Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 14, 2018, Lectionary B
ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Rector Scripture: John 1:43-51
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
You are called.
Let us pray. Heavenly, omniscient Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to hearing the voice of Jesus who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Have you ever heard God talk to you, maybe, not audibly, but at least in your thoughts? Oh, I know. It may not be an easy thing to admit, or maybe you don’t believe God still, if ever, does that sort of thing—talk to people. Regardless, perhaps you were one of those few to whom He did speak. When He did, was it clear to you that it was He, or did you say, “Could you repeat that, please?” You know, people might think you are crazy if you said God spoke to you.
Some years ago when I was in my early teens I recall one Sunday afternoon after church, getting the distinct impression that Jesus was coming back soon. Mind you, I wasn’t but 13 years old or younger. As far as I know, no one ever said to me that Jesus was supposed to come back, something we acknowledged recently during Advent. Where had I gotten such a notion? God had not spoken to me at least not with what we commonly call words. Maybe this notion of Jesus’ return was simply a figment of my inflamed adolescent mind.
In today’s reading from 1Samuel, we heard the extraordinary account of when God spoke to the boy, Samuel, saying “Samuel! Samuel!” Understandably, the young Samuel thought the voice he heard was that of Eli, the temple priest. Would we have thought any differently? If we were to hear someone call our name, we, too, would have thought it someone we knew who happened to be in the same vicinity as we. Whenever, I hear a little child’s voice call out, “Daddy,” my head immediately snaps toward the direction from which it came. I still hear the voice of my daughters when they were but young girls.
So, Samuel was hearing God, but he did not know it was God. In fact, as we heard, it was not until after the third time of God, calling “Samuel! Samuel!” that with the guidance of the blind Eli Samuel realized that it was not Eli calling him but the Lord God Himself. Four times God called to Samuel. Think about that. God patiently waited for Samuel to catch on. And, what does Samuel do? Does he tell God his troubles or ask for some favor? No, as Eli advised, Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Samuel listened to God. He listened to and for God.
We should probably pause here to consider Samuel’s approach if you will. He listened to God. What we are talking about here is prayer. Simply put, prayer is being in relationship with God. Like any relationship, normally, the communication is a two-way street. Sometimes we talk to the person and sometimes we listen—hopefully we listen as well as talk.
Now, I imagine all of us have had and still do have the experience of the other person in the relationship doing all the talking. We cannot get a word in edgewise. You know what I mean. It is a frustrating experience. Do you suppose God sometimes feels the same way? We go to Him in prayer and talk, talk, talk, never taking the time to listen to what He might have to say. We have the opportunity to hear God speak to us and we effectively block Him out with our non-stop flow of words. Suppose He wanted to give us guidance for the very problem for which we were talking to Him. Could we be quiet enough and patient enough to hear what He has to say?
The first time I thought about going to seminary to seek ordination was when I was 21 years old, living in Baltimore. Though I had been baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, I could not say I was actually a Christian at that time. Oh, I was plenty spiritual, if you will. I had read any number of books on Hinduism and Buddhism, but not the Bible. I meditated and did yoga. I was not, though, a Christian, as I now understand that. Even so, I still felt this calling (was God speaking to me, but I did not know it) and set up with the help of my uncle Bo an appointment to meet with one of the professors at Virginia Theological Seminary. Curiously, I left the meeting feeling rather unimpressed. I am not sure what I expected. So, I gave up on the idea of seminary at that time.
I was around 26 years old when I next began to feel as if I might want to go to seminary. Though still not a Christian, as I understood the word, that did not stop me from going to talk to the Rev. Mark Waldo, the rector of my home parish in Montgomery. If you are wondering, I had had an experience, which I would describe as spiritual that re-ignited my interest in seminary. Talking with Mark, I learned that at the earliest it would be two years before I could go to seminary. I would have to meet with the vestry in addition to other requirements. I was not prepared to wait, so I again dropped the idea of going to seminary.
For the second time I had taken some action to investigate the possibility of going to seminary. Was that God’s voice I was hearing on some subconscious level or was it just the usual young person trying to figure who he was and what he wanted to do with his life?
Nine years later at the age of 35 after a failed marriage I found myself prostrate on my living room floor asking Jesus to come into my life. To put it simply, He had sent the Holy Spirit to come get me. In other words, having now sincerely and authentically confessed Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, I had indeed become a Christian. When that happened, I then saw that I was called to the ordained priesthood. It was as if the lights had suddenly been turned on in the room and I could see my reflection in the mirror.
Being a priest was part of my identity (who I am), but I could not see that until I became a Christian. Regardless, it took me fourteen years before I finally recognized that it was God’s voice speaking to me. It only took the boy Samuel hearing God’s voice four times in one night. If my denseness in hearing God speak to me is any example, we might wonder how much that applies to any and all of us. Might God be speaking to you and me right now, calling our names as specifically as He did Samuel’s? How long has God been trying to get through to us? Why have we resisted hearing Him? How much do circumstances play a part? Perhaps, the timing is not quite right or maybe we are not ready to hear what God has to say to us. Whatever the case or reason, we can be confident that God in Jesus is speaking to us right now, but are we listening? Would I be wrong in saying that some of you at this very moment are reflecting upon some suspicion that God could be trying to say something to you? What is it? What might He be asking you to do?
In today’s gospel we come across the calling of the apostle Nathaniel by Jesus. Nathanael was a good and devout Jew. Jesus said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” As we heard, Nathanael, too, apparently had some difficulty or resistance to hearing God’s voice or call on his life. When Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Nathanael immediately discounted the possibility that God in the Nazarene Jesus might have come to save the world. To put that within a contemporary context, Nathanael had in effect used a racial slur (those sorry, no good Nazarenes from the wrong side of the track) to dismiss the possibility of God doing something extraordinary. In effect, Nathanael, the apostle, who as tradition has it would later be flayed alive for being a follower of Jesus, had called Jesus a bad name. Who wants to listen to someone for whom he or she has no respect? Sound familiar? Sound relevant? No, we might not have used a racial slur to dismiss the possibility of God, of Jesus speaking to us. Instead, we have used some other pejorative like “that’s crazy” or “that makes no sense” when faced with the possibility that God is speaking to us and trying to get us to hear something—something important, life-changing, or life-saving.
Well, Philip was not to be put off by Nathanael’s negativity. His rebuttal to Nathanael’s protest was simple and empirical. “Come and see.” In other words, come and see the evidence for yourself, then tell me what you think of this man, Jesus.
I am reminded of a story told by Bishop Bill Frye some years ago. Serving as bishop in Colorado and later as dean and president of Trinity School for Ministry, my seminary, he had made an annual visitation to one of the parishes in his diocese. Bishop Benhase did that with us at St. Elizabeth’s last month. Following the service, he was greeted by a number of people, shaking hands and thanking him, when he was cornered, so to speak, by several young men. They peppered him with questions, especially in respect to Jesus being the only true way. What about Buddha, Krishna, or Mohammed they asked. Weren’t they just as good? On and on they questioned him in a virtual debate format. Realizing that no argument he made would be heard by the young men, Bp. Frye in frustration blurted, “Why don’t you just try it? Ask Jesus into your lives and see what happens.” In the words of Philip, come and see if you will. Well, that stopped the young men cold. It was the end of the discussion.
Unlike the young men, who had accosted Bp. Frye, Nathanael was not put off with Philip’s “come and see” approach to determine whether Jesus was indeed the one of “whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” meaning the very messiah and savior of the world. When we think about it, it really is a mind blowing, and yes, hard to believe assertion. God (in the person of a sorry Nazarene) had suddenly shown up after hundreds of years of waiting. Could one’s mind and heart really bear to hear such?
We might have thought that Nathanael’s subsequent encounter with Jesus would have been a fireworks kind of event—God in the smoke and fire of Mt. Sinai as with Moses. Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus, however, was not that way at all. Listen again. “When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” These two verses lead us to speculate as to Jesus’ meaning when He said to Nathanael, “I saw you under the fig tree.” Was Jesus giving him a psychic reading? “Yes, Nathanael, I see you marrying a pretty blond in the next six months and your business will really thrive this year.”
Had Jesus been sneaking around and spying on Nathanael—a biblical sort of stalking so to speak? We don’t exactly know. The stalking is unlikely, but the capacity for Jesus to see as a psychic might, could be considered as a Holy Spirit gift of knowledge. We remember in John 4:18, Jesus’ omniscient, clairvoyant words to the woman at the well. “For you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband.”
Nathanael’s response, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel,” to Jesus’ statement, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” might sound a bit over exaggerated. Indeed, even Jesus seemed to think so, saying to Nathanael, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree.” When we think about it, Nathanael’s response really does sound rather over the top. What was going on with him? Well, I suspect we can only speculate. His name in Greek means “gift of God.” I am not sure that gives us much of a hint. Rather, perhaps the best we can do when it comes to understanding Nathanael’s apparent overreaction to Jesus having seen him under the fig tree is to look to ourselves, to look to ourselves in respect to God.
In truth, there is no one who knows us more or better than God. There is no greater intimacy. How intimate is God with us? He knows our secret thoughts and feelings. He knows our wishes, our hopes, our failures, and our disappointments. He knows our pain and our suffering. He knows our doubts and He knows our faith, small or large. He knows us and what we are striving to do or be. He is our creator. And, He wants to talk to us. He is calling our name.
Having considered how well and truly God knows us, maybe we might glean some sense of what was going on with Nathanael. Perhaps, on that day under the fig tree, he might have been doing what you and I have done. He was raising questions. He was wondering why. Why had this or that bad thing happened in his life? Where was God? It is a question that I am sure most of us have asked or are asking in those quiet moments when we are alone with our thoughts and God. This is serious, the” meaning of life” kind of stuff and no mere academic exercise, as the young men who had cornered Bishop Frye had thought. God, are you speaking to me, or more to the point, why aren’t you speaking to me, so Nathanael, so we might have thought. Had Nathanael cried out to God for help?
Maybe this was Nathanael’s mental state, as he sat under that fig tree. Guess what. God in Jesus had indeed been listening to him; not only that, Jesus knew Nathanael at his deepest level—“truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” We might quip, “Well, flattery will get you anything,” but is that what Jesus was doing? Not at all! Rather, He was saying, “Nathanael, I am closer to you than your own breath.” Think about that for a moment. God in Jesus is closer to us than our own breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. Hear it. Feel it, that closeness of Jesus. Even so, we struggle, we resist hearing Him speak to us, call our name.
Though we may not recognize it at first, notice the words of encouragement Jesus gives Nathanael’s after his confession as to who Jesus is. “You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Greater things, does such hold true for us? When we recognize Jesus for who He is, will we, too, hear Him speak to us, call us by name, not Samuel, Samuel, but our very own name. “Yes,” Jesus says to us, “I saw you the other day, as you were driving down Highway144.” “Yes,” Jesus says to us, “I saw you the other night when you could not sleep and were worrying about your health, your job, or your marriage.”
We have begun a new year. Jesus is speaking to us, calling us by name, individually and corporately. He has something to tell us. There is something He would like us, the people of St. Elizabeth’s, to do. What is it? Will we listen? Let’s try to listen, rather than talk. Hopefully, we will hear His words sooner rather than later. Pope Francis’ tweet from yesterday is appropriate. “We must not wait to be perfect before responding to the Lord who calls us, but rather open our hearts to His voice.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.