Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

When living outside of Austin, Texas, I would occasionally buy a copy of its daily newspaper. A regular feature I enjoyed was written by a fellow by the name of John Kelso. A humor columnist, he was known for his sharp wit and his interviews with the strangest kinds of people. He was committed to a slogan often seen on bumper stickers in that city, which went like this: “Keep Austin weird.” And he certainly did that. If anything, he embodied that sentiment. Although poking fun at nearly everybody—including local politicians—he saved the best for the part of town he grew up in: The south side—known for its working-class neighborhoods, where the good old boys—the “Bubba” types—would hang out.

Now, if this area were compared to any place in today’s Gospel, it would certainly be Nazareth. If Philip and Nathanael had lived somewhere in central Texas, Nathanael would have asked this about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of South Austin?”

In keeping with the Epiphany theme of mission and evangelism, Philip convinced his skeptical friend to at least meet Jesus. He said, “Come and see.” And so Nathanael did, his life then becoming changed forever. Not only was he no longer skeptical, prematurely writing off this fellow from a hick town, but instead addressing him with one wonderful title after another: “Rabbi…Son of God…King of Israel!”

And why? As with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus, although a complete stranger, knew things about Nathanael that no other stranger would ever have known: For example, that he was a straightforward kind of person, without an ounce of phoniness in his body.

This intimate knowledge that God has of the individual believer appears not only in today’s gospel, but also in the first lesson and in the psalm. All three of these readings also have to do—in one way or another—with receiving a call from God, in order to better tell others about him. But we can do that only when having a close, personal relationship with God and, in recognizing and living into that relationship.

We see that in the story about Samuel, who is serving as something like an altar boy—to Eli, the priest in charge of the temple at Shiloh. One night Samuel repeatedly hears the voice of the Lord, three times mistaking it for that of Eli—because, as the passage says, he “did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.” The third time—realizing what’s happening—the priest instructs him to acknowledge God and then see what God has to say. Only afterwards does Samuel truly begin learning about the one who has called him.

On the other hand, God knew Samuel long before he was even born, before he was even conceived. That’s what we read in the very first chapter of that book. As you may or may not know, Samuel’s mother is a woman named Hannah. Like several other women in the Bible, she has been unable to have children. Then one year—on an annual trip to the temple—she kneels down before the entrance to pray. Seeing her, Eli eventually realizes she is deeply distressed

and tells her to go “in peace; [may] God…grant you [whatever] petition you have made to him.” [i] Within a year, Samuel is born. In thankfulness, Hannah then keeps a promise she has made to God: As soon as her son is old enough, she gives him over to Elito serve him at the temple. God later blesses her with several more children.

Right now I’m going to digress a little, include a bit of a sidebar, so to speak. One thing that’s sometimes helpful in our lives, in our relationship with God, is to find a biblical character we particularly find inspiration in, maybe even somewhat identify with. For me, one such character has been Samuel. And it goes like this: Unlike him, I was not the firstborn in my family, but rather the last one—the youngest. But here’s a similarity: Between my second brother and me my mother developed a medical condition that required surgery. The doctor then told her it she would unlikely be able to have any more children. Yet two years later I came along. The first time I heard that story was during college. But years before, as a young child, I had already decided to become a minister. In thankfulness to God for my conception and healthy birth, could it be my mother dedicated me—maybe in some subconscious way—to the work of the Lord? If so, it certainly wouldn’t have been the first or last time a mother has had a lot to do with a son’s or daughter’s choice of vocation.

In any event, the story of Samuel’s birth and call by God reminds us that the Lord knows and shapes us into who we are and will become before we ourselves have any clue at all about it. And God knows us in all our nakedness—literally, as brand-new babies—and through the rest of our lives.

We see that perhaps nowhere better in all the scriptures than in the 139th Psalm. I now want to read most of it to you.

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.

 

            Where can I go from your spirit?

                Or where can I flee from your presence?

            If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

            if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

            If I take the wings of the morning

            and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

            even there your hand shall lead me,

            and your right hand shall hold me fast.

 

            If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

            and the light around me become night,”

            even the darkness is not dark to you;

            the night is as bright as the day,

            for darkness is as light to you.

 

For it was you who formed my inward parts;

            you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

            I praise you, 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.

This psalm is sometimes entitled, “The Inescapable God.” It holds up a God who knows not only the flattering things about us, but also those that are not so flattering. It’s a God who, even when we try to get away, follows us, pursues us, not ultimately to threaten us, but to love and save us. It’s like the title of an old hymn—“O Love, That Will Not Let Me Go.”

It also reminds me of one of many books I used to read to my children. It’s called The Runaway Bunny, first written over 75 years ago—by Margaret Wise Brown.[ii] This is how it goes:

            Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.

            So he said to his mother, “I am running away.” “If you run away,”

            said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

 

            “If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish

            in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.”

            “If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother,

            “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

 

            “If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny,

            “I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.”

            “If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,”

            said his mother, “I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb

            to where you are.”

 

            “If you become a mountain climber,” said the little bunny,

            “I will be a crocus in a hidden garden.”

 

            “If you become a crocus in a hidden garden,” said his mother,

            “I will be a gardener. And I will find you.”

 

            “If you are a gardener and find me,” said the little bunny,

            “I will be a bird and fly away from you.”

            “If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother,

            “I will be a tree that you come home to.”

 

“If you become a tree,” said the little bunny,

            “I will become a little sailboat, and I will sail away from you.”

            “If you become a sailboat and sail away from me,”

            said his mother, “I will become the wind and blow you

            where I want you to go.”

 

            “If you become the wind and blow me,” said the little bunny,

            “I will join a circus and fly away on a flying trapeze.”

            “If you go flying on a flying trapeze,” said his mother,

            “I will be a tightrope walker, and I will walk across the air to you.”

 

            “If you become a tightrope walker and walk across the air,”

            said the bunny, “I will become a little boy and run into a house.”

            “If you become a little boy and run into a house,” said the mother bunny,

            “I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”

             “Shucks,” said the bunny, “I might just as well stay where I am

            and be your little bunny." And so he did.

“Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny.

Again, before we can tell others about Jesus—we need first to reflect on, maybe grow more into the relationship we already have with God in Christ Jesus. That certainly doesn’t mean that we have to have it perfectly, that is, that we have to wait to have it “all together.” Consider Philip. He himself had only recently met Jesus. Yet he was convinced enough to tell his friend Nathanael about him. When Nathanael hesitated, I can imagine Philip simply taking him by the arm and enthusiastically saying, “Well, come and see for yourself!”

May the man named Jesus—who knows each of us so well—continue to bring us such hope and enthusiasm that we may tell otherswho do not know him to “come and see.”

[i] 1 Samuel 1:17.

 

[ii] Margaret Wise Brown, The Runaway Bunny, illustrated by Clement Hurd (New York: Harper & Row, 1942). She and Hurd are both the author and illustrator, respectively, of the well-known book, Goodnight, Moon.