In today’s readings we have two stories about people who took a bit of getting through to, who were blind or deaf to something which later seemed obvious to them. Nathanael can’t believe that Jesus might be the Messiah; Samuel takes all night to realise that God is speaking to him and the old priest Eli has been deaf to the voice of God for many years. I expect we can all sympathise with them. I’m sure we’ve all been confronted with a truth about someone or something which, looking back, we feel we should have known all along. Worse still, perhaps we realise that we did know it, but couldn’t acknowledge it.
Why didn’t the banking community see the credit crunch coming? Why didn’t we spot the warning signs of a relationship that was getting into difficulties? Why didn’t we take notice of the niggling symptoms that later turned out to be a serious illness?
Why did it take us so long to realise that we were called to a particular career or ministry?
It is all clear to us now, but what was it that clouded our vision and stopped our ears before?
In Nathanael’s case it seems to be prejudice which gets in the way of him seeing the truth about Jesus. A Messiah from Nazareth! You’ve got to be joking” he says to his friends. We’re not sure why Nazareth seemed so dodgy, but presumably people at the time would have understood. It might have been because the northern territory of Galilee was more mixed ethnically and religiously than the southern lands around Jerusalem. It was also where the majority of the occupying Roman soldiers were stationed, forcing the people into greater collaboration with them. Or perhaps Nazareth just had a bad reputation – a backwater, hicksville place people wanted to avoid. Whatever it was though, Nathanael seems convinced that Nazarenes are not Messiah material, and he can’t get past that.
It was only when he meets Jesus that he realises his mistake. This man knows him, somehow, even better than Nathanael knows himself, because he sees Nathanael’s potential as a disciple, something which was way off Nathanael’s radar.
The story of Eli and Samuel is a more complex tale, and a sadder one. Eli was the old priest at the shrine of Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. He had two adult sons who should have followed him as priests in this important position. But they have gone off the rails and are abusing their positions and stealing the offerings. Eli knows this at some level, but he’s never quite found the courage or energy to confront them. In the end, of course, they are responsible for themselves, but at least Eli could have tried to influence them, and it seems he hasn’t.
The message God gives to Samuel is grim – it is the end of the road for Eli’s household. His sons will eventually be killed in battle, and Eli himself will die of sorrow. No wonder Samuel seems reluctant to pass this message on. But Eli finds the courage at least and at last, to urge Samuel to tell the truth, no matter what it is, and by doing that he teaches Samuel a vital lesson which he will need to draw on often in the future – that the truth, however painful, can’t be avoided forever. Samuel goes on to be one of Israel’s most important prophets, instrumental in the lives of King Saul and King David . He is often called by God to challenge them – and those who challenge kings need all the courage they can muster. I like to hope that Eli took some comfort in seeing that, for all his failures, he has been able to play some little part in God’s work.
And that is what it is about – God’s work. Because it is most often where the pain is and where the mess is that God is. We see this in Jesus, born in a dung-strewn stable, growing up in that dodgy town of Nazareth, dying on a cross, alone and reviled, looking to all the world as if he had failed. Who would have thought that God could be in these squalid places, in these squalid things? Not the Magi who headed first for Herod’s palace. Not Nathanael with his blinkered views. Not the horrified disciples who ran away from the crucifixion. But that is where God was, at work in the world through Christ. And that is where he still is. In the places, the people, the situations we would rather not see at all – the things within ourselves we’d rather bury or ignore. It is there that God waits patiently with his healing and his love because it’s there that we need him most. Turn away from that place and we turn away from God too.
I wonder what would happen tonight if, in the silence, we were to say, as Samuel does, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening?” I don’t know, and that’s why it frightens me, as perhaps it does you, but if we are serious in our search for God’s presence in our lives and in our world then the place where we least want to be has to be the place for us to start.