Friday, 13 January 2012

"Oh give me Samuel's ear!"

Readings for this week:
1 Samuel 3: 1-10 , John 1: 43-51

I blame Sunday school. That and the hymn ‘hushed was the evening hymn, the temple courts were dark’. But I have always read this story of God’s call in the temple as the call of Samuel.

The young boy is woken by God’s voice calling in the night. Samuel assumes that it is Eli who is calling him, and is taught by the old priest how to respond to God’s call & listen to what God has to say. You can see why it’s a favourite in Sunday schools: God speaks to a young child, so all young children better sit up and listen!

But when Samuel does listen to what God has to say, this is what God says:
‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken

concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.’

The message is for Eli. In the previous chapter, we have been told that Eli’s sons, Hophni & Phineas, priests by birth, have been using their position to steal food from worshippers. Eli knows this, but despite his rebuke it seems he can’t stop them from disrespecting people and God. Then a ‘man of God’ comes to Eli and warns him that God will punish his sons, since Eli won’t: both sons will die on the same day.
So although Samuel is understandably reticent to pass on God’s message to Eli, in fact he is not telling Eli anything he doesn’t already know. Eli knows his sons are rotten. He knows that God will punish them. He knows that his role of priest will no longer be continued after his death by his sons.
Samuel just confirms what he already knows.
In the darkness of the temple that night, it is to Eli that God is really calling – using Samuel to communicate to Eli what will happen.
Eli’s sons will die. Then who will be the faithful priest to the people in Eli’s place?
God’s message to Samuel does not say. But the fact that the message come through Samuel tells Eli that his successor will not be one of his sons but will be Samuel himself.

This story, that at first sounds like a sweet story for children, turns out to be part of a rather difficult history which shows God’s people how God is continually acting in new ways and through new people – and that those who are wise will listen for God’s word and be ready to join in the new thing with God.

We encounter this story during our celebration after Epiphany – we are remembering how God is revealed to us in the events of Christmas and in the baby of Bethlehem. But our Christmas story, too, cannot simply be read as a sweet children’s story – the magi turn up with the strange gift of myrrh, and force us to think about what will happen to the child, Jesus – how he will grow, what he will do and say, how God will be revealed in his whole life and death & resurrection.

Samuel will grow – he will continue to listen to the Lord God’s call and he will be considered a wise man of God – he will in fact be looked upon as a judge: a ruler for the people of Israel. But then, in a strange repetition of Eli’s story, just as Eli’s sons turn bad, so do Samuel’s sons – and again the line of succession shifts so that instead of Samuel’s sons becoming judges, Samuel is told by God to anoint Saul as the first king over the people of Israel.

You might wonder why we need this chunk of ancient history.
But whenever we hear of what God has done in the past we are forced to ask how God is acting now.

I think it is human nature to want to know what will happen in the future. The new year brings a flurry of predictions about who will be the stars of 2012, or what products will be big, or of astrologers trying to tell us what will happen to us. Like Eli, we might want to settle down into the idea that we will be succeeded by our children: even when all the signs point in an opposite direction. But if we listen to God, we find God has a plan – not our plan, not a set plan, not a nice quiet predictable plan. God will do a new thing, and will keep doing new things – God will call to young and old, and those who respond will be made part of God’s kingdom and rule in ever new ways.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, back in 2003, said in an address that Mission is “finding out what God is doing and joining in”. The story of Eli & Samuel shows us that we need to continue to be attentive to what God is doing and saying, because God’s plan is responsive to what people are doing or failing to do.
In the same address, Rowan Williams said “What makes a Church is the call of Jesus Christ, and our freedom and ability, helped by grace, to recognise that call in each other. The first reality is God's action in summoning us together as a people.”

So when in John’s gospel Jesus calls people, it isn’t a romantic story of small children, it deals with very ordinary, adult men, called into a fellowship of the followers and disciples of Jesus.

Andrew has seen Jesus baptized by John the Baptist, and tells Peter, his brother. Philip is from the same place as Peter & Andrew so maybe they’ve told him something about Jesus. But all Jesus says to Philip is ‘follow me’ – and not only does he decide to do it, he goes to fetch Nathanael as well.
Jesus tells Nathanael he saw him under the fig tree & that’s enough to convince Nathanael that Jesus is the King of Israel.
What they have seen & heard, what they have learnt about Jesus is enough to convince them to follow and learn more.

We cannot know what 2012 will hold. We cannot even be sure how God’s call will reach us in the year to come. But we know that God is faithful and loving and that God’s purposes are for all the world to hear of God’s love and mercy. We will need, this year, to be listening and attentive to what god is doing, as God finds ever new ways to communicate love to all people.

May we be helped to hear the call, and strengthened through this bread and wine to follow Jesus.
And may we be challenged even by the familiar words of the hymn 'hushed was the evening hymn' - since when we pray 'Oh give me Samuel's ear' we may not hear what we want to hear: but we will hear what God needs to tell us.
To God's praise & glory.

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