Epiphany 2: January 8th

The tale of Samuel is an old story, an ancient story. Samuel is called out by God to be a prophet for a people who have lost their way. Like the priest, Eli, their eyesight is dimmed. They struggle to see the righteous path and to hear the holy Word. Samuel is roused from his sleep and given the mixed blessing of being one called to proclaim the hard Word of God. Invariably, prophets of the Lord are burdened with messages their people do not want to hear. Samuel was chosen as a prophet because he was able to submit himself to God’s service. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel’s vocation is all about listening. He is awoken in the night by a voice, over and over again, until Eli help him understand the strange thing at hand.

Nathaniel, on the other hand, is called out to the life of faith not by sound but by sight. Nathaniel dismisses Jesus with the disparaging comment, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But Philip wisely encourages Nathaniel to “Come and See.” Philip, like Eli, trusted that the spirit of the Lord had something in store for his friend. Philip himself has just experienced the rush of newness and joy that accompanies being in the presence of the Son of God, and he convinced Nathaniel that there is, in fact, something amazing to see in Jesus of Nazareth.

Now I want to draw attention to a delightful detail in this story, one that we might miss if we don’t look carefully. Philip has persuaded Nathaniel to “Come and See.” But when Nathaniel approaches Jesus, it is Jesus who sees Nathaniel coming toward him. It is Jesus who recognizes something profound about Nathaniel. Even though this fellow just made a snide comment about his hometown, Jesus sees that this man is utterly honest, that there is not a speck of deceit in him. Jesus knows and understands him, and there are few things more powerful than truly being known and understood.

Nathaniel is a little confused, seeing as how he has just met Jesus. But the fact that Jesus sees him—first sees him under the fig tree, and then sees the very condition of his soul—transforms Nathaniel. He is called into the life of faith not by going to see Jesus, but by Jesus’ ability to see him. What’s more, Jesus promises him he will see much, much more—Jesus says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Samuel hears the voice of the Lord, and responds to his call. Nathaniel is seen by the Son of God, and sees the truth of his identity. Both reveal ways in which God calls people, and both include the invaluable contributions of third parties—Eli, the priest who assists Samuel in discerning the source of his wake-up call, and Philip, who directs Nathaniel to go and see Jesus. While the focus of these stories tends to fall on God’s actions toward Samuel and Nathaniel, the roles of Eli and Philip are critical. We need the wisdom of our family and friends to enable us to hear and to see the new ways God is moving in our lives.

On the first day of my seminary experience, one of my professors invited each student to share his or her experience of vocation—just how we all heard God’s call on our life to uproot ourselves and devote our lives to Christian ministry. As my classmates stood and recounted their encounters with God, it dawned on me that none of our stories took the form of Samuel’s dramatic midnight encounter with the Lord. My friend Lara recounted how her experiences in a class on nonviolence and on a mission to Chile stirred a deep desire to help other people respond to the gospel. Another student described how he careened into rock bottom when his drug and alcohol abuse spiraled out of control, and how the long and painful process of climbing out of the depths revealed that his life might have a greater purpose. My own call story started when I was fifteen when I had the faintest perception that I maybe, might, possibly, perhaps want to be a minister.

None of us were ever awoken in the night by a voice booming from heaven. Our stories emerged with all the drama of a shadow, all the volume of a whisper. But our experiences of vocation were full of characters like Eli and Philip. A common element in every single story, as diverse as they were, was the importance of faithful mentors along the way. My friend Lara was only able to go on that mission trip to Chile because of the spiritual, financial, and emotional support of her grandmother. The seminary student who struggled with addiction was firmly and lovingly confronted by concerned friends. My own vocation might have stalled out at maybe, might, possibly, and perhaps if not for the United Church of Christ seminarians I met at church camp the year I was fifteen years old. They offered guidance, encouragement, and wisdom as I awkwardly discerned the path God would have for my life.

God calls people. And God doesn’t just call people to be prophets and pastors. God calls people to be witnesses to the gospel of Christ in as many ways and in as many places as there are people on this earth. Just as Jesus saw Nathaniel, God knows each one of us intimately and deeply. And just as God summoned Samuel again and again, patiently waiting for him to recognize the one calling his name, God waits for each of us to realize that our own names are murmured by the Creator of the Universe. At the core of every sight and sound from on high is God’s hope that we will experience and reflect the love and grace of Christ. Our ultimate calling— regardless of where we get our paycheck—is to be witnesses to the gospel.

Living our lives within the space of a Christian community is not an optional piece of our journey with God. Christian community is essential. It is here we are able to be Eli’s and Philip’s for one another, saying, “Listen to this,” and “Look at that,” all the while getting closer to the heart of our vocation as individuals and as the Body of Christ. We must be trustworthy companions for one another, for it is only in community that we can be truly held accountable to the Gospel. We hear the Word in community. We see the glory of God in community.

God calls people out of fear, desperation, and loneliness. God calls people into deep Christian spirituality, true community, and a passion for justice. Let all who have ears hear, let all who have eyes see, and let us boldly proclaim, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

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