What a way to begin our readings from the Bible at Holy Eucharist: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room.” The word of the Lord is rare, visions are not widespread, and the man who embodies religious leadership can no longer see, perhaps in more than one way. Rather a bleak setting in which to begin.
The good news for us Christians is that we know that on the other side of death is resurrection. Isaiah reminds us that God is doing a new thing and we are meant to work to see it. Out of this bleak beginning, God calls the boy Samuel into a new kind of relationship, just as Jesus calls Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael. Out of seemingly bleak and empty moments, God calls new life into being and we, if we’re willing to pay attention and leave our figurative nets behind, can be a part of it.
Samuel wants to be with God. So much that he lies down in the temple where the ark is kept. In Samuel’s world, one does not get much closer to God than this. But perhaps Samuel is sleepy. Perhaps he is one of those who believes in God but isn’t quite persuaded that God will ever show up in his life; that’s the sort of thing that happens to other people. After all, the word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread.
So, when Samuel hears God’s voice, he assumes that it is his master Eli calling for him. He’s responding to what seems to make sense. If there’s a voice, it must belong to the only other human around, right? In spite of lying in the temple near the ark, presumably hoping for an experience of closeness to God, when it finally happens, Samuel goes back to his default. To the familiar. To his expectations. He nearly misses the new thing that God is doing because he’s intent on finding what he expects, rather than what’s really before him. How many of us have done the same? And so often without the benefit of an Eli to point us to what’s truly taking place.
The passage from the Gospel according to John is a momentary interruption this year. In Year B of the lectionary, we expect to hear a narrative primarily from Mark. However, this story is a very important one about how the first disciples come to recognize the new thing that God is doing in Jesus and it’s only told by John. For a bit of context, Jesus has just called Andrew and Peter to follow him. They were previously disciples of John the Baptist and, presumably, present at Jesus’s baptism.
In this portion of the story, they’ve returned to Bethsaida and meet Philip. Philip is also quickly recruited as a disciple of Jesus and goes off to tell his friend Nathanael that he ought to come and hear what this man, Jesus of Nazareth, has to say. Nathanael makes a rude comment about Nazarenes. Philip responds quite cleverly, not by arguing, but by exhorting him to see for himself. “Come and see.” To expand a bit: God is doing something new and it has changed my life, friend. Come and see for yourself. There is no promise made. No transaction. No bargain. No threat. Just an invitation to see something that might be every bit as unremarkable and silly as Nathanael expects. But it might just be extraordinary as Philip promises. So, off they go.
The moment when Jesus sees them approaching and his exchange with Nathanael is one of my favourite moments in all of scripture. I can’t help but read it like something out of an Oscar Wilde play. Nathanael is convinced this is an absolute waste of his time and Philip has been taken in by a Nazarene charlatan. But before he is even introduced to Jesus or has a chance to hear him speak, Jesus identifies him and calls him out: One in whom there is no guile. Nathanael is a man who says plainly what he’s thinking. Nathanael asks Jesus how he could know that and Jesus replies “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
And this is the moment. One can imagine the hint of an arch smile at the corner of Jesus’s mouth as Nathanael realizes what he’s just been told. If Jesus saw him before Philip called him but also knows that he is a man who speaks his mind, then Jesus also knows what Nathanael said. Nathanael, convinced he was coming to hear, at best, some kind of snake oil salesman, has been caught with his foot in his mouth. He has insulted a man who, very clearly, is what Philip claimed. The slowly changing topography of Nathanael’s face as he realizes; Jesus waiting patiently for the revelation to sink in; poor Philip torn between joy that Jesus is everything he promised and shame-by-association with his judgemental friend. It is a comic moment for the ages.
In this moment of painful realization, to his eternal credit, Nathanael realizes more than his gaffe. He also realizes that God is doing a new thing right before his eyes. He also realizes that God means for it to include him, if he’s willing. Jesus has called him out, but has not closed the door on the relationship that has been offered through Philip’s evangelism. Even if he has that hint of a knowing smile, Jesus’s hand is still extended to this opinionated, plain-speaking man. Nathanael names Jesus for who he is, rabbi and the Son of God, at once identifying himself as the newest disciple. Jesus, in a moment reminiscent of his words to the repentant thief at the Crucifixion, reminds Nathanael that there is so much more to this relationship than he expects. A completely new thing, indeed.
Relationships are some of the hardest work in the Christian life. Jesus wants us to know him, to be near him, to love him as he loves us, and to change us and our lives for the better. Jesus wants you and I to have life and to have it in such abundance that death is only the dimmest of memories. To effect this, Jesus offers us a relationship.
The relationship feels different to different Christians. For some it is a friendship, others like a sibling, some like a parent, some even imagine Jesus as a lover. But what is true of them all is that this is a relationship entered into freely and it is simply by being there that the change begins to work. There is no force against our wills. There is no transaction to buy Jesus’s love. There is no oppression or occupation of our bodies, minds, hearts, or persons. In many ways, it would be easier if God forced us or we just had to pay a fee. It would be clearer, simpler, and so much less work on our part.
Instead, what Jesus offers us is an invitation. In a world where it can feel like the word of the Lord is seldom heard and visions are not widespread, Jesus invites us to meet him at the font, at the banqueting table, in the community of disciples. Jesus invites us to be loved by him, even when we’re skeptical, when we feel heavy and unwilling, when we’re sure nothing good can come from Nazareth and we’re caught with our feet in our mouths. In a world that can seem grey and weighty on our shoulders, Jesus invites us to go with him and see the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending. Jesus invites us into the new thing that God is doing out of love for your sake and mine.
Will you come and see?