Epiphany II

Trinity, Jacksonville–John 1:43-51, I Samuel 3:1-10

One of the forms of play that we all engaged in as children is a guessing game. Something is a secret—usually the location of a hidden object or person. One or more of the players know the answer to the secret and one or more of the players try to guess the answer. Those who know the secret are allowed to assist those who don’t by saying “You’re getting warmer” if they’re moving closer to the goal and “You’re getting colder” if they’re straying further away. With the help of these clues, the riddle is eventually solved, and the next round begins.

As I reflect on my day-to-day experience as an adult, I’m aware that I am profoundly influenced by variations on this essential children’s guessing game. The clues—”You’re getting warmer /You’re getting colder”—are more subtle, making use of various code words and symbols, but the basic rules of the game are the same. Secrets, riddles, puzzles, cryptic clues, symbolic codes—these are all common tools that grownups use in relating to one another in the everyday world. The game is so ubiquitous that we’re usually not even conscious of it; it’s just the air we breathe.

So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that we expect God to play by the same rules. We assume that he has scattered clues about himself throughout the universe that we inhabit—in the operation of nature, in the breathtaking order of mathematical principles, in the human capacity for love and sacrifice and honor and the appreciation of beauty, and in a host of other places. Our job is to be observant, to read these clues, and by dedicated effort to peel back the layers of the mystery of God’s being. Once in a while, we may get an extraordinary report card from God evaluating our progress: “You’re getting warmer—you’re getting colder.”

I realize, of course—at least I hope—that, in our minds, we know that this is a false conception of the way God relates to us. Unfortunately, though, it’s often all too accurate a picture of the way we relate to God. And it’s an attitude that can get us into a good deal of trouble. Some of you who are really veteran Episcopalians may remember a fellow named James Pike. James Pike was a successful young lawyer in Manhattan, a nominal Roman Catholic who experienced a spiritual awakening through the ministry of the Episcopal Church. He soon felt himself called to leave his career, go to seminary, and become a priest, which he did. James Pike rose through the ranks, as it were, very quickly. He was a bright, articulate, and personable evangelist, in the best and broadest sense of that term, for Christian faith and practice. In the late 1950s he was elected and consecrated Bishop of California. But Bishop Pike, it appears now, still saw himself as on a search, trying to solve a riddle. He was unable to rest in the fact that his search was over, that the God for whom he was looking had already found him. A few short years later, after scandalizing the church by denying just about every belief we hold, James Pike perished in the Judean desert east of Jerusalem, as he searched for a way to contact the ghost of his dead son. Playing guessing games with God can have serious consequences indeed. We can end up losing forever the very thing we had been searching for.

I guess it’s obvious by now that my point is that it doesn’t have to be this way! There is an alternative to going through life waiting for God to tell us, “You’re getting warmer—you’re getting colder.” The wonderful Old Testament story of the call of the boy Samuel gets us back on the track, and Jesus’s exchange with Nathanael brings us to our destination. Samuel’s parents had apprenticed him to Eli, a priest at a local Israelite shrine, shortly after his birth. Samuel grew up, then, almost literally in the shadow of the altar, in the almost tangible presence of God. He knew nothing of searching for God. Quite the opposite: One night as he lay in bed trying to get to sleep, he experienced God searching for him.

“Samuel  . . .  Samuel …”, the voice called to him. Only after Samuel ran to Eli three times did the old priest realize who it was that was calling the boy, and he told him to answer, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” Samuel did not seek and find God; God sought and found Samuel. And isn’t it, when we stop and think about it, better that way? Isn’t it much more fun to be recruited, to be wooed and courted, than to answer a want ad and fill out an application? I’ve done both, and it’s no mystery to me which one is preferable!

And for the most part, that’s the way God prefers to treat us. He took the initiative in creating us. He took the initiative in loving and redeeming us. And he takes the initiative in pursuing a relationship with each one of us. And the basis for all that initiative-taking is God’s intimate knowledge of us. The one who seeks us out and finds us is the one to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid. When it comes to the basis of our relationship with him, God doesn’t play guessing games, either as the secret keeper or the puzzle-solver. The basis for our knowledge of God is God’s knowledge of us.

This is made clear for us in St John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with a fellow named Nathanael. First Jesus calls Philip to follow him, and Philip does so. Then Philip goes and finds Nathanael—a friend of his, presumably—and says, “We’ve found the Messiah, his name is Jesus, come and meet him!” So Nathanael tags along, somewhat skeptically, until he actually meets Jesus. Jesus greets him in a casual, almost playful, manner that would suggest he already knew him.  Nathanael is mildly perplexed and says, in effect, “Excuse me, have we met?” Then Jesus drops the bomb. “Well, Nathanael, yes and no: I saw you when you were underneath the fig tree.”  Now the fig tree in question was not one that was in the vicinity as they had this conversation. But it was one, apparently, under which Nathanael had had some significant spiritual experience. We have no clue what it was, but it was deeply important to him.  And this man Jesus, whom he had never met before, knew all about it.

Don’t we melt like putty in warm hands when someone gently and sincerely shows even an interest in, much less knowledge of, our most profound joys and sorrows? Nathanael had one very private tender spot in his heart, and Jesus knew right where it was and touched it. He touched it mercifully and lovingly, and Nathanael knew immediately that Philip had indeed found the Messiah. When we experience that touch, when we know that we are known at the deepest level of our being, we receive the confidence and the trust to respond as a disciple, to become a follower of the one who knows us so well. For Samuel the response was, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  For Nathanael, the response of discipleship was, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel!”

My friends, Jesus sees us under our “fig trees.”  He sees us in the special places, those special people, those events both joyful and sorrowful, in the books and the songs—wherever it is that we bare our souls and lay ourselves open without reservation, wherever it is that we simply quit playing guessing games. If we stop our desperate search for clues that we’re getting warmer or getting colder, we can enjoy the knowledge that the God who made us and loves us is always getting “warmer,” and if we just sit still long enough, he’ll find us!  Amen.

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