The God who Knows Us and Seeks Us
1 Sam 3:1-10, 11-20; Psa 139:1-18; John 1:43-51
There is the familiar notion: seeking for “God”, seeking knowledge of “God”, or referring to someone who “found God”. The 1977 British TV series, “the Long Search”, reflected this notion. A fellow explores various religious options in Britain, seeking what they offer.
And there is the accompanying notion: all religions are but insignificant variations on a shared/single core of beliefs, all deities the same underneath these variations. If we set aside the particularities of individual religions (which actually comprise their fundamental character), and if we go to a ridiculous level of abstraction, by dint of effort this notion can perhaps be maintained. But we don’t do justice to any religious tradition in doing this, and we arrive at an abstraction that doesn’t correspond to any actual faith-practice. Indeed, instead of discovering a supposedly common deity, we wind up creating a new deity that corresponds to none of the religious traditions surveyed.
But I emphasize that the deity portrayed in the Bible doesn’t fit the stereotype. The narratives of the revelation of this deity don’t correspond to the notion of pursuing and seeking by humans. The Buddha may have gone out from his family to find illumination, and spiritual adepts thereafter may pursue attainment. But, in contrast, the biblical narratives reflect a deity who seeks us. Think of the Genesis narrative of God’s revelation to Abraham. Without prelude, God speaks to Abraham and summons him to go forth to a new life of faith. Or think of Moses, on the run from the Pharaoh and herding sheep in a deserted place, where God interrupts him and calls him to new service. Or remember the story of Mary recently recited in Christmas readings. Though later tradition ascribed to her an elaborate personal history, in the biblical narrative there is no reference to her aspiring to be something special, or even particularly more devout than others. God’s blessing and initiative takes precedence in the narrative. Or how about the Apostle Paul, actively opposing the young Jesus-movement and confronted by Christ on the Damascus Road.
The story of the boy Samuel fits this pattern. He is dedicated to temple service by his mother in gratitude for being granted a child after years of barren frustration. But in the narrative he isn’t praying or fasting, or engaging in some spiritual quest. Instead, he is simply asleep. And he is so little prepared that God has to speak to him repeatedly, and Samuel has to be advised by Eli in order to respond intelligently recognize God’s voice.
The Gospel narratives of Jesus calling his disciples echo this emphasis. Jesus calls the fishermen brothers, Peter and Andrew, and James and John, and the tax collector Levi, and comes through Galilee declaring the nearness of God’s kingdom. Even in the Gospel text read today, from John 1, where individuals excitedly claim to have “found” the Messiah, they have only encountered the one who has come to fulfil God’s mission and summon people to it.
This narrative pattern where God confronts and calls and interrupts and self-reveals to people reflects an important theological emphasis—this God is more seeking us than sought by us. This God is not the lofty unmoved mover, a sublimely indifferent deity, or one who must be pursued by dint of spiritual exercises and demanding disciplines. Instead, this God takes the initiative, and comes to us, seeking us out to bring us to fullness of life. In the case of the biblical deity, we don’t so much find this God as we are found by him. The good news of the Gospel is that this God seeks us, calls us and welcomes us, well before any seeking on our part. Our approach to this God rests on the assured foundation of God’s profound will to bring us into relationship with God. There is a heavenly vigour and divine activity that precedes and underlies any encounter with this God.
The Psalmists who speak of seeking God, or seeking God’s “face” are actually referring to responding to the prior revelations of God. They don’t speak from a religious void, but from the confidence that this God wishes to be sought! And God’s prior desire to have us in relationship gives a sure foundation to any efforts of ours to “seek” and find God. We can know that our responses are welcome and are undergirded by God’s prior seeking of us.
But also the biblical texts emphasize God’s prior knowledge of us. In the John text today, for example, Jesus exhibits a knowledge of Nathaniel that surprises and unsettles him. And the Psalm for today (139) lyrically declares God’s intimate knowledge of us, indeed, God’s inescapable knowledge of us. To be sure, the God of the Bible transcends mortal knowledge, and cannot be captured by scholarly inquiry or by mystical feats. And so we can know of God only what is given to us by God. But, more importantly, this God knows us!
One of the deep desires we have typically is to be known, truly known, by someone. We seek relationships in which we can disclose ourselves, admitting to our fears, not hiding our flaws, sharing our hopes and dreams. The biblical texts declare a God who truly knows us, our inner selves. Known to God! That is our confidence. Not that we know, so much as being known by God.
This means that our individual identities are undergirded by God’s knowledge of us. The God of the Bible exceeds human understanding, but is not an impersonal “force”. The God who knows us is, thus, a “person”, God’s ineffable greatness no barrier to knowing us, caring for us, and seeking to establish a relationship with us.
The God of the Bible isn’t simply one face of a generic “God” with other faces as well. The biblical God is not so much sought after as seeking, urging in the gospel that we accept God’s overtures of love, forgiveness and the fulfilment of us as persons. And the biblical God who calls us also knows us, our failings and weaknesses, and our individual qualities, and still God calls us to relationship, to reconciliation with God. Any efforts that we make to respond, to seek God, to deepen our knowledge of God, are made effective by God’s prior moves to find us, to awaken us to God, and by God’s own deep knowledge of us.