Sermon – Mayfield Salisbury Parish Church - 18 January 2015
I Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; I Corinthians 6:12-20; 1 John 1:43-52
The Welsh poet and priest, R.S. Thomas describes in one of his short prose works
about a mystical experience he had as a fairly young man on a visit to a remote
chapel in mid-Wales. He writes:
“And almost immediately, I saw. I understood. As with St. John the divine on the
island of Patmos I was “in the Spirit” and I had a vision, in which I could comprehend
the breadth and length and depth and height of the mystery of the creation. But I
won’t try to put the experience into words. It would be impossible. I will simply say
that I realised that there was really no such thing as time, no beginning and no end
but that everything is a fountain welling up endlessly from immortal God. “1
The experience left Thomas with a yearning throughout his life to experience again,
and hold onto, so immediate a sense of the majesty and presence of God. Yet what
he most often experienced was a pervading sense of God’s absence. Wrestling with
doubts and the impact of advancing technology and science that seemed to push
God out of the world, there is, weaving through many of his poems, the heartfelt cry
to God: “Where are you?”
In the middle years of his life and work, R.S. Thomas frequently appears to rant at
God in deep longing, anger and frustration. He earnestly waits and watches to
capture moments of God’s presence. Whether in the stillness of an empty church or
walking along the shore of his beloved Llŷn peninsula in Wales, he had the sense of
needing to be at just the right place at just the right time to catch a precious glimpse
1
R.S. Thomas, “Two Chapels” (1948) in Sandra Anstey, ed., R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 3rd edition (Bridgend:
Poetry Wales Press, 1995), pp.36-40; p.37.
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of God, in the same way as you would the passage of a rare migrant bird along the
shore.
At last, however, towards the end of his life, after and through all the struggles, he
came to a growing awareness and acceptance that God is indeed always present;
present even in absence, present even in silence. In answer to the question, Where
are you?, Thomas came to perceive God always around him and within.
Throughout his gospel, John determinedly reveals the new and living way that God is
present with his people in and through the mystery of Jesus Christ. He invites his
readers to have open and enquiring minds, a hunger for fresh insights into the new
thing that God was doing in Christ’s coming.
Such attitudes are very clearly exemplified in the two new disciples we encounter in
the passage from John’s Gospel we read this morning. Philip offers a wonderfully
open and positive invitation to others to “Come and see”. Nathanael, who rather
reluctantly accepts his offer, is portrayed as one who is honest and earnest in his
search to know more of God. In rabbinic literature, the shade of the fig tree was
sometimes associated as a place for meditation and prayer. Though doubtful at first,
his eager, discerning mind is quickly changed by Jesus’s special knowledge of him.
Yet even his recognition of Jesus as “the Son of God and the King of Israel” doesn’t
do justice to who Jesus truly is, standing before him. Jesus’s announcement that the
disciples will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending upon
him as the Son of Man has far greater implications.
3
The reference to angels ascending and descending, draws on the OT account of
Jacob in the wilderness as he flees from his brother Esau. In a dream, he sees “a
stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God
were ascending and descending on it.” When he wakes, Jacob exclaims, “Surely the
Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it. … How awesome is this place! This
is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:12,
16-17) Jacob named the place Bethel, “the house of God” and it would become one
of the great sanctuaries in Israel where the people would go to worship God.
Here was a beginning of Israel knowing God’s presence particularly in certain
places, that included the tabernacle in Moses’ time and at last the Temple in
Jerusalem, built as a place where God would dwell forever. While immensely
significant and precious in one way, in another, such thinking was dangerously open
to abuse, with a complacent over-confidence in God’s protection being guaranteed
come what may. The worship in the Temple became so divorced from the ethics of
the covenant that its liturgy was nothing but ‘deceptive words’ which turned the
house of God into a “den of robbers” (Isaiah 1:12). Now in his Gospel, John reveals
how Jesus renders the former holy places as obsolete. Jesus fulfils the promise of
the Temple. As God’s Word made flesh, he becomes himself “the house of God”
where God’s living presence dwells in our midst. He becomes “the gate of heaven”.
Much of the wonder of Jesus’s nature is packed into the title “Son of man” that John
uses as a preferred title for Jesus. In the first instance, some commentators suggest
the title is the translation of Aramaic slang for “an ordinary bloke” or in Scottish
terminology “an ordinary punter”.2 It reminds strongly therefore of Jesus’s humanity.
2
Gerard W. Hughes God of Surprises, Second Edition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1996), p.117.
4
In the Fourth Gospel, however, “Son of Man” also carries particular allusion to the
mystical, apocalyptic figure in the book of Daniel, who appears “coming with the
clouds of heaven” and to whom is given universal authority, glory and sovereign
power (Daniel 7:11-14). To this John blends further the idea of the “suffering
servant” in Isaiah, the One who will give up his life as a ransom to save the many
(Isaiah 42:1-53:12).3 In this way, the picture John paints is one that announces that
in Jesus’s death on the cross and in his resurrection and exaltation, the glory of God
will be revealed and a full and lasting oneness with God be made possible for
humanity.
John invites us to share in reflecting deeply on the tremendous insights he gained
into the person of Christ. In him, he saw the Mystery of the universe, the Word of
God, the Spirit of the Sacred. In the Celtic tradition, the Beloved Disciple, is
described as John of Love and the disciple whom Jesus loved especially. At the
Last Supper, he lay his head on the breast of Jesus and, it is said, heard the
heartbeat of God. It is with this deeper insight, or inner sight, that John sees Jesus.
The Mystical Gospel is intended to draw us into the mystery of Christ, who in his
person and work brings about the union of earth and heaven.
Later, Jesus encourages the disciples with the words: “I and the Father are one…; I
am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. … Remain in me and I will
remain in you. … As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in
my love.” (John 14:11, 20; 15:4; 9) It’s a depth and intimacy of relationship and
presence that cannot be any closer.
3
D.A. Carson The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary) (Leicester: APOLLOS, 1991),
pp.164-165.
5
That same intimacy and presence are so beautifully painted in the poetry of our
Psalm for today, Psalm 139, the intricate picture of God’s intimate knowledge of us
and His constant presence with us:
“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. …
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely. …
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (vv. 1-2, 4, 13)
It’s the same intimacy of presence that Paul also echoes in his urgent words to the
church at Corinth: “Do you not know that your body is a temple (or sanctuary) of the
Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God.” (1 Corinthians 6:15,
19) Such presence is a precious gift but, as Paul warns, carries with it great
responsibility.
As of old, we also need to guard against being lulled into any sense of false security
or complacency that can creep in like shadows through over-familiarity. If we desire
a genuine encounter with God, it begins with honesty and repentance, awe and
expectancy.4
In Christ, we discover God’s presence with us in a new and living way, that comes to
be with us and to restore us to an all-encompassing oneness with him forever. In
that, we discover God’s love for us, a love that knows no limits, a love that knows us
4
Annabel Robinson, SU Encounter with God, January to March 2015, p.18.
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inside out and loves us still, a love that loves us as we are, but too much to leave us
that way.
How do we respond to that loving presence? Perhaps it seems a remote reality if we
are wrestling or struggling with doubt or frustration or fear or trauma in our lives just
now, or are overwhelmed by busyness or stress. But God’s still small voice ever
calls to us in the darkness, and is graciously patient to persevere until we are in that
place to hear and listen.
God is everywhere around us. In her poem “Aurora Leigh”, Elizabeth Barrett
Browning reminds us:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only [they] who [see], [take] off [their] shoes.”5
Learning to have eyes to see and hearts to listen for the presence of God around us
and within takes time, time to pause and turn aside and, with awe and expectancy,
become open and aware of the Sacred.
But as we do so, we are called to pass it on also. So many in the world around us
believe that God is remote and “out there”, shut away in church buildings, angry and
judgmental. We have a wonderful reality and message to share, of a God who is “in
here” who knows us and loves us with an everlasting love, and who never gives up
seeking us out. We have the privilege and responsibility of constantly living that out -
5
Original line: “But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”
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wherever we are, wherever we go - and being able to share with others even just a
moment that will open their eyes to see God in a completely new light, to understand
their deep worth to Him and his presence but an invitation away. Amen.
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notes - Mayfield Salisbury Parish Church