Feast Day: Second Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9)
All of our readings this morning speak of the inescapable calling of God. God seeks people out and calls them into relationship with himself, reorienting their lives and giving them a new vocation. And if you are here this morning, it is probably because God has called you in baptism and is calling you by his word even now to live out that new vocation, as a child and servant of God. This morning I want us to take a few moments to look at both Samuel and Nathanael to see how God calls those both near and far to be his followers.
First, notice how in our readings the word of God searches people out and calls them. The boy Samuel is sleeping in the temple of God when he hears his name, “Samuel! Samuel!” and off he runs to Eli. But it was not Eli that was calling Samuel. Three times this happens before Eli realizes that it is the Lord that is calling. God himself, searches out the boy Samuel and calls him into new life.
Likewise with Philip and Nathanael in our Gospel reading. There was Philip, minding his own business, and we are told that Jesus, “found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” This passage in John’s gospel always gives me a bit of a chuckle because it is clear that Jesus found Philip. However, when Philip runs off to find Nathanael what does he say? We have found him about whom the Scriptures are written. But the truth of the gospel is that God does the finding. He searches out, he finds, and he calls us into new life.
Who does God call? He calls those who are very near as well as those who are far off. That’s what we see here with Samuel and Nathanael. Let’s look at Samuel first. Samuel was the son of a woman named Hannah who was the second wife of a man named Elkanah. Now, Hannah was barren and unable to bear children but she cried out to the Lord in her distress. She made a vow to God. If God looked upon her misery and gave her a son then she would offer the son back to God to be his servant forever.
Now Hannah did bear a son and after the child was weened she brought him to the temple and prayed to the Lord: “For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” And then she went home and left her son Samuel there in the temple (1:27-28).
My reason for recalling this episode at the beginning of Samuel’s life is to tell you that Samuel literally grew up in the temple of the Lord. And yet, when the Lord called him Samuel did not recognize his voice for, “the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”
There is an important point for us just here. It is possible to be very near to God and yet have difficulty recognizing the voice of God. Don’t get me wrong, going to church is extremely good and you should go to church. But simply showing up does not mean that you are growing in your faith as God wants you to be. In order to grow in your faith, in order to grow in your knowledge of God and your love of him, you have to tune your ears to be able to distinguish his voice.
This is difficult because as the Roman Catholic Cardinal Robert Sarah says, “God does not speak, but his voice is quite clear.” His point is that it is only in silence that we can hear God’s voice. Do we not see this with Samuel as well? Where is Samuel when he hears God calling? “Lying down in the temple of the Lord.” Alone. Asleep. Silent.
I have been reading a provocative and challenging book by Cardinal Sarah, who I just mentioned called, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. In the first chapter he argues a few things that are relevant for us. First, he distinguishes between quiet and silence. Quiet is an absence but silence is not an absence. “On the contrary,” he writes, “it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences.” Silence is the presence of God and we cannot know God apart from encountering him in silence. Every great Christian spiritual writer, from Bernard of Clairvaux to Thomas Merton, knows this truth.
And yet, writes Cardinal Sarah, we live in a time and place where silence is an increasingly rare commodity. Externally we are assaulted with noise and we take this in through our eyes and our ears until we are faced with an inescapable internal noise in our hearts and minds. This stifles our ability to hear God and to grow in our knowledge and love of him.
So, what to do? That great spiritual writer Thomas Merton encourages Christians to preserve or create times of silence in our homes and our lives in which God can be found. Throw out the television if necessary, he says! Bring up our children not to yell so much. Create actual places dedicated to silent contemplation: a corner of your bedroom, a retreat house, a church. “For many it would mean great renunciation and discipline to give up these sources of noise,” writes Merton. “But they know that is what they need.”
Silence is difficult, but let me encourage you to resist the dictatorship of noise. Develop a taste for prayer. Read the Bible silently and diligently, daily if you can. And as you practice these spiritual disciplines, say along with Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” This Lent, as in Advent, we will be providing opportunities for you to be still and enter into the silence of God. More information will be made available in the coming weeks.
As we have seen with Samuel, God calls those who are near and he calls them in silence. The Latin word for “to call” is voceo from which we get the word vocation. That is to say, when God calls you he gives you a vocation. He gives your life a new orientation of love and service.
The Collect that we prayed together at the beginning of the liturgy sheds light on this for us: “May your people, illumined by your word and sacraments, shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.” In other words, the new life into which God has called us is a life into which God is calling everyone, and he uses us to accomplish this.
Our gospel reading provides insight here. As we heard, Jesus found Philip and said to him, “follow me.” Then Philip went out and found Nathanael and invited him to “come and see” Jesus Christ. When Philip was called he was given a new vocation. Jesus enlisted him in his mission. Because here’s the thing: Jesus did not seek you out and find you just so that you can sit back content in being found. He found you so that you can go out and find someone else in his name. Indeed, I am sure that some of you are here this morning because one day someone invited you to, “come and see.”
What happens next in the gospel is wonderful. So, Nathanael says, “Alright, I’ll come and see what the fuss is about.” Then, as he and Philip approach Jesus, Jesus himself looks up and sees Nathanael coming and says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Taken aback, Nathanael asks him, “Where did you get to know me?” To which Jesus replies, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Jesus wants us to know something extremely important here. When he gives us a new vocation and uses us in his mission he is already out there ahead of us, tilling the soil, whispering to people in the stillness of their hearts and minds, though they know not who speaks. The work of evangelism begins with Jesus Christ seeking people out and “getting to know” them long before one of Jesus’ followers shows up and invites them to come and see. In the words of Saint Augustine: “My God, you had mercy on me even before I had confessed to you.”
This parish has been here as long as it has because ordinary people have met God in the silence of prayer and been enlisted in God’s mission to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to all people. If we’re going to be here in another 50 years it will not be apart from these practices. God knows you and he wants you to know him. Spend time with him in silence. Listen to him. And know that there are others out there that he is getting to know and that he may use you to reach. Amen.
 Sarah, The Power of Silence, 32.