of us that we had in fact never met before and did not know each other. By now, however, we were too far into this absurd, rather excruciating, situation – and so we continued the pretence of ‘how lovely it was to see one another again – and yes, I am doing very well, thank you – and yes, the ball is lovely.’ Muttering such pleasantries, we made our excuses and to our partners’ utter mystification – spent the rest of the evening smiling and waving at each other over their shoulders. To this day I have no idea as to whom I thought she was.
A third year curacy placement, such as the one which has wonderfully brought me to St Bene‘t’s this month, has reminded me personally of how sometimes in our vocational journeys – that which we think we already know or recognise of ourselves or of Christ can turn out to be less familiar than we had thought. Times of realising not that we ‘don’t know enough’, so much as seasons of being called to ‘unknow what we know’. It is vulnerable and uncomfortable space to inhabit. As words of the beautiful prayer by Thomas Merton express it: ‘the fact that I think I am following your will, O God, does not mean that I am actually doing so.’ After all, it can be all too easy to slip into patterns of ‘smiling and waving’ our way through our discipleship because it is more comfortable than truly seeking an encounter with the One who sees right through our unknowing.
Our Scriptures this morning shatter any pretence we might have as to our calling resting on what we know or understand of God or of ourselves. The calling of both prophet and disciple begins in encounter with a stranger. ‘Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the Word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him’. For Nathanael, there is nothing spiritually, or even politically, familiar to him in Phillip’s reports of a ‘Jesus, son of Joseph’ coming from a small village of 200-400 people with no overt Messianic connections. There is confusion for both prophet and disciple in not yet knowing their Caller: Samuel running in and out to Eli; Nathanael in asking Jesus, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ As humans, we instinctively try to locate where others stand in relation to ourselves: ‘Where are you? Where do I know you from? Where would I have come to know you?’ Questions that help to either connect us with, or protect ourselves from, others.
The difficulty with asking such questions of the Living God is that they simply don’t work that way. Rather than a small boy running to receive instructions from his master whose actual job it was to negotiate with the Lord, this little one is to stay in his bed whilst the Lord God Himself ‘came and stood there’ to speak to him. And before Nathanael has even finished approaching Jesus to test and appraise His credentials, Jesus announces Nathanael’s arrival, carries out his background check – assuring Nathanael that he has been seen from even before Phillip thought to fetch him…. Our Lord God makes His own introductions, sets His own questions – ‘do you believe because I told you I saw you…?’ Upending the very nature, direction and terms of our ways of knowing, and challenging our expectations of how we thought we might be answered.
Samuel and Nathanael only come to know the Lord in and through His revelation that He knows and calls them first. The potent symbolism of the fig tree and the allusions to both Jacob’s deceit and his ladder aside, I often speculate on why it might be that Jesus seeing Nathanael ‘under the fig tree’ so transformed this Israelite’s suspicion into one of the first Christological declarations of John’s Gospel. I wonder to myself whether perhaps Nathanael had been vulnerable under that fig tree – sat there in exhaustion or disappointment, anger, hope or in prayer…but in some way been exposed. For Jesus to ‘see’ him there, was to prove to Nathanael that Jesus knew the real him…in all the secret places of his heart.
This Epiphany, in the midst of my own cloud of unknowing, the Lord has graciously come relooking for me too – reminding me that it is not what I think I know about Him, His Church or myself that sustains my calling in Him. Neither does my calling falter with what I do not know, nor rely on what I might yet know in times to come. Instead it is through and in, and in spite of, all of my knowing it in part – that He knows it in full, and that is sufficient. Sufficient and powerful enough, moreover, of removing any lingering pretence or allusions to which I might yet cling, ‘smiling and waving’.
As our Psalm for today reminds us – nothing about us can be hidden from the Lord’s knowledge of us. Because the Lord’s knowing is His presence with us – from before our very birth to beyond our final breath; a knowing that hems us in on every side, knitting us together and always discerning how fearfully and wonderfully we are formed in Him and by Him. ‘Such knowledge’ says the Psalmist, is of an order and magnitude far beyond our own capacities to know. A Divine Knowing that hovers over all the feeble waters of our knowing – and creates out of nothing but the riches of His grace. Transforming the poverty of our nature and making His glory known in the renewal of our lives.
This is Love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us – not that we know God, but that He makes Himself known in us. Just as darkness is as light to Him, so too our unknowing is no barrier to His presence cherishing us. There is safety in our darkest experiences; the possibility of remaining fully known in the midst of our deepest loneliness. However often we have to keep letting go of all we think we know about ourselves or about God – the One who knows us by name will come – calling into the shadows of ourselves, to find and guide us safely home by the brightness of His own Being.
This Epiphany, as we continue to journey on, risking more encounters in the dance of all our lives, know that the One whose lead we follow returns our gaze with all the burning, dazzling radiant Love of the One who fully recognises us. Who has never forgotten us. Never misremembered us. Never confused our calling with anyone else’s. The One who is truly worthy to break open the scroll. Moreover, as Jesus assured Nathanael at such a moment, to ‘know ourselves known’ is simply the beginning…. the beginning of the plans and purposes His glory so graciously and kindly reveals as we continue to follow Him: ‘you will see greater things than these…’
So, on this Sunday of knowing and unknowing, I finish in the words of that great prayer of Ephesians:
‘I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.’ (3: 18-21)