Sunday, January 15th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139; John 1:43-51
“Lord, you have searched me out and known me.”
Sometimes, the simpler things bring us to faith. For all the miracles and stories of wonder-working in the gospels, we must consider what it really is that draws us into a relationship with the living God. To be sure, there are times in the gospels when Jesus works a miracle and it causes someone to become his disciple. These, though, are the extraordinary tales. Yes, there have been similar stories through the ages of our history in which miracles have brought people to faith, but what of the countless number who have not known such grand miracles, and yet have believed deeply and profoundly, lived lives of piety and devotion, and proclaimed their faith in the living God? Can one come to faith without miracles?
The answer of course, is yes. Yes, with a proviso, that we are considering the word miracle in its narrowest terms. If we posed the question, can we come to faith without mystery, I think the answer would be no. Of course, I do not mean mystery in its literary sense, as a kind of story that needs to be solved by a detective. Rather, I mean mystery in the religious sense; the sense of awe and unknowing before God, and at the same time being mysteriously and strangely known by that same God. The stories we hear today are only slightly miraculous. However, they overflow with a profound degree of sacred mystery. It is this sacred mystery that touches most of us in the depths of our souls as Christians, even when miracles are scarce.
Jesus told Nathanael that he would see great and miraculous things, angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, whatever such a thing might look like! Yet, this is not what brought Nathanael to faith. What brought Nathanael to faith was the revelation that he was already known by God. What brought Nathanael to faith was the fact that he, a simple Israelite man, a man without deceit, a man with a sceptic’s eye, might be known, inside and out, by God. When told by his brother Philip that he and his companions had found the messiah and that he was from Nazareth, Nathanael scoffed. It might be a bit like saying the Messiah came from Bradford. And yet, when he went to investigate what he thought would surely be a fraud, Jesus (as is so often the case with those to come to him in St. John’s Gospel) knows all about him already. Nathanael, puzzled by this, asked him how he knew him, and Jesus, in essence responded, “I’ve had my eye on you. I have seen you under the fig tree.” A little bit of mystery, and Nathanael made a profound proclamation of faith: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! The King of Israel!”
What was it that inspired this proclamation of faith on the part of Nathanael that not only was Jesus simply a teacher, but indeed the Son of the living God and the hope of an Israel whose spirit had been broken? What was it that caused him in an instant, after having only just met Jesus, to proclaim him as the one foretold by the prophets of old? It was simply this, that Jesus knew him. It was nothing more, nothing less. And this is more powerful than any miracle, that God in Christ knows us and seeks us out. For Nathanael, the words of the Psalmist were suddenly real to him, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me.” Sacred mystery!
In olden times in the Temple, a young lad was sleeping. He knew little of the ways of God, but was being trained up by the old priest Eli to be a servant of the Lord. Three times God called out his name, and thrice Samuel was confused. He thought it was his earthly master, Eli, waking him. Old Eli the twice dismisses Samuel, but the third time recognizes that something is up, that God is at work. He advises his young apprentice that if he hears the call again, he should answer simply, “Here I am, Lord.” And so when the voice of the Lord calls again a third time, young Samuel, thanks to the wise mentoring of his old master, heeds the call and offers himself up to the God who knows his name. What was the miracle other than a voice that sounded like that of Eli did Samuel witness? What was it that brought him to faith? It was simply this, that he was known by name by the living God. Sacred mystery!
Back again to first century Galilee – Nathanael’s brother Philip met Jesus first. He was the one who told Nathanael about the Messiah. Unlike Nathanael, though, he did not share his brother’s scepticism. We are simply told by St. John that Jesus found Philip and said, “Follow me,” and Philip followed him and ran to tell his brother about him. What was it that brought Philip to faith? Was it a grand miracle? Was it even a good sermon? No. It was simply this: Jesus found him. What do we know about Philip and Nathanael prior to their meeting with Jesus? We know nothing. Their names mean nothing to us, and they would remain unknown to history if Jesus had not found them, and called them to proclaim his name to the ends of the earth. They might have seemed insignificant to others, but they meant much to God. Sacred mystery!
As it was with Samuel, God went searching and God went calling. God seeks and God finds. God looks into the hearts and lives of men and women, both great and small, both rich and poor and says, “Follow me.” And why do we follow? We follow because by some sacred mystery, we realize that everything we are, have been, and will be are known to this man from Nazareth. We look into the eyes which have gazed into our soul and know that before us is the very God who created us seeking us out not simply because he has something special for us to do, but simply because he loves us and longs to be with us. He longs for a relationship with us, he longs for communion with us.
It is often said that the purpose and end of the Christian life is that we might partake of the divine life. The great mystery of our lives is that we are wired to long for God, to seek after God, to attain communion with God. The greater mystery, though, is that though our feebleness prevents us from touching God’s face, in Jesus Christ, God reaches out and touches ours. The greater mystery is that frail and feeble as we are, imperfect as we are, God longs for us and seeks communion with us. What is the greatest mystery of all is that as we falteringly seek to partake of the divine life, God draws near to us and selflessly partakes of human life, that we might finally be partakers of the one who is all life and goodness.
This then, is a miracle. The miracle of faith is that God knows and longs for communion with each and every one of us, and makes that possible. He knows each of our names, sees into each of our hearts, and even in our brokenness (and perhaps because of our brokenness) longs to partake of our life; that we might partake of his. Whether we are like Samuel, a little child with no knowledge of God but with a wise mentor who can help us hear his voice, or whether we are like Nathanael, a sceptic who is swayed by a personal encounter, or whether we are like Philip who runs headlong into an unknown future, God is calling us by name. He has searched us out and known us … and that is why we come to faith.
c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves