January 15th, 2012 Second Sunday after the Epiphany

You may have noticed that there is no title for this week’s sermon. That is not because it doesn’t have one, but because I forgot to put it in the bulletin. Because some people like to know the title – I always do, anyhow – I will tell you that this sermon is called: Recognizing his voice.
When I begin to prepare a sermon, the first thing I do is read the Scripture assigned for that Sunday – the lectionary readings. Then I read them again, this time looking for a connection. Sometimes, it is difficult to find one, and I have to keep trying or decide to focus on just one of the readings in any particular week. This week, however, it was easy to find a connection. Both the Old Testament reading from 1 Samuel and the Gospel reading from John deal with a call, with someone being called by God to do a particular thing. So I thought, at first, maybe I should speak about the call we all have, to live as people called by God. And I will, but not right away. To begin, I want to show you how these people – the boy Samuel, and the men, Philip and Nathanael, were called, and how they responded.
We know a little bit about Samuel from other readings, but to refresh your memory, I will tell you a bit of his background. His mother, Hannah, was the wife of Elkanah. Elkanah had another wife – Peninnah, and there were a couple of differences between the two women. For one thing, Elkanah loved Hannah, and would give her double portions of the sacrificial meat. The other, more important thing was that Peninnah had children, while Hannah had none. Each year, Hannah would go to the temple and pray for a child, and each year, she was disappointed. But one year, while she was praying, and begging God for a child, Eli, the priest at the temple, heard her. He accused her of being drunk, and ordered her to leave the precincts of the temple. But she fell on her knees, and cried to him of her desire for a child. Eli saw that she was sincere, and blessed her, telling her that the God of Israel would grant her desire. Sure enough, Hannah became pregnant, and gave birth to a son, Samuel, whom she dedicated to God. Does this story remind you of anything? How about John the Baptist? He mother, Elizabeth, was old, and believed to be barren. And yet, she had a son, who was the forerunner to Jesus.
Now, when Samuel was weaned, Hannah remembered the promise she had made before she became pregnant. She had promised that her son would be dedicated to serving God, and so she brought him to Eli. She reminded him of his blessing, and told him that this was the boy. She then recited a prayer which has come to be known as Hannah’s song, and which many people compare to the Magnificat, which Mary sang when she visited Elizabeth early in her own pregnancy.
Now, let’s look at Samuel’s call. We don’t know how old he was, but he was referred to as a boy, which probably means that he was not yet thirteen, which was considered the age of manhood at the time. He ministered before the Lord under Eli, who was becoming old and blind. As we heard, Samuel was lying down in the temple one night, no doubt tired from his chores of the day. He heard his name being called, and thought that it was Eli, but Eli said: I did not call. Go back and lie down. This happened again, and when it happened the third time, Eli realized that Samuel was being called by the Lord. Keep that in mind – it was ELI who recognized Samuel’s call, NOT Samuel himself.
Let’s go now to the reading from John’s Gospel. In the pew Bibles, the title of this pericope is Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael. For those of you wanting to be Bible scholars, the word PERICOPE means a small section of Scripture, usually used in reference to the New Testament. Remember this word, as there could be a quiz at any time. Now, just prior to the reading for today, Jesus had called Andrew, who then went and found his brother Simon, bringing him to Jesus also. The next day, Jesus was leaving for Galilee, but found Philip first, and said: Follow me. Philip immediately went to Nathanael and said: We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. To say that Nathanael was receptive to this idea would not be exactly true. In fact, he said: Nazareth! Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Now, I tried to find a contemporary Quebec allusion to fit here, but I really couldn’t. So I decided to make my own, based on my time at McGill. As you know, McGill is considered to be a Canadian Ivy League school. In fact, one of the t-shirts sold in the bookstore has written on it: Harvard: The McGill of the United States. Just a few blocks from McGill you will find Concordia, and the expression used to be: If you can’t get into McGill, then you go to Concordia. So I guess that Nathanael felt about Nazareth the same way McGilligans felt about Concordia. We never knew how Concordia felt about McGill, though.
So, like the boy Samuel, Nathanael didn’t recognize his call at first. For Samuel, it took Eli to point out that it was the voice of the lord he was hearing in the night. And it was Philip who assured Nathanael that Jesus was the Messiah. However, Nathanael still wasn’t convinced. It was not until Jesus said: I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you. Then, Nathanael realized that Jesus was the Son of God, and the King of Israel.
Now, let’s bring these two stories to us, today. First of all, Samuel’s call, which he did not recognize, until Eli explained it to him. Like Samuel, we are all called to the priesthood of all believers. We are all called to do something in the name of God. It could be exactly what you are doing now, or it could be something very different. When I was a child, in a Roman Catholic school, the word VOCATION was one which we often heard. At the time, we understood it to be a calling to religious life. But since then, I have come to understand the word as a calling to live the life God wants us to. He does call some of us to ministry, whether as a minister of Word and Sacrament, or a ruling elder on the Kirk Session. Others he calls to be teachers – school teachers, university professors, Sunday School teachers, or any other kind of teacher you can imagine. Certainly, doctors and nurses have vocations – calls to heal the sick. But so are veterinarians called to heal the sick. All the various kinds of therapists are called to help as well, as are social workers and psychologists. And let’s not forget those jobs which many of us tend to look down on. You only had to live in Toronto a few years ago during the city-wide sanitation workers’ strike to understand the importance of those who collect the garbage every day. In a city like Quebec, at this time of year, we really depend on the people who clear the snow from the roads. And could we eat without farmers, who, like Abel, are called to till the soil and bring forth fruit? I could go on, but you get the picture. Whatever we do, we do it because God wants us to.
If you listened to the words of the psalm today, you would have heard the psalmist say: In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. To me, this shows clearly that God has a plan, and that we are a part of it. We are chosen by God. Listen again to the psalmist: it was you, God, who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made – that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Whether you know it or not, you are already chosen. For what other reason would God have made you with so much care, if not because he had hopes, and dreams, and plans, AND responsibilities for you? Simply because he made you, you are chosen. Simply because you are a beloved child off God, you have been chosen. But being chosen isn’t enough. Like Samuel, like Nathanael, we must answer this call first, so that we can fulfill God’s plan. And in order to answer the call, like Samuel, like Nathanael, we must first recognize his voice.
Initially, Samuel thought that it was Eli calling him in the night. Initially, Nathanael scoffed at Philip. Neither of them recognized God’s voice; neither of them recognized that they were being called. Initially, many of us don’t recognize God’s voice calling us. We think that it is someone else, something else. Initially, many of us – well, we don’t scoff, exactly, but we don’t believe that God is calling us to do something in particular. Often, like Samuel, like Nathanael, we need someone else to point it out to us. Sure, it would be wonderful if we all saw with the clarity that some people do. People like Eli, who knew that it was the Lord speaking to Samuel. People like Philip, who knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and told Nathanael.
Whom do we have today? We could say that there are no prophets. But that was also said in Samuel’s time. We read: In those days, the word of the Lord was rare: there were not many visions. And at the time of Jesus, there were many false prophets, many people claiming to be the Messiah. Whom do we have today? As Christians, we have, first and foremost, Scripture. This is the revealed word of God, and, as I said to the children last week, it is the map we need to bring us to salvation.
But we have more. As Presbyterians, we have our secondary standards, primarily Living Faith, which I often use as part of our prayers on Sunday. We need to study both Scripture and Living Faith, since they both open our ears so that we can hear God calling us. He calls us in many ways. He takes many forms when he calls us. It could be something as simple as a nudge we feel which we can’t explain. He could speak to us in a dream, as he did to the Magi, warning them to return home by a different route. Maybe he is telling you to take a different route. But can you recognize his voice?
You know, it really doesn’t matter how often or how loudly God calls us. If we don’t recognize his voice, we won’t answer. But when we DO recognize his voice, then, oh then, we will hear the power behind it. We will hear God almighty speaking to us, just as Samuel did, just as Nathanael did. But recognition is key. These days, we hear all about voice recognition software, which allows people to do such things as directing their cell phones to make a call. If the software doesn’t recognize the voice, then it won’t work. And if we don’t recognize God’s voice, then we won’t work; we won’t do whatever it is that God is telling us to do.
I sometimes wish that God would just come down from heaven and speak directly into my ear, in a voice that I can hear with my own ears, but realistically, that isn’t likely to happen. In fact, when I was going through psychological evaluation during my time in seminary, one of the questions we were asked was whether or not we heard voices. I have a feeling that, if I had answered YES, I may not have passed that part of the evaluation. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t hear God speak to me, every single day. I hear his voice in the wind, and goodness knows we have had enough of that for the past few days. I may not hear specific words, but I don’t need to. I know that it is his voice, which is directing my life, and your life, and the life of every living thing.
Eli told Samuel that the voice he heard was the voice of God. Philip told Nathanael that Jesus was the Messiah. Who is the fellow traveler pointing out the voice of God to you? It could be me, but it is not necessarily only me. It could be a friend, who sees some quality in you that you are not even aware that you possess. That is one of the points of a faith community, so that we can recognize things in each other, and point them out. And, make no mistake, this IS a faith community. When I look at you on Sunday morning, that is what I see – a faith community, one which is made up of people who are all doing God’s work, people who have made a commitment to follow him, people who are trying to do what is right. I see people like Samuel and Nathanael, answering God’s call. But I ask myself: How many of you feel that you ARE called by God? Because you have been, and you will be called to walk your journey of faith with him, in the company of your fellows. God has a plan for you, as we heard in the Psalm, and if you listen for his voice, you will discover it. Listen, and pray, and when you are doing what God has planned for you to do, you will feel a sense of rightness about it that you will not feel otherwise. Listen, and you will see what God promised come to pass. Listen, and you will find what you have been looking for all your life. Thanks be to God.

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