Second Sunday After the Epiphany
TEXTS: 1 Samuel 3:1-20 and John 1:43-51
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
Well, here we are, barely two weeks into the New Year and already we could be excused for wondering why we persist in calling it “new.” There is a depressing familiarity about the first days of 2024—an awareness of dismal repetition, a sense that there is indeed “nothing new under the sun.” Our headlines have been dominated by events in Gaza and the problems of Israel and the Palestinians; by Russia’s ongoing brutal war against Ukraine; by violence in Sudan; and by the continuing gang wars in our major cities. Nothing much new there. And all the other world events that greet us each day seem to be very much business as usual, with the tired old world spinning endlessly on.
Then we turn to our appointed Scriptures for this Sunday and we find ourselves in familiar territory. “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days …” (1 Sam. 3:1). In other words, this was an era of spiritual famine—a time when the most evident feature of God was his absence, when visions were not widespread. People were groping in the dark. They lacked direction, and God did not seem to care.
The Scripture tells us that the aged priest Eli’s sight was dim. His vision was failing—and we may surmise that his blindness was not just a condition of his physical eyes, but was also a metaphor for the state of his soul. These were dark times. Then we read: “the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord …” (1 Sam. 3:3). Of course, the setting of the story is night-time, and the reference is to an actual lamp that was dimming to a faint glow. But surely there is something deeper here. It was the very light of God’s presence that was flickering and spluttering and was about to go out. Israel was teetering on the brink of utter spiritual abandonment.
What is so depressing about this scenario is that there appears to be no way out, no way through, no hope of a better tomorrow. For where is “something better” going to come from? Where are the resources that might kick-start something genuinely new and different? There is a sense here of a tired old priesthood represented by Eli—a religious system which has now run its course and has nowhere left to go. It’s reached a dead end. Likewise, the religious life of Israel is barren and sterile and lifeless and people yearn for some new initiative, some new configuration. They long for something—anything—that will bring transformation and usher in something better, something different. But there is nothing. Nothing new. Just more of the same.
Depressing, isn’t it? But realistic. There really does seem to be nothing new under the sun—only endless repetition. And in our gospel lesson, we can see that Nathanael must have felt the same way about his time. Consider his cynical, jaded reaction to Philip’s excitement. Philip claims to have found the one foretold in the law and the prophets! But what is Nathanael’s response?
“Nazareth! Can anything good come out of Nazareth? We all know Nazareth! It’s a place for losers and always has been! Nothing good can ever come out of there. Nothing can ever change there.”
Nazareth is typecast. Maybe we could re-phrase Nathanael and ask, “Can anything new come out of Nazareth?”
But then we return to Samuel in the temple. We return to the silent darkness where the lamp of God glows so dimly and so faintly … and if we listen very carefully, what do we hear? In the stillness there is a soft voice calling: “Samuel, Samuel …” And the voice of the child replies, “Here I am …” Of course, Samuel can only interpret what is happening in terms of the old and familiar. It must be Eli that is calling.
At first the aged priest cannot discern the voice of God in Samuel’s story, either. Why? Because he thinks that God does not speak anymore.
But it is not Eli calling, and Samuel is not dreaming. It is the voice of God—gentle but firm, easily misunderstood, yet persistent. And so God enters into that dark, empty place—and suddenly, something new is stirring. God is there, and God is at work.
So, too, with Nazareth. What we need to know about Nazareth is that it was more than just a dull and denigrated place. It was also a dark place. Around the time of Jesus—and in the area where he lived—there were a number of rebellions and uprisings against the Roman occupiers. Such rebellions were always ruthlessly crushed. The Romans did not counter insurrection with half measures.
One such rebellion occurred in a place called Sepphoris—just a few miles north of Nazareth—around the time of Jesus’ birth. The Roman response was swift. They burned Sepphoris to the ground, and made slaves of the people there.
And when a rebellion broke out at a place called Gerasa, the Romans slaughtered the young men, made prisoners of the women and children, and then set fire to the houses and advanced to the surrounding villages. The able-bodied fled, the feeble perished, and everything left was consigned to the flames. Even those in the neighbouring towns bore the soldiers’ wrath. As was said of the Romans, “they make a desert and call it peace.” *
It seems likely that Nazareth was not just a boring place, but a scarred place, also—a place of tears and bitter memories. While Jesus was growing up, the most traumatic recent event in the village’s life would have been the day the Romans came. Yet out of this place emerges the Anointed One. Here, Jesus is nurtured. Here, he grows, and is taught, and learns about God.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Yes! Yes, something—someone—does.
So maybe there is something new under the sun, after all. The voice of God is heard once again: calling out, after a lengthy silence. Something new does come out of scarred and despised places like Nazareth. But the trick is knowing how to discern it. Like Samuel, like Eli, we can all too easily fail to recognize it. Like Nathanael, our prejudices and presumptions can cloud our vision.
Last week, we heard Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, which contains a most extraordinary description of what happened there. We are told that as Jesus emerged from the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11)
This is an epiphany—a revelation of who Jesus is. Here something new is breaking in from above, tearing open the heavens, bursting upon the world. But that is not how it usually happens. More often, God arrives without fanfare—emerges from the tired old world with offers of new life and new hope … as a voice in the night, or as a stranger from Nazareth.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Yes, to our surprise, Jesus does! Can something new emerge from old, tired, scarred places? Yes! For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it does.
In dark places today, God is at work. In Nazareth itself—as well as in Gaza, in a land where innocent children are torn apart by bullets and bombs—people are caring for one another, sharing with one another, supporting one another. And in other places—wherever there is armed conflict, disease, famine, or natural disaster—there are stories of heroism and love and self-sacrifice. Here God will be found, and God’s voice will be heard—if only in whispers—and Jesus will emerge.
I believe it will happen in the church, also. Here we are in our rampantly secular world, where faith seems to be under attack from every quarter; where we anxiously watch church attendance decline, and most people are abandoning religion. It feels a lot like Samuel’s day. It feels as if the Word of the Lord is rarely spoken; and there does not seem to be much outpouring of vision. Perhaps Nazareth is a good metaphor for the Church in our time: a dull place, a scarred place, a place of bitter memories.
Can anything good—anything new—come from this Nazareth? Well, yes, it can. And yes, it does. For it is from such unpromising places and situations that we will indeed “see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending.”
May the Lord open our eyes to what he wants to show us, and unstop our ears, that we may hear what he wants to tell us. Amen.
*Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. Translation: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” Reported by the Roman historian Tacitus, this is from a speech by the British chieftain Calgacus addressing assembled warriors about Rome’s insatiable appetite for conquest and plunder. The chieftain’s sentiment can be contrasted to “peace given to the world” which was frequently inscribed on Roman medals. The last part, solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant (“they make a desert, and call it peace”) is often quoted alone.