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We are in the season of Sundays after the Epiphany. The Epiphany refers to the visit of the magi to meet Jesus and the meaning behind that visit: that in the birth of Christ, God comes into the world for all people—of every nation and kind, every state or status—everyone. During this season after the Epiphany, the scripture readings help us explore the extent of God’s birth, God’s revelation, God’s showing forth.
Today’s scriptures get us started in the season by asking us if we would recognize God, should God visit us. Would we notice? Would we pay attention? Or, would we be distracted or blinded by our expectations, and miss God’s arrival?
In our first reading, the boy Samuel is sleeping in the hallway of the temple. He’s an apprentice there, so he must have been familiar with the sounds of the place at night. And so when he hears a voice, he assumes it’s the voice of Eli, the old priest whose service he is in. Samuel is probably 11 or 12 years old and, as an apprentice at the temple knows about God, even if scripture says “he did not yet know the Lord.” He must have known all the great stories of the faith, something of the prophets and priests and characters. But he did not yet know God well enough to recognize God’s voice when he heard it. Or, even at a young age, Samuel might not have seen or heard God coming. Samuel might have expected God to come from a different direction, with a different voice, in some different guise. He would have had certain impressions and ideas about who God might be, and how God might work—he doesn’t seem to have been ready for God to rouse people out of bed in the middle of the night. Samuel’s expectations, at first, don’t allow him to hear God. But old Eli helps Samuel to realize God in the vision. He helps Samuel realize God in the nighttime, in a vision, in prayer, and in the silence.
Before we look at our second reading, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I think we need first to admit that Paul, himself, had problems recognizing God. Before his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul persecuted Christians. He did his best to wipe them out. Even after his conversion, even within his preaching and writing, Paul struggles with inner and outer demons that do their best to obscure his vision, to cloud his understanding and limit his perception of all God would do. Paul understands God through reason and rhetoric. And like a lot of us, his own thinking sometimes gets him into trouble. But Paul is wired that way. He has to think things out and talk them out. Paul embodies those words of Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” (Song of Myself) Paul is large. Paul contains multitudes.
And so, Paul is probably the perfect person to preach to the church in Corinth—a worldly, sophisticated congregation. The Corinthians liked to enjoy life, and didn’t always know where to draw the line, and so they were constantly getting distracted by things that would take the place of God for them. But Paul encourages them to look no further than their own two feet. Start with your own body, Paul says. Give thanks for the body—even as it ages, get creaky and worn, stops working correctly and often misbehaves. He says, Stop looking elsewhere for joy or gratification or affirmation—give thanks for the miracle that is each one of us. God has raised and blessed and hallowed the Body. Therefore respect it, give thanks for it, take care of it. Look at your hand in front of your eyes and realize God even in the body.
In our Gospel, it’s Nathanael who almost misses God because he’s expecting God to come from a different direction—to look and sound different from this country boy, Jesus. But here, right in front of him, is the One. Christ doesn’t come from Rome, or any of the other great cities. He hasn’t traveled the world. He doesn’t come from some far away, exotic, rich and wonderful place. Instead he’s from Nazareth.
If you go to Nazareth today, it’s not a whole lot different from when Jesus was there, except there’s probably a lot more plastic. We can almost feel and join in Nathanael’s disappointment.
But Jesus senses this. Slowly, in that Christly charming way he has, Jesus begins to talk to him. Jesus talks through him, almost. Jesus lets himself be known by Nathanael. And Nathanael sees something in Jesus, and wants to follow. “Rabbi!” is his simple statement of faith and trust. “You are the Son of the God, the King of Israel.” To which Jesus simply smiles and says, “you haven’t seen anything yet.”
The scriptures ask us today, “Do we see God when God comes? Do we notice?
Or are we busy preparing in the wrong place. Is it like when we’re expecting a delivery at church, and so we’ve unlocked doors, moved things around, turned on lights, and are ready— only to realize that the person making the delivery is standing patiently on the other side of the building, in a place that is better for them to enter? Do we ever do this kind of thing spiritually?
God might meet us in church or in a vision or in silent prayer, like it was for Samuel. Or God might occur to us in our thinking and or in our conversation, like with Paul. God might even come through a friend who point us in the way, who says “Come and see,” and so we go and see, and we meet the Risen Christ.
But God also might come in a hospital waiting room, in a fast food restaurant, in a board meeting or an AA meeting, in a family gathering or on a first date. God enters our world not so much when and where we think we’re most ready. But rather, God comes where God wills. “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.”
This weekend offers a number of opportunities to remember the work and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He had his own version of “come and see,” as he brought people together to work for Civil Rights. God came to him in through suffering and heartache, through human frailty and his own human nature, but God eventually came in a dream that could be named and offered to others—the dream that
“ . . . little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” A dream that, with Isaiah, “one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” [“I have a dream,” delivered August 28, 1963]
And so, in concrete, particular, everyday ways, God has come and keeps coming as we live into the dream for civil rights, for human rights, and for all of God’s dreams to be realized.
The Good News of our scriptures today and the Good News of the faith that is in us is that God comes. God visits. God surprises. God startles. God sweeps us off our feet. God picks us up and draws us close. God comes—not always when we’re most prepared, but God comes always when we are most in need.
Thanks be to God for the power of his visitation, the power to knock down doors and fill our lives with love and with hope. May we realize God’s presence and share God’s power.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.