SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Thanks be to you, Lord Christ, most merciful redeemer, for the countless blessings and befits you give. May we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day praising you, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” I Samuel 3:1.
The age in which young Samuel lived is similar to my own in at least this one respect. I cannot say that have ever had anything like a vision. I don’t preach from any direct, personal experience of God’s self-revelation. I proclaim only what has been handed down by the church for the last two millennia and has been entrusted to me for proclamation. Yes, I can add that I have trusted the gospel all my life and found it to be a truthful, intelligible and reliable hermeneutic for understanding my own existence and that of humanity generally. Yes, I do my best to interpret the texts I have received faithfully to illuminate the good news about Jesus and his implications for the church and for the world. Sometimes I get that right. Other times, I don’t. Yes, I believe that Jesus lives in and through his church and I have seen, heard and experienced plenty to convince me that this belief is well founded. But at the end of the day, I am staking my faith, my hope and my very life on the testimony of the prophets and apostles. To their witness I can neither add nor subtract a thing.
For all of the reasons set forth above, I find myself identifying with Eli in our first reading for next Sunday. Like this aged priest, I have no direct experience of the Almighty. Like him, I have only the traditions handed down to me. For Eli, these consisted in the stories of how God liberated the children of Israel from Egypt, brought them through the wilderness and into the land of Canaan. Eli knew also of the many threats to her very existence Israel faced in settling her new land, not the least of which was the temptation to forget the God who formed her as a people and to pursue the more exotic deities of Canaan. Against the pull of Israel’s disintegration, Eli had only the ancient stories of salvation to be repeated through ritual, sacrifice and celebration. With these tools Eli struggled to remind the people of Israel who they were and to whom they belonged. My tools are the Word of the Gospel made present through preaching and Eucharist. I must rely upon them to make the voice of God heard in a world where God’s website often appears to have gone dark.
Of course, the story goes on to tell us that God did finally speak a new word for Israel to Samuel and that Samuel made it known. But this only goes to show that God speaks and acts in God’s own good time. God will not be rushed. Remember that Israel languished for four hundred years in slavery before God sent Moses to lead them into freedom. You might reasonably ask, “What good did the Exodus do for the thousands of people who were born into slavery, knew nothing but mindless toil all their lives and died in that very same state? What kept them alive as a people under such extreme circumstances? Though the Bible does not give us much in the way of documentary evidence, I strongly suspect that these slaves knew that they were not always a slave people. I suspect that they knew the story of their ancestors Abraham and Sarah as well as the promises made to them. I think that they probably told and retold the story of how these two bold pilgrims left behind their family, community and livelihood to pursue God’s promise of a land, a people and a blessing. These inspiring narratives and the promises woven into them were more real for Israel than the bonds holding her captive. For this reason, the people were able to hear anew those promises spoken again to them through the mouth of Moses.
So too, I think, we are a people sustained by the remarkable story of the crucified and resurrected Jesus who poured out his life witnessing to the inbreaking of God’s gentle reign of justice and peace. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. That is the mystery of our faith. The day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. That is the reason why disciples of Jesus spend their lives working in refugee camps where life is only becoming more difficult and hopeless each day. That is the reason why we practice forgiveness, seek reconciliation and love our enemies-even when it does not seem to be accomplishing anything worthwhile. That is why we continue to gather on the Lord’s day to hear the good news about Jesus proclaimed and meet him in the meal that is his very self-even though we are becoming older, fewer and smaller. We know that God is at work in the world and among us. The day will come when God will speak anew to us. God will renew his church in the time and manner of God’s choosing. Until then, we are nourished and sustained by the narratives and testimony of our spiritual ancestors.
I am left, however, with one haunting question: When God speaks, will we recognize God’s voice? What does the voice of God sound like? Is God speaking now and we simply do not hear? Samuel at first did not recognize God’s voice. Eli only caught onto the miracle after three false starts. How can we train our ears to listen for the divine voice? How can we be sure we will recognize that voice when we hear it? “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work,” says poet, Mary Oliver. Here is a poem by Oliver illustrating the kind of attention paid to the ordinary that might aid us in listening for and recognizing the call of God.
this morning and all day
continued, its white
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
and the heavens still hold
a million candles, nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain — not a single
answer has been found —
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.
Source: New and Selected Poems, Vol. I, (c. 1992 byMary Oliver, pub. Beacon Press) p. 150. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.
In their present form, the books of First and Second Samuel are part of a historical narrative composed by an editor/author scholars refer to as the “Deuteronomist.” This story begins at Deuteronomy and extends through the end of II Kings. The Deuteronomist was clearly influenced by the prophets’ criticisms of the monarchy and its failure to lead Israel in faithfulness to Torah. This critical assessment of the monarchy finds expression in numerous ways throughout the greater narrative.
To a lesser degree, the narrative denigrates the priesthood of Eli and the shrine at Shiloh. This resting place of the Ark of the Covenant was evidently destroyed by the Philistines. Our lesson for Sunday may be, in part, designed to explain this catastrophe. In the prior chapter we learn that Eli’s sons “were scoundrels” who “had no regard for the Lord.” I Samuel 2:12-17. That is the reason given for the judgment God is about to bring on Shiloh and the house of Eli. Vss. 13-14. Yet I believe the principal concern here is to introduce Samuel as the prophet, priest and judge who will be the transitional figure for Israel’s move from a tribal confederacy loosely joined together around the shrine at Shiloh to a united monarchy with a new priesthood based at the temple in Jerusalem.
Samuel, you may recall, was the son born to formerly childless Hannah in response to her prayer. I Samuel 1:9-23. Hannah had vowed to dedicate any son she might be granted to the Lord’s service at Shiloh. True to her word, she brought young Samuel to Eli the high priest of Shiloh when he was weaned and Samuel began assisting Eli in his priestly duties. I Samuel 1:24-28. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Vs. 1. So rare and uncommon were revelations of God that it took Eli three promptings through Samuel to figure out that God was attempting to address the young man. Once Eli realizes what is happening with Samuel, he instructs him how to respond. The message young Samuel receives is bad news for Eli and his sons. Eli must know this, but he still insists firmly that Samuel disclose everything he has heard from God. Vs. 17. Eli responds, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” Vs. 18. (Really, what else could he have said?) Verses 19-21 summarize the outcome of this interchange. God still appears at Shiloh and speaks to Israel. But his word comes not through the established priesthood of Eli, but through the prophecy of the young Samuel.
Eli’s parenting skills might well have been lacking. Perhaps that is why his sons turned out to be “scoundrels.” Still, I believe Eli deserves credit for his openness to God’s word, even when that word foretold his own demise. It takes a courageous person to accept the end of his family line, the end of his ministerial heritage and the end of his religious tradition. Few pastors, congregational leaders or denominational officials are willing even to entertain the possibility that God might have no further use for mainline Protestantism and that its end has been decreed. We have trouble reckoning with the possibility that the old wineskins of our institutions might not be capable of containing the new wine of God’s kingdom. We tend to become so fixated on preventing the disintegration of the old skins that we miss out on the sweetness of the new wine. Eli, I believe, recognizes that the word declaring his own doom is a word of life for Israel. It is that word, not the house of Eli, not Trinity congregation or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that lasts forever.
This psalm defies categorization. In some respects, it resembles a lament. This label does not quite fit, though, because the psalmist does not seek salvation from his/her own enemies as much as the destruction of God’s enemies. Though the psalmist struggles with God’s imminence and transcendence, reducing his/her reflections to such mere abstractions does a disservice to the psalm. This is not an individual sharing his/her speculation about God’s nature with someone else. This is a prayer in which the psalmist addresses his/her God. The psalm arises from and is imbedded in a dynamic relationship between God and the psalmist. His/her questions and assertions arise out of his/her experience of covenant life with the God of Israel.
God has “searched” and “known” the psalmist. It is comforting that God is so intimately familiar with us-or is it? There are times I would prefer not to be aware of God’s presence or to think too deeply about it. Does God have to be present when I defecate, pick my nose and do other things that everyone does, but no one admits too? Can’t I take a vacation from God’s presence when I need to vent my most vindictive feelings, feelings that I know are unworthy of me, feelings that I am ashamed of? Is it possible to experience God’s presence not as sweet comfort, but as an oppressive weight? The psalmist seems somewhat ambivalent about God’s constant nearness. S/he seems to be asking, “Is there no escape from this all-encompassing reality that seems to have me hemmed in from all sides?”
Verses 13-18 praise God for God’s intimate involvement with the psalmist’s life from womb to tomb. “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed.” Vs. 16. Taken literally and in isolation from its larger context, this verse appears to assert a strict determinism. Each day and everything in it is predetermined right down to the red tie I decided (or think that I decided) to wear today. But the nature of the psalmist’s relationship to his/her God suggests anything but a detached deity running a soulless machine. As the psalmist looks back on his/her life, s/he marvels at God’s activity in his/her life and all that God has done to bring him/her to this place and time. God has indeed given the final shape to each of the psalmist’s days, not as an author working with a fixed plot, but as a relational partner coaxing, persuading and nudging the psalmist toward deeper covenant living.
Some years ago a colleague of mine told me of a jarring experience she had conducting a funeral for a stillborn child. Using this psalm as her text, she assured the grieving parents of God’s tender care for their little one throughout the pregnancy and of God’s deep sorrow in his death. She spoke at length about the infinite value of this little life, short though it was. Following the service she was approached by an angry woman who through clenched teeth asked, “Do you have any idea how cruel, hurtful and unfeeling your words sound to a woman who has had an abortion?” She went on to accuse my friend of using the funeral to further the pro-life agenda and then stalked away before any response could be made.
I relate that story because it illustrates how thoroughly many of our scriptures have become captive to ideological disputes in our culture. I know that the last thing my friend would ever have wanted to do is address a political hot potato in the midst of a pastoral crisis like this one. Her only “agenda” was to speak words of comfort to a couple experiencing a traumatic loss and I have no doubt that they were in fact comforted. I am also convinced that abortion was not even at the furthest horizon of the psalmist’s thought process. It was obviously at the forefront of this individual’s thought process, however. So much so that it colored everything she heard my friend saying.
I am not sure how we deal with scriptural texts that have become almost “too hot to handle.” I believe that my friend was right to point out how this text affirms the value of the life that was lost to these grieving parents, God’s sharing in their sorrow and the significance of that life despite its never having seen the light of day. I believe it is altogether improper to use this psalm as ammunition in support of legislative measures regulating or criminalizing abortion. I reject having to choose between an ideology that reduces an unborn child to disposable tissue and one that simply equates termination of pregnancy with homicide. (If you are at all interested in my take on the whole abortion debate, see my post for December 24, 2017) I recognize certain Bible passages have collected a lot of dirt from having been dragged through the culture wars. They must be spoken with care, sensitivity and compassion-but spoken nonetheless. I maintain that whether or not one has (or should have) a legal right to do a thing has no bearing on whether a disciple of Jesus should exercise that right. I reject the notion that issues, such as abortion, can only be discussed in terms of “rights,” especially within the Body of Christ. And that brings us to the next lesson.
As we will be hearing from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians for the next four weeks, you might want to refresh your recollection concerning the background of that letter. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Articleby Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.
As I have probably said too many times already, it is impossible to comprehend Paul without appreciating his understanding of the church as the Body of Christ. Again, this is not a metaphor. Paul truly believes that the church is the physical presence of the resurrected Christ animated by the Spirit of Christ. It is the objective of the Holy Spirit to form “the mind of Christ” in this body of believers. I Corinthians 2:16. That happens as believers learn to appreciate each other as indispensable members of Christ. Just as the human body instinctively protects an injured part, so the church surrounds with care and compassion the member that is hurting. Just as the action of one part of the human body affects the whole, so each member of the Body of Christ must measure his or her conduct by its effect on the Body of Christ. See I Corinthians 12:12-26.
Today’s reading tackles sexual immorality or, more specifically, the believer’s engagement of prostitutes. Before considering this particular issue, however, we need to remind ourselves that “Paul’s ethical counsels and appeals stand in letters which were addressed to particular congregations and were formulated in response to particular situations.” Furnish, Victor Paul, “A Paradigm for Ethics in First Corinthians,” Interpretation, Vol. 44, No. 2 (April 1990), p. 145. Therefore, “[o]ne must not presume that his judgments about particular issues, say, in Corinth, would be the same were he writing to Christians elsewhere. Indeed, insofar as Paul’s counsels were specifically applicable in the situations to which they were originally addressed, they cannot be specifically applicable in any other situation. Nor is it possible to extract or reconstruct from his specific counsels a set of general “ethical principles…” Ibid. 145-146 (emphasis in original). Instead, “one finds there not a “Pauline ethic,” but Paul the pastor/counselor, reflecting on how the truth of the gospel forms and reforms the lives of those who are in Christ, and urging his congregations to be conformed to that truth within the particulars of their own situations.” Ibid. 146 (emphasis in original).
Paul’s ethics therefore derive not from scriptural rules or prescriptions. That which is good builds up the Body of Christ-whether it comports with some other objective moral prescription or not. That which injures the Body of Christ or compromises its witness to Jesus is evil-even if there is scriptural precedent for it. For Paul, ethics are not about breaking or keeping rules. It comes down to each member of the church being so totally possessed by the mind of Christ that s/he instinctively does what is appropriate to protect and build up Christ’s Body.
Earlier on in chapter 6, Paul was taking the Corinthian believers to task for their litigiousness. When fellow members of the Body of Christ sue each other in pagan courts, their witness to Christ is horribly compromised. “Can it be,” asks Paul incredulously, “that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the church?” I Corinthians 6:5. Indeed, the very fact that individual members have disputes that they are incapable of resolving between them is a defeat for the Body of Christ in which all members are to work in harmony for the sake of the whole Body. I Corinthians 6:7-8.
So now Paul takes the bull by the horns. “All things are lawful for me,” say Paul’s opponents. Is this really what they were saying or is Paul caricaturing their position by means of a reductio ad absurdum? Whatever the case may be, it appears that the issue of prostitution was a genuine one for believers. Bear in mind that prostitution was entirely legal in Corinth and often connected with pagan civic and religious ritual. While the practice was hardly universally condoned and often condemned by philosophers and moralists of many persuasions, prostitution was nevertheless common and altogether legal. That may well be, Paul replies. The law affords one many “rights.” You may have a right to sue. You may have the right to do all manner of things, including consortium with prostitutes. But legality is beside the point. Within the Body of Christ, it is never a matter of what is legal. It is always a matter of what is “helpful,” of what contributes to the health of the whole Body.
Though Paul could have drawn from a host of biblical passages condemning prostitution and fornication, he makes no such citation. Instead, Paul quotes the passage from Genesis following the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib stating that “the two became one flesh.” Genesis 2:24. Vs. 16. That being the case, how can one who is a member of Christ’s Body become one flesh with a prostitute? Clearly, given that most prostitutes were connected in some way with pagan ritual, such an act amounts to idolatry. Just as significantly, however, the life-giving and covenant building potential inherent in sexual intercourse is wasted on dead end casual encounters. Instead of building up “the Temple of the Holy Spirit,” the fornicator is desecrating that Temple by joining it to the temple of pagan gods. Vs. 19. “You are not your own,” says Paul. There can be no assertion of “My body, my choice.” “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Vss. 19-20.
Obviously, Paul is addressing an issue that is non-existent for most of us. (I can’t recall the last time one of my parishioners reported being solicited by a temple prostitute). So, too, there are plenty of issues important to us that Paul’s prescription does not address directly: Cohabitation between adults not formally married; uncoerced sex between persons in a dating relationship and more. That is not to say, however, that Paul contributes nothing to our consideration of these issues. Clearly, Paul’s primary concern is how sexual conduct (any conduct for that matter) affects the church’s life and mission. Paul is also concerned about how such conduct affects other individual believers who are members of Christ’s Body. Finally, Paul would insist that we consider whether the conduct builds up the church. Sexual relationships, therefore, must be characterized by selfless love, covenant faithfulness and life-giving expression that builds up the Body of Christ. Based on these reflections, the author of the Letter to the Ephesians can state that the covenant between wife and husband ought to reflect the same covenant relationship God desires between Christ and the church. (BTW, it matters not one wit whether you characterize the husband as Christ and the wife as church or do it the other way around. There is no hierarchy in the kingdom of heaven. “Love” and “respect” are simply two sides of the same coin.)
Having already called Peter and Andrew to be his disciples the day before, Jesus decides to leave the Judean banks of the Jordan River and travel to Galilee. Jesus “found” Philip and called him to be his disciple. Philip, in turn, “found” Nathaniel and declared to him, “We have ‘found’ him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Vs.45. Here again John’s use of language is very deliberate. The Greek word translated “found” in our English Bibles is “eureeka,” from which we get our expression: “Eureka!” meaning “I’ve got it!” This exclamation is attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher/scientist Archimedes. According to anecdotal legend, Archimedes observed one day how the water level rose as he stepped into the bath tub. This, in turn, led to his realization that the volume of water displaced must be identical to the part of his body submerged. Upon making the connection, he gave us that immortal exclamation. So the “finding” that is going on in this story amounts to more than just a random discovery. It is disclosure of a critical piece of the puzzle that is God’s redemptive intent for the world.
Philip, though identified as one of the Twelve disciples in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), plays no active role anywhere else therein. By contrast, Philip is a major player in John’s gospel, being among the first disciples Jesus called. He is instrumental in bringing Nathaniel to Jesus. Vs.45. He is personally mentioned in the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:5-7), acts as an intermediary between Jesus and some Greeks wishing to see him (John 12:20-23) and takes an active part in one of Jesus’ major discourses (John 14:8-9). Nathaniel is not included among the twelve disciples in the synoptics. Though some strands of tradition identify him with Bartholomew, there is no solid textual or historical basis for so doing.
The fact that Philip describes Jesus to Nathaniel as the one about whom both Moses and the prophets wrote indicates that he has already concluded that Jesus is Israel’s messiah. The “law and the prophets” is frequently used shorthand for the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures in their entirety. See, e.g., Matthew 5:17; Luke 16:16; Acts 13:15; and Romans 3:21. It is quite understandable that Nathaniel would be skeptical about Philip’s claim. Nazareth of Galilee, unlike Bethlehem or the City of Jerusalem, is not the sort of place from which you would expect a great leader to arise, much less Israel’s messiah. Furthermore, according to John’s gospel, Jesus’ father, Joseph, is merely a local with no evident royal lineage. Philip bears a substantial burden of proof! Rather than attempting to argue Nathaniel out of his very reasonable objections, however, he simply invites him to “come and see.” Vs. 46.
“Behold, an Israelite,” Jesus declares. Vs. 47. This might well be translated, “Now here’s the real thing! A true Israelite.” While it is not exactly clear what Jesus meant by remarking that Nathaniel was without “guile,” the point is Nathaniel’s response. “How the hell do you know anything about me?” (very roughly translated). “I could be Jack-the-Ripper for all you know.” (Not actually said and a tad anachronistic but, hey, it captures the spirit of the conversation). Vs. 48. Jesus’ response is extremely important. He replies to Nathaniel, “When you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Vs. 49. Jesus is not simply showing off his clairvoyance. He is making a messianic proclamation echoing the words of the prophet Micah: “but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.” Micah 4:4. In effect, Jesus is saying, “I know, Nathaniel, that you are of the New Israel, an Israelite without ‘guile’ (unlike Jacob!), because the messianic age has come.” This “word of the Lord of Hosts” is enough to convince Nathaniel. He confesses Jesus as both the King of Israel and the Son of God, both common messianic titles. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to John, 2nd Ed. (c. 1978 by Westminster Press) p. 186.
But there is more to Jesus than Nathaniel has guessed. “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Vs. 51. The reference here is to the story of “Jacob’s Ladder” narrated at Genesis 28:10-17. After waking from a dream in which angels ascended and descended from a heavenly ladder upon the rock where he lay, Jacob declared: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:17. Jesus, then, is “the house of God” that will replace the temple with its holy of holies. John 2:19-21. Jesus is the “gate” through which the sheep will go in and out and find pasture. John 10:9. Keep your eye peeled and focused on Jesus. You haven’t seen anything yet!