Our readings today are about being called and about being known. In the Gospel we have the story of Philip and Nathaniel. Jesus calls Philip and Philip enthusiastically calls Nathaniel. Philip didn’t go on a Mission and Evangelism course first. He simply says to Nathaniel: ‘come and see’. Later, the Samaritan woman would say the same after meeting Jesus at the well – and the rest of her village did exactly that. Sometimes that’s all we are asked or called to do. To simply say: ‘come and see’. I wonder how often we do it though.
And when Nathaniel meets Jesus, he knows that he’s known. Like a school child who has just loudly criticised one of the teachers who is stood right behind them, you can imagine Nathaniel being a little embarrassed when he realised that Jesus had somehow heard him say: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth’. But Nathaniel himself was from the same region, so he’d said it with a touch of irony – and you can see a twinkle in Jesus’ eye when they met.
And we have that truly wonderful Psalm 139. ‘O Lord you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar’. John must have surely had this psalm in mind when he wrote about Nathaniel being ‘seen’ by Jesus sat under a fig tree.
Later in the psalm we have that sublime turn of phrase: ‘For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb’. Even before birth we are all known by God.
Call and response
I want us to focus, though, on our Old Testament reading and the call of Samuel. But the story of Samuel – the great prophet, priest and judge – doesn’t start here. It starts earlier with his mother, Hannah. Hannah was married to Elkanah who had a second wife called Peninnah. And if you remember the stories of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel then it’s no surprise that when we’re first introduced to Hannah, she has no children, whilst Peninnah does – and that Peninnah twists the knife about it. And it’s also no surprise that eventually there would be a child and that God would have special plans for him.
Hannah prays so fervently, but silently, for a child that when the priest Eli sees her, he thinks she’s drunk. But he perceives the truth in her and tells her that the God of Israel will grant her prayer. Hannah calls and God responds. And in due time Hannah becomes pregnant. God knits together in her womb and she has a son whom she names Samuel, whom she commits to being a Nazirite – no booze and no haircut. She gives him to Eli so that he can serve the Lord.
Then Hannah sings her remarkable song, which was later adapted by Mary, the mother of Jesus. It’s every bit as prophetic as what her son Samuel would come to utter during his long career.
So, now we’re in the Temple. The scene is set with Samuel, who we’re told doesn’t yet know the Lord, and old man Eli, whose eyesight is failing him.
Eli had problems. He was troubled with misbehaving offspring and a lack of spiritual as well as physical vision. And you wonder if he was lying there that night, staring at the ceiling, troubled and with sleep impossible to find.
And that is by way of explanation as to why at first neither Eli nor Samuel recognised who was calling. Eli hadn’t heard God speak in so long and Samuel didn’t know what to listen for.
But eventually Eli realised. I think there’s a lesson there for all of us that no matter how old we are, no matter how troubled we are, how spiritually barren we feel, or physically struggling, there may be a role for us in mentoring and guiding others in the way of faith.
Both ears tingle
And we then get God’s message to the boy Samuel. And I love the word play. Samuel has been responding to the 3 earlier calls with ‘Here I am’. Eli then tells him to say: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’. Samuel does. And God replies ‘See, I am…’
And, I thought at first that God was recognising the youthfulness of the boy, when he says: ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle’. That it was a playful thing to say.
But then, bam! That ‘something’ from God was about Eli and his family. God didn’t give Samuel an easy first prophecy. This was about the downfall of his mentor, the person who had brought him up since leaving his mother. No wonder Samuel was reluctant to share it. That tingling ears phrase is only used in 2 other places and they’re both about the destruction of Jerusalem. Samuel is prophesying a catastrophic event – and you sense Eli knew what was coming. Keep nothing back he says. And this prophecy given to Samuel chimes with that sung by his mother before him. Because they are both about concern for the poor and judgement on those who prey on the vulnerable.
I think there are a number of take-aways for us here.
Firstly, a call might come from someone incredibly charismatic or enthusiastic – but it might not. It needn’t be some earth-shattering one-off moment. It can be a still, small persistent voice that might be hard for us to hear or takes a time of uncertainty for us to figure out. Sometimes it may take the help of others to guide us. Samuel’s help came not just from Eli but from his mother who prayed for him before he was born and weaned him and continued to visit him as he grew up. We would do well to think back over the years to the pastors and friends, the relatives and strangers who have nudged us on our way. But let’s think also about others who perhaps need our nudging now – because at different points in our lives, we may be a Samuel or we may be an Eli or Hannah.
All are called
Secondly, you’d think God would have given such an important message directly to the priest Eli – or to his sons who were also priests. Instead God sends messages via long-haired youths, via those like Philip with no training and like Nathaniel, who have a dim view about people from Nazareth. Again and again, God calls the outsider and those on the margins. He calls the small, the inexperienced and the mouthy, to be his messengers. We too easily look in the wrong places – because messages get given to people like you and me. It was once said that God calls everyone but has to make do with those who say ‘yes’!
Thirdly, the call might be a really difficult one. Samuel’s prophecy wasn’t just about the person who had brought him up. Eli represented the whole system of government. Sometimes we may be given tough things to do when we feel desperately ill prepared. Called to change the very structures that surround us and that we were raised in.
May your words not fall to the ground
But Samuel does deliver the prophecy and later in the chapter, we get this great phrase: ‘As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground’.
So, listen to the guidance of those who know you. They may help you hear God’s voice when you’re not sure. Or perhaps you are the one meant to be guiding? Don’t think that you’re not qualified to be his messenger. God is an equal opportunities employer! But it may not be easy – be ready for giving out tough love if called to do so.
And, like Samuel before us, let’s pray that the Lord will be with us – and that none of our words may fall to the ground. Amen