Many of you have no doubt noticed that around the holidays, on the news, we are sometimes treated to some heartwarming videos, often filmed on family smartphones. A few weeks ago, one such video showed up on one of the major networks. In it, a mother opens a gift from her adult daughter who, the mother believes, is miles away, serving our country in our military, possibly in the Middle East. The mother’s concentration is entirely fixed on the gift her daughter has sent her. We watch the mother tear the paper from a full length mirror, only to realize, as she gazes into it, that her daughter, in her desert camouflage uniform, has quietly entered the room and is standing several feet behind her mother.
How do we react to the unexpected? In this case the mother begins to scream – and instead of racing to embrace her child, flees from the room. She is in shock, and we can only imagine what she may have been thinking. Is her daughter really there, or is she seeing a ghost? What is happening? The daughter, of course, rushes after her mother, and in a few moments the two again enter the room, wrapped in each other’s arms, in a tearful, joyful embrace. There are all sorts of surprises in life – and sometimes it’s hard to grasp what is happening, and that the experience is real.
“Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread… Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down.”
The Lord persists, calling again and yet again, “’Samuel! Samuel!’”, and each time the boy, who “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” runs to his mentor Eli. This is pretty straight forward, and not too surprising. A child, new to the service of God, is certainly not expecting to hear the voice of the Lord calling his name. His natural assumption is that he is being summoned by his mentor, Eli.
But what is going on with Eli? What we miss, hearing this story thousands of years after the fact, is just how shocking things have become with him. Eli has been in the Lord’s service for a very long time, but is described as one “whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see.”
This might at first appear to be only a description of part of the aging process, but it is much more. After years in the Temple, this elderly servant of God should know who is calling Samuel, but he doesn’t. Why? Eli’s inner vision, which has never been crystal clear, is beginning to completely fail him. Though he has been in God’s service for a lifetime, Eli isn’t prepared for God, and isn’t expecting a divine revelation. That’s why it takes three tries on God's part for Samuel, who needs Eli’s direction, to respond properly to God. Eli’s failure to discern God’s call is shocking!
“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’” Again, the voice of God, which this time issues from a man. Unlike Eli, Philip is paying attention, for he recognizes something wonderful, amazing in Jesus, and wants to share this with his friend Nathanael. “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’”
Nathanael is more like us. Phillip is probably the more exuberant and emotional of the two men, and his friend, Nathanael, no doubt thinks Phillip is over excited. With wry humor Nathaniel says, “’Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ But Phillip is not to be dissuaded or discouraged and says to him, ‘Come and see.’” And this is where the story, which doesn’t sound all that thrilling to us today, really takes off.
“Jesus saw Nathaniel coming to him and said of him, ‘Behold an Israelite in whom is no guile.’ Nathaniel [understandably skeptical] said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ It is Jesus’ response that will stun Nathanael and leave him as shocked and overcome as that mother looking into the mirror and seeing her child. Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’” Nathanael has been studying the Hebrew Scriptures, which in Jesus time were often referred to as “a fig tree”. He has been searching for evidence of the Messiah. Jesus is saying, “We’ve met, in the scriptures, where you were searching for me.”
This is the point where the mother I spoke of earlier ran screaming from the room. This is the unexpected moment when everything becomes clear. Nathanael realizes to whom he is speaking. Shocked and overwhelmed, he says something so profound, it can only come from his innermost heart and soul. He makes a statement of faith and belief. “Rabbi you are the Son of God. The King of Israel.”
Today’s lessons give us three examples of how normal human beings, like us, respond to the unexpected entrance of God into our lives. Never think for a moment that God has not, or will not, or does not come into your life, because He does – often. The question for us is, which response is ours?
We, who have been Jesus’ followers for a very long time, may think that we do not respond as did the child Samuel. However, in times of unexpected suffering, grief, pain, disaster, it is often hard to discern the action of our loving Heavenly Father. We ask, “Why?” Sometimes we dare to wonder, “Where was God?” when tragedy struck. We are most like Samuel in these times, and often, when we are finally open to hearing it, it takes someone to, with love, remind us that suffering is a gift from God, and that though we are in pain, we are not alone. The moment we recognize and accept that Jesus is there, that God is with us, everything changes. It takes our pain, and makes it holy.
Then there is Eli’s response, or lack of response. He serves as an example of what can befall us when we try to figure out or rationalize everything that happens to us. We become accustomed to seeing life in worldly terms, to explaining things in worldly ways. We resist accepting that there really are no coincidences and that everything happens for a reason within God’s providence. We try to “take control of our lives” in a way that blocks us from seeing the Hand of God in everything we do and everything we experience. Thus our lives are less full, less joyful, and less pleasing to God than they would be if we turned to Him in all things, and looked for Him in every action, every situation we encounter, and every person we meet. Eli disappointed God. We must be careful not to do the same.
And then there is Nathanael. Can we, like Nathanael, become as awestruck, as amazed, as filled with joy over Jesus, as he was? Can we in our encounters with our Lord find within us that ecstatic response expressed by that mother who looked into a mirror and saw her beloved daughter, home from the front?
For us, the baptized, the believers, Jesus’ followers, the answer must be, “Yes!” We don’t need to scream, or run from the room, but like John the Baptist who leapt in his mother’s womb, our hearts ought to leap with joy each time we perceive our Lord in our lives, in the things we do, the situations we face, and the people we encounter along our path to holiness. And for this to happen, we must strive to not let ourselves become complacent and satisfied with the world, not let our eyesight grow dim.
God knows us so well – as the Psalmist tells us today. He has searched us out. He knows our sitting down and our rising up; He discerns our thoughts from afar. He traces our journeys, our daily work, our chores, our interactions. He traces our resting-places and is acquainted with all our ways. Indeed, there is not a word on our lips, but the Lord, knows it altogether. This is how close God is to us, how intimately Jesus is present in our lives. But sadly we are often either Samuel or Eli, unprepared for the Presence of the Most Holy.
We are called to wake up, to unwrap the gift of grace that has been given us, to look into the mirror of our souls, and to find Jesus there, and in the experiences of our lives and in the people around us. And we are then meant to be filled with awe, and joy so great that with absolute certainty and total faith we can say with Nathanael, “Jesus, You are the Son of God. The King of Israel.” The King of my heart and my life and my soul.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, You have a plan for each one of us, You hold out to us a future full of hope. Give us the wisdom of Your Holy Spirit so that we can see the shape of Your plan in the gifts You have given us, and in the circumstances of our daily lives, and find you in each person we meet. Give us the freedom of your Spirit, to seek You with all our hearts, to recognize You, and to choose Your Will above all else. All this we ask, for your love and mercy’s sake. Amen