January 18, 2015 “ 2 Epiphany B
1 Samuel 3:1-20; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Occasionally someone will remark to me how difficult it must be to come up with a sermon each week. I generally respond that having to preach a sermon each week is a whole lot easier than having to listen to a sermon each week. Think about how hard it is to listen to a sermon. There are so many distractions. Each one of you has a bunch of stuff going on in your personal lives. Just setting that aside for ten to fifteen minutes is mighty hard. Something I say might lead you off on a tangent where you think of something totally unrelated to what I’m trying to say. Or you might grab hold of something and try to apply it to your life and then try to come back to the sermon and pick up after missing something. Or something I don’t say might be distracting as you wonder why I chose to address this rather than that. You could be a little miffed at me or disappointed in something I’ve done or left undone and get stuck in some resentment. It’s hard to listen to someone you’re struggling with. In this setting there is all the beauty and wonder of the place that might take you somewhere else. There are dozens of visual images here that might inspire you or lead you to ask some questions about what they may convey. All of a sudden you’re somewhere else and you’ve totally lost the thread. And sometimes we’re like little children and get stuck in the mode of having to be entertained. If I’m not stimulating enough, off goes the switch and you’re just not paying attention. It’s hard to listen to a sermon.
It’s hard to listen period. We’re usually so busy thinking of what we might want to say that we completely stop listening. But maybe the hardest part of listening is that we hear things and immediately start interpreting them and then there are several voices going on in our heads at the same time. We get confused and can’t really tell what’s going on.
God speaks to us all the time. But for some reason it’s very hard for us to listen and hear what God is saying to us, harder than listening to each other. The Christian message of the Incarnation is that God is among us, in the midst of us, inside us even, leading and guiding. But our practical experience is that hearing what God is saying to us is pretty difficult. There are distractions. There are our own inner struggles. There are our interpretations of things that lead to conflicting voices.
The emerging prophet Samuel, very young in our Old Testament lesson, is being spoken to by God but it’s hard for him to hear. He gets confused and thinks it must be his mentor Eli speaking to him. Even the wise old Eli takes a while to figure out that it is God calling to Samuel. When he does figure that out, he coaches young Samuel to answer the voice the next time he hears it. God is trying to talk to you, Samuel. Tell him you’re ready to listen and see what he has to say. Here I am, Samuel responds, when the voice comes the third time. Speak to me and guide me.
Maybe it’s helpful to you on your journey to know that even the great prophet Samuel had to learn how to listen. It’s more art than science. It takes practice. Listening to people who are right in front of us is difficult enough. How do we listen to a voice that isn’t even really there in the same way our voices are? Samuel may offer us the hope that it just takes a while to figure that out.
The call of Nathanael in the Gospel lesson may help us too. Philip is an easy catch for Jesus but Nathanael puts up more of a struggle. Philip comes to him with the news that the one they have been looking for, the Messiah, has been found. It is Jesus from Nazareth. Nazareth?, Nathanael scoffs. What good can come from there? Doesn’t sound too good to me. Come and see for yourself, Philip invites. And Nathanael investigates.
Interesting, isn’t it, how even our questions and doubts become part of our faith journey. We skeptically push back against hope and encouragement that life offers us, we kind of dare God to make himself known, we get grim and cynical and prepare ourselves for the worst case scenario in life, and then things soften us. Where is God? How can he let all this go on? Is he an idiot or does he just not give a rip? I give up. I can’t take this anymore. Nevermind. Eventually even those angry, self-centered places become the groundwork for our breakthroughs. Doubt, inexplicably, is an affirmation of faith. Nathanael comes with his heels dug in and even that is okay. Jesus isn’t dependent on a pure heart. The voice is there way before we start listening to it.
Nathanael is pretty shocked that Jesus recognizes him. How do you know me?, he asks Jesus. Been watching you for a long time. You’ve been hanging out under that fig tree. Wow. How did he know that?, Nathanael wonders. There’s a lot going on in this interchange.
Fig trees, if you can imagine it, were sacred things. In Nathanael’s day, the fig tree represented sacred solitude. That was the place one would go to sit in the shade and study the Torah. It was a place of prayer, of self-examination and study. The fig tree was the place Nathanael would go each day to ask God for guidance. It was the place he went each day to ready himself for the coming of the Messiah because it was thought that he was coming very soon. When I walk through the nave during the week and see someone kneeling down quietly out there, I know they are praying and pondering. We know what that means and fig trees were similar sorts of things then.
So when Jesus says that he’s been watching Nathanael under the fig tree, Nathanael feels this is like God himself affirming him and letting him know that his search is being rewarded. Jesus says, I know who you are and what makes you tick, Nathanael. I know you are searching for hope and meaning. I feel what is in your heart. You have been heard. And Nathanael hears that as the voice of God himself. Then here I am too, Nathanael responds. I’m ready. Let’s go. It seems pretty sudden and mysterious but it’s evolved over time. He has been searching and making ready. He’s skeptical for a while and then things open up and he knows God is present. He is more present with God. This is just the beginning, Jesus says. If you’re excited by this, just wait. Heaven is going to open up in a brand new way now that you’ve come this far. And on they go.
The psalm brings out some of what Nathanael is experiencing. You have searched me out and known me. You discern my thoughts. You are acquainted with my ways. You created my inmost parts. You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I am marvelously made. Your works are wonderful. How deep I find your thoughts. They are more in number than the sand. To count them all, my life span would need to be like yours. That’s the movement in Nathanael as he realizes the presence of God in his midst, as he sees that he is fully known, wonderfully made, graciously led and guided. A sense of awe and wonder evolve in Nathanael and he is empowered to follow in a brand new way.
I guess the bottom line message today is that, even though it is difficult to hear God and it takes practice and time, there is the presence of God out there and the presence of God is in here. It is making itself known. Sometimes we’re so undone by how hard it is to hear, that we forget there is actually something out there making itself known to us. God is doing most of the work. He’s not just waiting to see who can make the cut. God is pursuing us.
But the subtext of that message is that it sure helps to listen. It sure helps to put oneself in the right posture. If we don’t practice and make room for the presence of God, there is a big absence in our lives. If we don’t respond to those Come and See invitations, we don’t see much. Samuel is in the temple when he comes to know God’s presence. Nathanael’s experience starts under the fig tree. There is some faithfulness on their part.
Why doesn’t God ever lead me or guide me, we ask. Well, are you listening? Are you making room? Are you providing a sacred place and a sacred practice? Are you willing to recognize that God knows you inside and out? Can you trust that you are well known? Can you be honest with yourself and name those things that God knows so well about you? Sometimes we are so busy trying to hide from who we are that it makes listening to that presence which knows us virtually impossible. Making room does require some listening. And one of the things we quickly come to know is an experience of being listened to and appreciated by God.
Do you want to know God better? Come and see. Listen. Practice. Make yourself available. Tune in. Everything you’ve ever needed is available with just a little turn of your heart.