Sunday, January 14, 2018

Epiphany 2
1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
Psalm 139:1-10
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are expedient. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be brought under the power of anything.

Samuel’s world was probably very quiet. Oh, there was the noise of animals, of nature, of neighbors, but nothing like we have today. You can’t go anywhere these days without hearing the sound of televisions or people on cell phones. It would have been especially quiet in the Temple. Samuel’s job was to serve Eli, so his senses would have been heightened to hear and respond to Eli’s voice. He didn’t even know he could hear the voice of God. Do we know we can hear it? Do we know that He might talk to us? If He does, will we be able to recognize it over the noise of the world?

Samuel was a most unusual young man. His mother Hannah was barren, but loved deeply by her husband Elkanah. He treated Hannah with love and grace to the point of making his other wife jealous. Whenever he went to Shiloh to worship the Lord God Almighty, Penninah treated Hannah so poorly that she wept and refused to eat. Elkanah asked, "Hannah, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?" She ate and then went into the temple to pray. Her ache was so deep and her tears so bitter that her prayers came from the very depths of her heart even while her lips moved soundlessly. Eli the priest saw her and thought she was drunk. He rebuked her, but she told him that she was pouring out her soul to the Lord. He said, "Go in peace; and the God of Israel grant thy petition that thou hast asked of him."

During her prayers, Hannah made a vow, "O Jehovah of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thy handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thy handmaid, but wilt give unto thy handmaid a man-child, then I will give him unto Jehovah all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head." She became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. As soon as he was weaned, Hannah took Samuel to the temple and gave him to Eli to serve the Lord for his whole life. Her faithfulness was rewarded as she was blessed with more children.

When God called Samuel, he went to Eli. They lived in a time when God was very quiet. The scriptures tell us that the word of the LORD was rare in those days. People were not having visions. Despite being high priest, Eli didn’t have the connection to God that we might expect. The priests were not necessarily called, but were appointed through inheritance, as we see with Eli’s sons. But Samuel was a gift from Hannah, given in response to God’s gift of answered prayer. Samuel was different. And Samuel was chosen for something great.

Eli was father to two sons who were wicked in the eyes of the Lord. They took advantage of their position, abused their power and lived sinful lives. Eli knew his sons were evil, and tried to stop them, but he did not succeed. They continued to be wicked and the Lord decided to put them to death and end the house of Eli. They lived under a promise made to Eli's father that they would minister before the Lord forever, but since Eli chose to honor his sons more than God, God chose to end that promise.

One night, Samuel heard the voice of God calling, but he didn’t know it was God. He lived in a time when God’s voice was rare; it is not surprising that he thought the voice speaking to him in then night was Eli. It even took Eli three times to realize what was happening. A boy simply would not know. So, imagine what it was like to be Samuel. He heard the voice a fourth time and responded to God. The message he received was not good news. Eli was like a father to Samuel. How would he tell Eli that God said that Eli’s house would be punished forever? It was the first of many bad messages Samuel had to take to the people who sought the word of the Lord.

I believe God still speaks to His people.

The writer of Hebrews tells us, “God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)

The Old Testament stories show us that God spoke to His people through the patriarchs and the prophets. He came to them in a very real way; sometimes He sent angels, sometimes He spoke in dreams. He even appeared preincarnate in human form. Last week we talked about the powerful voice of God. When He spoke, things happened. God spoke and the world was transformed. Now, we are told in Hebrews, that we hear God’s voice in the words of Jesus.

Yet, I believe God still speaks to His people in a very real way. There are still some who have encounters with angels and others who hear God in dreams. I even believe that God can speak in an audible voice to those who will hear.

I was experiencing a moment of questioning. My faith was strong, but I was bombarded with voices of other Christians who were trying to convince me that I had to do something. It didn’t seem right to me, but I listened and I prayed. I asked God if I should do this thing. “Is this necessary?” I asked, since the voices were insisting it is. “What could it hurt?” they said. To do this thing would be to doubt God’s Word in my life. Nothing would have been changed if I did it or didn’t do it, but I knew in my heart that I needed to trust that God had provided all I needed. At the crest of my prayer I heard the words, “My grace is sufficient for you.” God answered and I did not do this thing that others insisted I should do.

God has spoken in other ways, of course, often through other Christians. He uses their voices to reprove, rebuke and exhort us in our journey of faith. We are encouraged by the fellowship of other Christians. Our pastors and parents help guide our paths. Our Sunday school teachers teach us to love God’s Word. Our brothers and sisters help us stay accountable. We lift one another up in prayer and share God’s grace in real and tangible ways. We must remember that human beings are fallible and that we must listen through the lens of God’s Word because sometimes we can be wrong. Yet, God is still able to us our voices to speak His Word into the world.

We have heard people say in the past, “God told me,” and I have to admit that I cringe when I hear this. The “word” given in these proclamations are often something new and different. Take, for instance, the mother who murders her children and then claims that “God told me to do it.” God would not tell any mother to murder her children. Others make claims that God told them to steal or cheat to benefit His work in the world. God would never tell His people to be disobedient to the Law as a means to an end.

So, we know God does talk to His people, through the scriptures and through His Son. We also know that God still talks to us through others. Yet, there are many contradictory voices out there. Which church is right? Who has the best understanding of God’s Word? Is God calling us to do this thing or not? It can be very confusing, especially when we see so much politics in our religious communities. When two Christians disagree vehemently about an issue, who is right? What is truth? Who is speaking God’s Word? It is no wonder that we doubt what we hear because the world is chaotic.

And sometimes we will make the wrong choice. We will believe the wrong word. We’ll speak the wrong word because it makes the most sense to us in our understanding of God’s love and grace and Word. We’ll say and believe “God told me,” when the voice we heard was not His. We will fail because do not always listen to the voices around us through the lens of God’s Word. I was so glad that when God did speak to me, He did so in words that I knew were His. “My grace is sufficient for you,” was more true than all the other words being spoken to me by the voices who truly believed that they were speaking for God.

Thankfully, God’s grace is always bigger than our failures. He has overcome our sin and has defeated death despite our inability to stand firm in His promises. When we are confused by the voices we hear, when we listen and believe what they say, we can trust that God will keep calling us until we hear what He is really saying. We may be led down a wrong path, but God will find a way to turn us around.

God still speaks and He calls us into a relationship. It is difficult in this world because even Christians wonder if we are really hearing the voice of God. We want to be accepted, to be respected, to be happy. We want to fit in. The only reason I would have done that thing others were telling me to do was to satisfy them, and that was not the right reason to do anything meant to glorify God. His grace was truly sufficient for me. To believe otherwise would be to doubt God.

On this second Sunday of Epiphany, we are reminded that God has invited us into a new life, a life following Him. It doesn’t matter if others think we are crazy because we believe God has spoken to us. What matters is that we live the life that glorifies Him, trusting that He has done something we might never fully understand. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we are meant to do. He knows what purpose our life holds. And He has promised that we will see extraordinary things happen. When we hear His voice, and we will, we need only say, “Speak; for your servant hears.” Unfortunately, sometimes the Word God wants us to speak will be uncomfortable and unpopular.

This story about Samuel might seem like a hard way to begin a career serving the Lord, but this harsh word acted to verify to Eli that Samuel was a chosen prophet. He was not telling Eli something new; Eli had already heard this word. Now Eli knew without a doubt that it was true because it was given to him again. But Eli also knew that God was not leaving the people desolate. Imagine if you were Eli, trying to reign in out of control sons, knowing that you have failed to be not only the father, but also the priest, that God called him to be. It was up to him to ensure the spiritual welfare of his people, but how could that happen if there was no one to carry on the ministry? Samuel was a ray of hope in a hopeless situation. Samuel grew and ministered to the Lord; the people heard God's Word through him. God was no longer silent.

Philip heard God’s voice. Philip had an advantage over Samuel because he heard a very real voice, that of Jesus. Jesus called Philip into a relationship. The encounter was no less miraculous because Philip dropped everything to follow Jesus. He went to his friend Nathanael and told him that he’d met the Messiah. That message was not nearly as difficult to share as the one Samuel had to give Eli, but even still Nathanael questioned the details. He couldn’t believe that God would do things the way Philip said. “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Though God was speaking through Philip, Nathanael didn’t believe the voice because it was outside his expectation. That’s the parallel between us and this story. We can’t believe when someone says, “God told me…” especially when we hear several people say that God told them conflicting ideas. It is hard to believe when several politicians say that God called them to run for office. It is even hard to believe when someone says that God called them to ministry when their ideas are different than ours.

Philip had no doubt that what he was saying was true. When Nathanael questioned the invitation to meet Jesus, he answered, “Come and see.” He didn’t try to prove his words or his worth. He didn’t try to prove that he heard God’s voice. He simply invited Nathanael to see for himself the man who could be the One they were waiting to see. We need not fight the doubt or worry about the ridicule when we say we’ve heard the voice of God, whether it is a voice like Samuel heard or a real voice through whom God is speaking. We can just say, “Come and see.” With these words we invite people into our fellowship with Christ, into His Word, into His heart. We can’t change people but we can invite them into His presence. God is able to prove Himself in His own way.

When Nathanael met Jesus, Jesus said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Jesus knew Nathanael, intimately and personally, as He knows all His children. The Psalm speaks of God’s handiwork, how He knitted us together in the womb. David sings of God’s knowledge, how He knows our inner being and the lives He has ordained for us to live. He knows our calling, even before we are born. He knows our thoughts and our ways. In the lessons for today, we learn that God doesn’t let our doubt get in the way of the intention of His calling. He keeps calling so that we will hear. We might not always understand why or how God comes to us, but He does until we get it.

When Nathanael wondered how Jesus knew him, the proof was not very exciting. “I saw you under the tree.” Why would that be the word that convinced Nathanael to believe in Jesus? It doesn’t make much sense. And yet, when does it make sense to say we believe in something so extraordinary? The proofs that people give that God called them often sound coincidental or seem like the perception of crazy mind. “That funny feeling in your belly was nothing more than gas.” Jesus assured Nathanael that this was the beginning of something extraordinary. His faith may be based on so little, but it would grow as God continued to speak. Nathanael would see the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but even when it seemed like there was no physical body to the voice, the voice would still speak.

God is full of grace and mercy, and it is so wonderful to know that even when we fail, He will be there with us. He helps us to overcome and He helps us to grow in faith and hope and peace. Yet, it is very easy to cross the fine line between the freedom we have in grace and the willful disobedience to God’s calling on our lives.

We live in a world that has become all about Me. Me demands the best of everything. Me expects everything that would satisfy Me. Me is not at fault for anything, Me has every right to blame everyone else for all Me's difficulties. Me is the center of the universe. Me is a god. This is, of course, an exaggeration. Most people are not so self-centered that they would consider themselves a god. However, we are living in a very self-concerned society where everyone is at some level egocentric. We want to be happy, healthy and satisfied despite the cost. That is, perhaps, why free money is so dangerous. We don’t think about the consequences of our actions when we have an unexpected windfall. We’ll do whatever it takes, especially when we think we are beyond disaster.

Most people are concerned with neighbor, willingly giving oneself over for the sake of others. We love our family and will do whatever is necessary for them to also know happiness. Yet, we all have some need that demands satisfaction. Whether it has to do with our jobs, our relationships, our leisure time, we all have some aspect of our personality that is self-centered. It is part of our human, sinful nature. It is as true for Christians as it is for those who have not yet come to know our Lord Jesus Christ.

We aren't any different than even the earliest Christians. As a matter of fact, the congregation in Corinth was dealing with just this very problem. There were members of that church who decided that Christian freedom gave them the license to do whatever they wanted to do, to satisfy all of their needs. Living in the forgiveness of Christ, they felt that they could partake of the wonders of the world without concern because Jesus' blood covered everything. So, they enjoyed the offerings at the temples of other gods—the food, the fornication—knowing that Christ had taken care of it all.

Paul talks about the use, and abuse, of the body in today’s lesson. He is addressing the issue of the Corinthian attitude about the Law. They thought that nothing they did in the flesh had any bearing on their spiritual life. Paul agrees that all things are lawful, that the rules of the past are no longer binding to the person who has been saved by God’s grace. But, he goes on to say that all things are not beneficial. It was fine for a Christian to eat meat that has been given as an offering to a foreign god because it had no meaning to the spirit of the believer. However, is everything beneficial? No. Some things are harmful to the body, to the soul and to the fellowship of believers.

We are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Though we might enjoy the things that tempt us, let us always remember that our life is a gift from God and our body is His temple. It would do us well to ask, “Is it beneficial?” We are called to make a commitment to the body of Christ, and if our actions are not beneficial, then we should answer like Paul. “It might be lawful, but I will not be brought under its power.” This is for the sake not only of the one person’s flesh, but the entire body of Christ. So, it does us well to keep away from those things that might bring harm to ourselves or others.

We have been given a great gift. Nothing is expected in return. However, God has called us into a life that is extraordinary. It is a life in which we will see great things happening. And we have been invited to be a part of those great things. God has a purpose for our new life: to continue taking the message into the world. Like Philip, we have seen the One they call the Messiah, and it is now our turn to tell others. It isn’t easy. We might be tempted to take part in things that are not beneficial to the kingdom of God. This free gift of forgiveness is easy to waste. But God is with us. He speaks to us in many and various ways, but especially through His Son.

We called into a relationship with Christ. It is difficult in this world to live as part of a community that asks us to set aside our own desires and needs for the sake of the entire body. We want to be happy, healthy and satisfied, no matter the cost. However, we are reminded this day that though all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial. Satisfying our needs might just cause harm to another and it will certainly dishonor the Lord. But just like Nathanael, we can see that God knows us to the very depths of our hearts. He knows what is best for us and for the body of Christ.

In Christ it is no longer about Me. We were bought with a price: the blood of Christ. So as we go through our day, let us trust in the God who loves us so much that He speaks to us in voices that call us to lives of grace. The world is chaotic with noise, but God is patient and will keep calling until we hear and respond according to His Word. Sometimes we’ll be confused by the many voices we hear, but as we grow closer to God and more mature in our faith, we’ll learn to recognize His voice above all the others. Then we’ll know what is beneficial to ourselves and to others. Then we’ll do what will glorify Him.

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