1 Samuel 3
So, if you’re anything like me, you really want to know what the heck happened under that fig tree.
I like Nathanael. He’s a guy after my own heart: an overthinker. Unlike Philip and Simon Peter and Andrew, called immediately before him, Nathanael actually thinks twice before following Jesus. Nathanael listens to Philip’s recital of Jesus’ resume.
He skips over bullet point #1: fulfillment of Moses’ writings.
He breezes by bullet point #2: fulfillment of the prophets’ writings.
He goes straight to bullet point #3: Nazareth. “The guy’s from Nazareth? And you want to drop everything and follow a guy from Nazareth?”
And unaccountably, it’s flipping fig tree that turns it around for Nathanael. Hearing that Jesus saw him there, that’s what somehow cuts through Nathanael’s sarcasm and incredulity, right to the heart of where he’s vulnerable, where he’s longing to see God.
Something happened under that tree, and we never get to know what it is. We only know that it happened under the shade of the fig tree. In the cool darkness under those leaves, Nathanael was seen and known by God as intimately as a weaver sees and knows the play of interwoven threads on a loom, and in that fertile darkness, God planted the seed of faith that would burst into bloom in the light of Christ’s presence: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Epiphany is a season of light. Light is everywhere in our prayers and in our hymns: Best and Brightest of the Stars of Morning. O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright! Arise, Your Light Has Come!
But today, on this Sunday after Epiphany, we get two stories of two different people, Nathanael and Samuel, who are called not in sunshine and light, but in darkness and the heavy shade of the fig tree. In this season of light, there’s a surprising amount of darkness hanging around, and I’d like to talk about that today.
Let’s talk about the boy Samuel. He is young, and he is far away from his family, because they dedicated him to the Temple when he was a toddler. He sees his parents once a year, when they come to the Temple to offer sacrifices.
Samuel serves God by serving Eli, an old priest. Eli’s sons were also priests, but they were abusing the sacrificial system to put aside wealth for themselves. Poor Eli tries to bring his sons back into line, but they refuse to listen to him.
It’s a time of darkness for Eli. His eyes have grown dim. He cannot see. He’s lost authority over his sons, and vision for the people in their charge.
It’s a time of darkness for Israel. Their priests are corrupt, and God doesn’t seem to be speaking: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
And into that time of darkness, the Word of God comes during the night. You know this story: how God calls to Samuel three times, and three times Samuel reports to Eli, who didn’t call him, and how Eli finally cottons on, and tells Samuel what to do.
So Samuel goes back to bed. The fourth time, the voice comes: “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel says, “Speak, for your servant is listening!”
And the voice says: “See….”
“See, I am about to do something that will make the ears of everyone who hears it tingle.”
In the darkness, God told Samuel to see, but even more than that, God showed Samuel that God had seen. God had seen the troubles of God’s people, and was determined to lift them.
It’s at this point that the lectionary usually suggests we stop reading, but today we read the entire chapter, and got to see what it was that was going to make all those ears tingle. And here’s the thing: the prophecy that the Word of the Lord refers to in this passage is the prophecy for the deaths of Eli’s sons.
Poor Samuel. Talk about a mixed bag for your very first prophecy.
But the next morning, when Eli forces Samuel to tell him what the Word of the Lord had said, something remarkable happens: Eli doesn’t argue or struggle or punish Samuel for telling him that his sons were going to die. Eli just says: “It is the Lord. Let God do what seems good to God.”
What was going on in the head of this man that he could hear the news about his sons’ impending deaths and respond, “Let God do what seems good to God?”
I think maybe Eli had been in the darkness for so long, that he knew that the light would hurt. He spent so long surrounded by the darkness of corruption, vision dimmed with the knowledge that the source of that corruption was his sons, and he loved them, but he didn’t have the power to stop them.
Maybe Eli was like the mother who has watched her son slide into addiction, who just got the news that her son got into a fight with the police because he was high on PCP.
Maybe Eli was like the husband who has watched his wife slowly lose herself to mental illness, who finally drove his bright, beautiful partner to the psych ward because she could no longer fight her demons alone.
Maybe Eli knew that there comes a point when the darkness crowds in so that you no longer have the vision to see what is good, and all you can say when the light comes and shatters the darkness into a million cutting shards is, “Let God do what seems good to God,” because God knows you’re not sure what that is anymore.
God can see in the dark, even when we can’t. Even when we believe that we have come to rock bottom, and we cannot find our way out, God still holds God’s fearful and wonderful vision, and still holds us within it.
Have you noticed how often the word “see” turns up in today’s reading? “See,” God invites Samuel when God gives him the prophecy that would begin Israel’s renewal. “Come and see,” says Philip to Nathanael. “You will see greater things than this,” Jesus promises his new disciple.
See. See. God is always inviting us to see beyond the darkness, even when we can’t possibly: that’s the psalmists cry today, that God’s sees him everywhere he goes, everywhere he is, and he cannot possibly escape from God’s eye, and the very thought is overwhelming for him
I remember reading a theologian once who said that he understood as much of God’s kingdom, and what lay beyond the vale of death, as he understood about the world we live in while he was yet in his mother’s womb.
I love that metaphor. How could we possibly have imagined this world from inside our mother’s bellies? How could we possibly have dreamed of the smell of snow, the absurdity of the pelican, the sound of four-part harmony, the feel of a kitten’s fur, the taste of orange juice?
“You will see greater things than this,” Jesus promises Nathanael.
I do not doubt that Nathanael, filled with freshly-minted faith, believed Jesus at that moment. He could not have known that “greater things” including not just the blind seeing and the lame walking, but also crucifixion. The tearing of the sky. The quaking of the ground. The bleeding of the Son of God. He couldn’t have known the depth of the darkness that lay ahead, that the death-shadow was part of what this Light came to suffer. He couldn’t have known that.
But you know what? He couldn’t have imagined the resurrection either. He could not have imagined that he would, in three years, be sitting on a beach eating with the Savior who just cooked him breakfast because hey, apparently that’s what the Son of God likes to do after he rises from the dead.
Who could have imagined that?
Who could possibly have imagined that?
In this world, the darkness can be deep. But a Light shines in the darkness, by whom we can see that God’s vision continues to unfold. And it unfolds, not in the places we think we ought to look for it—in thrones and crowns and power and glory—but in voices in the night, and under the shade of a fig tree, and among the poor and hungry and abused and depressed and homeless and vulnerable. The people walking in darkness.
You know, maybe Eli’s words, “Let God do what seems good to God” were not words of resignation, but of profound hope, borne of a lifetime of serving this God who sees, who sees far beyond the best that we can possibly imagine, this God for whom even death does not have get the final word.
This God who issues an invitation to follow that consists not of promises or proclamations or proofs or deeds of power, but only of three small words, thrown into our hearts like seeds into soil: Come and see. Amen.