January 17, 2021
Each week seems to bring new challenges, new anxieties, new fears. We’re recording this service on Saturday this week because of the protests that are expected on Capitol Square on Sunday. What has been a bizarre year just keeps getting stranger, more disorienting. Our world today seems completely unmoored from the world we lived in just a year ago. Our lives have been upended; many of our deepest assumptions about our nation and our community have been laid bare for the fantasies they are. We are afraid, anxious, angry, and confused.
All of this can make it hard for us to find time for God, to make space for God. The noise of the world, the noise in our minds, our cares and concerns, work, family, all of it can fill every moment of our day. We are harried and hurried with no respite and no space of our own to be still, to wait in silence for God, to listen for God’s voice.
This week’s lectionary readings direct us to that voice of God, calling us, and to our relationship with Jesus Christ. The first lesson is the story of Samuel’s call. Born to a barren mother who had prayed many years for a son, when he came into the world, his mother in her joy and gratitude dedicated him to God and put him in the care of the High Priest Eli. God’s voice comes to him in a dream. Finally, after thinking it was Eli himself calling, Samuel discovers the voice is that of God, and responds, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
The gospel reading is also a call story. It’s an episode in the larger story of Jesus calling the disciples in John’s gospel. As we see throughout the fourth gospel, there are significant differences in John’s account from those in the synoptics gospels and those differences highlight the different emphases John places in his understanding of Jesus and what it means to follow him.
We see Jesus calling Philipp with the simple command, “Follow me.” Presumably he does, but he also takes a detour to engage with his friend Nathanael, to tell him about Jesus. But Nathanael wants nothing of them. If Jesus is from the little village of Nazareth, he can’t be the Messiah. Philipp responds, not with an attempt to refute Nathanael’s argument, but with an invitation to relationship: “Come and see.”
But it’s the encounter between Jesus and Nathanael that is of most interest. It might be a bit difficult to figure out what’s going on. The upshot is this. Jesus says something to Nathanael that suggests intimate knowledge of him, “Here is an Israelite who doesn’t lie.” Taken aback, Nathanael asks him how he knows him and Jesus tells him he saw him sitting under the fig tree before his encounter with Philipp. In that moment, just as Jesus knew who Nathanael was, Nathanael sees who Jesus is. He throws messianic titles out as others will do throughout the gospel: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel!”
Think about the transformation in Nathanael over these few verses. He goes from disbelief and discounting Jesus—when hearing that’s he from Nazareth, he ridicules the notion that Jesus might be the Messiah. Later, in the direct, personal encounter, he comes to know Jesus as he really is. But the final verses suggest that there is more to come, that Nathanael will come to know more, to see greater things, than the Jesus he has already seen and come to know.
This dynamic, of failing to recognize Jesus is one of the gospel of John’s dominant themes. Often, such failure ends in bitter conflict—as so often when Jesus is confronted by the religious establishment. Other times, failure leads to growth, as the initial confusion or error gives way to deeper insight and relationship.
There’s an important lesson for us here, especially when we think of all the titles that are tossed out in these few verses: Jesus, son of Joseph; Jesus of Nazareth are the first, suggesting that one’s identity is bound up with one’s parentage or city of origin. It’s kind of like the appeal of Ancestry.com—if we know our DNA, our genetic background, we know who we are. But that can be an illusion. It certainly was in Jesus’ case—for he was not the Son of Joseph but the Son of God, as we readers of John know; Jesus’ parentage and hometown didn’t tell us anything about his identity—which we learned in the Gospel’s first verses, that Jesus is the Word of God incarnate.
But I think in many ways we are like Nathanael, certain of who Jesus is. Our understanding of him is shaped by our past, by the church’s teaching, by the language of scripture and the creeds. And our cynicism and comfortable, intellectual sophistication likely lead us to discount most of that language—virgin birth? Son of God? That’s way too far out there for us. He was a good man, a great teacher, a moral example but nothing more. We interpret him in categories that make sense to us. We interpret him in ways that confirm our assumptions and don’t rock our boats.
But even when Nathanael identifies him as the Son of God, Jesus basically says to him, you think that’s something, just wait! “You’ll see the heavens open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
I wonder whether there’s an important lesson or lessons for us here. How do we identify Jesus? Who do we say that he is? Do our confessions of faith express the limits of what we know about him? Do our definitions of him keep him in a comfortable place in our lives. But what would it be like if instead of settling for those definitions and that comfortable place, we opened ourselves up to the possibility of seeing the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man?
In other words, what would it be like if we opened ourselves up, if we removed the walls that we have built up that prevent us really seeing and knowing him? Or to use the image I began with, what if we made space in our lives to wait, and listen for God’s voice calling us?
In this era of fake news and echo chambers, I sometimes think we have build echo chambers in our spiritual lives, chambers where we hear only the words we want to hear, words we are comfortable with. When Jesus calls us, he calls us out of our shells, out of our echo chambers. When he says, come and see, he doesn’t mean that we should gawk like tourists or bystanders, but that we should walk with him, listen to him, learn from him. Amidst the noise of the world, may we come and see him as he really is, and be encouraged to see greater things than these.