Readings, Psalm 139:1-18, 1 Sam 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51
Image, Nathaniel (asleep under the fig tree), Mark Cazalet (1993)
The story of Samuel’s calling opens with two important details, the word of the Lord was rare in those days, and Samuel was asleep. We are clued in as the reader that Samuel is completely unexpectant of hearing the voice of the Lord (both because of its general rarity and because, well, he’s unconscious).
The story of Nathanael’s calling also contains two important details, his disbelief that anything good can come out of Nazareth, and that he too was asleep. We are clued in as the reader that Nathanael is completely unexpectant of hearing the voice of the Son of God (both because of his presumptions and because, well, he’s unconscious).
That neither is expecting the calling of God in these moments is confirmed by their disbelief. Samuel does not expect God to come to him, Nathanael does not expect God to come to him from over there.
But before we go further with human misgivings, let us dwell on God’s grace. But let’s do it somewhat circuitously. In Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (I warned you this was circuitous), the cursed Dutchman is able to alight from his ship and walk ashore just once every seven years. His only hope to lift the curse is to find a wife who will be true.
On the eve of his allotted time on land, the Dutchman approaches port. Little does he know that waiting ashore is a young woman, Senta, who is devotedly and passionately in love with a portrait (despite not knowing who the portrait is of, or where he is, or if he will arrive). That is until the Dutchman walks into the room, the subject of the portrait and coincidental guest of her father. Before Senta has met the Dutchman, the love is there, a love marked by truth, goodness, and sacrifice, a love that shall redeem. This love is not earnt or elicited, the Dutchman is loved because it is Senta’s character to know, love, and redeem the Dutchman.
God relates to us in such a way. God know us before we have heard God’s voice. And having known us, God loves us first and without reserve. And having loved us, God calls us into freedom and life in the Kingdom of God. God calls us before we know what to listen for, without us having to prove a worthiness of our spirit or the virtue of our labour. God calls us, because God simply is the One who knows us perfectly, elects us freely, and loves us infinitely. While we were still at sea, while we were sleeping, God knows and loves and awaits the moment to awaken us to our redemption and calling. As the psalmist says, I awake, and am still with you... not awake and am now with you, God is there, abiding, enveloping, holding.
So there’s the initiating grace of God, let’s get back to human misgivings. Being a tragic opera, the Dutchman gets in the way of Senta’s perfect love. His insecurities, his past failures, his jealousy and rage burst forth when he suspects Senta’s love of being fickle. He rushes back to his ship and seven more years at sea. But Senta is true to her word, to her love, and she casts herself into the ocean. Her perfect love, sealed in sacrifice, redeems the Dutchman and they ascend together, embraced in free and joyful bliss. A great act for an opera, though not something any are encouraged in our own love lives.
Despite hearing the call of God, Samuel and Nathanael have misgivings. Their misgivings are typical of the two great human misgivings that inhibit our response to God’s call and experiencing the epiphany of God’s glory in our lives: self-dismissal and worldly values.
Samuel, a young apprentice, outside the family of priests, hears the voice of God but rushes to Eli. If the word of the Lord is rare and visions not widespread, why should Samuel assume himself special enough to be one of the chosen few? His arm might be short, but the list of reasons he ought to be called in the night couldn’t reach past the elbow. It’s not even that he doubts that God is calling him, it is simply beyond the categories of the possible. How many, I wonder, would behave the same? How many of us have felt (or been made to feel) that the calling of God, the great work of faith, the commission of the disciple is not for us. We might be able to believe we are loved (sure, isn’t everyone), but called? Known by name? Sought out and led forth? That’s a little too much for one so modest.
Nathanael’s misgivings are built on worldly values. There is a place called Nazareth, which isn’t worth the three syllables it takes to conjugate. If God’s anointed One is going to come from somewhere, it is going to be somewhere else. There are more fitting places to look for the one whom Moses and the Prophets wrote. How many, I wonder, behave the same? Have we missed something God was doing because of who told us about it? Has our image of God and vision of the Kingdom been truncated because we presumed that the only good things to know about God emerged in our own backyard? Have we neglected the presence of Christ in the least of these because the least of these were from the Nazareths of our world? Which would be a little too much to bear for one so respectable.
Thankfully, like Senta hurling herself in the ocean, God does not abandon us to our worst instincts (whether they be about ourselves or our neighbour). God pursues, God abides, God knocks and knocks again, calls and calls some more. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. If we ascend to heaven, God is there; if we make our bed in Sheol, God is there. If we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there God’s hand shall lead us, and God’s right hand shall hold us fast. God keeps on calling us, because that is what perfect love requires, an insatiable desire to awake the beloved to their redemption and calling, to a way of life where they are free.
A final word. We dwelt on God’s grace, and considered human misgivings. But there are also Eli and Phillip, two people in the stories we do well to emulate. For it is the task of Eli, Phillip, us to gently dispel the self-dismissal and push back on the worldly values. Our role to say come and see, or to encourage our neighbour to say Speak Lord. To remind each other that the good news of God’s grace can come to any of us, from any place. For the one who beheld our unformed substance, is the one who loved us first, laid down his life for his friends, and calls us by name into the abundant and meaningful life of a disciple.
We are known before we know, are loved before we act, and called before we hear. Such is the way of the goodness of God.
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