(1 Samuel 3: 1-10, John 1: 43-51)
I have never gotten around to asking my best friend growing up what it was like to be the son of Jim Epps. The younger Jim – who I called Jimmy – he and I were best friends from, quite literally, the crib up. Other than the fact that he was a Carolina fan at the time and I, not having yet seen the light, rooted for the Wolfpack, we were alike in most every way.
Jimmy’s dad was one of those guys in town who knew everybody. And everybody knew Jim Epps. I mean, everybody. He worked for the YMCA in Raleigh as Executive Director. Some of you may be familiar with the Indian Guides and Indian Princess program, a staple at Y’s across the country. Jim was the original brains behind that, the one who thought it up and got it started; and my Dad and I were some of its very first participants. That program made Jim a fixture in Raleigh, and people knew him wherever he went. I remember one time going with Jimmy and his dad to the grocery store for an errand that should’ve taken five minutes. We were in that place for an hour; all these people coming up to him and talking to him.
I always wondered what it was like to be the son of someone practically everyone knew. Because by virtue of knowing your Dad, they know you. I can picture teenage Jimmy at the mall, and someone taps him on the shoulder. He turns around to see a person he doesn’t know from Adam. But they know him, because he is Jim Epps’ son.
I can see this stranger asking Jimmy something specific about his life, not the kind of thing you’d say to just any person. Like how the marching band did at their competition last week, or how Geometry with Mrs. Barker is going, or how much he enjoys basketball camp over the summer because, after all, ball-is-life. They, of course, would know these things, because they’d talked with the famous Jim Epps, and Jim just loves telling people all about his son. I can see Jimmy politely responding, nodding his head and smiling, then turning to say goodbye and rolling his eyes because this stuff happens all the time.
Maybe you know what that’s like. Maybe you’re familiar with that weird sensation when you’re with someone you don’t know and they launch into a conversation with you about…..you! And you wonder how in the world they know you so well. Who told them? Have you met them before? Maybe you feel guilty because you know them. Or maybe you feel a little creeped out because you don’t!
It’s a feeling I imagine the two people in our stories today must have been familiar with. Both were confronted by someone they didn’t know but who knew them – fully and completely. Our Old Testament passage recounts the beautiful story of Samuel, the prophet of God who would later anoint Saul and David as the first two kings of Israel. At a young age, Samuel was brought by his mother to live in the temple with the priest Eli. And that’s where it happened.
Nighttime. Samuel’s fast asleep. And then he’s abruptly awakened by a voice calling his name. He stumbles to the bedside of Eli, because he assumes he’s the one calling him. But Eli has been asleep all along and advises his young protégé to go back to bed.
A little later he hears the voice calling again. He makes his way to Eli. This time there is a note of anger in his mentor’s voice; he has disturbed his sleep twice. I did not call your name, he says. Go back to bed!
The voice returns a third time. Samuel must wonder if he’s the punch line of some cruel joke. But he would hate to ignore Eli’s if it is him. So he wakes the priest again; and this time there is no anger in Samuel’s voice, because the wise old man finally understands. Return to bed, Samuel tells Eli, and next time you hear the voice, tell God that you are listening. Samuel does as he is told, and when the voice returns he begins a conversation with God that would last him a lifetime.
A voice calling out in the darkness. A young boy who has no idea who it is. And a God who knows Samuel – who he is now, and who he will become.
Fast-forward a few thousand years to the city of Galilee. As Bob Dylan would later put it, “the times are a’changing.” A man named Phillip has dropped everything in his life and embarked on a journey with a man that some say might be the Messiah. He tells his friend Nathaniel what he’s doing, and Nathaniel is less than convinced – especially when he hears that this Jesus is from Nazareth, from which nothing good comes.
Philip, however, manages to talk his friend into at least meeting the guy. So they go and find Jesus, who immediately recognizes Nathaniel and begins a conversation with him as if he’s an old friend. Nathaniel, understandably, is caught off-guard – and he asks Jesus: Where did you get to know me?
Now, maybe we should hit the pause button for a minute here and give Nathaniel some props. After all, sometimes it’s easier to just carry on a fake conversation, pretend you know someone and what they’re talking about, nodding occasionally for good measure, waiting until after they’re gone to rack your brain trying to figure out who that was.
But not Nathaniel: Where did you get to know me, he asks Jesus. He’s impressed – and maybe a little freaked out, too. He wants to know how someone he’s sure he’s never met can know him as fully and completely as Jesus does.
And you know, as I hear him ask that question, it occurs to me that we have something in common with Nathaniel here, don’t we? In a way, we’re all asking Jesus the same thing: how is it that you know me so well? How is it that you know what is on my heart, what is on my mind – my hopes and dreams, my anxieties and fears, my greatest aspirations and worst nightmares, all of those things I hesitate to share with just anyone. That is the story of these two scriptures: God calling out to Samuel in the middle of the night, long before the boy knows who God is. Jesus greeting Nathaniel in a way that demonstrates how intimately familiar this total stranger is with him. It is their story – and because of that, it is ours as well.
And certainly, it is comforting to know that our God knows us completely. It stands in contrast to an understanding of God where God is exalted, above us, separated, distant, removed. In the temple in Jerusalem, the most sacred space, the physical object so closely aligned to God’s very being, was the Ark of the Covenant, holding the Ten Commandments. No one, other than the chief priest, could ever enter the room where it rested – and that was only on certain days of the year.
And then somewhere along the way that notion of God begins to evolve a bit. We find evidence of this expressed beautifully in one of our more well-known psalms:
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 are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely[i].
Our God is close to us – so very close. And that is a wonderful and marvelous thing!
Most of the time. See, as wonderful and marvelous as that is, if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes it can feel a little uncomfortable to be known so completely, right? A God who knows everything there is to know about you and about me. A God who, as the psalmist says, “discerns our thoughts” and is “acquainted with all our ways.” Who later in that psalm rhetorically asks, “Where can I go from your spirit, where can I flee from your presence?” The implied answer being, of course, nowhere. There is nowhere we can go where God isn’t. There is nothing about us that God doesn’t already know.
I once heard a story about a cafeteria lunch line at a large university. The students dragged their trays down the line and, among other things, came upon a huge bowl of big juicy oranges, beside which rested a sign that said, Take only one – Jesus is watching you! Later on down the line, folks found a large plate of freshly baked, steaming hot, chocolate chip cookies. There was a sign there too, which read: Take as many cookies as you want. Jesus is back there with the oranges.[ii]
It’s funny, of course, because we know that’s not true. But see, that’s the whole point. We can’t get away from Jesus, even if we want to! There are times, many times, when we have no problem with him being around. We want him there; we need him there. We expect him there, like right now in worship. But there are other times when we’d just assume Jesus look the other way, we’d prefer if he wasn’t privy to all the thoughts running around in our head. We are ashamed, we are embarrassed. And all things being equal, we’d love it if Jesus really were hanging out by the oranges so we could grab a cookie or five. We get uncomfortable when anyone – Jesus especially – knows us fully. Heck, we don’t even fully know ourselves.
It’s a lot like that person coming up and talking to you when you don’t know who they are. Like Samuel hearing the voice of God and not knowing who it is, or Nathaniel being caught off-guard when this stranger seems to know him completely.
That is the rub of knowing that we are known, isn’t it? There’s a side of us we have no problem sharing with folks. But there’s another side we want to shield from view: things we have done, things we’ve left undone, things we’ve thought, our innermost feelings, our deepest fears. We keep them hidden because we’re not proud of them; and to let them be known, to pull them out into the light like some cruel rendition of show-and-tell, it absolutely horrifies us. To our core. Because then, we are transparent. Then, we are vulnerable. Then, we wonder if those who see us and know us, God included, will be able to keep on loving us.
There is a deep level of intimacy involved in following Jesus that is so hard for us to deal with. There are folks in and out of the church today who are only so comfortable with a God who knows them so well. On the outside things look fine and dandy and we play the part, put on a good show. But deep within rages a battle in our soul; between who we are and who we think we ought to be. There are parts of our lives that we don’t want anyone, especially God, to see. So we try to hide the darker side from view – we even try to hide it from ourselves. And it is exhausting doing that, it wears us down. Which only adds to our guilt, our shame, our fear.
So maybe what I am about to say to you is something you’ve heard a thousand times before. Or maybe this is honestly the first time you’ve ever heard these words spoken to you. Either way, hear this:
You are loved by God –
not for who you used to be or who you may be one day,
but for who you are, right now.
You are known by God –
known completely, the good and the bad,
the pretty and the messy,
the beautiful and the ugly. All of it.
And the fact that God knows you completely
does not change in the least
the fact that God loves you completely.
In fact, it makes God love you all the more.
You are loved by God. You are known by God. And the fact that God knows you does not change the fact that God loves you. If this concept sounds familiar to you, my friends, it’s because we’ve given it a name over the years. We’ve taken to calling it grace. That beautiful and glorious intersection of being fully known and fully loved. No matter who we are and no matter what we do. All day and every day. Grace. That is what happens when we know that we are known. Always!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
[i]Psalm 139, NSRV version.
[ii]http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?item_topic_id=2348, visited on 1.9.2006.