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Being Called: Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany:
John 1:43-51

“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ [‘Here’s a trustworthy person.’] Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” [‘How would you know?’] Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

If this were a TV show or movie we would cut to what’s called a flashback. The screen would go fuzzy or cloudy, then clear again, and we’d see Nathanael under that fig tree… Doing something significant. Reconciling with someone. Saving someone with the Heimlich manoeuvre. Or helping someone. Studying the scriptures. Praying. “Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” [‘It’s like you’ve known me my whole life!’]

Every once in a while we have those moments where things ‘click.’ Where we feel recognized and affirmed. Where you hear God’s call.

Other times… lots of other times… things are a bit more ambiguous. I mean, I have a constant ringing in my ears, and probably miss about 30% of what human beings say to me… Discerning God’s voice — definitively — might prove challenging.

“The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” we heard in our first reading. “[T]he lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.” The lamp of God had not yet gone out. It’s like the pilot light is still lit. They still have the ark (which we’ll recall from Indiana Jones). It represented — and more than that — contained the very presence of God. It assured them of God’s guiding all those years wandering in the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land. And you’ll recall from that story, that God led the people with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. A clear communication from God. But here for Samuel, “The word of the LORD was rare in those days.”

At Christmas and Epiphany we meet different people in our stories who have been confronted by the reality of God, and God’s Presence. And it takes different shapes. Mary is given the deepest possible communion and experience of God. (And there’s blessing, but also fear and vulnerability in that.) The shepherds are given an other-worldly spiritual experience in meeting the angels. The Magi find God’s leading through their observance of nature: the star in the sky. (As, in our day, some people find peace and awareness of the Divine by being out in nature.) Following this, King Herod’s experts of the law are able to gain more clarity about where Jesus is born by studying their inherited scriptures. (Some of us find God, and direction, in the deep study of scripture.) And Herod himself, the story’s baddie, is confronted by the reality of the Christ-child, this rival monarch, and he responds — violently — from a place of fear. (And think of how many people in our day operate, and cause much damage, by acting from a place of fear.)

And then with the other stories traditionally associated with the Epiphany: at the Baptism of Jesus the crowds are there, when the Spirit descends and a voice speaks from heaven. And at Jesus’s first miracle, the wedding guests are blessed when Jesus turns water into wine. Sometimes, by grace, we have an experience of God just by seemingly being at the right place at the right time. Sometimes in the most ordinary, random moments, God just shows up. And maybe it’s just after the fact that we realize that something profound has happened.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has said that the “Christian life is a listening life. Christians are people who expect to be spoken to by God.”* And one such venue for this communication is in scripture. We affirm that the Bible somehow conveys God’s message to humanity. And yet, the Archbishop says, “you soon discover that what the Bible is not is a single sequence of instructions, beginning ‘God says to you…'” (Though occasionally that might be the case.)

Where does God’s communication and our hearing or reading meet? Or put another way, how is scripture ‘inspired’ by God? Is it the original Hebrew and Greek. Or is it — for the Old Testament — the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures that were used by the early Church)? Or did God finally inspire the Bible when the King James translators came around? Or, as one scripture mentions that “faith comes from hearing,” does God just show up when scripture is proclaimed out loud (rather than just read personally)? Or does something special happen when we listen and dialogue together? Where God shows up when your hearing and response and my hearing and response brush up one another.

Williams suggests to us that we might approach the Bible — all of it — as if it’s a parable (the type of story Jesus told). “It is intended to draw you in and make you think about yourself in relation to God. It does not mean that Jesus is endorsing everything that everybody in the story says…. He is telling a story in which such figures appear, and at the end of it he is going to ask you where and who you are…. The Bible is, you might say, God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables. God is saying, ‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made… Where are you in this?”** So even in a difficult, confusing, mistranslated, problematic passage… we might well find God and God’s call in that. God saying where are you, and what are you going to do, in having just heard this?

The reassurance in all of this is that even if we feel that ours is a time, or ours is a life in which ‘the Word of the Lord is rare,’ God is still calling. God has called us all by calling us, and all of creation, into being. By being yourself — the person God created and gifted and called you to be — you honour and follow God. Even if God’s voice is not as plain as the one heard by Samuel. Sometimes it’s through other people that we recognize our giftedness and our calling. Others who reassure, or who say “come and see.” The one who created us knows who we are at the deepest level. Who that is is someone who shares in the Divine image and creativity. And that Divine creator knows us at our best and at our lowest, and loves us all the same. Jesus sees us under the fig tree. Sees who we really are; calls us to respond with our own voice.

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying [God]. It ‘consents,’ so to speak, to [God’s] creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”*** That comes from a famous book by Thomas Merton, a great 20th century spiritual figure. He says “The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like [God]. If it tried to be like something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give [God] less glory. No two created beings are exactly alike. And their individuality is no imperfection…. This particular tree will give glory to God by spreading out its roots in the earth and raising its branches into the air and the light in a way that no other tree before or after it ever did or will do.”***

So if you are wondering if or how you are being called by God, and how to respond to that call, take the lesson of the tree. Be yourself. Use your gifts. Respond in the way that you can. “Come and see” and find what happens when you offer your gifts alongside others.

© 2024 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Being Christian (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2014), 21.
** Ibid., 27.
*** Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), 29.