We cannot chase God down; God finds us
Liz Stuart, 17 January 2021
1 Samuel 3: 1–10; Revelation 5: 1–10; John 1: 43–51
‘You’re it’. When I think back to my childhood, a lot of our playground games were about chasing and/or catching each other. Some of you, I am sure, will remember games such as British Bulldog (why on earth was it called that?), Stuck in the Mud, Tag, Statues and the truly appalling Kiss Chase. It was a lot of work!
I think that sometimes we can be misled into thinking that the spiritual life is all about chasing and trying to catch God. I remember in the 1990s a dear friend of mine, a Roman Catholic priest called Peter, who was something of a spiritual seeker, wrote to all his friends asking us to donate money so he could go to the United States and take part in a Native American vision quest. One friend rather acerbically replied that, since Peter hailed from Ireland, she’d be prepared to chip in on the cost of a ferry ticket to Rosslare so that he could make contact with his ancestors over there, but that was it.
All three of our readings today remind us that this is not how it works. We cannot chase God down; God finds us. The Lord calls on Samuel in his sleep, Jesus finds Philip, the Lamb appears to take the scroll. Sometimes I think that our chasing is actually an unconscious avoidance tactic, a dodging of Jesus as he approaches us.
Discipleship begins in stillness, in waiting to be found. It is not an easy spiritual stance; it is to be exposed – hineni in Hebrew, ‘here I am’. Nathanael experiences this. Jesus knows exactly who he is. You might think it was Philip that found Nathanael and brought him to Jesus, but Jesus reveals that before Philip found Nathanael he (Jesus) saw him sitting in stillness under a fig tree. (Interestingly, in rabbinic literature the fig tree represents the place where you study the Torah.) Jesus sees him and immediately has his measure. Jesus found him in stillness. Like a naturalist hoping to come close to a wild animal, who knows the only thing to be done is to be silent and still, so those who seek God must be.
The movement comes when Jesus finds us and invites us (and it is always an invitation) to follow him. To follow him where? To himself – for he is the ladder between heaven and earth, between us and God. He is the lamb who has ransomed us. How we get there is through love.
What that means for each of us will be different; that is what finding our vocation is about. My understanding of calling, of vocation, was changed dramatically by listening to a recording of a talk the great Thomas Merton gave to his novices in the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky in the 1960s. In this talk Merton argues that we often mistake vocation for fate. We think that discerning our vocation is like trying to break into God’s filing cabinet, finding his file on us and reading what he has planned for us. Merton argues that this is a very unchristian approach. He posits that vocation is working out with God, in freedom, how best to love. It is not a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Vocation is a conversation God wants to have with us throughout our lifetime. And it’s not just about one aspect of our lives either, it’s about every aspect of our lives. Merton fundamentally changed my understanding of vocation and opened a conversation between me, God and the Church, which ultimately led to me standing here today as your curate. So, blame him!
We often mistake vocation for fate … Vocation is working out with God, in freedom, how best to love.
Nathanael sitting under his fig tree had no idea what was about to happen to him. God is most certainly a God of surprises. I think that’s why we are often so reluctant to just sit and wait on God. We fear what’s coming, because we know that calling, vocation, always involves movement. It involves leaving some things, perhaps even some people, some communities. It’s costly. But there is no joy comparable with the joy of knowing that at this moment you are in the place where you can love best.
You might also be thinking, here we are in the middle of the chaos of a pandemic, things are difficult and uncomfortable enough and you are asking me to sit in stillness so God can find me and start a conversation that might lead to more difficulty and uncertainty and change in my life! You might be tempted to fast-forward through this sermon. Welcome to discipleship! God often finds us when things are at their most chaotic and difficult and dark. Life is more comfortable without God, but it’s not as deep or rich or hopeful.
So let’s all begin this year by daring to sit in stillness and letting God find us and start a conversation. And if that conversation suggests a radical move, however bizarre it may seem, talk to somebody about it. It is only by being willing to wait on God that we will see greater things than these. Amen.