Sunday 17th January 2021
Readings: 1 Samuel 3: 1-20, John 1: 43-end
Why are we here today?
I don’t mean why are you at home on Zoom, whilst Francis, Annabelle and I are in a rather cold church, we know all about that, I mean what makes us gather as a church at all?
What, or who, calls us together?
I am going to put my neck on the line and suggest that beneath whatever surface reasons we have – friendship, upbringing, joining in with community – I suspect that we are each drawn here for the same underlying reason.
Whether we really know it or not I believe that everyone who is drawn towards worship, has been called by God at some time and in some way and that we are all ‘here’ in response to that call with a desire to experience something more of the God who calls us.
We are still in the season of Epiphany and the old testament, psalm and gospel readings set for this morning give us examples of different ways in which God calls his people and the way in which his people have their epiphany moment of recognising the One who calls.
The Old Testament reading for today is about God’s call to Samuel. Samuel was then a young boy working as an apprentice in the temple to Eli the priest. To our eyes this probably looks like a strange way to bring up a child but given the importance and the centrality of the Temple to Jewish life to be apprenticed to a priest in the Temple
must have been an incredibly important and sought-after position.
A bit like being an intern at Google now.
When you read the stories about Abraham and Moses, it is possible to form the view that in ‘Old Testament’ times people were having visions and encounters with God on a daily basis. But, interestingly we are told at the beginning of today’s reading that in those days the word of the Lord was rare, and there were not many visions. Either God had gone quiet on his people or his people had lost the ears to hear.
Either way God chose to raise up Samuel as a new prophet and we heard that God began by calling his name out loud:
But each time Samuel thought it was his master Eli calling and he came running into his master’s room, saying “Here I am, you called me”. So sometimes God may be speaking to us loud and clear but we simply fail to recognise it.
In verse 7 we are told that Samuel did not yet know the Lord, because the word of God had not been revealed to him. The phrase ‘word of God’ is laden with meanings – it can mean the written word of Scripture, it can mean Jesus as the living Word of God but, in this context, we should not forget that it can also mean the literal, spoken, word that Samuel was hearing for the first time.
God called Samuel in an audible way but because Samuel had never heard the word of God before he mistook it for Eli and it took the older man’s wisdom firstly to discern that it was God and secondly to tell Samuel how to respond. Actually, the first part of his advice to Samuel was “Go and lie down.”
And sometimes we need to do exactly that in order to hear God’s call – to quieten ourselves and our own thoughts and agenda. To consciously make the space to listen out for God over the hubbub of our lives.
And when God called Samuel for final time we are told that there was not simply a voice but, in verse 10, that the Lord came and stood there and called “Samuel, Samuel.”
When God stands in your room, calling your name, that is a pretty full on, hard to avoid call.
Samuel’s response to God when he called for the final time is actually the ideal response for each of us no matter how we experience God in our lives – he says: “Speak, LORD, for you servant is listening”.
Those words of quiet obedience cannot help but remind us of Mary’s response to the annunciation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”.
Although we are thinking specifically about Samuel’s experience of being called it is also interesting to reflect very briefly on what he was being called to. In verse 11 God tells Samuel that he is calling him to do something that will make the ears of everyone who hears it ‘tingle’, as he is to pronounce God’s judgement against the family of Eli, the very priest to whom he is apprenticed. Being called by God does not always lead to cucumber sandwiches – sometimes it means disturbing one’s hearers by seeking to bring them back to God’s call, and many prophets and priests and, of course, Jesus Christ himself, have paid the price for saying things which may make others squirm and disturb their sense of power and entitlement.
The calling of Philip by Jesus in John’s gospel was also a direct and unambiguous call: Jesus simply found Philip and, without preamble, said to him “Follow me”. There is no response from Philip other than immediate obedience. Although this instant response to the call of Jesus can be inspirational it can also be challenging, because it can be so different from the way that we often respond, and many scholars have tried to create a ‘backstory’ for the relationship between Jesus and Philip to explain this lack of preamble and questioning – however I was interested to see something by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship:
“This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct and unaccountable authority of Jesus. There is no need of any preliminaries, and no other consequence but obedience to the call. Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word. Jesus summons us to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God…When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. Christ calls; we are to follow.”
Samuel heard the call of God the Father in an audible way and that was the call that he needed to begin his prophetic ministry and Philip was called personally by God the Son, Jesus and that was the calling he needed to become a disciple. However, with one or two notable exceptions, very few people are called so directly. The psalm set for today, Psalm 139 which has always been one of my favourites, speaks of a different sort of experience of God and it is one that I suspect more of us can relate to.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, [a] you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
This speaks not of hearing God speak audibly or even of meeting Jesus face to face but of an inescapable sense of God’s presence – of simply knowing that he is there whatever we do and wherever we go. And we should not be surprised that a sense of God’s presence, which we may call the Holy Spirit, is the way in which most people will be aware of God in the present age because Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit on the church to be our comforter until he returns in glory. So this is by no means a second rate manner in which to experience the call of God as we worship one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So perhaps we are gathered today because of a calling by God – whether Father, Son or Holy Spirit.
But maybe you don’t feel that you have ever encountered the call of God and you are here because your friends are here. Well, that is within the divine economy too. Turning back briefly to the gospel reading there is another type of calling: The first thing we see Philip do as a disciple is to call Nathanael to follow Christ by saying ‘come and see’.
Nathanael wasn’t called by Jesus personally but he was called by another disciple to come and experience something of the Jesus that he had discovered. I suspect that may be the way many of us first heard the call of God – from another disciple saying ‘come and see’ and, of course, it is a way that we, as disciples, can call others to see the Lord – ‘come and see’.
Of course the callings of Samuel, Philip and Nathanael are not exhaustive of the way in which God calls his people – the bible is absolutely full of different ways and, I suspect, that God speaks to each of us in the way that we need. If you are bookish and quiet and prayerful then God will likely call you in quietness, if you are loud and active then God may have to speak a little louder.
So why are we here? Because God has called each of us in myriad ways to gather together around the word of God, and everyone here has responded to that call. That is an awesome thought. But God does not call us to sit still and he continues to call each of us in our different ways.
As individuals and as a church we could do a lot worse than to follow the example of Samuel and say: “Speak, LORD, for you servant is listening” and to your friends, “Come and see”.