A Call to Epiphany

14 Jan, 2024

By the Rev’d Hilary Willett

Season: The Second Sunday of the Epiphany

Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20) | 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 | John 1:43-51

When I was in my early 20’s my parents took me to see “Swan Lake on Ice.” Initially, I was a little ambivalent about seeing the performance despite the assurances that it was worth seeing. Several hours of music and skating didn’t seem particularly appealing. What I hadn’t realised was that many of the skaters were retired Olympians from Russia. I still remember one moment when the skater playing Prince Siegfried carried two women at once, one woman on each shoulder. As the music of Tchaikovsky built, he glided around the stage, seemingly effortlessly, as each woman performed a number of dance positions from his shoulders, the sharp blades of their ice skates somehow avoiding his body. The thrill of wonder at the skill of the skaters and their ability to be so precise and passionate was clearly felt by the crowd, who often gasped throughout the night. What I remember most was being touched by a sense of extreme beauty. The skaters seemed almost otherworldly, like living works of art. There were even moments when I became emotional like there was too much loveliness for my body to handle. There was nothing else at that moment, only the joy, the enchantment of watching and being in awe.

I’ve often found beauty to be a bit touching. Whether it’s writing, the spoken word, music, painting, dancing, or even the beauty of creation, beauty seems able to move us out into a space that isn’t quite usual. Romantic poets called this the “sublime.”[1] A writer of the time, Edmund Burke, apparently characterised the “sublime” as “the experience of the infinite, which is terrifying and thrilling because it threatens to overpower the perceived importance of human enterprise in the universe.”[2] In Christian settings, we might describe this kind of encounter with the infinite as a kind of “epiphany.”

Epiphanies seem to happen in a number of different ways. Sometimes, it’s an experience of transcendence, sometimes an encounter, a witnessing, sometimes a vision. Sometimes, they are small and brief. At other times, they rock us deeply. I believe a good example of an epiphany is described by C. S. Lewis, who documented an intense experience of the beauty of nature, which he described as “joy.”[3]

“As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning… It is difficult or find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to ‘enormous’) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?…Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse… withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased… In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else… The quality common to the three experiences… is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”[4]

For Lewis, it was experiences of joy like this, or as we might say – epiphanies, that would ultimately lead to him becoming a Christian.[5] He became convinced that God was the source of this joy and longing, which was more essential than any other human experience. What he had considered important before, his own human enterprisings, was shifted by continued encounters with the infinite.

Have you had this kind of experience? Have you had a moment where you have felt pushed into a different kind of space? Where you were deeply moved by beauty or longing for God? What did this feel like? Do you have some words you can put around this feeling?

Today, in two of our readings, individuals directly encounter the infinite. Samuel hears God’s voice calling him by name. Nathanael meets with Jesus, who seems to know more about him than is possible. In both encounters, God meets with a human being, drawing them into new and different realities. In our Old Testament reading, we aren’t entirely sure what the experience of interacting with God was like for the young boy Samuel, but we do know that Samuel (and through Samuel, Eli) was dramatically changed.[6] From being a boy in training, Samuel became a prophet, a person dedicated to imparting the truth of God to people – sometimes people much older, more powerful, and more experienced than himself.[7]

In the gospel reading, the transformation of Nathanael is equally dramatic. From doubting sceptic to devout believer, Nathanael’s change upon encountering God is swift and deep.[8] But what is interesting here is that, perhaps unlike the Old Testament reading, we get a small taste of what Nathanael is experiencing. Jesus does not actually call Nathanael to follow him in this passage, yet Nathanael seems rapidly ready to follow regardless.[9] Both John Calvin and Karl Barth have noted this seeming compulsion.[10] Calvin believed that this was evidence of “divine election,” that some people are predestined for heaven.[11] Barth believed the compulsion to be evidence of an attractive pre-existent bond established at the incarnation.[12]

…Predestination… pre-existent bonds… very deep theology. Deep theologies that maybe reflected Calvin and Barth’s own persuasions a bit. Regardless, the core point seems to be that Nathanael’s encounter with God resulted in a kind of compulsion to follow. Jesus appears to have been magnetic, inspiring in Nathanael a longing to respond.[13] This is not a mere philosophical realisation of God or a theological reflection. It is a moment of epiphany, of being moved, of entering into the infinite. And, like Burke’s description, this experience of the sublime threatened human enterprise. This encounter shifted the trajectory of Nathanael’s life before and creatively reshaped him into a disciple. One scholar writes here that Nathanael’s encounter here is, interestingly, less a call to mission than a call to “epiphany.”[14] And indeed, this does seem to be Jesus’ purpose. With his reference to angels ascending and descending from heaven, Jesus seems to invite Nathanael into connection to heaven, to a relationship with the Creator.[15]

Today is the second Sunday of Epiphany, a time when we remember special times when human beings encountered God. Last week, we remembered the magi. This week, we have Samuel and Nathanael. What I would like to emphasise here is the importance that we don’t reduce the call of God to Samuel, to Nathanael, to us as merely a call to do things. To donate the right amounts, to volunteer our time, to turn up to church, to participate in a service. These are all things we do and don’t get me wrong, they are important. Our actions in the world are important. I believe partnering with God to bring about good in the world is often how we get to know the character of God and how other people get to know what we are about.[16] But also. But also, the call of God does involve just dwelling in God’s presence. Delighting in God. Being moved by the beauty of God. Being swept up in longing for God and longing for the world to be in right relationship. However we experience this, perhaps through delight in creation, through creativity, or through the people around us, it is enough for us to just be. Indeed, in a world that is consumed by activity, a world that can seem very far from being in right relationship, perhaps there is something sacred in remembering God’s call to epiphany. Where instead of constantly doing, in a flurry and a fury, we make time to witness, encounter, dwell in and be moved by the presence of God. Samuel and Nathanael were transformed in their epiphanies. Who knows what God is longing to transform us into, transform our world into?

[1] Poetry Foundation, “Glossary of Poetic Terms: Sublime,” Poetry Foundation, n.d.,

[2] Poetry Foundation.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: First Mariner Books, 2012), 24–25.

[4] Lewis, 24–25.

[5] Lewis, 228–29.

[6] Joseph L. Price even goes as far as saying that this passage signals a priestly shift, from a priestly family to a new priestly lineage in Samuel (Joseph L. Price, “1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20): Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 582.).

[7] Richard Boyce, “1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20): Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 588.

[8] Lee Barrett, “John 1:43-51: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 624.

[9] Barrett, 624.

[10] Barrett, 624.

[11] John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh, 1847), 74–81., in Barrett, “John 1:43-51: Theological Perspective,” 624.

[12] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. G. W. Bromiley, vol. IV (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1962), 584–86., in Barrett, “John 1:43-51: Theological Perspective,” 624.

[13] Barrett, “John 1:43-51: Theological Perspective,” 624.

[14] Barrett, 624.

[15] Leslie J. Hoppe, “John 1:43-51: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 630.

[16] Ted A. Smith, “John 1:43-51: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 635.

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