Home Sermons Sunday 17th January
January 17th, 2021
Readings: I Samuel 3: 1-20 John 1: 43-51
What is it that motivates us to do things? I’m sure many of you, like me, are
motivated to do some things out of a genuine concern for others. Sometimes
what we do is appreciated and we feel good about it; sometimes the results
are not quite as good and we wonder if we made a serious mistake. There
are also times when we simply respond to a request or a situation without
giving it any thought at all. And then there are times when we may say we felt
‘called’ to do something. This sense of being called is something that
frequently defies logic or reason and it is not something that will go away if we
The story of the boy Samuel is a great example of this persistence of a call
and also of the way we often respond. Samuel is an apprentice in the priestly
tradition ministering to the Lord under the direction of Eli the old priest, and it
is while he is sleeping in the Temple that he first hears a voice calling to him.
Samuel assumes that it is Eli calling him, and it also takes the old priest a
while to recognise what might be happening. After the third time, he prepares
Samuel for what he needs to do and say.
When the voice comes again, Samuel responds and is told things that he
probably didn’t really want to hear about what God is going to do to Eli’s
disobedient sons. This is a moment of great significance in the story for here
God is removing the influence of the dominant priestly family and with it the
entire system on which Israel has relied. Samuel is in a difficult position – he
knows that Israel’s power structures are about to be drastically changed. No
wonder he is afraid to tell Eli what he has heard. Under pressure from Eli he
finally blurts out to the old priest the news that his order and his house are to
be terminated and he is to be expelled from the priesthood. Samuel no doubt
expected Eli to respond in anger, disbelief or possibly even violence; what he
and we are not prepared for is Eli’s response of faith and grace. He accepts
the word of God without question.
The focus of this story would seem to be on the power of God both in the rise
of Samuel and in the loss to Eli. Samuel is a model of one who is completely
responsive and obedient to the word of God. But what is surprising is that Eli
also emerges as a model character who submits to the word of God even
though that word means his own death.
There are a number of features of this story, which are important for us today
in our faith journeys. Samuel did not understand what was happening to him
until Eli was able to explain that the voice was almost certainly God. For me
this underlines how important it is for those beginning their faith journeys to
have an older mentor, guide, soul friend – someone who can reassure and
who can also help a person test what they think may be a call from God.
This testing of what we believe is a call from God is so very important.
Sometimes we can get carried away in our enthusiasm and can believe that
everything we imagine is God speaking to us. Sharing such experiences with
another person can help to assess their validity and can prevent us from
possibly doing harm to others. We need to test such a call against what we
already know of God’s interaction with the world and how Jesus responded to
God. We also have the examples of the disciple’s responses. A tragic
example of not testing the call happened a few years ago when a well-
meaning but misguided person predicted another large earthquake on a
particular day. This caused an extraordinary amount of anxiety and in some
cases panic. If that person had talked this through with a wise person they
would have discovered that this is not what prophecy in the Biblical tradition is
Men and women of Jesus’ time entered into discipleship through many
different routes and we know only some of their stories. Our gospel reading
began with the calling of Philip by Jesus. We know Philip was from Bethsaida
– the same city where Andrew and Peter lived – but that is all we know about
him. It is probably fairly safe to assume that this was not his first meeting with
Jesus. He may well have been one of the two mentioned earlier in the text
who had heard John the Baptist speak along with Andrew.
What was it that encouraged Jesus to call some people rather than others and
how important were their links with John the Baptist? Hundreds must have
heard John speaking, but only a few were called by Jesus to be part of that
first group of disciples. Perhaps the fact that they had been listening to John
alerted Jesus to the possibility that they were attracted to an alternative way
of understanding things. However, no matter how curious we are about the
call of Philip, it is Nathaniel that this story is really about.
Philip approaches Nathaniel and, no doubt after some preliminary greetings,
tells him “we have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the
prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel greets this
comment with scepticism – Can anything good come out of Nazareth – but
this doubt is quickly swept away when Nathaniel meets Jesus who abruptly
declares him to be free from deceit.
Nathaniel’s initial comment may well have reflected some contemporary
rivalry between the villages or may indeed have been a well-known proverb,
but it also provides the Gospel’s first evidence of the statement from much
earlier in the Gospel:
“He was in the world and the world came into being through him; yet
the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his
own people did not accept him.”
There has been much speculation about what it was that prompted Jesus to
declare Nathaniel “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” and there is no
answer to this question. Nathaniel however, is completely disarmed when
Jesus says to him: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” –
an indication that Jesus ‘knows’ far more about people than can be logically
explained. In response to this disclosure, Nathaniel declares: Rabbi you are
the Son of God, the King of Israel – a far more specific confession than that of
Philip that he had previously dismissed out of hand.
So what do both the story of Samuel and the story of Philip and Nathaniel
have to say to us today? They are both stories of people responding to God’s
call on their lives – unlikely people – a child and a cynic – and yet God saw
the potential in them.
It is important that we interact with people as people and not make
assumptions about who they are, what skills they have and where their
interests lie. It is also important that we don’t limit people by deciding
beforehand what they are capable of. Each of us has our own gifts and
potential and the church should be the place where we can use our gifts and
have them recognised and affirmed by others. Jesus was particularly skilled
at seeing beyond the facade people have and getting to the heart of those he
encountered. We need to be gentle when someone makes a tentative
suggestion rather than either seizing upon it with great enthusiasm or
dismissing it out of hand.
Encouraging others to be the people they sense God wants them to be is one
of our most important tasks as a faith community. It is part of our role to
provide support for those who are perhaps venturing into new ways of living
out their faith or undertaking new responsibilities. As Eli was a mentor and
guide for the young Samuel, so too should we be willing to act as mentors and
supporters for others – not to turn them into clones of ourselves, but to allow
them to grow and discover their talents and abilities. Our belief in people’s
potential and possibilities ought to be at the base of how we act out our lives
and how we regard people within our faith community.
Jesus had an intuitive capacity to see into people’s hearts which few of us
have, but if we learn to listen carefully we can begin to see what makes others
tick and to hear what their hopes and dreams are. Above all we need to
remember that each of us is loved by God as a person of worth simply
because of who we are. Let us be still.