1 Samuel 3:1-11, John 1:43-51
It is easy to get confused, to be unclear, even to be suspicious, when God communicates with us. We are not too sure if it is really God speaking or is it our vivid imagination? Is it a word from the Lord or a word from that TV preacher? Not many of us have experienced an actual conversation with God, but God certainly speaks to us in a variety of ways, inviting us, calling us, connecting with us as God’s children called to follow Jesus. This morning we heard about two people who clearly did not understand at first, but then were led to believe that it was God speaking to them, calling them to something new, something so different that it would make both of their ears tingle! They are Samuel, an Israelite boy who lived about 1000 years before Jesus was born, and Nathanael, a Palestinian Jew who was a contemporary of Jesus.
Let’s take a look at Samuel first. He is a boy, left at the temple to help Eli the aging priest because his mother, Hannah, was so, so grateful to God for allowing her to have a child. This is the same Samuel who ends up being the bridge between the days of the Judges, which did not work out so well for the people of Israel, and the days of the monarchy, which the people of Israel clamored for so that they could be just like the other nations around them. Samuel can be understood as a prophet-judge. The equipment he uses are his ears and his mouth, listening to God and speaking to the people as well as listening to the people and speaking to God.
Samuel’s name—Sam-u-el–means “God has heard”. What has God heard? There is often a message in the names of those who have important roles in the history of Israel. Perhaps God has heard about the current situation in Israel, where it has become obvious that the priestly tradition is no longer providing effective leadership as it had in the days of Aaron in throughout wilderness wanderings. It seems very clear that God has heard about the sins of the sons of Eli. God has heard and is now breaking into the life of Israel to start something new, to move them forward in a new way. The name of the elderly priest Eli means “my God”. Eli did not see well physically nor could he seem to see the Godless, sinful behavior of his two sons. If he did see it, he did nothing to stop it. Samuel heard the voice calling him in the night, but did not understand—he mistook God’s voice for Eli’s voice. God has heard, Sam-u-el. Eli, “my God” directs Samuel to understand what is happening here. God is unexpectedly speaking in the temple — interesting that no one expected God’s voice in the temple, the place of worship! We are told that the Lord’s word was rare in that time, and visions were not widely known. No one would have been expecting this kind of inbreaking into the life of the people of Israel, much less to a kid! This “vision” is words and hearing only, but it is finally understood to be God’s voice, first by the wise old priest, who then leads Samuel to understand and respond appropriately to God.
Now we jump a thousand years to the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the gospel of John. Nathanael is invited by Philip to come and see this man named Jesus, who Philip was sure was the one Moses had written about so long ago, the one who was anticipated in the writings of the Law and Prophets. He is the son of Joseph from a little village of 200-400 people called Nazareth. Nathanael is skeptical, suspicious, unable to fathom that anyone so important, so special, could come from such an unimportant place. He makes assumptions about Jesus before he meets him, just based on his hometown.
It reminds me of a conversation I had in the kitchen of a homeless ministry in Atlanta called The Open Door. We were cutting vegetables for the noontime meal that would be served to anyone who wanted it. I was only there for a short number of days (it was during my first sabbatical experience some years ago). I had never met the man I was working with, so I was seeking to get to know him a little bit as we worked. We exchanged names, and then I asked him where he was from. He could have been a homeless person who was now volunteering, or a volunteer from another state, or maybe lived in Atlanta and supported The Open Door when he could. His response took me off guard. Clearly my question offended him. He said, “What does it matter where I am from? If I tell you where I am from, you will make a judgement about me and not really be open to getting to know who I am.” He was not going to share that information. I was silenced. The conversation turned to the kinds of things we enjoyed doing, cooking, etc. No more probing questions that might be perceived as judgemental.
Nathanael definitely made a quick judgement about Jesus from Nazareth. Surely he did not know Joseph, but that did not seem to matter. It was the small village that he made a judgement about, assuming that a country bumpkin could never be the long awaited Messiah. Philip insists he come and see for himself, that he not make an assumption but get to know Jesus for who he really was. At least Nathanael is willing to do that!
When Jesus identifies Nathanael as an Israelite who is genuine, who has no deceit in him, who is honest and faithful, Nathanael becomes suspicious. “How do you know me?” he asks. Jesus tells him that he had seen him under the fig tree before Philip called him, and apparently he already knew all about him. We can see how that would have been unnerving, definitely unusual and unexpected. Nathanael’s response is faith. He calls Jesus a Rabbi, God’s Son, and the king of Israel, for now he sees Jesus clearly for who he was– the Messiah sent by God. Jesus promises that Nathanael will see even greater things ahead. The fact that Jesus identified Nathanael’s inner self from afar is nothing compared to what will happen as they enter this new adventure of ministry together.
Being called by God is often unclear. We might not hear correctly. We might not see clearly. Often our own “stuff” clouds our vision and stops up our ears. The stuff we are worried about, the energy we spend on an unhealthy relationship, the feelings of being frazzled or bored or stressed to the max. Or sometimes it is the “stuff” happening all around us that clouds our vision and stops up our ears. How can we listen for God’s word in the noise of a crowd full of angry people purposely storms the US capitol? When Washington DC is barricaded and shut down like a war zone? When state capitals around the country are on high alert due to threats on social media. Where is God anyway? How can this be happening? It is easy to feel abandoned by God. It seems that the word of the Lord is getting rare and visions are not widely known. What has happened to the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? This week a church member shared with me a video prepared by the Poor People’s Campaign which offers the view of a split screen so you can compare the treatment of non-violent protestors in various places who are seeking justice for all people and the treatment by police officers of a riotous crowd breaking into the capitol. It is effective and stark, it is depressing and overwhelming to see the ongoing disparities between the way people of different color skin are treated in this country. What happened to the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Where is the word of the Lord for us today?
Just as Samuel and Nathanael were called by God into service as a new thing was beginning, I believe each of us is called by God into service. Could it be that a new thing is beginning as more of our country wakes up to what is happening? To understand the intense anger and hurt? To understand the centuries old repression and violence toward people of African descent? Perhaps we begin to hear the word of the Lord as we listen to one another. Perhaps we begin to see something new on the horizon as we listen to one another. Just perhaps, God is calling US into a new way of being, relating, serving and loving. Yes, indeed. My ears are tingling. How about yours? Amen.