January 15, 2012

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139:1-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

The following sermon is posted with thanks to Kathryn Matthews Huey, whose reflections on Psalm 139 (from the website of the United Church of Christ) provided significant inspiration, and from whom I borrowed several paragraphs.

There is an obvious connection between the Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning. They are “call narratives” – stories about people who received a call from God. In First Samuel 3, a little boy is called to become “a trustworthy prophet of the Lord,” and John’s Gospel tells the story of Philip and Nathanael leaving everything behind to follow Jesus when they realize that he is the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.”

Many of us here today (perhaps all of us) have also been called by God. We probably weren’t wakened by God’s voice calling out our name in the middle of the night, and we didn’t have Jesus literally walk up to us and say, “Come and follow me.” But we have heard God’s call in the words of the Bible, through the voices of preachers and teachers, or as an urgent sense of needing to get out of our own concerns and do something for God.

Some have heard calls to particular ministries in the church. Others have sensed a call to speak up for someone who was in trouble, or to speak out for what was right and just at work or in the community. We’ve been called to give our gifts and to give our time and talent. We’ve been called to live our lives for God and to follow the way of Jesus, whether or not we have a dramatic story to share about the day that we first heard God’s voice.

I noticed an odd little detail in the story about Jesus calling Nathanael this week. When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said to him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” What a nice thing to hear from Jesus!

“I know that you are a good person, an honest person, not the kind of person who would lie or steal or try to trick someone!” That’s the gist of what Jesus says to Nathanael when Nathanael first walks up to him.

And Nathanael asks Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” “You’ve never met me before. How do you know what I’m like?” And Jesus tells him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

A more argumentative person probably would have had a few more questions for Jesus: “So you saw me under the fig tree… So what? What could you possibly know about me from that? You don’t even know my name!”

But Nathanael replied instead, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” The implication is that Nathanael has come to believe simply because he can see that this man knows him.

It makes me wonder about how Jesus must have been looking at Nathanael – what he must have been conveying through his eyes, or through his posture, through more than just his words. Jesus barely even speaks the words, “I know you, Nathanael,” and somehow Nathanael feels that he is known – maybe even that he is loved. And he believes. And he follows Jesus.

Psalm 139 is one of my favourite psalms. And when I thought about Nathanael’s question, “Where did you get to know me?” I realized that the psalm provides a fitting response.

If Nathanael was familiar with the psalm prayers of his Hebrew Tradition, perhaps Psalm 139 sprang to his mind as he stood before Jesus for the first time. Perhaps what became clear to Nathanael in that interaction was that this man KNEW him in a way that only GOD can know each one of us.

The psalmist writes this prayer to God:
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”

Unlike the rest of the Bible, the psalms are addressed directly to God. The other books are history, stories, law, proverbial sayings, letters and other forms of writing. But the psalms are Israel’s prayer book. And even today, thousands of years later, they still express our deepest feelings, fear and joy and anger and confusion, better than anything that we can come up with.

Isn’t it amazing to think about the psalmist? We might picture him sitting on a rock on a hillside, writing these beautiful words. When I read them, they bring to mind the pictures, provided by modern technological wonders, of an unborn child, curled in the foetal position, sucking her thumb, cradled in her mother’s womb: “It was you who formed my inward parts;” the psalmist writes, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

A prayer arises naturally in our throats when we see such a wonder. It’s a prayer of praise, not of ourselves, as if we are responsible for our own beauty or even for the beauty of our children. From our hearts comes a prayer of praise and worship and adoration of the God who has formed not only the vast expanses of heaven and earth and all the unfathomable mysteries they contain, but also the tiny, delicate fingers and toes of a newborn baby.

It is easy for us, as parents, or grandparents, or loving friends, to see the beauty and wonder of God’s handiwork when we look at a newborn baby or a child, or when we raise our eyes to the heavens and gaze at the stars, or when we walk in a garden and see the exquisite loveliness of flowers and stones side by side.

What seems to be more difficult is for us to look at ourselves, all grown up and somewhat the worse for wear, and to pray that same prayer with quite the same enthusiasm. As we live out our lives, knowing both failures and shortcomings, as well as accomplishments and successes, we seem to know especially well our faults and limitations. Of course we try to hide them. But they are ever present in our own minds.

Peter Gomes wrote a book about the Bible called “The Good Book.” In one chapter, entitled “The Bible and the Good Life,” he describes the “imposter syndrome” that afflicts us all. We spend our days, he says, in image building, trying to hide our weaknesses from one another, whether in the boardroom, on the athletic field or on the battlefield. We dress a certain way, use body language and speech in a certain way, and even pile up credentials and experience to prove that we are “good enough.”

But Gomes reminds us: “There is good news, and that is why they call it the Gospel. The news is not that we are worse than we think, it is that we are better than we think, and better than we deserve to be. Why? Because at the very bottom of the whole enterprise is the indisputable fact that we are created, made, formed, invented, patented in the image of goodness itself. That is what it means, that is how one translates being created in the image of God: it means to be created in the image of goodness itself… People may take everything away from you, they may deprive you of everything you have and value, but they cannot take away from you the fact that you are a child of God and bear the impression of God in your very soul.”

What the psalm tells us is that God is with us at the core of our very being, deeper than anything the scientists can ever measure or understand. The psalm reassures us that no matter what, God knows us, each and every one of us. We are precious in God’s sight.

The reading from First Corinthians today – as specific as it may be about what Paul teaches we should and should not do with our bodies – is, at its core, about the fact that we belong to God. Our spirits, our minds, and indeed our bodies, are the good creation of God, made to glorify God in all things. We are temples of the Holy Spirit – creations of God made to carry God’s good Spirit within us. And we are not our own – we belong to God.

And yet, it’s still hard to hear those stories of God’s call and not to assume that God calls only especially good, or talented, or wise, or holy people to do God’s work in the world. James Limburg, writing in the commentary “Feasting on the Word,” assures us that each and every one of us is that specially created and chosen one of God. He says “we are not mass-produced but custom-made.” And then he tells the story about a young rabbi called Zusya.

Zusya was quite discouraged about his failures and weaknesses. An older rabbi said to him, “When you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, “Why weren’t you Moses?” No, God will say, “Why weren’t you Zusya?” So why don’t you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?”

“I praise you, O God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”

May we know, this day, that we are beautiful, wonderful creations and precious to the God who knows us completely. And may we hear God’s voice calling us to follow Jesus and to use our precious lives for the glory of God alone. Amen.