Sunday, January 18, 2015

Second Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
Psalm 139:1-10
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee underneath the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.

We have been involved in the organization of a mission congregation in our city. We've working at it for nearly three years. We were not involved from the very beginning, but we became part of the process within a few months. The organizers heard a call from God, as did all of us who have joined them in the struggle.

And it has been a struggle. We've had wonderful support from a sponsoring congregation and many of the other churches in our region. They gave incredibly generous donations in the beginning, from monthly financial gifts to hymnals and furniture. The congregation members have been generous, too, ensuring that we have everything we need to operate on a Sunday morning, from bulletin boards to coffee and cookies. We have had the help of a pastor and some musicians who have led our worship. We found a lovely office space that even looked like a church, and for the past year we have gathered together for worship, Bible study and fellowship. We've become a family.

Sadly, our family has not grown in the past three years. We have had visitors come through the door and enjoy our company, but few have been willing to commit the time, resources or energy to help us succeed. The gifts have dwindled and there have been changes in the lives of our most active members, making it impossible for us to continue. Our lease is up in a few weeks and we see no long term future, so we have voted to disband. We all have places we can go; we aren't giving up on God or our faith, but we know that the time for our tiny congregation has come to an end.

Here's the hard part: we all felt called to this and we were certain that God would do a miraculous thing in, with and through us. We don't think we've failed, but we can't help but question whether or not we were truly called to do this. After all, if God calls, won't He bless it? We have to come to terms with the reality that God may have had a different purpose than what we expected.

See, most of our members were in a state of flux with their faith. They were facing difficult times in one way or another. One member was attending a bible study that was causing her to doubt everything she knew and understood about God. Our pastor's husband became sick with cancer and died. Other families dealt with other crises, spiritual, physical and emotional. We became a haven; we became a place of healing, comfort and peace. We were also a jumping off point for some people; many people who walked through our doors moved on quickly to other places, including our sponsoring congregation, and have become very active there. Several people who had been deeply involved heard God call them in another direction, and they found their place in God's kingdom in a powerful way.

Of course, we want God to call us to something miraculous, something positive, something that will succeed. We wanted to become a powerful force in our city, to speak God's Word to our neighbors and to grow His Kingdom. Instead we were little more than a pit stop for a few dozen people as they made their way through this world. Who wants a calling like that? It is no wonder that we have been questioning whether or not we truly heard God.

At least we didn't get called like Samuel. Now, 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.

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.

Today's Old Testament lesson picks up Samuel's life sometime later, perhaps a decade. He was probably in his early teens. He had been ministering before the Lord, learning the work under his mentor Eli. It was a time when God had been silent; there were no visions and the word of the Lord was rare. Samuel had never experienced that kind of incarnation; he probably didn't even know that it could be. His understanding of God was limited; though he served in the temple, his service had always been to Eli. Eli was as like a father to him and Samuel did everything he could do to help Eli. Eli was quite old, he could barely see; he needed a helper to do even the most mundane things on a daily basis.

Samuel was attending the lamp in the temple, ensuring that it would not go out, when he heard a voice calling to him. He assumed it was Eli and he ran to his mentor's side. "You called?" Eli said, "No." Samuel went back to the lamb and heard the voice a second time. He ran to Eli. "You called?" Eli said, "No." This happened a third time. This time Eli understood that the Lord was calling Samuel. "Go back and when He calls, answer, "Speak, Jehovah; for thy servant heareth."

Samuel obeyed. When the Lord stood there and called Samuel's name, Samuel answered as Eli told him. Did he understand what was happening? I am not so sure; even at this point Samuel is obedient to Eli, the one he knows and has served for so long. It must have been a frightening thing since his experience of the Lord had been so mundane.

It doesn't help that the Lord spoke words against Eli, difficult for Samuel to hear. What would you do if the Lord came to you and told you that He was going to do this horrible thing to someone that you loved? The words made Samuel afraid. How could he tell Eli this truth? The first thing God laid on Samuel's shoulders was this harsh word. Eli warned Samuel to be honest with him, and that God would punish him if he hid anything. Samuel told Eli what he heard. Eli answered, "It is Jehovah: let him do what seemeth him good."

It 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.

His life was never easy, but He was obedient to God and He did what God called and sent him to do. The people of Israel were, as all of us are, imperfect. They believed God but often fell away. The history of God's people is a constant circle of faith, apathy, sinfulness, repentance and faith. God had to remind His people of their failure, their needs and His grace over and over again. They suffered the consequences of their apathy and sinfulness but were always given a word of hope and God always remained faithful to the promises He made to them.

Last week the scriptures spoke about the powerful and majestic voice of God; when God speaks, things happen. At His baptism, Jesus heard that wonderful voice as the Holy Spirit came upon. It was a very personal, intimate moment as God the Father blessed His Son. "Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased." There would be more of these moments, not only for Jesus but also for those who heard God’s voice. The scriptures for this week take us into that relationship, where God speaks personally to those He has chosen to serve.

Philip heard God's voice. Philip had an advantage over Samuel because he heard a voice that was connected to a person: Jesus. Jesus called Philip into a relationship. The encounter was no less miraculous: Philip dropped everything to follow Jesus. Philip was excited about what was happening in his town. John the Baptist was preaching a good word about God and baptizing people in the Jordan. He told his followers that someone greater was going to come along. They were expecting a Messiah because Moses and the prophets had written about him. So, when Philip met Jesus, he knew this was something that he should not keep to himself. He found Nathaniel and told him about Jesus. Nathaniel didn’t believe Philip right away because the news did not match his expectations. “What good can come out of Nazareth?” he asked. God was speaking through Philip, but Nathanael didn’t believe the voice because it was outside his expectation.

I suppose we are much more like Nathanael than Phillip. We have a hard time believing it when someone says, "God told me..." We even doubt our own calling when it doesn't come out the way we think it should.

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 do not need to fight the doubt or worry about the ridicule when we believe we've heard the voice of God, we simply need to trust that God is doing His work in His way even when it feels like we've failed.

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; He knows everything about our life, even before we know it. We cannot hide from Him. He created us and laid our path before us. He gives us His life and word. He will guard and protect us; He will mold and guide us. We can depend on Him and without Him we would die. 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. 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.

There are some who might think that everything we did for our tiny mission congregation was a waste of time and resources, yet we do not think so. God did something miraculous even if it appears to be nothing spectacular. He brought together a group of people who needed one another and gave us everything we needed to help one another. Each of us has taken our hope and peace into our own little corners of the world and impacted others in ways we don't even realize. We might misunderstand our calling, but God's Word will always accomplish what He intends.

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.

The people of Corinth understood the spiritual relationship God had with His people. They knew about grace and forgiveness and knew they would live eternally with God. Yet, they rejected that God's relationship with them was flesh as well as spirit. They thought it was ok to abuse and misuse their flesh because it no longer mattered; faith was spiritual only, nothing of the world mattered.

They did not see sexual immorality as a problem because they were spiritual beings. God did not communicate with or through their bodies. But Paul reminded them that their bodies were the dwelling place of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. God lives in us, works with us, and shares His love through us. Though the blood of Christ forgives our past, present and future sins, we dishonor God by abusing that which He so lovingly made and called into His service. We are called to honor God with our whole bodies.

The Lord stood before Samuel. Jesus spoke directly to Phillip and Nathanael. The members of our congregation heard God's voice and trusted that He would do His work through us. God still speaks to His people in many different ways, and we are invited to hear His voice in a very real way. We might not always get it right or fully understand what He is saying. We have to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can see God through their eyes and wonder at His amazing grace. The life God is calling us to live might not be what we want; it might even be frightening. It might seem like we have failed Him. None of us want to live the life of a prophet. None of us want to give up our wishes and dreams.

Samuel and Nathanael reacted with a humble obedience to the life they were called to live. They knew that their life was no longer their own, but rather that they belonged to God. They lived in the hope of God's promises, but they did not do so recklessly. They lived as if every moment was meant to glorify God and His word was reflected in their life. In Christ we have a freedom that we do not have under the Law, but that does not mean living that way is beneficial. Eli and his sons did what they wanted despite dwelling in the house of God, but they lost their place in His kingdom because they dishonored God. Samuel was given to God as a thankoffering from Hannah and he lived accordingly. Nathanael did not need to lead a life of contemplative prayer, but it was the life God called him to live and in doing so He brought glory to God.

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. 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. It doesn't matter if others think we've wasted our time and resource. 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 thy servant heareth.”

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