Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Epiphany (14 January 2018) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Epiphany (14 January 2018) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

The Dean invites us to consider: "Whatever your self image, whatever animal you might describe yourself as, whoever you think yourself to be, will you follow in the footsteps of John and Nathaniel?" 

A couple of months ago I was at one of those training events where you have to do an exercise, and everybody groans. This particular one asked the question: “if you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?”

I have to say that I couldn’t find an answer. Half of my mind was thinking, what on earth is the point of this, and the other half of my brain was running through all the possible animals I could be, and what people would think of whatever I might choose. The trouble is, the kind of animal it would be fun to be is not necessarily the one that has a very good image. I’d love to be able to fly, and I can see the advantage of being a seagull, when you not only get to soar over the ocean but can come into London and squawk down the chimneys of the dean’s house in the middle of the night, and then get to steal somebody’s ice cream or fish and chips on the seafront at Brighton, and they can’t do anything about it because you’re a protected species. I also rather fancy being a weasel, not because I like eating rabbits, but because I just love the sound of the word – weasel. But they too don’t have a very good social image – we talk about weasel words when we mean someone who is being cowardly or not telling the truth.

Anyway, enough about me, what about you? I’m sure over the last minute or so you’ve been thinking about how you could do better than me. What animal do you think you’d be? What’s your beastly self-image? A hard-working, slightly depressive donkey like Eyore in the Winnie the Pooh stories, or his nemesis the relentlessly bouncy, energetic but unrealistic Tigger? Would you join me in channelling your inner weasel, or would you rather be a three toed sloth? Or a killer whale, koala bear, hermit crab? The choices are endless, and whatever you choose is supposed to say something about what kind of person you think you are. But if you get bored in the next eight minutes you can always amuse yourself by deciding what you’re going to tell me your inner animal is on your way out of this service.

In the meantime, let’s get slightly serious. You can speculate about what kind of animal you think you are because human beings invest particular animals with particular characteristics. When you see or hear of an animal, what do you expect its characteristics to be?  For example, what characteristics would you give a bulldog, apart from having breathing difficulties because of inbreeding? But the British like to think of themselves as a bulldog: because we want to be identified with the traits of doggedness, sometimes stubbornness, keeping going with determination and not letting go, not necessarily looking very glamorous but being absolutely dependable.

If you look up what each country has as its national animal, you’ll tend to find ones which speak of power – many countries go for lions, tigers, bears, eagles or dragons, for example; others go for well-adapted animals like desert antelopes or dolphins; some for their own exclusive animals, like the kiwi in New Zealand or the panda in China; some for being gorgeous, like the green pheasant in Japan; and one country prizes an animal for being extinct, the dodo in Mauritius.

The symbolic value of animals goes back a very, very long way, tens of thousands of years to cave paintings and the very first sculptures. And of course, it comes up again and again in literature in general, and in the Bible in particular – as with this morning’s reading from the book of Revelation, which you can find on page 7 of the service booklet. John the writer of this book of the Bible has a heavenly vision, and longs to see inside the secrets of the future, and weeps because no one is found worthy to open the scroll and reveal what is about to happen. Then he hears the words, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’

What do you think John was expecting to see next? Here in heaven is announced the imminent arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, descended from David, the one who has conquered, vividly described as the lion of the tribe of Judah.

When somebody says to you, “lion”, what do you expect? An enormously powerful big cat, fast, with big jaws, maybe an imposing mane around his head, the king of the jungle, an animal to be afraid of, power and fear and conquest; the lion which is the great Jewish symbol of the power and dominion of the Messiah.

John expects to see a lion. But what does he see? ‘a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’, worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, [because it was] sacrificed and by [its] blood [it] ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; [making] them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth...’

The conquering Lion turns out to be the Lamb who was slain. The Lion King is the Lamb as victim who gives his life a ransom for many, and makes the saints of God into kings. This is an incredible surprise: for what would John have been thinking when he saw a Lamb? What do we think of when we see a young sheep? Lively maybe, cunning in its own way but not that clever, happy to follow but unwilling to lead, victim of others not top predator in the field. And this, this, is what God is shown to be like: the God who conquers, not by power and fear, but by love and sacrifice and putting the interests of others above his own.

When God is asked the question, “what kind of animal will you be?”, the answer comes back, not Lion, but Lamb.

And this is quite consistent with what we see in our gospel reading too. Philip says to Nathaniel, we’ve found the Messiah, and he’s from Nazareth; and Nathaniel the good Jewish boy from the village of Cana says, Can anything good come from Nazareth, that town down the road from us, that bunch of half-baked peasants who don’t keep the law properly and who fleece their neighbours – no chance! Ah, but come and see, says Philip: and Nathaniel meets the Jesus of Nazareth who has already seen him, who knows Nathaniel from the inside, who Nathaniel doesn’t expect but is forced to acknowledge...
Like John with his heavenly vision, Nathaniel’s idea of what God is like is instantly and unexpectedly turned on its head. Nathaniel expects to see a peasant from Nazareth; instead, he sees a man from God, and his world and his understanding are questioned, re-made, transformed, and he becomes a disciple of Jesus Christ, with the promise that, like John, he will see heaven opened and encounter God as God truly is.

Every sermon ought to end with an invitation, an offer, a demand. And this morning’s invitation is this: Whatever your self image, whatever animal you might describe yourself as, whoever you think yourself to be, will you follow in the footsteps of John and Nathaniel? 

Whether you’re an ancient priestly donkey like me, or a bouncy young squirrel, or a high-flying eagle, or a timid mouse, can you dare to believe that God comes to you in Jesus Christ, not in power but in sacrifice, not with condemnation but coming to set you free, not with fear but with love and vulnerability?
Can you put your images of Jesus, of the church, of Christianity, of religion, to one side and instead, like Nathaniel, come and see, come and see Jesus and find God as God is, the God you may not yet believe in, the God who already believes in you?

Will you have your view of yourself turned upside-down by God’s love?

And whoever you meet this week, whether they come from Nazareth or Wigan or Alabama or Basra or Rio de Janeiro or Alice Springs or Moscow or Kolkata or wherever, will your view of other people be up-ended and transformed by the reality of God in you, of God in them, of God in Jesus Christ, the God of love and service and sacrifice...?

What kind of animal would God be? And the answer has come back, not Lion, but Lamb.