January 15, 2012
(1 Samuel 3, 1-10; Psalm 139, 1-6, 12-17; John 1, 43-51)
I’m not the sort of person who has visions; and I can’t say that there was a distinct moment when I was converted, as some people have: I was simply brought up in a Christian household, and continued to attend church when I was an adult. Nor can I identify a moment when I was ‘called’ to the ministry of Reader (or Local Preacher in Methodist terms). I began by speaking at family services, and ‘ghost writing’ some sermons for my then Vicar, and one day I had to take over and actually ‘preach’ one at a Parish Communion. It was at that point I decided that I ought to get myself properly trained and authorised if I was going to continue. So I did! And this particular ministry has felt right for me ever since.
Was that experience a calling from God? I don’t know!
Our readings today, in their different ways, explore the idea of being called by God.
In the first, from the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament, the boy Samuel is called to the life of a prophet, speaking ‘The Word of the Lord’ to the people of Israel. The second, from Psalm 139, explores the relationship with God to which we are all called, from before our birth to our death. The passage from John’s Gospel describes the calling of two disciples, Philip and Nathanael.
The passage from 1 Samuel can be heard as a rather sweet story, of a small child coming to personal knowledge of God for the first time. But, set in its context, it is a much more frightening and serious tale. The previous chapters of I Samuel have interwoven the story of the birth of Samuel with a description of sins of Eli’s sons, and therefore the failure of his role as a father and a priest. Eli’s sons have exploited their hereditary position to satisfy their greed and their lust, by taking the best meat of the sacrifices for themselves and using the women of the temple as prostitutes.
The beginning of our passage shows that, at first, Eli fails to discern the Lord speaking to Samuel; but eventually, he does recognise that this is the divine voice speaking, and he not only teaches Samuel how to respond, but demands to hear what Samuel has been instructed to prophesy, however bad it may be for him and his family.
The following verses of 1 Samuel describe the fate that God has in store for the priestly family: the death of the two wicked sons, Eli’s blindness and his eventual death, and the descent of his family into poverty.
Yet, they also describe Eli’s acceptance of all this as “what is good to the Lord”. No matter how much he has failed God, no matter how much his family has misused their position of privilege, he has not departed so far from his original calling as to fail to recognise the voice of God calling, nor to reject the truth when he hears it.
God’s call to the young Samuel is to a ministry that proclaims the replacement of the old, failed order of priests, represented by Eli and his sons, with a new order, of prophets, who hear and proclaim the true Word of the Lord. Samuel is to become the first representative of that new order.
Psalm 139 (a favourite psalm of many people) describes how God calls us: how God searches us out and knows every one of us from the first moments of our existence in the womb. It is because God knows us in such an intimate way that we can know God. As the end of our passage reminds us, the knowledge is not equal: God will always know much more about us than we can ever know of God. The psalm reminds me of the theology of Paul Tillich, who speaks of God as both transcendent, existing outside and beyond all that is, but also as immanent and intimate, ‘the Ground of our Being’.
Perhaps we may be alarmed by the idea of a God from whom we can never escape, no matter where we run to, and who knows every detail of our lives before we live them. We all of us have our ‘dark side’, the bits of ourselves that we prefer others not to see, lest we be judged wanting. But there is no sense in this psalm of judgement, simply of a God who understands, loves and provides for us from before birth until after death. It speaks of what Martin Buber called the ‘I-Thou’ relationship.
In our New Testament passage we heard John’s description of the calling of two more disciples, Philip and Nathanael. Previously Andrew has been called from being a disciple of John the Baptist, and has brought along his brother, Peter. Now, having returned from the Jordan to Galilee, Jesus calls Philip, possibly a Gentile, who in turn brings along his friend Nathanael.
The passage seems to reflect a certain amount of rivalry between the towns of Galilee. Philip, Peter and Andrew are natives of Bethsaida (which means ‘house of fishing’) and Nathanael from Cana, where the first of Jesus’s seven signs which John describes takes place. Nathanael clearly doesn’t think anything worthwhile can come from Nazareth and particularly not the expected Messiah! Since Nazareth was located right on the border with Samaria, you can understand why those from other parts of Galilee might consider it a dodgy place!
Since this is John’s Gospel, the simple story is full of hidden meanings. Jesus describes Nathanael as an Israelite, a son of Israel. The former name of Israel was Jacob, and Jacob means ‘trickster’ or deceiver’. But Jesus says Nathanael is not a deceiver.
Jesus says he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. The fig tree is often a symbol of peace and prosperity, and of the Jewish nation. Was Jesus then calling Nathanael from his old life as a faithful Israelite to a new life as a disciple of the Messiah?
Nathanael certainly thought so. He acclaimed Jesus with the Messianic titles, ‘Son of God’ and ‘King of Israel’.
But then Jesus immediately refers back to Jacob again, with his reference to a ladder along which angels pass from heaven to earth. His ministry will be one where heaven and earth are open to each other, where God and human beings are connected. But whereas, when Jacob saw the ladder, it marked a holy place, Bethel, where God was encountered, now it marks a person, Jesus, where God is encountered.
None of the Gospels tells us much more about Philip or Nathanael. In this story of their call, they seem to represent the disciples in the post-resurrection church. They have seen the miracles of Jesus; they are aware of his supernatural knowledge. The only proper response to the this person’s command to follow him, is to do so, and to worship him as King and Messiah.
But that is not the end of the story. The disciple is to follow Jesus, and to believe. But the disciple is also to extend the invitation to others to “Come and see”. This section of John’s Gospel emphasises the important role of personal connections in the making of new disciples. It is an invitation to us, as well as to those first disciples. We who have seen the Word made flesh, we who have heard the Word of the Lord are not supposed to keep it to ourselves. We are to go and invite others to come, and see, and hear for themselves.
And what are we inviting our family, and friends, and workmates and neighbours to come and see? We are inviting them to meet a God who knows us intimately, and who is present in everything we do; who is with us in the bad times as well as the good, who accepts our dark side as well as the light in us.
We are inviting them to meet a God who accepts us as we are, who chooses the most unlikely people to bear the divine message: a small child, being raised by an elderly failed priest in a corrupt environment; a foreigner; a cynical adult, deeply prejudiced against people from a rival town, and supremely, a man from a rough border town.
We are inviting them to meet a God who is transforming the world, replacing the old order of evil and corruption with a new one, led by those who hear and proclaim the true Word of the Lord. We are inviting them to meet a God who is not distant, but who comes to us in human form, who invites us into the relationship of intimacy and co-operation with the divine for which we were created.
We are inviting them to meet a God who calls human beings to become agents of the divine in changing the world and making transforming it into the Kingdom of heaven.
Come and see!