Pastor Steve Hilgeman shares his call story in the January, 2018 issue of Living Lutheran magazine. He describes how he and his pastor had been finishing up a lunch meeting about the congregation’s strategic plan for the coming year when his pastor put his coffee mug down and looked Steve right in the eyes. He said, “Why aren’t you in the ministry yet?” Steve paused, as he puts it, to take the “stupid, guilty half-smile” that had come over his face, before answering. He finally said, “I know, I know. Let me talk to my wife and kids. You’re right, it’s time.”
This was the second pastor of their congregation who had asked Steve that question. But this time, the genuine invitation from a person much younger than him resonated in a way that it hadn’t before. This time, Steve had matured to a place where he felt the call not just to care about people, but the call to word and sacrament as well.
In our first lesson for today we heard the call story of Samuel, who was just a young boy at the time. You might remember that Samuel was the child of Hannah, who had been unable to conceive and prayed for a child of her own. When she was granted the gift of Samuel, she understood that he was meant to serve God in a unique way, and as soon as he was old enough she took him to the temple at Shiloh where the chief priest, Eli, became his mentor. Hannah’s prophetic song at his birth serves as a prequel to Mary’s song centuries later, and her mentoring prepared him for his service to God. Eli was serving God during a difficult time of religious lethargy in Israel because there was no king to lead the people. He was even complicit in some of the problems because he did not prevent his sons, who should have followed him as trustworthy priests, from lying, cheating and stealing from the people.
Yet Eli still recognizes and understands the call of God. He encourages Samuel to listen and respond to God’s voice, even though Samuel’s first prophetic words will condemn Eli and his family for their wrongdoing. Samuel went on to become a great prophet, first anointing Saul as king of Israel, and then, when Saul faltered, to find and anoint the boy David as the next king. David would become not only the greatest king of Israel but also the ancestor of Jesus, the Messiah.
In our gospel story, even Jesus himself seems sort of surprised at Nathaniel’s sudden and absolute confession of faith: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” It sounds as though Jesus is responding with possible humor, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” It is not obvious how Nathaniel transformed from someone who had a lot of doubts to a true believer responding to the call of God in a matter of moments.
Nathaniel seems to be a pretty suspicious kind of guy. His friend Philip says, “we found the man about whom Moses and the prophets wrote!” but Nathaniel doubts it, rationalizing that nothing good comes out of Nazareth. Then Jesus greets him generously as a man in whom there is no deceit, but Nathaniel is still suspicious, “Where did you get to know me?” Not a very friendly response. So, when this guy, who tends to see the negative, offers this overwhelmingly positive declaration of who Jesus is, after just meeting him, our interest is peaked and our expectations are exceeded.
The drama in this story comes from the fact that this character, Nathaniel, doesn’t tend to exaggerate, or come across as a positive kind of guy, so if Nathaniel, of all people, confesses faith in Jesus, we feel as though we too, can trust him. After all, Nathanial is not a person who exaggerates. It seems pretty amazing that his new-found faith can so quickly overcome his initial suspicion about Jesus.
Nathaniel clearly is not a person for whom faith developed gradually. He was quite startled when he was confronted with the reality of Jesus. There is something about that fig tree remark that made who Jesus is clear for Nathaniel, although we are not told what exactly it was that transformed Nathaniel’s view of Jesus. What is clear is that revelations of the Christ come to different people in such drastically different ways that it can even seem incomprehensible.
This story is read during this season of Epiphany, because it is an epiphany. Epiphanies tend to transform people. This is seen in Nathaniel’s change and in an epiphany-induced change that Martin Luther King, Jr., who we honor this week, describes in his book, Stride Toward Freedom:
“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. was changed by this epiphany, often referred to as his “vision in the kitchen.”
Nathaniel was also changed by his encounter with Jesus, who he proclaimed as:
Rabbi: which is a term of honor, and was appropriate for Jesus since he taught, debated, and gathered disciples, fulfilling the roll of a rabbi.
Son of God: a term for a person with a close relationship with God. In the Hebrew Bible, “Son of God” refers to someone commissioned with a divine task.
King of Israel: In the Gospel of John this is a positive term that implies a good ruler, although that is not true in all books of Scripture.
All three of these terms have the potential to bring transformative change. Rabbis change lives through teaching and leading, The Son of God changes our lives by bridging the gap between heaven and earth, and the King of Israel – as envisioned by John’s gospel – brings justice and mercy to the world. An epiphany of God allowed Nathaniel to understand Jesus as the fulfillment of those things, and that newness changed his life.
Each of us is called, each of us has, or will hear, that calm, yet insistent, voice of God. It will probably be a genuine, person to person invitation, often from a mentor. Will we have the courage to respond? These stories remind us to remain open to those possibilities and to prayerfully consider and respond to whatever God is calling us to do. Amen.