The Holy Gospel according to John 1:43-51…
The story began before he was born. His mother, Hannah, the favorite of her husband, was unable to give birth to a child. She was desperate. So Hannah could do no other than go to the temple, and on her hands and knees beg God to give her a child. She meets that old priest, Eli, who has so lost the ears to hear God’s word and see God’s action, that he accuses her of being drunk. But, accusations aside, that old priest tells her that God will answer her prayer, and Hannah does have a baby. A little boy. A baby boy named Samuel, and she brings him to the temple and she hands him over, her little boy, to be raised as a priest, to do the sweeping and the cleaning, to light the lamps, to tend to that old man Eli. She returns Samuel to the temple to thank God for what God has given her.
The word of the Lord is rare at that time. People do not see visions. Worshippers do not hear voices. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, have turned the temple into a place that could barely be considered holy. They have stolen offerings, forced themselves on women, mugged people worshipping. They have run rampant all over the temple. Eli can’t, or perhaps, won’t, do anything to stop their behavior. He has been warned. But the word of the Lord is rare, and when the word of the Lord is rare, it is easy to ignore. It is easy to write off. It is easy to deny, especially when that word tells us exactly what we don’t want to hear.
So here we find little Samuel, just a boy, somewhere around twelve years old. If the Word of the Lord is rare, it certainly isn’t going to come to a twelve year old child sleeping in the temple. Surely not.
Then, years later, there is a man sitting under a fig tree, minding his own business. His story only appears in John’s gospel. Minding his own business, lying under a fig tree, and then called, called to come and see this man who is the one that all the prophets spoke of. This one who is the fulfillment of all the prophecies. But, how can this be, Nathaniel wonders. Perhaps because the word of the Lord is rare in those days. Perhaps because the call of the Lord is even rarer, and how can it be coming to him, on an unspecial day, from a regular man named Philip? How can what everyone has been waiting for have come out of a backwater town in the middle of nowhere? How can anything good come out of Nazareth? The word of God was rare in those days, or so Nathaniel thought, but he was invited, he was called to come and see.
The voice comes to both of our characters this day. First, to that little boy Samuel, calling him in the night, calling his name over and over. The voice of the Lord is rare, so how could it be anyone calling Samuel but Eli? So the twelve year old scampers off, quick to find out what Eli needs, only to be sent away. Perhaps wondering what kind of trick was being played on him, because he had heard his name, hadn’t he?
The voice of Philip calls Nathaniel, and when he goes to see, the man standing before him, that man from the middle of nowhere, he says he knows Nathaniel, that he knows his insides, knows that he is a man with no deceit in his heart. A true Israelite. But, surely, he must be playing a trick on him, too, because he doesn’t know him. He’s never seen him before. Someone must have told him what to expect, because this couldn’t be real. No one can see right into you like that. No one can just know you like that.
Stories of God’s unexpected calls, and our day sounds a lot like the days of Eli, Samuel, and even Nathaniel. The word of God seems rare. God’s voice seems rarer still. It is hard to hear it, especially when so many other words are competing for our attention. It’s easier to throw our hands up like Eli, not sure how to fix all that is broken and hope that we just live a good life. Honestly, sometimes it seems easier not to listen for that voice calling in the night, or in the middle of an ordinary day.
Tomorrow, we celebrate the day of Martin Luther King, Jr. He told a story of when he heard God calling in the night, the night his telephone rang and someone told him that if he did not leave town, if he didn’t stop what he was doing, they were going to kill him and blow up his house. That is one kind of voice calling in the night, but that same night another voice was stronger, the voice of God, as Martin Luther King prayed, a voice that said, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for Truth. I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” Martin Luther King said after that phone call he heard another voice, a divine voice, a stronger and braver voice, a voice telling him to fight on. Because when God calls, we are not alone. We can be braver, and take more risks, and stand up when we are trembling, and find a second wind when we think our strength is gone.
The voice of God might not be as rare as we imagine. It might not be as quiet as we imagine. It might be calling us even now, begging us to listen. The word might not be rare, but it might be rare for us to turn our hearts and our minds to listen for it. Perhaps because when the word of God comes to us, it can make things harder. For Samuel, hearing God’s voice didn’t make his life any easier. It made it more difficult, because the word of God was a powerful and prophetic word, a word that was calling for reform in that temple, that was promising that there was no life to be found in the way that Eli and his sons were living. In the way his sons were corrupting God’s house. There was no life to be found there, and the word was given to that boy, the word of God was entrusted to him that he had to speak out against what was wrong.
One author wrote in a blog this week, that this Sunday is our opportunity during this season of Epiphany to preach about the danger of listening to God. To open our ears and to listen for that voice calling us, telling us, to do what is right. Telling us to speak out. To take the hard road if it is the one that God is calling us to. To trust that voice that speaks to us in the silence of our hearts, calling out for justice. The word of God is a powerful and prophetic word, calling us to acts of justice, calling us to speak a different way of life, calling us to stand up against racism and prejudice, against violence and sexism, against all those things that break down the body of Christ in the world. This is a voice that booms out powerfully against language of white supremacy, against those who call Haitians and Africans worthless, unwelcome in our country.
But let us not forget the other person who heard God’s call. He was invited to come and see, but he wasn’t entirely convinced that what he was going to see was worth much of anything. It wasn’t what he expected. It wasn’t what he imagined he was waiting for. But Nathaniel went to look, went to see what Philip was talking about. And, then, it wasn’t what he saw, it was that he, Nathaniel, was finally, deeply, at the core of his being, seen. It wasn’t about figuring out who this Jesus was, it was about realizing that Jesus could see him. Could see him for all he was, for who he was.
We have the strength to speak God’s sometimes difficult word, to fight on, in the words of Martin Luther King, because we can trust that God sees us for who we really are. We can trust that God sees us, despite all the things that get in the way, as holy and beloved creations of God. In this season of Epiphany, in the season of “aha” moments, we are reminded that sometimes that greatest “aha”, what gives us strength, is the knowledge that God sees through us, sees into us, and we cannot hide. God sees inside of us, and God calls us good. God continues to use us, to speak to us, to persistently give us the word, no matter how good we are at listening.
Perhaps the word is rare now. Perhaps seeing visions is rare now. But, at this particular time in history, when the halls of power in our country echo with racist rhetoric, when our leaders call entire continents and countries words not even appropriate to say from this pulpit, it feels like we need to learn to listen for God’s vision, to listen for God’s voice more than ever before. We need this God who will see through us, who will call us good despite our own internalized racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, that we might find in ourselves the courage to demand more from ourselves and from each other. We need a God who will persistently call to us, because it is easy to imagine that the hard word is someone else’s work, that God’s call to us must be easier. We need a God who calls us to come, to follow, to be seen. To be seen by God. To be called by God.
I don’t know how God is calling you, but I know God is. And I know no better place than in community, with other disciples, to figure out what that call is. I know no better place than this place, to learn and to listen, to open your ears and your hearts, to come and to be seen, called and known by God. May it be so. Amen, and thanks be to God.