Recent Sundays have immersed us in a great mystery. The Christ child who born into the world is Immanuel, “God with us.” In the language of the Gospel of John, he is the Word made flesh. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In him we have seen God taking on our humanity, becoming one with us without ceasing to be God. In Jesus Christ, God meets us as one of us.
Since this is the case, we have reason to assume that what we can say about God, we can also say about Jesus Christ. Now we say about God that he is omniscient. That is to say, God knows all things. That is what we mean when we say that God is omniscient. That may or may not interest us as an abstract point of theological dogma. But it may and should interest us when we say that God really knows each one of us.
Indeed, it is hard to remember a time when this reality been more vitally necessary for us to embrace than now. Governments worldwide have imposed restrictions on people in the continuing attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus. To this date those restrictions remain in force. But the measures introduced to stop the spread of the pandemic have given rise to another pandemic: the pandemic of loneliness. We all know people who’ve had to endure painful isolation in recent months due to quarantining. Maybe we count ourselves among them. Perhaps the intensity of our own struggle with loneliness has been greater this past year than we ever remember before. In our darkest moments we may have even known a sense of utter desolation. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard attempted to capture this frightful sense when he wrote: “Deep within every human being there lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions in this enormous household.” No doubt the ordeal we’ve had to endure has provoked this anxiety in many throughout the world.
But the reality that God knows each one of us—that is what our lessons designated for this Lord’s Day display to us. Both in the case of Samuel and in that of Nathanael, we see that God’s knowing is a personal knowing. It expresses itself in the form of a personal address. “Samuel!” God calls. “I saw you under the fig tree,” Jesus says to Nathanael. Both are comforting lessons for us in times like these and for this reason are especially worthy of our attention. So what precisely do they open up for us about the experience of the human recipient of God’s address? When we look more closely at the experience of Samuel and Nathanael, we see that in both cases there is (1) doubt and misperception. Then we see (2) that this is resolved in a moment of recognition; and finally (3) that there is a decisive transformation as a result.
In the first place, then, there is doubt or misperception. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the misperception comes from the predisposition to doubt. Granted, this may have been less the case with the boy Samuel than it is with us. Samuel after all is only a boy. Children generally are trusting and open to new experience. Nevertheless, Samuel did not yet know the Lord (3:7). And when God does call, Samuel mistakes the voice of God for that of Eli. But should not Eli have discerned that it was the voice of the Lord? After all, was he not Israel’s spiritual leader for forty years? Was he not responsible for the boy Samuel, who had not yet reached the age of accountability? But Eli did not perceive immediately what was happening. We read that his eyesight had begun to grow so dim that he could no longer see. This detail is no doubt added to reveal to us his spiritual condition. Under Eli’s watch, the temple service was in a shambles. In the previous chapter, we learn that his two sons and putative successors, Hophni and Phineas, abused their office, stealing the choicest parts of the people’s sacrifices for their own table and seducing the women at the very gates of the Temple. Eli did warn them verbally, but his weakness as a father is evident in the fact that he did nothing to discipline or restrain them. Whether or not the word of the Lord was rare in those days because of their sin, the text does not tell us explicitly. Suffice it to say, Israel’s spiritual leader, Eli, was so spiritually blind and deaf that he didn’t recognize the word of the Lord when it finally did come to Samuel. It was only after the third time that he realized that the Lord had been calling the boy. And only then did he give the boy spiritual direction.
When we turn to our gospel lesson, we see that the call to Nathanael is at first mediated through Philip. Philip was convinced on the basis of the scriptures that Jesus is the one for whom Israel was waiting. He is the one about whom Moses and the Prophets wrote. But what was Nathanael’s initial response? He doubted. This reflected in his scoffing remark: “How can anything good come out of Nazareth!” (1:46). Now Nazareth was a village in Galilee. Some commentators interpret Nathanael’s response in light of the reputation the village had as a cultural backwaters. I’m not sure how far we ought to press this interpretation. The narrative suggests that Philip and Nathanael were students of the Hebrew scriptures. Our lesson makes this point especially about Nathanael. That Jesus saw Nathanael “under the fig tree” would have signaled to the first readers of John’s Gospel that Nathanael was a student of Torah or Jewish law. The phrase “under the fig tree” was used in Rabbinic literature to refer to meditation on the law. At all events, both men would have known that the Christ was to come from Bethlehem, not from a town in Galilee. In fact, that this doubt was present in the minds of the Jews is reflected later in the Gospel of John. After hearing him teach at the temple, some objected that Jesus could not be the Christ, since the Scriptures do not teach that the Christ comes from Galilee. Perhaps Nathanael is only echoing these objections. In any case, the point is that Nathanael doubted.
But neither the boy Samuel nor Nathanael are allowed to remain in their doubt, in their deafness to God’s call, in their blindness to God’s presence. In the case of Samuel, God continues to call. God does not give up on Samuel just because he does not yet know the Lord. In his persistent, irresistible grace, God came a fourth time, calling Samuel by name. Indeed, the text says, “the Lord came and stood there….” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And in the case of Nathanael Jesus continues to speak, and in speaking, reveals enough of himself to prompt Nathanael to exclaim: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
For both Samuel and Nathanael, then, doubt resolves itself in a moment of recognition. It is important to see in this connection that doubt, deafness and blindness are not resolved from our side with respect to God, but rather from God’s side with respect to us. It is God who calls Samuel. It is Jesus who discloses himself to Nathanael. That is to say, the initiative is God’s.
Let me try to illustrate this point. I have a friend. One Sunday evening several years ago she called and asked to meet with me. She told me she wanted to discuss a spiritual problem. She said she’d even drive to meet me in Holland so as not to inconvenience me. I agreed, and so we met. After we sat down, she began to tell me that she’d lost her faith; she no longer believed in God. Instead of trying to convince her that God exists, that God knows and loves her, as she might have expected me to do, I replied: “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. God is faithful. You belong to him. He will show himself to you again.” She seemed somewhat surprised by this reply, and asked me to clarify. But I only repeated my remark.
In our lessons, in the Bible generally, the conviction that God knows and loves me is not the outcome of a long and strenuous process of searching within or outside me. Rather, it is God who initiates, it is God who searches, it is God who apprehends. Consequently, there is a paradox in knowing God. It is not that we know God, but rather are known by God, as the Apostle Paul states in Galatians 4. The seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal expresses this truth in his prayer: “I would not have sought you, unless you had first found me.”
In Psalm 139, from which we borrowed words for our prayer of confession earlier, David expresses his wonder at the God who knows him: “You have searched me and you know me.” And Nathanael’s experience is comparable. “How do you know me?” he asks. “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you,” Jesus replied. Do you see that he does not resolve his doubt on his own initiative? In effect, Jesus tells him: “I know you already, Nathanael. I knew you even before Philip brought you to see me.” Nathanael’s response reveals a joyful awareness that he has been known completely. The sentiment recalls the words of the Psalmist: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” This in turn prompts Nathanael’s confession: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
How does all this relate to us? We are here in this place. Like Nathanael, we confess our faith in the words of the creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.” If we know God in Jesus Christ, it is because God first knows us completely. And in knowing us, he has called us. He may not have commissioned us, as he did Samuel, to declare the fall of the house of Eli, as we read further in 1 Samuel 3. But he has called us out of darkness into light to declare his praises. He has called us to follow Jesus Christ. And as we answer that call, we will see greater things than we do now. With this observation, we have arrived at our third and final point: that with our recognition of God, there follows a decisive transformation.
When we read about Samuel’s life in the rest of 1st Samuel, we learn that Samuel continued to listen to the word of the Lord and speak this word to Israel. Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with God and with the people. None of Samuel’s words fell to the ground, that is, none of them were useless and ineffective, because these words came from God.
Jesus promises Nathanael that he will see greater things. “Do you think it is astonishing that I saw you under the fig tree?” Jesus asks. I tell you that you will see greater things than these. You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
It is clear that John wants us to recall here Jacob’s ladder, about which we read in Genesis 28. It is the place of meeting between God and Israel, the axis of the world, the place where the vertical and the horizontal intersect. The open heaven is a metaphor for God’s self-revelation. Nathanael has made his confession that Jesus is the Son of God. But in effect Jesus is promising that Nathanael that if he follows him, he will come to understand more and more what “Son of God” means. This promise is not only for Nathanael; it is also for us.
But perhaps you are today in the same crisis as my friend once was. If you doubt like her, you have only to ask God to give you a renewed awareness that you are known by him. God is faithful and will do as you ask as you pray and read the Bible. Then together with Nathanael and all God’s people you can rest secure confidence that you are not alone in the world, but are known and loved by God. Amen.