Sermon: Would I Recognize God? (Epiphany 2, Year B)

fig tree

Sermon Epiphany 2  year B

St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Lodi, CA

1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20) (Call of Samuel)

John 1:43-51 (Call of Nathanael)

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 (knit me in my mother’s womb)

The question that comes to my mind with the readings today is: would I recognize God if I were Samuel, or Nathanael, or even our psalmist? It’s clear from each of these stories that God knows *us*…but would we recognize God?

The story of how the boy Samuel hears from God for the first time is one of those favorite Bible stories. The elderly priest Eli needs help from Samuel, and Samuel seems eager to jump out of bed to assist. It’s Eli who finally figures it out: God, who nobody has heard from in years, has a message for Samuel. “Next time you hear the voice,” he says, “it’s not me. It’s *God*. Say you’re listening and you can tell me about it in the morning.” (I wonder if Eli was also trying to keep Samuel from interrupting his sleep?) Samuel didn’t know to listen for God, and God spoke to him anyway. It took a couple tries. But God didn’t give up. Once Samuel recognized God, it was the beginning of a lifelong vocation as prophet and spiritual leader of the people of Israel. Samuel was just a youth, assisting the elderly priest, but God knew who he would become. God didn’t even give up when Samuel didn’t recognize the voice of God. 4 times God called to Samuel before Samuel recognized God. Would I recognize God’s voice in the middle of the night or would i miss the prophetic Oracle altogether? I don’t know. But I do know that God isn’t going to give up on calling us until we recognize that voice as God’s.

In our psalm today we hear how intimate God’s knowledge of us is. Not only does God know everything about us now, God knew everything about us before we were a twinkle in our parent’s eyes. And God knows the words we’re about to say. “How deep are God’s thoughts” indeed! How great the sum of them! I can hardly keep track of my own one self. And God keeps tabs on each of us. Like how an artist knows each bit of pigment on a painting, God knows each part of creation. We might not know each particle of creation like God, but we can know something of the wonder of God from our creation. The psalmist says: “I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *

        your works are wonderful, and I know it well.” Does God know me? Yes, more deeply than I can imagine. Do I recognize God? Yes. In the wonders of the creation I’m a part of.

You can hear Nathanael’s sass as Phillip tells him about Jesus of Nazareth: “Can anything good come from there??” He says with all the swagger of the guy from the good side of the Sea of Galilee. I’m not going to make any attempt to translate the town names into equivalents in our present day geography, like Lodi being tiny rural Nazareth and Sacramento being the larger, wealthier Capernaum. But we’ve all met the people who think that small rural towns don’t deserve attention. Just because this Jesus is the best Nazareth can produce doesn’t make him actually good in the real world, does it? It’s easy to be a big fish in a small town, is what Nathanael is saying.

I can also hear a note of…exasperation, or maybe exhaustion in Nathanael’s words. Who knows how many other saviors his friend Phillip has dragged him to meet? I imagine Phillip as the politically active friend, always volunteering for the latest local candidate’s campaign. The relentless taxation from local kings and far-off emperors meant that resentment of the government was always simmering. There were Jewish rebellions every few years. I wonder if Nathanael was tired of following failed rebels from small towns and now has heard what sounds like a hilarious joke from Philip: Nazareth, the tiniest town, has now produced the prophesied leader who will overthrow roman rule. Nazareth! Galilee was already the outlying district of the tiny province of Palestine. How can anyone from it’s smallest village even dream of political power?? How can anyone from there dream of making our lives better?

Jesus does not seem to mind Nathanael scoffing at his hometown. I like to imagine that Jesus had a sense of humor about it. Nazareth *was* a pretty unlikely place for a king to grow up. You can hear Jesus’s appreciation of Nathanael’s honest assessment: Jesus says that Nathanael is a man without deceit. He’s not going to lie to ingratiate himself with Philip’s savior. It’s unclear whether Jesus actually heard the insult about Nazareth or not, but it sounds like he could tell Nathanael was grumbling about being dragged along to see Philip’s new friend. And instead of responding with defensiveness about his hometown, or majestically proving his power, Jesus seems to joyfully accept Nathanael. “Now, here’s a man I can trust, a man who says what’s on his mind and isn’t going to sugarcoat it for me.” No wonder Nathanael was chosen as an apostle. We all need that honest friend.

Nathanael means “gift of God”. I can imagine his mom thinking that’s a good name for a precious baby. And I can also see an overconfident 20-something Nathanael using it as a too-clever pickup line. “I’m God’s gift to women, ladies!” Nathanael strikes me as the sort of college-age class-clown who always makes a pointed joking comment. Until he is faced with someone who actually is worthy of all the hype. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asks, with all the skepticism of a jaded college kid. Jesus, maybe with a smile at the corner of his mouth, because he knows he’s about to blown Nathanael’s mind, says “I saw you under the fig tree”. I don’t know what that is referring to. Some people think that because the Bible was studied outdoors under fig trees, this means that Nathanael joined the rabbis to learn scripture. But Nathanael’s response doesn’t quite fit with the simple acknowledgment of his study habits.

Whatever Jesus was referring to, it’s clear that Nathanael recognized exactly who Jesus was at the moment. The Son of God! We’re in the season after the epiphany, the manifestation of God in Jesus to the world, and Jesus is just manifesting himself all over the place. The fig tree reveal is just the first glimpse. The heavens will be opened and angels will descend. And ascend. There will be tons of angels you won’t even believe it! You say you recognize God now, but just you wait!

Nathanael’s story is a gift from God. It’s the story of a man who thought he knew everything. Who wasn’t afraid to say the honest truth. And also was completely willing to recognize the truth in front of him, even when it contradicted his preconceptions. Nathanael didn’t recognize God from Philip’s description. But as soon as Nathanael did recognize God, he was all in.

Are we willing to recognize God? Are we, like Nathanael, willing to set aside prejudices about a God who comes from such a place as Nazareth? I know that God knows me. Am I willing to know God? Am I willing to say “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”? Will I recognize God’s voice when I hear it? Do I only hear the voices of people I already know, like how Samuel thought he heard Eli, or do i recognize the voice of God? Am I open to hearing God and seeing God even in unlikely places? Will I joke my way through life and see the world through a lens of preconceptions, or can I, like Nathanael, shatter through prejudice and recognize God’s presence in the world? My prayer for us is not only that God would call to each of us as insistently as God called Samuel, but that we would recognize God’s presence in our lives, no matter how unexpected.

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