Second Sunday after Epiphany
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
Today’s scriptures from Samuel and the Gospel of John show us God’s ability to connect with people and turn them around. To speak directly to them. Call them.
We celebrate this activity of God as part of our observance of the season of Epiphany. In Jesus, the bright light that shines forth is active. It draws people to God and it sends them forth with a purpose, and that purpose will bring glory to God. As John’s Gospel has it [Jn 1:4], “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.”
Father John Wickham, who founded the Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Montreal, where I studied, used to tell us not to get hung up on what scripture passages to assign to the people we were accompanying in prayer: “When God wants to get through to someone, God can use the telephone book just as effectively as Holy Scripture.”
God wants our attention. That’s the first lesson to take away this morning. God desires us to attend. Is relentless, selective, focused, and powerful. And does not give up. I know how natural it seems, that we just might be missing God’s message. But the more you read the Bible, the more you see that this is not how God works. God can even talk through animals, if people aren’t there to carry the message. Baalam’s donkey, in Numbers 22, is a prime example. And so is our story this morning from Samuel.
God is persistent! That’s the next lesson, and we hear Samuel’s exemplary words of response: “Here I am.” We might envy Samuel what I could call his “lollipop moment” of thrilling connection with the Lord. Maybe we pause here, desiring something like that for ourselves, hoping to spend more time paying attention to what happens in the still of the night. This is all good. But if we stop there, we miss several important features of the tradition.
The next lesson is that we are essential parts of God’s plan. Why is God calling this young person—he already has a High Priest on his staff, so to speak. Well, Eli, who is God’s local representative in Israel, has been pulled away from God through the love he has for his sons. Just before this passage, we have learned that his sons, who would ordinarily take over Eli’s role, have been misbehaving big time. They are appropriating holy sacrifices for themselves and abusing underlings. This is an age-old story of power and corruption (and nepotism), isn’t it? We might stretch far enough to speak of abuses in the “body politic” the way Paul writing to the Corinthians railed against the abuses of the flesh, as sins against God.
The Hebrew writers saw the situation of Israel in these days as alienation from God. Eli … and just about everyone else … is out of the habit of hearing God. Eli, we might recall from the story directly preceding this one about Hannah and her desire for a child, accuses Hannah of being drunk when she is praying. Now that child Samuel has come to serve under Eli, and God uses him to deliver a direct message to Eli.
All through these books—which we know as first and second Samuel and first and second Kings—we are witnessing the difficulties people had, and have, reconciling their desire to be accountable to Heaven for the way they live with each other, and their desire to have human rulers. All the neighbouring nations have human Kings. The Israelites want a human king too, and they will want Samuel to show them God’s choice and anoint the King for them. As they say, “This does not end well” in the medium term. You can see, and read very vividly, how this to and fro plays out, down to the advent of Jesus who is described as (among so many other things) being born in the direct line of King David.
Samuel is not only apt of hearing, he and, indeed, God, are well served by Eli. I might not have noticed this, had a friend not pointed it out. The lesson here is that everyone has a purpose in God’s plan.
It’s easy to see Eli as having messed up, in a major way, and Samuel as the one chosen to clean up the mess. But the actual situation is more subtle than that. Even if Eli is not able to hear God’s voice himself, he understands enough and is open enough to show Samuel what he needs to do to listen and be obedient. When I stop to reflect here, Eli’s fundamental faithfulness and humility under these circumstances is really heart-stopping. He is a sinner, yes. He has fallen short, yes. His position will be taken from him and his sons, yes. BUT: His counsel—his encouragement and wisdom—are what exactly Samuel needs (and what God asks from Eli in this moment). In a way, it’s an example of what Saint Paul is later to develop as his model of the Body with its different parts, all serving the whole. Many gifts, but one Spirit.
The drive of the Holy Spirit to set things right, with the help of all, might be a good thing to hold in mind today as we consider the approaching Week of Christian Unity
Last week, Bertrand spoke about the activity of John the Baptist, and of the Holy Spirit—with reference to our own Baptism.
Since we begin the Week of Christian Unity tomorrow, I thought I might mention that Baptism is one of the enduring reminders of Christian unity. There’s no such thing as a Methodist or Roman Catholic or Anglican Baptism. Once a person is baptised “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” they’re a baptised Christian. A person might seek to be received formally into a denomination of the church, and there might be specific sentences and promises they are asked to say, to go with that, but their baptism doesn’t change. Baptism is for once and for all, into Christ.
When Jesus accepted John’s Baptism, the Holy Spirit appeared speaking to him, and his short and transformative public life began. His first activity, after a wilderness retreat, was to call disciples: and we would do well to remember what our Dean preached just a week ago:
“Baptismal life is a joyful life, but it is also a dangerous life because we do not know where it can lead us. The consequences of opening ourselves to God are unpredictable as we become instruments of God’s creative spirit in the world, living examples of God’s love in action.”
Certainly none of the Disciples had any idea what they were getting in to. You don’t see them submitting their CVs to join this new organization. Between the lines, we can almost fathom how …. compelling …. charismatic …. attractive Jesus must have been. Because his invitation was powerful. He didn’t give them a job description or talk about compensation. If they were looking for job security and recompense, they would not have followed.
I love their enthusiasm. As John’s followers, they had already made up their minds to leave ordinary worldly life behind and try to get closer to God. I love Nathaniel’s honesty as he expresses his skepticism at the outset (“can anything good come out of Nazareth?”). And Jesus’ curious phrase “I saw you under the fig tree” … which we find echoed in today’s Psalm (139), “Lord, you have searched me out and known me”…Well, whatever Jesus means when he says those words, we know it’s exactly what Nathaniel needs to hear in order for Jesus to win his heart.
Today we face uncertainties all around us—the times have seemed as adverse as those in days of Samuel and of Jesus, with portions of the religious establishment deaf to God’s vision and to just treatment for the people… with governments and elites and powerful tyrants or would-be tyrants serving their own interests… with all creation suffering the consequences.
This is the precisely the world into which the Light is coming. The Spirit, who was with God at the beginning, did and does and will shine forth.
So, if we allow ourselves to hear Jesus calling us, dare we hope that we, too, will see greater things than we can imagine?
Come Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom!