What Do You See?

+ A sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on January 17, 2021 +

Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-20; John 1:43-51


What do you see?
It’s a simple question we may expect to hear at the optometrist’s office as we look at that chart with the letters.
Or maybe as we look at an inkblot test.
Or maybe when we describe the world around us.

What do you see?
It’s a question we may ask ourselves as we watch the news.
As we see the violence and discord in our country this month.
As we look at the need for change.

What do you want to see?
It’s perhaps a deeper question we ask as we look to the future.
As we work to enact love in our community.
As we hold onto hope for the future of our world.

Our readings this week are full of seeing.
We hear of a priest who is unable or unwilling to see what God intends for the world.
A God who sees us so wholly, so completely, that we can be assured of God’s deep and abiding love.
And a gospel full of visions of what is possible by following Jesus.

As I was reflecting on that gospel text this week, I kept wondering: what did Philip see?
All we hear is that Jesus found Philip and said, “follow me,” and not only did he immediately follow Jesus, he ran to tell his friend Nathanael to share the good news, to get him to follow Jesus too, to exclaim, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth!”
What did Philip see to tell him that this was the long-expected messiah?
What did he see that filled him with that urgent hope that he had to share with his friend?
What did he see in Jesus that would inspire him to change his life in an instant?

Nathanael makes it clear he didn’t see much in this invitation.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he scoffs.
Now, I’ve always heard this as a disregarding of Jesus’ backwater hometown—dismissing it as insignificant or disreputable.
But I wonder if there may be a twinge of despair in Nathanael’s question too.
‘Can anything good happen anymore? Let alone from Nazareth?’
A question weighed down with all the hopelessness, all the years of dashed hopes, all the realities of living under the rule of a foreign empire, of experiencing the oppression of violence and poverty, of hearing over and over that something new was on the horizon while nothing really changes.
Now his friend Philip is all excited about this Jesus, this newest savior, and he can’t see any reason for hope.
“Come and see,” Philip insists.

And so, they go to find Jesus.
Jesus, who’s first words in John’s gospel, just verses before these, are “What are you looking for?”
What do you want to find?
What new reality, what world are you hoping to see?
A simple, yet profound question that tells us something new is actually on the horizon.

When they find Jesus, Nathanael finds someone who sees him in a new way.
Jesus, who sees past Nathanael’s despair and prejudice and doubt, but sees instead his deeper, truer self.
Sees his hopes and dreams for the future, his yearning for something new.
And Jesus invites him to come and see what is possible when the barriers between heaven and earth are removed, when peace and justice shall reign, when the Reign of God takes root in this world.

Our reading from First Samuel tells us of days when it was hard to see, when visions of the Lord weren’t widespread.
And we hear that the high priest Eli was having a hard time seeing the way of the Lord.
Not because God had abandoned or forsaken him, but because Eli refused to find the courage and fortitude to do as God desired.
You see, Eli’s sons were also priests, but they abused their positions of power with extortion, greed, and sexual sin.
And when Eli refused to hold them accountable, God called on the boy Samuel to make God’s will known.
So, in the darkest part of the night, when the lamp was almost out, during the time it was hardest to see, God comes to Samuel and calls him to be a prophet.
To see God’s intentions for the world and show those in power where they are falling short.

Now, I heard this story a lot growing up.
It’s a story that tells us that children should be listened to, that God calls unexpected people to be God’s instruments in the world.
But it was a long time before I heard the second part of this story, before I heard what Samuel was called to do.
God calls the boy Samuel to speak truth to power, but not just to anyone.
God calls Samuel to speak out against Eli—Eli who raised Samuel in the tabernacle.
Eli who was like a father to him.
Eli who is the human face of his whole religion.
God calls Samuel to prophesy against Eli, to renounce his failure to do as God intends, to name the corruption of his own family—his own religious home, to upend everything he knows in order to follow God and be a prophet.

The story of Samuel’s calling is reminiscent of another prophet’s call story.
A prophet who, more than a half century ago also woke up in the middle of the night.
It was during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a protest against institutionalized racism and segregation, and the young pastor and activist Martin Luther King, Jr. received a call in the night.
Not a call from God, unfortunately, but a phone call threatening death from a disgruntled white supremacist.
Dr. King writes in his autobiography that after that phone call, he couldn’t sleep and was questioning whether he had the strength to continue on in the fight.
He prayed to God seeking guidance, seeking courage, seeking vision, seeking help.
And, he writes, that in that dark night, he heard a voice within him say, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”
That night, Dr. King says he was renewed for the fight ahead, assured that Jesus was with him and that he was called to do this holy work.

Tomorrow, our country celebrates and remembers this modern-day prophet.
A prophet who saw the need to call out the ways of sin and racism.
A prophet who saw the need to reject violence and work to end inequity.
A prophet who spoke out against all the institutions and systems and leaders who failed to follow God’s intentions.
A prophet whose ministry ended on a mountaintop where he saw the promised land where those sins were ended and all people are able to live full and abundant lives.

While tomorrow may be a national holiday, for us in the Church, it’s an important reminder how God calls prophets in every age—people who see the world more like God sees it, who pass along God’s teachings and vision for us, who tell us the truth and call us to change our ways.
And especially just a week and a half after racism and white supremacy reared their ugly heads in our nation’s capital yet again; especially just one week after we all renewed our baptismal vows, our own promises to God to speak tough truths to power, to resist evil and all the forces that defy God, to work together to enact God’s vision; tomorrow’s holy day reminds us that we have a role to play too.
That while we may not have been called to be prophets like Samuel and Martin, we are called through the waters of baptism to be prophetic.
To change our eyes and see as God sees.
To see the reality of the world around us.
To see the sins of racism and white supremacy.
To see the systems of oppression and inequality.
To see the ways of violence and destruction.
To see the degradation of the environment and the changing climate.
To see the danger of denying basic truth and science.
To see the failings of the institutions, the people, even the church that has raised us.
To see that these ways are not sustainable, that they are not what God intends for us.
But more than just seeing the failings of this world, we are invited to see the possibility of something new.
To see what is possible.
To see what can happen through the power of God.
To see the coming Reign of God.
To see the world as Christ sees it and see the way forward into that coming reality.

Neither Martin nor Samuel would find their callings to be easy.
Samuel would not only have to preach against his mentor, he would experience his own sons failing to follow his teachings, he would live under foreign oppression, he would struggle to make his people listen to God’s vision, and he would continue to call out those in power including the king.
Dr. King would be reviled by the vast majority of his fellow Americans, he would be tracked and spied on by his own government, and he would be assassinated by the bullet of white supremacy.
Neither would Philip and Nathanael find their callings to be easy either.
They would leave everything they knew behind to follow Jesus, watch as their teacher was rejected by his people and their religious leaders, and witness his gruesome death on a Roman cross.
Both were likely martyred themselves.
But through the examples of each of these witnesses, ancient and modern, we can see how their lives would be fundamentally changed by God’s calling, how their vision was altered by the love and vision of God, and how they would partner with God to make a lasting difference in the world.

The season the Church is in these days is called the Time after Epiphany.
It’s a time of revealing.
Of seeing who this Jesus is who has been born for us.
Of grappling with what it means for God’s love to become incarnate, to come and dwell with us.
Of witnessing to how the love of Christ is reshaping the world.
Of experiencing that love wash over us, cover us completely, claim us, re-form us, equip us, and send us to proclaim the good news of that love in word and deed.
Of reorienting our lives, our hopes, our visions according to the guiding star of God’s love and daring to find our place in its mission.

We may not hear God calling to us in the night.
We may not see Jesus walk up to us and bid us follow.
But each and every one of us has been called in our baptismal waters to allow the love of God to give us the vision of what is possible and the courage to be a part of it.
Like Samuel, God is calling us to see both the failings of this world and the way forward.
Like Martin, God is calling us to see the failings of our country and our systems and demand that we change our ways.
Like Philip, Jesus is inviting us to uproot our lives and follow him.
Like Nathanael, we are invited to look past our prejudices, past our doubt, past our despair and see the new world that is possible through Christ.

‘Can anything good come out of this time of crisis?’ we may ask?

“Come and see.”

‘Can anything good come out of a country so steeped in racism and violence?’

“Come and see.”

‘Can anything good come out of a church in decline, who hasn’t lived up to its prophetic role?’

“Come and see.”

‘Can anything good come from this messed up world?’

“Come and see.”

‘Can anything good come from following Jesus?’

“Come and see.”

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