January 17, 2021, He Started It!, John 1:43-51 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000232
I talked last week about the theme of light that runs through the season of Epiphany, and specifically about what it means that Jesus is the Light of the world. Or at least I touched on that subject, since there is infinitely more we could say. Today, though, we begin the Old Testament reading back in the shadows. It’s a dark time in the history of Israel. Visions and words from God are scarce. We see Eli the priest as an old man serving in the temple at Shiloh. He’s going blind, which seems to symbolize the condition of the people, the whole nation suffering for want of light, a nation-wide light deficiency for lack of wisdom and understanding.
And we can immediately feel at home in this story, because in this very moment we are also living in a time of deep shadow. We are surrounded on all sides by division and suspicion and violence and fear. The truth itself is on shaky ground. And the leaders we look to for answers and solutions are at war with one another. What is the meaning of the assault on our Capitol last week? How should we move forward? Is there any way to navigate a course between seeking unity and seeking justice? How do we even begin to find answers to the big questions – racism and inequality and poverty – and don’t forget, a deadly pandemic on top of everything else? How can we, as God’s people, be peace-makers and sources of light and hope in the midst of all this chaos, when so often it feels like we Christians are just as divided, and just as in the dark – just as blind as the rest of the world?
In the dark of the night – getting back to the story – in the dark of the night, Samuel, who is just a little boy, is lying in the lamp-lit Temple where the Ark of the Covenant is kept. Samuel is growing up in the Temple as a servant and assistant to Eli, the priest. He hears a voice calling to him out of the darkness and he assumes it’s Eli calling him, so he trots in obediently to answer his master’s call. This happens three times before Eli finally realizes what’s going on. And he tells Samuel to go back to bed, and if God calls him again, to stay where he is and to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And of course, God does call Samuel again. He gives Samuel his very first prophetic word – because we know Samuel goes on to become a great prophet – but this first word is a fearful one, a word of judgment against his own master, and not only his master but against Eli’s whole household and all his descendants. It’s hard to imagine how terrible it must have been for poor little Samuel to face Eli and tell him what God had said.
It was the beginning of Samuel’s long career as God’s prophet in Israel. But it is important, I believe, for us to notice that it all began in the dark. Samuel was nothing more than an ignorant little servant-boy. He certainly didn’t have any kind of natural spiritual intuition so that he was able to recognize God’s voice when it called out to him. Samuel had no knowledge of God at all before he heard that voice in the dark. But that didn’t make any difference. The only thing that really mattered is that God knew Samuel.
Church people have a lot of different expressions for becoming Christians. We say that someone “found God” or “came to Jesus”. We say they “got saved” or “saw the light”. We talk about “finding faith” or maybe “recovering our faith”. We talk about people who are “seekers” looking for God. And the thing is that most of the ways we have of talking about our relationship with God are focused on our activity. We find, we get, we seek, we come. The problem is, the picture we get from the Bible doesn’t look very much like God is sitting out there just waiting to be found. And for the most part, the picture we get from real life doesn’t look very much like people are out there earnestly and diligently trying to find him. The truth seems to be much closer to the picture we see of Samuel here in this story, totally clueless and utterly unprepared, lying in the dark, when suddenly God calls out to him, and his whole life begins to unfold.
It’s not really very different from the encounter we read about today between Jesus and Nathanael. Nathanael is much more grown-up and educated, of course, than little Samuel. He is sophisticated enough to be a little bit snotty when Philip tries to tell him about Jesus. “Seriously, Phil,” he says, “can anything good come from Nazareth?” We might hear the same tone of voice if somebody from New York City hears about a great preacher from Dekalb Junction. But Nathanael is utterly blown away when he finds that Jesus already knows him – knows him intimately – and that before he ever saw this Jesus, he was seen by him. Jesus calls Nathanael, and like the boy Samuel, that’s when his whole life begins to unfold.
It’s no big surprise that the best metaphor we have for becoming followers of Jesus is the one Jesus gives us. When Nicodemus comes to visit him in the dark of night, Jesus tells him this, “Unless a person is born again he can’t see the kingdom of God.” Jesus tells Nicodemus that if anyone wants to follow him it’s going to be like the process of birth all over again. And really, is there any, human activity in which we have less control or power than the act of being born? A child is formed and nourished and brought forth with no will or power or knowledge of its own. And we, Jesus says, are formed and nourished by God. We are known and we are brought forth completely by the will and power of God. There is no other way.
We prayed in the Psalm this morning, Psalm 139, “You yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.” The womb is a place of utter darkness. And yet, God forms us in the darkness so that he can bring us to life and to light.
So, the question is, does it make any difference really how we talk about these things? Is it so very different whether say we find Jesus or Jesus finds us? We could say that the important thing, really, is just that we are following him. But I believe it makes a huge difference. First of all, God chose to reveal the truth to us in the stories of Samuel and Nathanael, in the stories of Peter and Andrew, and Matthew, who was Levi the tax collector when Jesus found him, in the story of Zacchaeus, and in the stories of Abraham and Moses – Moses, who tried to talk God out of calling him. God has shown us that he is the true and only seeker. He is the Lover who calls us into relationship with him. He is the Healer who brings us back out of sickness and even death. He is the compassionate Father who runs to embrace us when we come slouching home in disgrace.
And in times of darkness, when our confidence in ourselves and our own abilities and purposes is shaken, and when the needs and brokenness of the world around us is overwhelming – basically, in the midst of real life in this world – it makes all the difference in the world to know that the voice that calls us is the Lord of everything. On the night of his arrest, Jesus gathered his friends around him to prepare them for the dark days to come. To reassure them, he said to them, “Don’t think that you chose me. No, my friends, remember this: I chose you, and I have appointed you to go out into the world and bear fruit, fruit that has lasting value.” It makes all the difference in the world whether all our struggling and striving is just a fool’s errand of our own human imagining that is doomed to failure in the end, or whether we have been equipped and authorized by the Creator himself to be lights in the darkness and little creators in the likeness of our Father. If the seeds you have planted in the course of your life were put in your hand by the one who formed the earth and called everything into being, you can have no doubt that your efforts will bear good and perfect fruit in the fulness of time.
King David, who was called by God to be anointed king of Israel when he was just the kid brother left home to take care of the farm chores – he’s the one who wrote Psalm 139, marvelling at the incredible mystery of being formed and called by the Lord of the Universe. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;” he wrote, “it is beyond my understanding! Where could I go to escape from you? Where could I get away from your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there; if I lay down in the world of the dead, you would be there. If I flew away beyond the east or lived in the farthest place in the west, you would be there to lead me, you would be there to help me. I could ask the darkness to hide me or the light around me to turn into night, but even darkness is not dark for you, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are the same to you.”
God has told us that he is the one who calls people out of darkness into light, and that he is the one who anoints people for fruitful service in his world. He has shown us those things in his word so that we can understand that we are also called, and that we have also been given good work to do, and that our work will not fail to produce fruit for the kingdom. It is very, very easy these days to feel useless and unproductive. It is hard sometimes to believe that we aren’t completely on our own. But the truth that God wants us to know is that that he sees us and loves us and knows us better than we know ourselves. And that he has chosen us, that he has chosen you, specifically, you, with your particular abilities and your unique history and your frustrating limitations and all your quirks: he has chosen you to grow good fruit for his kingdom. He has called you out of the darkness and into the light of his kingdom, so that you, illumined by his Word and Sacraments, will shine with the radiance of his glory in the midst of a dark world.