Thursday, January 12, 2012

Here I am, Lord -- Lectionary Meditation

Here I Am, Lord

            Sometimes it comes after a bit of hesitation, and even a bit of self-doubt, but ultimately the prophet will come around and answer the call of God, saying something to the effect of:  “Here I am Lord, send me.”  You may have made this declaration yourself, perhaps singing with deep conviction, or perhaps by rote, the chorus of Daniel Schutte’s song:
Here I am Lord.  Is it I Lord?  I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me.  I will hold your people in my heart. (Chalice Hymnal, 452).
 David Edwards has set up a similar refrain in his somewhat less well-known hymn “You Have Called Me.” 
 Who will go into the darkness where my people live in fear?
 Who will speak of truth and charity so all of them can hear?
 If you go where I am sending you, I will always be near.
 Here I am, go for me, here I am.  (Chalice Hymnal, 455)
             Who has ears to hear? Who has the conviction to answer the call and the courage to follow through on this calling to bear witness to the revelation of God? 

            On this second Sunday of Epiphany, following upon the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus, which sealed his own calling from God, we hear other call stories – those of Samuel and Philip and Nathaniel.  What do these stories say to us about how God calls us?  But the question isn’t merely how the call comes, but what this call means to our lives.  What is required of us?  Perhaps the answer to the question explains the reticence with which the prophets respond to God’s calling.  So, shall we go out into the desert?  Shall we leave behind the comforts of home to become itinerant preachers?  

And as we ponder our own callings this weekend, we cannot do so without contemplating the call of Martin Luther King, Jr.  How did his sense of calling express itself?  Does it offer us wisdom as to how we should be present with God in the World?

The three texts that lay before us this week have points of connection, but we must not force the connection.  I’m aware that the lectionary is not always a reliable witness to the connections between texts.  When we read these texts this week, we recognize they have within them a number of trajectories that we could take.  And, the reading from 1 Corinthians 6 may offer us the most possibilities, but it can also be the most controversial of the texts.  One can take from this a rather moralistic word, but surely Paul has in more in mind than good morals.  Behavior here is connected to the ultimate message, which is the way in which we live out the call of God – for as Paul makes clear in Christ we become the Temple of God. 

            Samuel’s call story is fairly well known to many Christians.  His is a miraculous life, for he was born to a woman unable to conceive, but she prayed hard, and her prayers were answered.  Her way of giving thanks was to deliver her beloved son to the priest to raise and to mentor.  And so Samuel grows up serving at the altar of God with Eli, and his less than honorable sons.  The days are difficult.  The Philistines are at the door and rarely was a Word from the LORD heard.  The people were without a shepherd, or so it seemed.  Eli seems honorable enough, but he’s lost control of his sons, whom he assumed would succeed him (why preachers think that it’s a good idea for their children to inherit their pulpits is beyond me – of course I needn’t worry, my son has no interest in my job!). 

            This particular passage from 1 Samuel 3 finds Eli asleep in his room, while Samuel is sleeping before the altar of God.  The text says that as yet, Samuel didn’t know the LORD, even though he was serving at the altar.  Being an ex-acolyte I have some sense of what this means, but I never slept in front of the altar.  As he is sleeping, Samuel hears a voice, calling his name.  Not knowing who was speaking, Samuel went to Eli, but Eli was asleep, and his master told Samuel to go back to sleep.  This would happen again, and Eli would reply in the same way.  When Samuel heard his name a third time, and perhaps beginning to be perturbed with Eli, Eli realizes that something unique is happening.  Samuel is hearing the voice of God, and so Eli tells his young charge to answer the next time with the words “Speak, Your servant is listening.”  So, when the LORD calls a fourth time, Samuel is ready, and he responds as Eli directed.  From this response comes Samuel’s prophetic career.  He becomes the one through whom God calls first Saul and then David.

Samuel hears the voice of God, and responds, but he does so only because he is guided by a mentor.  We should never forget the role that Eli plays in this story.  He may not have the best of sons (neither would Samuel), but he knew that God must be calling Samuel, and he gave him the guidance he needed, so that the voice of God might be heard.  Who is it that has helped us discern the voice of God?

There is another call story in the Gospel of John, but we’ll wait for a moment before getting there.  First we hear this word from Paul that concerns the question of freedom and responsibility for those who are called by and filled by the Holy Spirit.  Samuel serves God at the altar in the Tabernacle, but in this text the readers are reminded that not only do they serve God in God’s Temple, but they are God’s Temple, and thus, they should behave appropriately.  The focus here is on sexual immorality.  There are plenty of scholarly examinations of this text, which carries the phrase “the two will become one flesh.”  It is a word we hear and reflect upon in weddings, for it is the assumption that in marriage the two become one.  Paul is concerned about those who are sleeping with those are not part of the body of Christ, and thus are merging their bodies with those who do not serve Christ.  It has led to a whole conversation about being “unequally yoked.”  That’s a discussion I’ll leave for another time.  Instead, perhaps we would be wise to head the earlier admonition.  Being that they have been washed clean (baptism) and made holy God in the name of Christ and in the Spirit of God (do you hear that Trinitarian formula in verse 11?).    Being that they have a new status, one that has given them freedom from the bondage of their old lives, they need to be careful about what they do with this freedom.

            It is a word of great wisdom that Paul offers:  “I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.  I have the freedom to anything, but I won’t be controlled by anything.”  Freedom is ours, but so is responsibility – I shall not be controlled by my desires and my appetites, but instead by the leading of God who has freed me, cleansed me, and made me holy.   I am called to live in this fashion – not because it is the moral thing to do, but because I am the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  I am the dwelling place of God.  It is a difficult word to hear because, well, too often I am controlled by my appetites.  I am guilty as charged, and thus I am forced to rely on the grace of God.   But grace is no excuse; it is simply a word of new beginnings.
            In the Gospel of John we read what appears to be a call story.  Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael to be disciples.   Jesus finds Philip who finds Nathanael, though Jesus is able to see Nathanael, before Philip ever goes to call him to meet Jesus.  But this is more than a call story; it is a continuation of the unveiling of the Word in human flesh, as defined by John in his prologue (vss. 1-14).   When Philip invites Nathanael to meet Jesus he points his friend to the testimony of the Law and the Prophets – he is, Philip declares, the one we’ve been looking for.  He is, therefore, the Messiah of God.  One wonders about Nathanael’s initial perspective, for according to John, Jesus says of this possible disciple:  “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”  Could this mean that Nathanael had questions and that Jesus found this attitude to be positive?

            When Nathanael asks Jesus how he knows this about him, Jesus tells him that he had seen him under a fig tree even before Philip went to get him.  This leads to a confession of faith:  “Rabbi, you are God’s Son.  You are the King of Israel.”  Yes, Nathanael recognizes him to be the Messiah.  But Jesus presses – do you say this because I saw you under a tree?  This is just the beginning, for greater things will come.  And then Jesus says – Heaven will open and you will see God’s angels going up and down between heaven and earth, to where the Human One, the Son of Man is residing.  The reference to this opening of Heaven may have two referents – one would be a hearkening back to the story of Jacob’s Ladder, where Jacob sees the heavens open and a ladder going up into the sky upon which angels ascend and descend, leading Jacob o declare:  “The LORD is definitely in this place, but I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16 CEB).  The second might be the baptism of Jesus, wherein God gave God’s imprimatur on Jesus’ ministry, declaring Jesus to be the Son of God (Jn. 1:29-34). 

For John this episode is a revealing of the true identity of Jesus, the Word made Flesh.  For John, there is more to Jesus than meets the eye.  And the question then is – how shall we respond?  What difference does this make to who I am and the way I live in the world?  Indeed, will I answer, as does Samuel – “Speak for your servant is listening.” 

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