Sunday, January 18, 2009

Second Sunday after Epiphany
1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

O Jehovah, thou hast searched me, and known me.

We appreciate the things we earn far more than the things that are given to us. It isn’t that we aren’t thankful when someone gives us a gift or does something nice for us, but we take better care of the things that have taken our blood, sweat and tears to possess. Kids drive more carefully when they are behind the wheel of a car they have bought with their own money.

Money is spent more carefully when it is earned. We take care not to waste our pennies, knowing that tomorrow we might face a difficult financial situation. But we see money from a lottery win or a gift as free money, meant to be enjoyed. A million dollars is a lot of money, and yet a million dollars is not so much that it will last forever. Many lottery winners learn that lesson quickly. For those who work so hard for every dollar, a win is like a dream come true. It is like a gift.

They receive it with the attitude that their life will be changed so dramatically that they can change their lifestyle. They quit their jobs; they buy bigger and better homes and cars. They purchase everything they have ever wanted without fear of what might happen tomorrow. Many become extremely generous, not necessarily with charity but with their friends. They share their newfound wealth in frivolous gifts and extravagant parties designed to buy everyone’s love. Then, suddenly, often within eighteen months of winning the prize, they realize it is gone—not only the money, but also the people they thought were their friends.

Sadly free money is not as life changing as we think it might be. Often, the affects are negative rather than positive. Too many lottery winners spend before they realize how much they really have, forgetting that they will be required to give a percentage to the government in taxes. They often quit their jobs with harsh words, severing the relationships with people and places that have supported them in the past. They discover that they are not welcome when times go bad. The lottery winners are more vulnerable to salesmen, and conmen, spending beyond their means with the expectation that they’ll get lucky again. They often find themselves at the end of the free money with dire circumstances and unexpected debts. They think they are above it all, protected somehow by this wealth. They even consider themselves better than the people that really matter, and destroy those relationships with foolish and selfish behaviors.

It wasn’t free money, but Eli’s sons were given their positions in the Temple by inheritance. They didn’t work hard to have the power or authority of priests of God. They took advantage of their positions, using them for their own gain. They did nothing for God’s people; they did not serve the Lord. They were given all they had and they did not value it. Samuel, on the other hand, did not inherit his place at the Temple. He was given to Eli as a servant for the Lord by his mother Hannah, who vowed to God that if He gave her a child, she would dedicate him to the Lord’s service. Samuel was very young, far from his family, alone except for his mentor Eli who was aging, blind and incompetent. He couldn’t even raise his sons to do well at the work they inherited.

We talk so much about inheriting the kingdom of God when we are baptized into Christ Jesus, but it is important to remember that there is more to that gift than just receiving the grace. We are also called to be partners with God in the work of the Kingdom in this world. When we remember that we are more than children, blessed by our position within God’s world, we listen for His word, act upon it and are blessed even more so by the glory He receives. He then lets none of our words fall to the ground, like Samuel, and uses them to grow His kingdom and change the lives we touch with the ministry to which we have been called.

Jesus knew that the task of spreading faith in this world would be difficult. He knew that many would believe for all the wrong reasons and eventually fall away. The work of sharing the kingdom was going to be difficult, but building the kingdom had to begin somewhere. It began with a few people sharing a bit of good news with their friends, but even that was not easy.

Philip was excited about what was happening in his town. John the Baptist was preaching a good word about God and baptizing people in the Jordan. He told his followers that someone greater was going to come along. They were expecting a Messiah because Moses and the prophets had written about him. So, when Philip met Jesus, he knew this was something that he should not keep to himself. He found Nathaniel and told him about Jesus. Nathaniel didn’t believe Philip right away because the news did not match his expectations. “What good can come out of Nazareth?” he asked.

Nazareth in Jesus day was a dirty small town with average folk and even a few shady characters. It wasn’t the type of place you would expect to bring forth someone as important as the Messiah. Though Nazareth was not the kind of place that would see the birth of kings, Nathaniel was not necessarily putting it down. But there were certain expectations. How could the Messiah possibly live in a place like Nazareth? There is no power, no prestige, no position available in that town. How can this man overcome his lack of credentials to become the promised leader of God’s people?

Philip didn’t argue, he just said, “Come and see” and in doing so gave Nathaniel the chance to believe that his news was true. Jesus showed Nathaniel His credentials, His power and authority. When Jesus saw Nathanael, Jesus said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathanael was taken aback by this statement and he wanted to know how Jesus would know such a thing. This was a high compliment from Jesus, indicating that Nathanael was a man of God, a spiritual person who spent time in contemplative conversation with God. That's what he was doing under the fig tree. In those days the fig tree served as a place where people spent time out of the sun studying and in prayer. When Nathanael asked Jesus, “How do you know this?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree.” Yet, we know that Jesus saw more than just a Jew in study and prayer. Jesus saw beyond the surface into the heart and knew that Nathanael was a true Israelite.

We might disregard the rest of the conversation since it does not seem in character with Jesus. Nathanael was one of the first to proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God, but Jesus answered his confession of faith, “Because I said unto thee, I saw thee underneath the fig tree, believest thou?” Jesus knew that one prophetic moment, one statement that seems to speak to the heart of one person, would never be enough for the world to believe in the work that Jesus came to do. Nathaniel questioned whether or not Jesus could be the Messiah because He did not fit the expectations. He would not be what anyone expected. He was even more.

In this conversation, it seems as though Jesus is putting down Nathanael’s faith. Yet, He also gives Nathanael a promise, “You will see greater things than these.” The thing that made Nathaniel believe was just the beginning. Jesus promised that they would see incredible things. This news of the coming Messiah was the start of something really new in the world.

We don't hear much more about Nathanael. It is likely that Nathanael and Bartholomew were the same man, but even still we don't know much about his ministry. We do know that as followers of Jesus the disciples saw many miraculous things. He would have seen in many wondrous ways how Jesus was truly the Son of God.

The miraculous thing in this story is not that Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree before Philip called him to come and see. Instead, we see that Jesus could see the heart of Nathanael. He can see the heart of all his people. The psalmist writes, “O Jehovah, thou hast searched me, and known me.” God knows our innermost being. He knows when we are sleeping and when we are awake. He knows the words of our mouths even before we say them.

When I read this psalm, I began to think about the Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” You know the song, “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you way, Santa Claus is coming to town.” It goes on, “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” This idea of someone being able to see and know the intimate details of our lives is somewhat frightening to many people, especially when that person is an elderly gentleman in a fur suit. Perhaps that is a little flippant, but I’m sure that the idea of an omnipotent God disturbs many people. I think for most of us, the idea of having a best friend who knows us totally is hard enough to accept. We keep secrets from even the people we love the most.

That’s because we do not like the consequences of others knowing the deepest thoughts of our hearts. We are afraid that we’ll lose something or have it taken away. We think of omniscience in terms of Santa Claus. When we do something bad, we won’t receive the promised gifts. So, the idea of an omniscient God frightens us. We are afraid that if He knows everything, we will lose His promise.

But God is different. When everything in our life is falling apart, God is with us. He is there to care for us. He has a plan for us. His grace will win even when it seems like nothing will ever be right in our world again, because He is faithful and He is present. As we consider the depth of this promise—that He knows us and loves us anyway—we can go forth in faith to do whatever it is to which He called us to do, knowing that we are never alone.

God is full of grace and mercy, and it is so wonderful to know that even when we fail, He will be there with us. He helps us to overcome and He helps us to grow in faith and hope and peace. Yet, it is very easy to cross the fine line between the freedom we have in grace and the willful disobedience to God’s calling on our lives.

We live in a world that has become all about Me. Me demands the best of everything. Me expects everything that would satisfy Me. Me is not at fault for anything, Me has every right to blame everyone else for all Me's difficulties. Me is the center of the universe. Me is a god. This is, of course, an exaggeration. Most people are not so self-centered that they would consider themselves a god. However, we are living in a very self-concerned society where everyone is at some level egocentric. We want to be happy, healthy and satisfied despite the cost. That is, perhaps, why free money is so dangerous. We don’t think about the consequences of our actions when we have an unexpected windfall. We’ll do whatever it takes, especially when we think we are beyond disaster.

Most people are concerned with neighbor, willingly giving oneself over for the sake of others. We love our family and will do whatever is necessary for them to also know happiness. Yet, we all have some need that demands satisfaction. Whether it has to do with our jobs, our relationships, our leisure time, we all have some aspect of our personality that is self-centered. It is part of our human, sinful nature. It is as true for Christians as it is for those who have not yet come to know our Lord Jesus Christ.

We aren't any different than even the earliest Christians. As a matter of fact, the congregation in Corinth was dealing with just this very problem. There were members of that church who decided that Christian freedom gave them the license to do whatever they wanted to do, to satisfy all of their needs. Living in the forgiveness of Christ, they felt that they could partake of the wonders of the world without concern because Jesus' blood covered everything. So, they enjoyed the offerings at the temples of other gods—the food, the fornication—knowing that Christ had taken care of it all.

Paul talks about the use, and abuse, of the body in today’s lesson. He is addressing the issue of the Corinthian attitude about the Law. They thought that nothing they did in the flesh had any bearing on their spiritual life. Paul agrees that all things are lawful, that the rules of the past are no longer binding to the person who has been saved by God’s grace. But, he goes on to say that all things are not beneficial. It was fine for a Christian to eat meat that has been given as an offering to a foreign god because it had no meaning to the spirit of the believer. However, is everything beneficial? No. Some things are harmful to the body, to the soul and to the fellowship of believers.

In this case, Paul discusses fornication with the prostitutes of the foreign gods. Will a believer lose his eternal soul if he fornicates with those priestesses? God’s grace is always bigger than our failures. He has overcome our sin and has defeated death despite our inability to stand firm in His promises. However, sin is very powerful. Drugs at first offer a moment of bliss apart from a world of pain and suffering, but they eventually take over, harming the flesh and life of the addict.

We are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Though we might enjoy the things that tempt us, let us always remember that our life is a gift from God and our body is His temple. But it would do us well to ask, “Is it beneficial?” We are called to make a commitment to the body of Christ, and if our actions are not beneficial, then we should answer like Paul. “It might be lawful, but I will not be brought under the power.” This is for the sake not only of the one person’s flesh, but the entire body of Christ. So, it does us well to keep away from those things that might bring harm to ourselves or others.

We have been given a great gift. Nothing is expected in return. However, God has called us into a life that is extraordinary. It is a life in which we will see great things happening. And we have been invited to be a part of those great things. God has a purpose for our new life: to continue taking the message into the world. Like Philip, we have seen the One they call the Messiah, and it is now our turn to tell others. It isn’t easy. We might be tempted to take part in things that are not beneficial to the kingdom of God. This free gift of forgiveness is easy to waste. But God is with us. He knows everything to the very depths of our souls, and He still loves us.

Do we appreciate all that He has done? Or does our thankfulness go even deeper? Are we so thankful that we will walk the way He is leading us?

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