The Second Sunday After Epiphany
TEXTS: 1 Samuel 3:1-20 and John 1:43-51
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10)
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” (John 1:45)
In the United States, this coming Monday—the third Monday in January—is an important day. Know what it is?
With all of the rage and furor dominating the news this past week; all of the shock and outrage over the violent mob which stormed the Capitol building on Epiphany Day; all of the attendant introspection about national identity; and all of the controversy surrounding the impeachment of a soon-to-be-former president …
With all of that going on, I’m not sure how many of our American friends remember what Monday is about, either.
Monday, January 18, 2021 is Martin Luther King Day. On that day each year, the United States of America pauses to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or at least, it’s supposed to.
Martin Luther King, Junior. We all know that name. People all over the world know that name. Dr. King was a remarkable human being—a courageous Christian. And the fact that I do not have to explain to you who he was … Well, that shows he is not only an American hero, but an international one.
The address King delivered in Washington in 1963 marks one of the pivotal events of 20th century history.
“I have a dream,” he said.
It was a dream of a nation freed of crippling racism; a dream of freedom; a dream of everyone joining hands and singing: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we are free at last.”
When we look at the lectionary readings for this Sunday, we are reminded that God has a dream, too.
The message God gave to the boy Samuel could be delivered to us in our time, I think. God has a dream for his people. But his people have become … complacent … apathetic … remote. Our traditional Christian spirituality is becoming tired. It is growing old, just as Eli had grown old.
Think that’s not an accurate assessment of how things are?
Well, take a moment and try to remember what it was like just about a year ago, before the pandemic shut our churches down, and forced us to sit in our living rooms on a Sunday morning, watching a computer screen or listening to church services on the radio.
Remember what it was like? Unless you’re a member of one of those fabulous megachurches with multi-million-dollar budgets and over a thousand folks in attendance … you probably remember …
You probably remember how sparse your congregation was.
In my mainline denomination, we have plenty of huge, impressive sanctuaries, built decades ago, some of them designed to hold megachurch-sized crowds. But a year ago …
A year ago, we were blessed to have 100 people show up on a Sunday morning. And more likely, we were expecting 30.
Do you remember how sad that looked? To see all those empty rows? To look out at a 600+ capacity sanctuary with 30 people huddled together (or, worse still, scattered across the vast, barren domain)?
Yet, once upon a time, long, long, ago … we needed all that seating! Once upon a time, almost all of those rows would be full.
The lamp of the Lord has not yet gone out—but it’s going out!
God has a dream. God still has a dream. And without much effort, we can catch a glimpse of it in today’s story about the young boy to whom God called in the night: “Samuel! Samuel!”
Ah, look at him. He’s running off to the old priest: “Here I am,” he says.
“No,” replies Eli. “I did not call you. Go back to sleep.”
And he does it again: “Here I am, Father Eli!”
And again: “Here I am. You called me.”
Unaccustomed to hearing God’s voice, Samuel needs the old priest Eli to help him recognize it. And perhaps old Eli needs this young boy to show him that God can still speak!
Eli’s sons have disgraced him. They have abused their positions of power. They have abused the people in their care. Eli’s sons have become corrupt. They have disgraced Eli’s name and his priestly office. Eli feels a terrible sense of personal failure—yet there is still within him sufficient grace to recognize the voice of God; still enough left for him to know what to tell young Samuel:
“Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”’
And something of the residue of Eli’s greatness comes out when he insists that Samuel tell him what God has said.
That must have been very difficult for Eli, because the message is essentially a word of judgement against himself and his household. Yet, upon hearing it, he responds without resentment. Eli sounds no note of self-pity or self-justification. He simply accepts what is to be: “He is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
God has a dream. God has a dream for us. And God has a dream for us especially when we find ourselves in Samuel’s place—or in Eli’s. God has a dream for us when the Word of God seems rare; when visions are not widespread; when the lamp of the Lord is beginning to flicker and sputter.
But how does God communicate his dream to us? What should we do? How may we hear God’s voice? How may we know what we are hearing?
Many around us, of course, think there is no God to speak. And I suppose that is because … perhaps … the only thing of God they have experienced is his seeming absence.
The gift of faith is that we have a different experience. The gift of faith is that … we know better. Or at least, we should. Our God is a living God. He is real. And he has a dream to tell us about.
Now, maybe some of you haven’t heard from God in a while. Maybe you’re no longer accustomed to a daily discipline of prayer and meditation, which would attune your ears to the divine voice.
Perhaps you need to find a place to go and lie down—to wait, and to listen—as Samuel did. Perhaps you need a mentor to help you recognize when God is speaking to you—even if that mentor has a spirituality unlike your own; even a spirituality from a different—and waning—era.
God has a dream to impart to us—and the discernment of the dream requires more than just our willingness to serve God. Of course, we have to say: “Here I am, Lord—speak!” But we also need guides—mentors—like Eli was for Samuel. Or like Philip was for Nathanael.
After Jesus called Philip to follow him, Philip sought out his friend Nathanael, saying: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
And Nathanael responds: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Just like Nathanael, we can find many reasons to be dismissive—especially of things that don’t fit our preconceived notions. For Nathanael, when it comes to the place of discovering God’s activity, Nazareth simply does not fit the theological profile. Jerusalem, yes! But Nazareth? You’ve got to be kidding!
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
“Come and see.” Philip’s invitation is still one of the best invitations that we Christians can give to our friends: God has a dream; come and see.
And when he comes, Nathanael is amazed that Jesus recognizes him.
“How come you know who I am?” he asks.
Jesus answers him: “‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
“You’re amazed that I know you? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
God has a dream. The dream begins when we hear God’s call.
We enter into that dream with our initial “Yes!” to God. That “yes” marks a new beginning—the start of a new relationship. Only long afterwards do we realize the true significance of that “yes”—the real power of that relationship; the depth of the love that will grow; the intensity of the loyalty that will develop; how absolute the commitment will become.
Many of you know that dream which God has for you, because you have responded with that initial “yes.” Maybe you made your response a long time ago, and you know what it has led to. Maybe you made it not so long ago, and you are still discovering what it’s all about.
Or maybe you haven’t made it yet. You’re not sure. You have not yet come to the point of being able to say, “Here I am, Lord—speak.”
But still, God has a dream. God has a dream for you.
God calls us in many ways. God speaks to us in many forms. Almost all of them are gentle, almost all of them are subtle—and almost all of them can be mistaken for something else! That is, until we heed those calls; then we discover the power of God is in them and behind them.
God has a plan for you. God seeks to guide you. And that call is personal. God seeks you out—as Jesus sought out Philip; as Philip sought out Nathanael. God is calling you by name—just as he called Samuel by name.
God calls in our dreams. He calls in the voices of those people who are trying to help us find our way. He calls through our spouses and our work-mates. God calls when we are trying to decide what to do next. He calls when we gaze upon the heavens. He calls when we pause to read the Scriptures, or to meditate, or to pray.
May God give us ears to hear his voice, and hearts courageous to respond. And may each one of us say: “Here I am. Speak, Lord; your servant is listening.” Amen.