22 January 2009

Epiphany 2 - Sermon

18 January 2009

By Paul Tinker

I speak to you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Amen

 The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. (1 Sam 3:1b)

 This is the prophetic setting in which we start our account from 1st Samuel today. The context is that a boy named Samuel – given to the temple by his ‘thought to be barren’ mother in a promissory prayer… prayer - where if God gave her a child she would dedicate him to the temple. So she did, and he is ministering with “the main priest” – Eli

In a time where Eli and his sons were corrupt and ‘did what was right in their own eyes’

Eli not as much as his sons, yet God held him responsible for both his and their actions. This is a time where God’s word was rare, and visions were not widespread.

            It is into - this unlikely situation that we hear of God directly speaking to one of us. To us – mere mortals God speaks… And God calls out patiently.

Then we have our Gospel account today with what is often understood as “the Call of Nathanial” – Nathanial one of the lesser known disciples, who starts out challenging the claims of his friend Philip by making racist comment… “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Yet Nathaniel experiences a personal miracle – a transformation. “When Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward him, he said of him,

“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” How did Jesus know that? That Nathaniel was an “Israelite without any Jacob in him’ - truly an authentic faithful Jew

Notice the question that Nathaniel asked Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?”

Nathanael doesn’t deny how Jesus has characterized him. He is struck by the claim and asks –how Jesus knew. Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  That’s it! Nathanael is sold, and Jesus’ claims affect him immediately. Nathaniel replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” He has been so swept away in the situation and transformed - that he declares that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’

             Do we believe these are true stories?             Do we think that God spoke to a boy sitting watch over the Ark of the Covenant? Do really believe this child heard voices in the night?             …hearing voices, people look at you funny when you make claims like that?

Do we believe that believe Jesus spoke to Nathanial’s heart and transforms this skeptic by telling him he saw him under a tree.

I will start with myself when I say… I do – I believe God spoke to Samuel, both as a boy in the temple and then through-out his life. I believe that Jesus in that moment with Nathanial reached him in a way ‘that blew his socks off’ – if only they had socks in those days. Why? … Why would two stories from thousands of years ago; about an all powerful being calling out repeatedly to a boy in the night and the story about the call & transformation of one of the first disciples of Jesus be something that is important for me to believe? – And I would claim - important for everyone to believe.

There are several answers to that but they can all be under the two categories: Who is God – Who are we (don’t worry I won’t tackle that completely in the short time that we have) - Now the easiest answer as to why I believe, is that ‘it is in the Bible’ – A simple faith in the Bible being the word of God and therefore trustworthy for all it contains - and I will explain more as we go - So the first is that God speaking to us matters to - How we understand God. How we are in relation with God. - Secondly, it is important who God chooses to speak to and why? - And finally I will share with you two accounts of God directly speaking to someone…This last one is the trickiest of them all

How do we deal with those that believe God told them something?

When I was a student in my final placement at St. John’s Locke street – Bishop Ralph was visiting one Sunday, and since we were in transition after Steve Hopkins had moved to St. Christopher’s, I was the point person for liturgical details. The organist wanted to know if Bishop Ralph would be saying or singing the “Serum Quarta” The first part of the Eucharistic prayer. Bishop Ralph said to me “you tell the organist that God came to me in a dream and that I should be saying the “Serum Quarta””. Now many of you will appreciate Bishop Ralph’s humour and did so for many years here – but in different settings… “the Holy Spirit told me to do this or say that…” is a tricky thing to deal with.

Why believe God speaks?  - First - How we understand God – how we are in relation to God. God communicating to us – is what God does! Last week in our Old Testament reading we had the first five verses of the Bible and we heard: God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God Said …and it was so… God creates by speaking.

From John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It is important to believe that God spoke to boy serving in the temple and transformed Nathanial because it is important to believe in God and in God’s way.

There is a common myth among unbelievers and also among some Christians alike that God is some “Spy in the Sky”. God is some cosmic watch maker – that created everything, wound it up, set it in motion and then God’s presence left. This has been popularized by a beautiful but erroneous song: “God is watching us… from a distance” – many of us know the Bette Milder version. “Spy in the Sky” – watching over – yet removed at a distance. This is not what we Christians believe. This goes against the very central point of who we are. We are Christians – Christ –ians – we are disciples of Jesus the Christ – Christ is not His last name, but a word for Messiah. The Son of Man – the Son of God. Immanuel – God in the midst of us. God came as one of us – was incarnate

God is not “from a distance”.

And so God speaking to a boy in the temple makes sense – thousands of years ago or right now. God loves us so much that He comes and speaks with us directly and indirectly.

The second reason I believe in both of these stories is because of who God chooses and why? God chooses a boy and God chooses a racist straight-talking skeptic

Through-out all of scripture God’s ways are not what we would expect and God’s chosen people are not - who we, with our earthly eyes, would choose. God repeatedly surprises us with unlikely people and ways. God chooses the youngest shepherd son of Jesse – David, to be the greatest king ever of Jerusalem. God chooses a farmer who works with trees – Amos… – or Hosea, a priest and husband to a prostitute to be His prophets

God chooses a peasant virgin girl to bear His Son. And that Son is born in a stable – with his first bed - an animal feeding trough. Yet God employs the work of the census of Caesar Augustus to bring Joseph to his hometown – fulfilling the writings of the prophets

God also chooses great scholars / the magi - to witness and bring the gospel back to Persia. But just when you are thinking that God chooses only the unlikely. God also uses Moses, once thought to be the son of Pharaoh, King of Egypt – with all the privileges and education he would have had. Or Esther, a Queen. The list goes on and on in the Bible, surprises of who God chooses - and surprises of God ways. This is not so that God can win “the trickiest-ever prize”. But it is, to show a contrast from our worldly/cultural ways - to the truth… Found / delivered and available “to and for”,  and if we accept the calling,

by potentially everyone. It is perhaps the still greatest surprise yet to be fully appreciated and acted on. That God is providing the offering for everyone - “that has ears to hear”

Finally I believe the stories that God speaks to the boy Samuel and to Nathanial’s heart because of the testimonies of others (one, of which, I will share) and because God has both spoken to me and to my heart.

A Colleague shared this story of Malaysian man named Suresh that stopped by to visit her church one day late last fall. He told her that he had been raised a strict Hindu. 

One time when he was fasting and praying, he heard a voice say, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  He did not know who was speaking and he felt rather strange about the experience. The Hindu religious leaders told him that the voice was a devil and to ignore it.  But he could not shake the experience. Eventually, he was at a party where he met an Anglican priest, with whom he shared the voice saying, “I am the way the truth and the life.”  The priest was able to tell him that the voice was none other than that of Jesus our Lord. In John 14:6, we have recorded these very words of Jesus: I am the way, the truth and the life. God the Father led Suresh to know Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Suresh became a Christian while his wife and children remained devout Hindus.

Of course Suresh told his wife about Jesus but she did not believe at first. He told my colleague that he prayed earnestly for her conversion for about 6 months. Then one day, his wife came to him and said that for the sake of their family she would start going to the Christian church. She would follow the path Jesus laid out and see if it lead to the truth. 

Evidently she found that it did, for Suresh told my colleague that his wife is the treasurer in their Anglican church and that his teenaged children are servers.

My own story of God speaking directly to me is this: When I was 16 I was going through a lot of teenage stuff – more then I could cope with by myself. In going to Church one Sunday morning when things were at their most difficult and I was at my most vulnerable. The Priest, in seeing me coming in, knowing my situation and feeling and seeing my hurt, knelt to pray in the middle of the first Hymn. It was during his prayer that I felt, what I can only describe as the Holy Spirit wash over me and I heard a voice say – that I would be okay – that I was in God’s plans – and that I would serve God later. This of course this stuck with me and from that point my load was lightened. Then fast forward 16 years – I was again in church and again during the first Hymn. I felt the Holy Spirit wash over me – and again I heard a message that - It was now - that I was serve the Lord. I was left weeping uncontrollably for the rest of the service. Unable to explain to Kelly, on my right and Kelly’s dad on my left what had ‘gotten over me’. At the end of the service – when most of the people had left – a lady that I didn’t know too well at the time came up to me, put her hand on my shoulder and said – “it’s your time and you know it”. When I asked her, several months later, if she remembered that day and what she had said. She said she remembered it well and told me that she saw me hurting and crying and that she wanted to tell me that “God loves me”… …But that is not what she said. And I believe that the Holy Spirit employed her to affirm for me the message that I needed to hear.

Now, in both, Suresh’s story and my own, there is God speaking directly – personally. But there is also the slow gradual speaking to Suresh’s wife:…

Through Suresh - through the moral values of unity in marriage & family - and through church community that she experienced…There are so many ways in which God speaks – another example in my life, was shortly after being called into ministry. My calling was affirmed by all three of my applications to seminaries being accepted – even though I didn’t have the academic prerequisite. – God spoke by the doors that were opened up for me…

And I speak to God in prayer and God speaks to me every day in many ways in the responses to prayer. Sometimes fairly immediate and many times in the scriptures of my daily devotions – but mostly through others in conversations and what happens in life – and sometimes in the beauty and wonder of creation. Our responsibility ‘in the relationship’ is to train ourselves to ‘have ears to hear’…To be spirituality tuned to God’s frequency.

We do this by being an active participant in the relationship – in prayer. And - we do this by opening ourselves up to hear God’s revelation. By reading the divinely inspired words of God’s truth and ways found ‘for all time’ in the Bible. You can’t recognize God’s ways unless you have learned of God’s ways. And lastly we do this by looking at the world, our lives and the lives of others and hearing the innumerable ways in which God is always at work.

We must always remember that God speaks to us because it…is… His… ongoing… way, That God makes ‘the offer’ for all and ideally potentially by all

That God speaks to us in many ways everyday – all the time, “if we have ears to hear”

And that we can Trust in the testimony of others, that God does speak “by the means in which we need to hear Him”

To Him, “all hearts are open, all desires are known and from him no secrets are hid.” He sees our potential and our prejudices, our talents, and our sins; and chooses us … To communicate to us all… – in the quiet of the temple or even in our noisy scepticism and distractions. God’s voice is never silent …. Amen

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