“Beginning to Follow”
January 1, 2012
I Samuel 3:1-10
It’s the start of a new year. The new semester at the University starts on Tuesday. We’re always beginning in some way. This morning we heard two stories of beginnings and we will hear more on the next several Sundays. These are stories of the call of God. They are stories of beginnings that speak to us.
We heard the gospel story of Nathanael sitting under a fig tree.
Look for him. Maybe you can't see Nathanael yet, but Jesus, on his way to Galilee, can. This is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth. This is Jesus, who always seems to be one or two steps ahead of everybody else.
Like when he finds Philip.
Jesus has the first word—direct and to the point: “Follow me.”
To Samuel in the night, to Philip in the light of day, to you or me God speaks first. We are—all of us—found and addressed by God. Before we can stammer out our own word, we hear: “Follow me.” God takes the initiative.
The call to follow comes to us as we are—religious or not, church going or not, involved or apathetic.
Jesus doesn’t say, “Go to church.”
Jesus doesn’t say, “Learn to pray.”
Jesus doesn’t say, “Feed the hungry.”
Jesus doesn’t say, “Occupy.”
Maybe, in time, we will.
The first word we hear, the first invitation we receive, is simply, “Come, draw near. Walk along for a while. Watch what I do.” If you look long enough, you just might be convinced.
The One who offers this invitation is so compelling that we join with countless other women and men and line up behind him. We follow along as best as we know how. Maybe we even discover new ways of walking along with him.
I guess that's a major reason why people decide to belong to congregations. We're willing to put up with all the quirks of everyone else—and everyone else is willing to put up with our own eccentricities—because we want to be with others who have heard the same call.
We want to be with others who have known the same passion.
We want to be with others who are walking together in the ways of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known to us.
In this way, when hearing grows dim, when love is slight, maybe we’ll find support from others along the way. The Christian life is not a solitary, individual one. We are in this together. The life of faith is not lived in isolation. We need one another. The word of God is something we hear and understand together.
God knows there are enough places in the world in which people tear down one another: the workplace, the halls of government, schools and businesses, even homes. And yes, churches can be like that, too. But a congregation can also be a place where people build up one another, where people seek good as we seek God—this congregation is just such a place. That is the promise of a group like this one. As we seek to live out that promise, we discover what it means to follow.
To Philip, to you and me Jesus has the first word: “Follow me.”
Hearing the call, faith finds a voice.
Philip—found by Jesus—finds Nathaniel under the fig tree.
Maybe you can feel the excitement in his voice as he speaks. Frederick Buechner imagines Philip thinking: “For centuries they’d been saying the Messiah was just around the corner and now, by God, if he hasn't finally turned up. Who would have guessed who? Who would have guessed where?”1
“We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” Philip blurts out. “Jesus—from Nazareth.”
The word “find” implies not simply discovering but seeking. In order for Philip to tell what he believes to Nathaniel, he must first find him. And in order for Nathaniel to hear what it is that Philip has to say, he must first be found. Seeking, finding and speaking are linked together.
We first announce not a program but a person. “We have found Jesus of Nazareth.” Faith finds a voice.
But what should we expect when we speak? Agreement? Conversion?
If Nathaniel's response is typical—and I think it is in many ways—we can expect doubt.
Sitting under the fig tree Nathaniel barely looks up. The words about Jesus that Philip speaks fall flat even as they leave his mouth.
"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nathaniel asks. Nazareth is not the site of great expectations. Nathaniel, from the town of Cana, knows how insignificant Nazareth, ten miles to the south, is.
When we speak from what we believe people will doubt. Can anything good come from the church? Can anything good come from that old brick building down the street? Can anything good come from the followers of Jesus?
Martin Luther King, Jr. was quite familiar with the disappointing characteristics of the followers of Jesus. “In the terrible midnight of war,” King wrote, “People have knocked on the door of the church to ask for the bread of peace, but the church has often disappointed them. What more pathetically reveals the irrelevancy of the church in present-day world affairs than its witness regarding war? In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions and imperialistic exploitation—[our world still today]—the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. . . . The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state and never its tool.”
If congregations like ours are to serve as the conscience of our nation, we can be informed by the story of the call of Samuel that we heard this morning.
The author of I Samuel remembers a time when the word of the LORD was rare, a time when visions were not widespread. That is to say, a time very much like our own.
Many of us in the church aren’t quite sure what we’re doing here. We hope, we hope that our involvement will make us better people, or we came back because of our kids, but we’re just not sure what this faith thing is all about anymore.
Work, we understand.
Busy, we understand.
Tension, we understand.
But the word of God seems so silent in our lives. Does faith mean anything at such a time?
Samuel is just a child, and he, too, is puzzled in his own time. In the darkness he hears a voice. It sounds loud and clear. It calls his name: “Samuel! Samuel! Three times he hears this call. And three times he stumbles through the darkness to old Eli and says: “Here I am!”
In this unpromising situation, Samuel is given a message.
His words are not words of comfort. Samuel will speak words of judgment against the corrupt sons of Eli. He will condemn their failure of leadership at a critical time in the life of the people of Israel.
This is a story of endings.
The message of this story, however, is that, in spite of our human tendency toward failure and corruption, “God will not acquiesce to evil.” If we are to accept God’s judgment in our own time of change and hope, we will acknowledge our own complicity in what is wrong and trust still that God “will do what is good.”
And so this is also a story about a time of a hopeful new beginning that comes as old, established ways of doing things collapse.
Nathanael's question is provocative, but far more interesting is Philip's response. He doesn't meet doubt with a sermon or an argument. He takes the doubt of Nathaniel seriously—as we can take our own doubt and the skepticism of others.
On the face of it Jesus appears as no messiah. But we can respond with the invitation to join in faith's inquiry.
Philip replies with the phrase he heard from Jesus, the phrase to which he responded: “Come and see.”
The great American preacher Philips Brooks spoke about these words: “Come and see.”
“They invite inquiry,” he said. “They proclaim a religion which is to have its own clear tests, which it invites everyone to use. It is an open faith.”2
Following Jesus is not a second-hand experience. It is not a matter of authority, unless that authority is your own experience.
“Come and see.” These are the words each of us hears in some way—an invitation to investigate and see for yourself. It is a challenging invitation: “Don't take my word for it. Check it out.”
Those words continue to speak to each person—believer or skeptic—in times of doubt. Do you find yourself asking “Why am I a Christian? Why do I keep trying to follow this way of life?” Or do you wonder as you sit here this morning what any of this could possibly have to do with you?
Come and see. Take a deeper look into scripture, into your own life. Don't take my word for it, but explore for yourself the strange announcement that Jesus is the living Christ; in him we see the glory, that is, the reality, of God.
The voice of faith will be met with doubt. And in doubt we hear "Come and see."
Well, like many others, maybe like you, Nathanael accepts the invitation. He gets up from his comfortable seat in the shade of the fig tree and goes to have a look at this Jesus. But once again the next words are not Nathanael’s. They belong again to Jesus. The one who is always ahead of the game says: “I know you—who and what you are.”
Have you ever been recognized by someone you didn't think knew you?
I don't mean like at the bank where they read your name off the deposit slip.
For years I took my car to the same garage. For years it was the same routine. I'd bring the car in, the owner would ask my name, take the keys and that was that. I always felt kind of unknown.
Then one day I took the car in. Before I got through the door the owner said, ‘Hi, Bill!” I tried to look around to see if there was somebody else there with my name. It was a small moment of recognition—and I felt better all day because of it. Something in that greeting touched me. I wasn't anonymous, unknown.
Over and over in John's gospel when people encounter Jesus there is the shock that comes with being recognized—Nathanael, the woman at the well, Mary in the garden on Easter morning. Jesus speaks to them. Jesus knows them. It is almost as if his knowledge of them calls them into being. Certainly it calls them deeper into life, so that—perhaps for the first time—they know what it means to truly be alive.
Like Nathanael who replies “You are the Son of God,” we recognize Jesus for who he is because we sense that he has recognized us. He has seen us under our fig trees, known our doubts about the whole enterprise and still says, “Follow me.” He still invites us to “Come and see.”
The savior and the saved recognize each other and call each other by name.
At this point Jesus stops speaking to Nathaniel. He turns and we discover that he is speaking to us! “In very truth I tell you all . . .” he begins. “You will see greater things than these.”
It reminds me of the response of Brendan, a sixth century Irish monk to a chieftain who asked what would happen if he became a Christian. He said: “You will stumble on wonder upon wonder, and each wonder true.”
Good news only gets better with time. Come and see.
Jesus—always a little ahead of us—calls to each “Follow me.” Follow in living and in dying.
Follow to new resurrected life. That's where he's leading.