Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.
The 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
14 January, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: 1 Samuel 3:1-20; Ps 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
✠ ✠ ✠
What our three scripture readings do for us today is to draw a sort of comparison and contrast between God’s calling of Samuel (first lesson) and Jesus’ calling of his disciples (gospel), and show us something about how God calls people into relationship with him.
Samuel was the great prophet that God raised up prior to establishing the monarchy that would end with Jesus who, as the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “will reign over the house of Jacob for ever” (Lk 1:33). Let me set up the scene: The story of Samuel and Eli happened at the end of the era of the judges. That era began after the Israelites had settled into life in the promised land following their forty years in the wilderness. The judges were the wise people God raised up to provide leadership and administer justice, the most famous of them being Gideon and Samson. They weren’t kings, because God was their king. The judges were God’s deputies, kind of like how each of the countries in the British Commonwealth has a governor general appointed by the Queen to speak on her behalf. (The UK itself doesn’t need one because she lives there.)
Even so, from the outset, God’s people disobeyed his commands. They failed to drive out all the previous inhabitants of the land, but lived side by side with them, and intermingled the religions of their neighbors with their own. So the judges had an extremely difficult job, and were never entirely successful at it. The very last line in the book of Judges sums up that whole era by saying, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). Even the priests of Israel, although their job was not to preach and teach, but to offer sacrifices for the sins of the nation and otherwise be faithful to the will of God, even they “did what was right in their own eyes.” Without a definite moral compass, the nation drifted. And it’s always the same.
There are all kinds of Christians in the modern Church whose primary tendency is to do what’s right in their own eyes. So, for example, in considering a particular moral issue, public policy, etc., they’ll say something like, “Well I feel like this is the right thing to do.” Whenever I hear that in a conversation, I’ll ask that person, “But what does Scripture have to say? Have you given any consideration to what the will of God may be in a situation like this?” I ask those questions because that’s my job. The clergy, teachers and other leaders of the Church are called by God to draw his people’s attention to what he has revealed about himself and his will for his creation as recorded in his written Word. It’s not a simple matter of finding a verse where God says, “Thou shalt not…” and then concluding that if he hasn’t said, “Thou shalt not…” about that particular issue, then it must be alright. That’s proof-texting– it’s easy to do, but it’s hardly ever the best way to discern the mind of God. Which is why you should all be reading and studying your Bibles on a regular basis, alone and in groups. We can talk about that any time you like.
Anyway, that’s what it was like in the days when there was no king in Israel. Old Eli the priest was caught up in that way of thinking, as much as everybody else, and he clearly didn’t provide a strong moral compass for his two sons Hophni and Phinehas, also priests. They’re described as “worthless men/scoundrels, who did not know the Lord” (1Sam 2:12). We know that they were charter members of the Harvey Weinstein club– or that he was a member of their club– because they were continually hitting on the women who served in the tabernacle, and having relations with quite a number of them. Besides that they lived quite high on the hog at the expense of the people who came to offer sacrifices (1Sam 2:12-22). Thus, it says that their sin “was very great in the sight of the Lord” (2:17), and their father did very little to stop them. So God sent an unnamed prophet to Eli to accuse him of honoring his sons above his God, and to warn Eli that God would wipe out his family. Still, Eli did nothing, other than urge them to straighten up.
The infant Samuel had been left in Eli’s care by his mother as an offering to the Lord (1 Sam 1), so he grew up watching all this as Eli trained him to be a priest. Even though poor old Eli wasn’t “livin’ right,” he still conducted a nice worship service. But at this point, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him,” i.e. God had not yet made himself known to Samuel. God had not made himself known to very many people during all the time that his people had chosen to ignore him, which is what is meant when it says that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” They had the law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, but not too many bothered to study it, and God hadn’t yet sent any prophets to call them to repentance. That’s why when God called to Samuel in the night, he assumed it was Eli who was calling. But Eli knew enough to prepare Samuel to be attentive to God’s call, so that the third time God called his name, he said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” That should be our prayer whenever we read or hear the Word of the Lord (as it was today before the gospel).
God anointed Samuel to be both a priest and a prophet, and Samuel confirmed his prophetic calling by repeating to Eli the same dire warning that Eli had heard from that earlier anonymous prophet. And still, Eli didn’t heed the warning and try to get his sons to repent. All he said was, “It’s the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him,” =He’s going to do what he’s going to do.” That’s why the word of the Lord was rare in those days– nobody took it seriously.
It was a lot like that a thousand years later. St Paul was working hard against much the same kind of thing in the church in Corinth some thirty years after Jesus. They had a lot of problems in those days, all of them having to do with not being attentive to the word of the Lord. In this case it was an influential group in the church who believed that once they’d been baptized they could do whatever they liked, in this case illicit sex, and not compromise their salvation. But that’s just wrong, Paul says. It’s a kind of early Christian version of the doctrine known as “Once saved, always saved,” that Charles Stanley and others teach. If a baptized Christian, who has vowed to reject every kind of sin in order to be joined to Christ, turns around and dives back into his old behaviors, he’s enslaving himself to sin once again and rejecting the Lord. “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly,” (Prov 26:11). God has given us all the freedom to make our own choices, Paul says, but that doesn’t mean we should choose what God has branded as evil and call it good. “All things are lawful for me,” he says, “but I will not be enslaved by anything,” meaning that just because the law of the land says it’s okay, doesn’t mean it’s okay for a follower of Jesus. Paul’s Corinthian problem just goes to show that some of God’s people are going to do their own thing no matter how loudly or forcefully or clearly God speaks to them, whether directly or through another disciple.
Now we come to Jesus himself. John the Baptist changed his message after he had baptized Jesus. Up to that point he’d been preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sin as preparation to meet the One who was to come after him. After Jesus’ baptism John began pointing to Jesus, saying he’s the One, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29). A couple of John’s disciples then left him and followed Jesus. Their names were Andrew and John (who wrote this gospel). Immediately Andrew went and recruited his brother Simon, later known as Peter. The next day Jesus found Philip and invited him to follow along, as we read today, and Philip went and recruited Nathanael, better known to us as St Bartholomew.
Now there’s something happening here that seems trivial, but really isn’t. Of all these first five disciples, Jesus only calls one of them personally– Philip. Andrew and John were sent by John the Baptist, Simon was called by Andrew, and Nathanael was called by Philip. That’s important to keep in mind because God doesn’t always call people personally to some ministry in his Church. Some he does, but others he may call indirectly through other people. A parish priest, for example, or somebody else may recognize that someone is particularly gifted for ordained ministry. But more often we clergy are on the lookout for parishioners who appear to be gifted for certain kinds of lay ministry like visiting the sick, or fixing the plumbing, or teaching. So keep all that in mind: God speaks to us through others, like he did to Andrew, John, Simon and Nathanael, more often than speaking directly like he did to Samuel in the middle of the night and Philip in the middle of the day.
The parallel that I mentioned earlier between the first lesson and the gospel is that as soon as God called Samuel he became a prophet, carrying the word of the Lord to Eli, and as soon as Jesus called Philip he too became a prophet and a missionary, announcing the arrival of God’s incarnate Word to Nathanael. Both of these happened after a long period when the word of the Lord had rarely been heard. The contrast between the two is the reaction of Eli versus the reaction of Nathanael. Eli responded to the word with depressing indifference: “It’s the Lord. Let him do whatever he likes.” Nathanael, on the other hand, takes what Philip tells him quite seriously.
Jesus had noticed Nathanael sitting alone under a fig tree before Philip approached him. We can’t say for sure what he was thinking about, but Jesus knew, because he’s God. It appears that he and Philip had already heard about this Jesus who was coming their way, and had been discussing who he might be. Philip goes out to meet Jesus while Nathanael stays behind thinking it all over. Then Philip comes back, clearly excited, and says, “We’ve found the one Moses and the prophets wrote about, Jesus of Nazareth.” Like John the Baptist, Moses and the prophets all pointed to the Messiah, whom they often referred to as the son of God, the one anointed by God to save his people, Jesus of Nazareth who actually was anointed by God just the other day after John baptized him. Nathanael is obviously thinking, “Nazareth– that’s a backwater, hillbilly place if there ever was one,” because that’s what everybody thought about Nazareth in those days, and because he said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He’s judging Jesus by his human origins, by the social values of his own community. “Just come and see,” Philip said.
I’m sure Jesus knew exactly what was said between them, and was probably quite amused. So as they came near, Jesus says this strange thing (at least, strange to us): “Here is truly an Israelite, a son of Israel, in whom is no deceit.” I puzzled over that remark for years until I read something by William Temple, one of the great modern archbishops of Canterbury. He says Jesus is pulling together everything Nathanael must have been thinking about, together with what Philip had said to him about Moses and the prophets. Jesus and Nathanael are both descendants of Jacob, the very crafty and deceitful patriarch of God’s people. There was a moment in Jacob’s life when he was about to come face to face with his brother Esau, the victim of his greatest act of deceit. The night before they met, Jacob wrestled with his inner demons, and then he wrestled physically with God in the guise of a man who put Jacob in his place by dislocating his hip. That’s when God renamed him Israel which means, he who struggles with God. Sometime before that Jacob had had a dream in which he saw a ladder extending to heaven, with angels going up and down it (Gen 28).
Suffice to say, when Jesus describes Nathanael as an honest son of Israel, in contrast to their dishonest common ancestor, it all becomes quite clear to Nathanael, at least for a moment. He has been struggling within himself, like Jacob, wondering whether this Nazarene is sent from God, whether he’s the son (not Son) of God. And now the incarnate Word himself has revealed the truth to Nathanael, causing him to blurt out that Jesus is the Son of God, and the King of Israel! Right here at the outset of his ministry, Jesus is hailed with the same titles that would be used as he hung dying on the cross. Pilate posted the sign over his head mockingly calling him the King of the Jews. And when he died, the guard standing below declared, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15:26, 39).
“Truly, truly,” Jesus says to Nathanael, “you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” That’s the reference to Jacob’s dream about the ladder. Only, the way Jesus puts it, he himself is the ladder. The angels are God’s messengers who carry the needs and prayers of humans up to the Lord, who stands at the top (Gen 28:13). And they carried his blessings and judgment back down to the people. Jacob’s dream was an image of God standing at a distance from his people. But Jesus has come to be his people’s direct connection to God. The Messiah foretold by Moses and the prophets, Abp Temple says, “is the meeting point of human need and divine blessing or judgement” (Readings in St John’s Gospel, MB, 1985: 31).
So this encounter with Nathanael is another manifestation, an epiphany, revealing something about the divinity of Jesus. But unlike the Epiphany when the Gentile Wise Men came to worship Jesus, this one is very Jewish. Jesus revealed himself in a way that only a Jew, one who devoted himself to prayer and to studying the Word of the Lord, would be able to grasp. That’s what’s so very different between this and the time of Samuel. Very few of God’s people back then were as devoted to God and the things of God. And in the young church at Corinth, there was a movement to pick and choose those aspects of the Christian life that didn’t conflict with a life of sin.
So the lesson to be learned from all this is that true discipleship involves, not just outward worship, going through the ritual motions, but a deep commitment to the Lord through prayer and familiarity with his Word, and a deep desire to know and to do his will. Jesus calls every one of us to that kind of intimacy with him. He does that, for starters, by calling us to step out of our comfort zones and to obey him. It may be a simple call at first, something like working on our prayer life, or breaking a sinful habit, or being reconciled with someone. Whatever it is, it’s a calling from God, so it has a cloud of mystery around it. But it also comes with a promise. So by just taking that first step in the direction of Jesus, like those first disciples, we’ll definitely come to know him better, and want to stay with him and to follow him. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.