Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
17 January 2021
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
The story of Samuel sleeping in the temple and waking to the voice of God may be one of the stories we remember from Sunday School. Samuel is the fulfillment of his mother Hannah’s prayer, who could not conceive. In gratitude she dedicates him to be God’s servant at the temple, as she had promised.
Eli is the priest at the temple under whom Samuel serves. We can tell that the line of Eli and his sons is coming to and end or needs some kind of redemption because prior to her conception Eli mistakes Hannah’s fervent prayer to be a sign of intoxication. His sons are described as having regard neither for God nor for the people, liberally helping themselves from the sacrifices that were offered not to them but to God.
It is into this situation that the voice of God goes out to Samuel. Samuel, untrained in discerning the word and voice of God mistakes God’s voice for the voice of Eli, and only after God has spoken to Samuel for the third time does Eli realize that it is God is speaking to Samuel and then provides him with instructions as to how to make himself available to God.
That God speaks is what Israel has always known. The Bible begins with God speaking the cosmos into being and ends with Jesus, God’s Word, speaking the invitation, “Come …” (Rev 22:17)
God speaks to Abraham and Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and through God’s son Jesus.
The focus of the Samuel story is on a new beginning. “Samuel is … (the) voice outside of conventional authority, he bears Yahweh’s powerful word.” (3:19-4:1a) “(Samuel) is a bearer of revelation, as he is a child of a miraculous birth. He is the one in whom Israel’s destiny for the future is vested.”1
Yet while the story is about God doing a new thing I want you to hold that thought, because I want to take you somewhere else, – as much as we crave newness.
In our Gospel reading we hear about the calling of the first disciples. The first one to be called is Philip. Philip then goes to Nathanael and tells him that they have found the One all of Israel has been waiting for. We hear Nathanael first expressing skepticism and then experiencing himself as known by Jesus.
While both Samuel and Philip are addressed directly, God’s speech does not occur in a vacuum but in the context of community. In fact, without Eli’s instruction, Samuel did not understand. Only through Eli’s interpretation is Samuel able to answer. Finally, it is important to note that as Samuel takes up his priestly office, God speaks to Samuel yet the people hear not the voice of God but the speech of Samuel.2
Jesus calls Philip, but Nathanael comes to Jesus through the witness of Philip. And while Nathanael experiences himself as known, as understood by Jesus (who up to this point had been a stranger to him), the story points to the future. The story is not conclusive in itself. Revelation does not happen all at once but unfolds as their life with Jesus will unfold.
What I want to get at is the nature of revelation, of hearing God’s voice and discerning God’s will. Which is what happens in both of these stories. It seems easy in the stories but it often seems difficult in life when we seek to discern God’s will regarding decisions we need to make.
When a week ago Pastor Kristen and I were interviewed about our support for Dr Bonnie Henry, we were asked what we would say to people who justify their decision to defy Provincial health orders by saying that they answer to a higher authority.
That same reference to answering to a higher authority surfaced again in a Facebook comment, this time brought forward by a clergy in order to justify one’s compliance with Provincial health orders.
It is a good question, for Christians believe that we all answer to God and that God is our ultimate authority. Yet we also know that an answer like, “I answer to a higher authority” is meant to end all conversation and to escape into a different reality. For what is one to answer to someone who claims to be acting in direct obedience to God and who thereby denies accountability to fellow church members, neighbours, and the public?
The truth is that those who say that they are answerable only to God also avoid to answer their own conscience, for their own conscience would remind them that love of God entails the love of neighbour.
And because they have no process of discernment except their own bias, it seems that they don’t answer to God, no matter what they say. Martin Luther reminds us that “when the Word of God truly comes, it comes as the enemy of our thinking and desires.’3
Recently, while reading a collection of short stories by the Japanese writer Shūsaku Endō,4 I came again upon the story of Franciscan Priest Maximilian Kolbe (one a missionary to Japan), who volunteered in Auschwitz to take the place of another prisoner sentenced to death. Surely, such act is an act of great holiness, but just as surely such an act of love does not come naturally but comes from daily immersion into the life of Christ and Christian practice of serving others as Christ served us.5
For Martin Luther all knowledge begins and ends with Christ. Jesus Christ is the Word in which God reveals Godself. Jesus Christ shows us who God truly is and at the same time we see in Jesus our true humanity as Jesus lives in communion with God and fulfills God’s will.
And so we see that revelation is always relational. It comes to us through Jesus, who invites us into communion with God and the church, and it is in and through this communion that we not only discern God’s will but also come to desire God’s will.
We saw that in the stories of Samuel as well as the calling of the disciples revelation was to unfold in relationship. It happened neither all at once nor by magic but through faithful living with God and in the community of God’s people.
If the revelation of God and God’s will is relational, tied to communion with God and the community of others (in Matthew 25 we learn that we meet Jesus in the least of these), then we cannot claim that we only answer to a higher authority and thereby extricate us from all social responsibility toward others. In fact, Luther might say that precisely such high claim and avoidance of accountability is a sure sign that we are no operating on God’s will but our own, because ‘when the Word of God truly comes, it comes as the enemy of our thinking and desires.’6 To the point in question: Our first instinct is to keep our doors open and operate as usual, only in consultation with and consideration of others do we gain insight into the will of God and learn to decide otherwise.
This is in tune with Luther’s contemporary Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. When making a decision, Ignatius encourages us to first consider all possible implications of our decision, then spend time thinking about choosing that which we are not inclined to do, and only at last spend time contemplating that option we would have wanted to consider first. All of this accompanied by prayer.
The assumption of “I answer to a higher authority” is that I don’t answer to you, that I am not responsible to my neighbour, yet everything in the scriptures tells us that we are.
We give thanks for communities that help us discern God’s will in our lives, for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and for others entrusted to our care who help us remember that our decisions are not just about us.
1 Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Interpretation Series, Louisville, KY: John Knox Press 1990, page 26
2 “The peculiar authorization of Samuel is accomplished in accordance with ‘the word of the Lord,’ but the actual working out of God’s will comes with ‘the word of Samuel.’ (4:1a)”. Ibid.
3 Lectures on Romans, quoted in Jens Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics – An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation, Grand Rapids, MI: 2004 Baker Academic, page 47
6 Lectures on Romans, quoted in Jens Zimmermann, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics – An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation, Grand Rapids, MI: 2004 Baker Academic, page 47