Come and See!

Come and See!

January 18, 2015
Stina Pope


The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. What do you think? Does that not sound like today? Are we used to hearing prophets stand up and say “The Word of the Lord!” and have people take them seriously enough to want to harm them? I’m afraid now the usual response to prophets is to either make fun of them or to put them in mental institutions.

One of the things that is helpful to me is to read history, and to recognize that religious response is cyclical. This is one of the big contributions Phyllis Tickle has made, pointing out that if we back up and take the long view of religious response, we can see that God seems to “break through” into human existence, everyone gets very excited, takes God very seriously, then slowly but surely the response wanes and moves from being a direct spiritual response to God to being something where we go through the motions. Finally, the motions are not enough, and people abandon them, there is an existential crisis of sorts, and something new comes forward that gives people the opportunity for a direct spiritual response. Then she points out how and where this has happened repeatedly over the centuries in different formats, and what is going on now, given that overview.

In the story for today from the Hebrew Scriptures, Samuel is just a young temple boy serving the senior priest. He is laying on his pallet, and God speaks to him. He is so unaware that he thinks that his master has called. But his master has read the old texts, and he recognizes what is going on. The master gives him the information from the past that allows him to respond to God, and from then on, the master declines, and Samuel rises to real greatness.

This is one of those stories that gives me hope. If even little Samuel can hear the word of God, this little boy who did not know anything about God, and the result was a revival and a major change for Israel, who knows what will happen next! And it’s not about us. We may be part of the old establishment that is going down, and that’s sad, but it is not tragic. It is just part of the bigger picture of God’s interaction with all of humanity. What we can do is to keep our eyes open, to keep alert, and to open our minds to new options, new possibilities, new ways that God may be reaching down into our world now.

Then, I have to reflect for a minute on the words of Paul to the Corinthians. We have to remember that Corinth was a big shipping seaport, full of foreigners and strange and wonderful ideas. In its day, it had the reputation that Shanghai had later, that it was a very good place to get into trouble! It had a great reputation for debauchery. So what an interesting thing for Paul to say, that all things are lawful – especially in light of the fact that he was a very law-abiding Jewish man. But I think it is precisely in the light of this sense of being known as “law-abiding” that he says this. Here is what I understand from this: Previously, he knew the Law (capital L for Jewish law and all of its permutations, which go on for days in numerous books) and obeyed it. Then Jesus came along and “fulfilled” the Law, that is, the Law and its requirements are now completed. Therefore, Paul can say, all things are lawful for me. However! and this is so helpful, “’all things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial” – just because it is legal does not mean it is good for me. Then just to make it perfectly clear, he says: “’all things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything.”

Also, we have to look at the punctuation here. He is quoting the Corinthians who have quoted him. Previously, Paul had said, “all things are lawful.” The Corinthians said “oh goody! We get to do anything we want! Woohoo!” Paul does not come back and lambast them, although he may well have felt like doing so! What he does is to pick up the comment: All things are lawful, and then put it into context. The second sentence is particularly important for us today.

What this means is that if we feel controlled by anything, even if it is perfectly “legal” or perfectly normal in our society, it is not OK. The only focus for us is God, and the perfect example for us being in relationship with God is Jesus.

Two things popped out of the Gospel passage for me as I was contemplating the lessons for today. One is the phrase “come and see.” The other is “the Son of Man.”

This story about Nathanael is just wonderful. Jesus decides to go to Galilee, that is, to go home. He finds Philip and says “follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Jesus has already called Andrew and Peter, so perhaps Philip has already heard about Jesus from them. Who knows? What we hear next is that Philip goes off and finds his friend Nathanael and says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael’s response is classic! He says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip says simply, “Come and see.” He does not try to defend what he knows to be true, he simply invites Nathanael to check it out for himself. We do not need to defend the truth.

Then Jesus sees Nathanael coming toward him, and says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Some versions say “no guile.” It is hard to know if this is being said tongue in cheek or not! Nathanael asks him, “Where did you get to know me?” which sounds like a taunting kind of response, doesn’t it? Jesus answers, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replies, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Suddenly, he agrees with Philip, Peter and Andrew. Jesus answers, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And then Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, [remember, this is a code that lets us know that this is very likely a “red letter” sentence – that is, one of the sentences that all of the scholars believe Jesus actually said] you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

One last word on this “Son of Man.” I just saw an interesting video of a former Muslim who has converted to Christianity. He was defending his conversion, using the Koran and some of the Gospel texts. The phrase “Son of Man” was one of the things he used in response to the question about how Jesus could be God. What he said was this: throughout the Hebrew Bible, which the Muslims also revere as sacred text, just as Christians do, the phrase “son of God” is used. Son of God means child of God, and it means everyone. We are all children of God. The contemporary Christian use of the phrase meaning Jesus, is not the historical use of “son of God.”

However, the phrase “Son of Man” was a particular phrase that meant the messiah. Every place we find “Son of Man” used as a title in the Hebrew Bible, it is used as a reference to the messiah. In this text, we hear Jesus refer to himself as the Son of Man. It would have been absolutely shocking to his listeners, and electrifying. Nathanael says: “you are the son of God,” and Jesus calmly corrects him, saying, “no, I am the ‘Son of Man’.”

We have a hard time understanding the impact of this. I was just reading about a guy who did not finish college, who may well have cracked one of the most important physics questions out there about energy, tying together Einstein and quantum physics, and seriously opening the way to an limitless energy source. I could hardly understand the article, even though it was written for lay folk. What I did understand, though, was that with his ideas, he has opened a totally new door in what we used to think was a solid wall, and that is just absolutely dumbfounding. (See The Intelligent Optimist, Winter, 2015)

It seems to me that this is what Jesus did. Before Jesus, the door to God was through the Law. Jesus came along and said, no, over here! This is the Way! Let me be the Way for you!

Can we still hear his words spoken to us? Can we look again at his Way? Can we walk on the Way? Are we able to hear God’s voice like Samuel, calling us to something new?

When I read the words of Jesus, and look at how he was in the world, it seems to me that God is calling us again, calling us away from fear and into life. Can we be like Philip, hearing Jesus call our names? Can we even be like Nathanael, not knowing what to make of this upstart preacher, can we suddenly see the truth and be awestruck? And then, like Philip, like Nathanael, we too will say, come and see!