14 January 2018
Second Sunday after Epiphany
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Simon Cowling
Revelation 5. 1-10; John 1. 43-end
Come and see is the title of a film that was produced in the Soviet Union in 1985. It commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazis and tells the story of a young boy who witnesses the unspeakable cruelty of an SS unit which has been let loose on his village and neighbourhood. The roots of the film’s title lie in the final book of the bible, the Revelation to John. This strange book is an extended, vivid, and sometimes disturbing vision of heavenly mysteries focusing on the end times and the final fulfilment of God’s purposes.
We heard part of chapter five of Revelation this morning. We are in the heavenly throne room. God, seated in majesty, holds a scroll sealed with seven seals. We discover that the only one who is worthy to break these seals and reveal the contents of the scroll is Jesus Christ, described by the writer as the Lion of the tribe of Judah; the Root of David; the Lamb who was slaughtered on the cross. This is the one to whom the hymn of praise that ends our reading is sung:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.’
But before the coming of the reign of the saints on earth there must first be a time of great trial. The terrible nature of this time of trial is revealed as the seven seals are broken in succession in the following chapter. And so we return to our film. As each seal is broken the writer hears a voice as of thunder call out ‘Come and see’. The first four seals reveal the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the last of whom is the Pale Rider – Death – who visits destruction on the earth. Elem Klimov, the director of Come and see, saw in the Nazis a collective embodiment of the merciless and destructive intent of the Pale Rider described in Revelation. ‘Come and see’, Klimov is saying to his audience, ‘Come and see the evil that was responsible for the death of nearly 27 million Soviet civilians and soldiers. Come and see.’
Come and see says Philip to Nathaniel in today’s Gospel reading. Philip has answered Jesus’s call to follow him and wants his friend to do the same: we have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote Philp says; in other words, we have found the one long awaited by the people of Israel, God’s anointed, the Messiah. Nathanael’s answer defines the word ‘sceptical’. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? It’s the kind of question we might imagine one of Thomas Chippendale’s wealthy clients such as the Duke of Athol asking on discovering that the upmarket cabinet maker came from Otley; or the wealthy friends of William Walton, such as Siegfried Sassoon or Edith Sitwell asking, on discovering that the composer came from Oldham. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nazareth is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament; and unlike Bethlehem or Jerusalem had never been associated with any of the prophecies to do with the Messiah. Nathanael is underwhelmed. But Philip is not deterred: Come and see. Nathanael does come; and for him the seeing brings sudden insight and joyful knowledge: Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel.
We can only truly know evil by seeing it. Elem Klimov understood this when he made his film Come and see. In the same way we need to accept the difficult invitation to come and see the evil of our own time in order to know it for what it is. The evil that disfigured two little Syrian girls and whose story appears on the BBC website: ‘They used to tell me I was beautiful’ says one of the sisters, nine year Qamar, her face scarred as a result of the shell that landed directly on her bedroom. Or the evil that killed ten year old Abeer who was playing on a swing in her Yemeni village when an airstrike took place last July, one of 127 such airstrikes that happened each month last year and which has left her three month old brother fighting for his life. The great time of trial described by the writer of Revelation was less a prediction of the future than a description of the evil that was already happening in the writer’s own time. And it is still happening. The Pale Rider is still visiting destruction.
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father Jesus will say to his disciples on the night before he dies. Even after many months spent with him; even after the flashes of insight such as the ones we have heard from Philip and Nathanael in this morning’s Gospel reading, the disciples will still not fully grasp the significance of Jesus. At the end of his ministry it is Jesus who is offering the invitation to all his disciples that Philip was offering to Nathanael: Come and see; see me, and know me; see me, and know the truth; see me, and know God. It is only through such knowledge that we will have the courage to see the evil stalking Yemen, Syria, and countless other places and to understand it for what it is: a total denial by our fellow human beings of the love of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ and which can be fully grasped by accepting his simple and unconditional invitation: Come and see.