Recognizing God... And What Happens After
A sermon on John 1:43-51 and 1 Samuel 3:1-20
[audio recording of the live sermon here; photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash]
The title of today's sermon is the result of my brain’s fascination with making connections. I read two stories, separated from each other by many hundreds of years and quite different contexts…
One is the story of a very young boy whose life is firmly planted in the center of the religious practices of the ancient Israelite tribes.
The other is the story of two grown men in the years of Israel’s occupation by Rome, who live in a distant corner of the nation, far removed from the life and power structures of the Temple.
… But for all the differences in these two narrative settings, it is the common threads that pull on my attention.
They are both call stories.
They are both stories in which those being called struggle to recognize God.
And they both change the one who is called forever.
The call story in the gospel is actually two call stories in one; it’s just that Philip’s calling offers no tension, so it’s easy to just jump over it (as I did just now). Jesus found Philip. He said, “Follow me,” and Philip’s response was apparently so automatic that it does not even have to be narrated. We only know that Philip recognizes Jesus as the one whom “Moses and the Prophets” wrote about… because he goes and finds Nathanael and tells him that.
It’s only at this point in the narrative where we encounter a problem with recognizing God. Philip gives witness to his conviction that he has found the One foretold by the scriptures, and he mentions, as an aside, that Jesus comes from Nazareth.
But that identity triggers all of Nathanael’s skepticism and prejudice: “Nazareth? Really? You expect me to believe that something good, something true, something godly could come out of that backwater?” Nathanael is not easily credulous. He has heard things about Nazareth.
But Philip’s response is simple. “Just come and see.” It’s a phrase repeated again and again in John’s gospel… a four-word formula that communicates a deep theological truth. Recognizing Jesus isn’t something that results from reasoned argument or logical debate. It happens in the encounter. Meet him and you will understand. The evidence of your own experience will open your eyes.
And, for Nathanael, it does. He comes to meet this suspicious Jesus character himself, and he is changed. He sees. In fact, he sees even more clearly than Philip. Philip believed in Jesus more quickly, but he does not go as far in his belief. You see, Philip identified Jesus as the one foretold in scripture, but he also called him "Joseph’s Son." It is Nathanael who says to Jesus “you are God’s Son.” Once Nathanael sees and hears Jesus for himself, there is no more confusion or prejudice. He recognizes the Divine.
And Jesus affirms this vision. He keeps Nathanael humble, chiding him that he needed a sign before he believed, but then he declares:Very truly I tell you, you will see…” You will see heaven opened…You will see more evidence than you ever need for my divinity…You will see reality with eyes that are forever changed, because you recognized me.
There is a different dynamic and a different transformation in the story of Samuel and Eli.
We never get to hear Eli’s call story. We meet him after he has already become the head priest of God in the shrine at Shiloh, where the Ark of God’s Presence is housed. And we meet him after he has raised his sons, sons who abuse his position for their own gratification. By the time of the week’s story, he has already been rebuked by a prophet of God who foretells the destruction of his whole house because of his failure to reprove his sons for their abuses.
Eli’s story is almost over, and the text tells us that his eyes have “grown dim so that he could not see,”… but despite this blindness, it is Eli who recognizes that it is God calling the boy, Samuel.
Samuel is innocent and eager, willing to serve when he is needed – everything the sons of Eli are not – but Samuel does not recognize the voice of God. Three times he is roused by God calling him by name, and three times he runs to Eli, saying “I am here. You called me.” He hears the voice of God, but he does not recognize it. Despite Eli’s denials, Samuel keeps looking for a natural explanation for what he is experiencing.
It takes Eli. The one whose sight has grown too dim to see. The one who has failed in his calling, putting his loyalty to people ahead of his loyalty to God and thus condemning them all to the consequences… It is unworthy Eli who recognizes that God is the one calling Samuel.
And even after Eli’s coaching, when Samuel learns how to respond and receives the direct message from God, Samuel was afraid to give the message that God had commissioned him to speak. His encounter with the Living God did not automatically make him bold, because God wanted his to speak an uncomfortable truth.
Eli had to push him. Eli knew that a word from God could not be hidden or ignored. Eli taught Samuel how to recognize God AND how to submit to a difficult word. And it is because of Eli’s recognition, and Eli’s courage to face the unpalatable truth, that Samuel became a prophet, trusted by God and by the people.
These two (or is it three, or four) stories are very different, AND they are all stories of “recognizing God and what comes after.”
Philip recognizes easily… but doesn’t push far enough to see the full truth.
Nathaniel is skeptical and derogatory… but once he lets go of his earthly prejudices, he is awarded heavenly vision.
Eli recognizes God after a lifetime of error… and recognizes that the consequences of his past decisions cannot be undone.
Samuel does not recognize God until coached by the very one he is called to condemn… and it is the obedience of the condemned Eli that teaches Samuel how to listen.
There is a common thread in these stories, but it is woven into different patterns. This is no Aesop’s fable with a summary moral at the end. There is no simple formula that can be distilled from the narratives, no pattern to follow so that we too can recognize God and be changed in a way that we will welcome.
But that’s why I am so compelled in the connection among these stories…. Because they require us to go beyond morals and formulas to explore our own stories for ourselves. That’s the connection between these stories that really matters to us, after all…The connection to how we recognize God… and what happens after in our lives.
There are clearly many ways that God calls to God’s people…
For some of us, it may seem almost effortless… perhaps too much so. If faith is too easy it might mean it hasn’t penetrated deep enough to change us as much as it could. Maybe we need to be pressed or stretched, to let go of understandings that leave us comfortable and unchallenged… so that our after looks different than our before.
For others of us, our confidence in what we know already can be a barrier to recognizing God. We know the sources we trust, and the ones we don’t… so how could God show up in a form we have been taught to scorn? No one will ever argue us out of our prejudices, but what if we let down our guard enough to “come and see”? It could be that that experience will transform not only our assumptions but our vision itself.
And then there’s the question of what we do when we recognize God… a bit late in the day… after the patterns of our lives have created consequences that cannot be undone. The grace of God does not promise to relieve us of our responsibility for wrongs we have done or hurts we have caused, or from the consequences that come from that damage. But that does not mean all grace is lost to us. There is a powerful grace +in making peace with our lives by not trying to defend ourselves, or shift the blame, or find a way out. After all, it’s only by facing the truth of harm done that reconciliation is ever possible. And, if we are lucky, we may get to be part of teaching another to recognize God in their own lives.
And if we are among those who get the benefit of such instruction, our ability to recognize God won't be because we are especially smart or qualified… but because we are ready to say “here I am.” And if the work to which God calls us requires us to challenge others with words they may not want to hear, we have the hope that we can both be changed by listening to God's word, however hard it might be.
There are so many different ways to recognize God, at different points on our journeys of faith. None of them are wrong. And none of them promise smooth sailing afterward. Sometimes recognizing God requires that we let go of cherished assumptions, or learn to trust, or face our mistakes, or speak hard words.
But the thing that all those paths have in common is that they start from recognizing God, present and active, calling us to be part of God’s work in the world. And whatever happens after… that’s good news.
Thanks be to God.