Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Not having grown up with the practice of following the Lectionary readings means I am constantly intrigued by the groupings of Scripture texts that get packaged together. Sometimes I must admit that a particular combination is at first baffling, leading me to wonder what sorts of substances the team was sipping on while they made their decisions. Other times a theme seems to rise slowly to the surface the way your answer used to in the Magic 8 Ball (ask an older person what this is!). I have tried several times and failed to talk myself out of a problematic theme that seems to emerge from the murkiness for this week, but here it is: Identity. And yes, I know just how problematic that is.
Let’s start with Samuel, shall we? If you are like me, reading this story as a child made my imagination run wild: Would the Lord ever call my name in the night? And if my name were called, how would I respond? What if the Lord called my name and I slept through it? Would I be courageous and faithful enough to carry the messages to someone as highly esteemed as the great Eli, even when the Lord describes consequences for Israel that would cause “both ears of everyone who hears it [to] tingle”? Is there anything in me that the Lord could put to work in this way? In other words: Am I special enough to be chosen for an important job, knock it out of the park, and then be remembered for thousands of years as a hero/heroine? My childish imagination shivered with hope that I might be found as good and worthy as Samuel.
Next we move to this week’s Psalm: 139. And if you are familiar with Psalm 139, you already know that here we are assured that the Lord knows each of us intimately, knows our thoughts, that God knit us together in our mother’s wombs and that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Like all the rest of the creation, we are well made and good, and with the Psalmist, we gratefully acknowledge that the Lord’s hand is upon us. So I must conclude that I am known and I am loved by the Almighty. That seems promising. That bodes well for me to be chosen and to be special.
Chapter 6 of I Corinthians proclaims that we are members of Christ, bought with a price, united to the Lord and one spirit with the Lord. Wow! By now, I am feeling pretty good about myself!
And then the readings take us to John 1:43-51 and for me this is no smooth literary juxtaposition, but at first makes me wonder again what the Lectionary team was sipping. Here Jesus refers to Nathaniel as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” and now my spirit shrinks back because I know that I cannot honestly identify with Nathaniel as easily as I did with the young boy, Samuel.
After first responding with a sarcastic, “Where did you get to know me?” Nathaniel then quickly declares Jesus is the Son of God and the King of Israel. But when I try to imagine myself in that scene, a more truthful response from me would instead be the cry of Isaiah “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a [wo]man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips;” (Isaiah 6:5) because that is who I know that I am.
What a perplexing mashup! How can these texts hang together productively? Maybe the Lectionary team’s minds went in similar direction as mine did because the last phrases of John 1:51 and Isaiah 5:6 say nearly the same thing. Isaiah and Nathaniel both realize that their eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts, the Son of God and as Jesus calls himself, the Son of Man.
So what, if anything, can we discern about our identity? When I return to the texts again, the answer was awaiting me in I Corinthians 6:17: “But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” and 6:19: “…your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God”. Oh, that’s who I am. Or perhaps better said, “That’s Whose I am.”
So whether the Lord ever calls my name in the night or not, my life and my identity are not my own and therefore need not be my concern. If I do not build up my career, leave an impressive legacy, establish myself as an influencer, or even just garner a modest following on Instagram as popular culture insists I should, that is just fine because as Colossians 3:3 states that “You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” And that is really good news for a woman of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips, isn’t it?
A quick scan of the internet will turn up millions of entries explaining what an identity is. Psychologists build entire careers upon the study of identity. We could probably have a rousing debate about identity and might even be tempted to give it a go. But brothers and sisters, whatever an identity actually is just does not matter a bit once it is hidden with Christ in God. Our life work then is fix our eyes on Jesus, to “therefore glorify God in [our] body” (I Corinthians 6:20) and to watch with Nathaniel to see Jesus do “greater things than these” (John 1:50). Thanks be to God for releasing us from the tyranny of having to be special.