Second Sunday After the Epiphany
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
January 17, 2021
Good morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the Second Sunday in the season of Epiphany. On the heels of the story of the Magi visiting the Christ Child as God’s star shone over the place where he lay, last Sunday we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus. In that moment of immersion we saw God the Son, the divine Word made flesh coming to dwell fully among us, immersing himself in our chaotic, watery world. In that baptismal moment we saw writ large, God in Christ joining us in the water to anchor and sustain us and hallow this world anew. We heard the voice of God the Creator, the divine parent declaring of Jesus, “you are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” The glory of God shone and rung out over Jesus’ person—who he was and is for us – and the beginning of his mission, what he did, how he was sent out into the world. There is a sense of epiphany in the arc of this story given to us in this season, a manifestation of God’s glory to and for us that is meant to anchor and ground us, and ultimately to call us into its transformative grasp. Our collect for today points us to God’s glory not only as a phenomenon but as a dynamic: “Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory.” It is not simply that Christ radiates but that somehow we too, as members of Christ’s body are also meant to shine, to point back to, to embody with our frail, human lives the dynamic source of this glory. Our readings this morning therefore invite us not simply to take in the glory of Christ but to hear and to allow ourselves to embrace his call, to open ourselves to its deeply hopeful, transformative power.
In our first reading, we get the classic story of the call of Samuel. Samuel’s mother Hannah had difficulty conceiving a child, and had come to worship in the ancient Samarian city of Shiloh, praying that God would grant her a son whom she promised to dedicate to God’s service. The high priest Eli, whom we hear of in our portion of the story, had earlier observed Hannah’s prayer and dismissed her as drunk. Yet Hannah would not be intimidated by him. She replied, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time” (1 Sam 1:15-16). In response, Eli had declared that she should go peace, praying, “God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him” (1 Sam 1:17). After Samuel’s birth, he was dedicated to God’s service, serving under Eli. Eli’s sons, it should also be said, were priests who were deeply corrupt. They are described prior to our story as “scoundrels… [who] had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people. When anyone offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, and he would thrust it into the pan, or kettle, or cauldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself” (2:12-14). Under Eli’s service, even through the clamor of corruption, we might say, God calls: “Samuel, Samuel.” I love how Samuel hears God—or at least hears something at first but cannot identify exactly who it is. Multiple times he runs to Eli who comically also misses the divine point. Finally, God gets through to them both. Eli tells Samuel to tell the voice, “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam 3:10). Tolkien fan that I am, I cannot help but think of the moment in The Fellowship of the Ring before the doors of the Mines of Moria when Gandalf struggles to say the right word to open the door to this place of difficult passage: “speak friend and enter.” He literally needed to speak the Elvish word “friend” for the door to open.
And when Samuel finally positions himself to hear the word that God wants to speak to him, he hears a word, a word he must then go on to speak, that would be transformative. It was a word of judgment, that would “make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (1 Sam 3:11). For God was calling the corruption of Eli and his house—the actions of his sons – to account. To his credit, Eli opened himself to this word from Samuel. He persisted in asking Samuel to tell him what God had said to him. And when Samuel, who had understandably tried to resist sharing it, told Eli, Eli responded with both recognition and resignation (1 Sam 3:18). The calling of Samuel is a transformative vocation. He embodies the glory of a God who sees beyond our seeing, hears beyond our hearing, calls us to live in righteousness and justice, treating one another with respect and in deep recognition of the God who made us, who exceeds our understanding, and holds us to account.
This God searches out and knows us, knows our sitting down and our rising up, discerns our thoughts from afar, as our Psalm so beautifully and movingly puts it (Ps 139:1-2). (This may well be my favorite of the Psalms, actually.) A portion of this Psalm we don’t hear this morning asks, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Ps 139:7-10). Lest we seek to run from God-- as we might well be tempted to do like the Psalmist, and like Samuel, as human beings do-- this Psalm speaks to us in reassurance. God’s vision – seeing us more clearly than we can see ourselves, hearing our words even before we speak them, seeing our bodies woven together even within the womb – assures us that we are known and held by the God who made us, strengthened to be and to become the people God is constantly calling us to become.
Our Gospel passage continues this theme, shifting us from last week’s story of the baptism of Jesus to the calling of his disciples. We might think of that voice of belovedness that resounded over Jesus as he rose out of the water now issuing forth from his own mouth as he seeks to draw people around him into his life and mission. Love pervades it all. Particularly in the Gospel of John which emphasizes like no other gospel the call to abide, to remain, to rest in the love of God. We should imagine this love flowing in the fascinatingly strange interchange between Jesus and Nathaniel. Philip, upon hearing Jesus’ own invitation, had asked Nathaniel to “come and see” this person who was inviting people into something new, something uniquely inviting and compelling (John 1:45). Nathaniel’s response, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?!” is memorably human (Jn 1:46). When Nathaniel actually encounters Jesus, John’s gospel wants to underscore, Jesus sees him through and through. “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (Jn 1:47) What exactly Jesus means by this is not entirely clear. Some scholars have argued that the word for deceit, which can also be translated as “craft,” put together with the concluding statement about angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Humanity, is meant to evoke the stories the patriarch Jacob. Jacob had come to be called Israel, and upon awakening from the famous dream of the angels of God ascending and descending from heaven, had declared, “surely God was in this place and I did not know it!” (Gen 28:16) Now Jesus’s enigmatic comment about having seen Nathaniel under the fig tree (about which scholars have various theories) elicits the declaration that Jesus is Son of God and King of Israel. Yet what Nathaniel has seen is only just the beginning. He would see so much more, Jesus says. All of those whom Jesus called into his little band of followers would see so much more. They would walk into deeply dangerous valleys. They would, as I quoted last week, be baptized with a baptism they could not even begin to imagine. They would be changed. And over all of it would pervade that voice of divine love, naming them beloved, calling them to embody even a fraction God’s glory in this deeply fractured, broken world.
This week we stand in a threshold in the life of our country and the wider world. This week around the world the numbers of those who have died of COVID 19 passed two million. In the wake of the attack on the Capitol the week before last, the outgoing president has been impeached for an unprecedented second time, and security is on high alert and in high numbers in Washington D.C. as we prepare for this week’s inauguration. President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris are in high gear preparing to lead this country into a new chapter, with so much work ahead of them, ahead all of us.
This weekend we also celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. If ever a life bore witness to the glory of God in Jesus Christ, shining out as a beacon of possibility and of justice and peace—even through the horror of his death by the forces of racism in this country – inviting us all into God’s dream, it was his. As I was reading his words, I was especially struck by the last address he gave to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967:
I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will be still rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again with tear-drenched eyes have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. And as we continue our charted course, we may gain consolation in the words so nobly left by that great black bard who was also a great freedom fighter of yesterday. James Weldon Johnson:
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place
For which our fathers sighed?
We have come over the way
That with tears hath been watered.
We have come treading our paths
Through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Til now we stand at last
Where the bright gleam
Of our bright star is cast.
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Friends, Dr. King’s words and the witness of his life underline the call of God to come and see, to hear, to be challenged, to be encouraged, to be transformed. The glory of God shines out in people like Dr. King, inspired as he was by Jesus Christ who came among us to heal us, to liberate us, to embolden us to enact the justice, the dream of God in this world. May we be encouraged this day to hear and be transformed by the glorious call of God that is breaking through to us this day.
 Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII) (New York: The Anchor Bible Doubleday, 1966), 87-91.  Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” in ed. James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1986), 251-252.