Which is worse – too eager, or too slow?
Hard to tell from today’s readings.
Samuel and Eli, in the reading from 1 Samuel, both appear to be hopelessly dense and half asleep – in their spirit as well as physically. They could hardly be slower in tuning in to God’s call. But Nathanael, in John’s gospel on the other hand, is the equivalent of superfast broadband; instantly reaching the conclusion that he has found the Messiah – a conclusion that it takes most of the other disciples the whole length of the gospel to reach.
The Epiphany for Samuel (hinted at in the lamp burning through the night) is pretty full on. Where else would a servant of the Lord expect to encounter God than in the Holiest of Holiest, in the midst of his temple? Would God’s voice calling actually sound enough like Eli, so as to confuse a young boy? But it’s Eli who really isn’t on the ball – for him it’s not “where?” would God speak, but “who?” – apologies, “to whom?”. There was Eli, there were priests and Levites – surely God’s message would come to them first? The boy Samuel ought to be way down the pecking order in the temple when it comes to epiphanies.
So if Samuel was slow to see a glaring light, Nathanael, by contrast, jumped instantly at a tiny flicker – so tiny that it’s hard for us to even see it. I can’t for the life of me see how Jesus having just spotted him under the fig tree can have been a life-changing epiphany for Nathanael. And nor could Jesus, to be honest. I think Jesus was somewhat taken aback. Disciples just weren’t meant to be in the fast lane.
So – to rephrase the question – which is better, slow or fast?
Well, on the face of it, if you follow the principal of “three strikes and you’re out,” Samuel only just gets himself up together in time – whereas Nathanael is on message from the word go.
So; fast is better.
But (I know, again!) – if you look further on in both stories, you might see it differently. Samuel receives a message from God – a very uncomfortable message – which he faithfully proclaims, and then faces the consequences resolutely and courageously. His obedience ultimately leads to Saul and then David being anointed king of Israel. He changes the course of history, even though he takes many a wrong turn on route. Nathanael seems so full of promise; just the kind of disciple Jesus needed, seeing the point and meaning in every parable and gesture. Surely (you would assume) he’s bound to be up there with Peter – first to volunteer for everything? But no. We hear nothing further about him – even if he is the same person as Bartholomew. That’s not to say he wasn’t a faithful apostle, but his Ferrari-style 0 to 50 in 3 seconds doesn’t seem to have given him a lead in the end.
So; maybe slow is better.
The fact is that we’re called to be both. Fast and slow, eager and cautious. The message of Advent just past is, “Be watchful, be wakeful!” be Nathanael; and the message of Lent soon to come, “Be measured, be deliberate”, be Samuel. We can often be slow to catch on – most disciples are, and God is always patient with us – but the momentum of our faith can pick up pace and give us tenacity. Equally, we need to respond to God with our whole being; joyously, unfettered – and God won’t hold it against us if, in our enthusiasm, we sometimes get our knickers in a twist.
The present landscape of our Covid-ridden world actually demands both the Samuel and the Nathanael in us. We need to show to the world the resilience and steadfastness that only the promise of glory can give us. And equally we need to live out the joy, the hope and the freedom from fear that is the Good News. Good News that hailstones and tongues of fire, plague and pestilence, hell or high water can never quench.
Love to you all Rod x