Epiphany 2: Listen up!

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout,
The Infant Samuel brought by Hanna to Eli
The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Epiphany 2

1 Samuel 3:1-20
John 1:43-end

O God, we give you thanks because,
in the carnation of the Word,
a new light has dawned upon the world,
that all the nations and peoples may be brought out of darkness to see the radiance of your glory.

We are now firmly in the season of Epiphany; and over the next couple of weeks we will see the epiphany stories in the lives of people in both the Old & New Testaments. Eli and Samuel and the calling of Philip and Nathanael today; next week at the wedding in Cana.

Last week we celebrated the Wise Men’s arrival and presentation of their gifts to Jesus. This is a significant event as we celebrate their realisation of Jesus. We also remember that Jesus’ arrival was for the whole world and not only for the Jewish people. We are all included.

What does Epiphany mean? In the everyday it means to have ‘a moment of great or sudden revelation or realisation.’ I am not sure if you have had an epiphany moment but they are quite extraordinary!

Those moments when some new idea, knowledge or thought blows through your mind and you suddenly and sometimes drastically see the world, people, and a situation in a totally new way. Epiphany moments can cause a fundamental change in one’s life.

Epiphany moments aren’t always dramatic affairs. They can happen in a quiet moment when you know that something has changed in your mind or in your heart.

I grew up in the church: Sunday School every week, my parents were very involved in the church, I sang (badly) in the choir, and was in various youth groups. I knew about Jesus but I did not know Jesus. My first epiphany moment came while I was eating lunch in a dry field on a very hot July day at Ephesus, in Turkey. A few hours before this I was struck by the understanding that St Paul had been at Ephesus and that he had written the letter to the Ephesians.

I was where the Bible was. I had always seen it as a book, a story; but to be where the Bible took place completely blew me away! I began to think that if the Bible happened in a real place, then maybe God and Jesus were more real than I thought they were.

By lunchtime, with all these thoughts rolling around my head, I had this sudden wave of peace and a sense of relief from all the grief and anger that I had been carrying around from the previous year and a half. I walked out of Ephesus that day totally different from how I walked in. I have never been the same since.

Let us look at the epiphany stories in our readings today. Who are these people? Eli was a priest who lived at Shiloh with his two scoundrel sons. Ministry was not going particularly well for him. His boys were doing all sorts of things they should not and Eli was not doing much about it.

Eli then meets Hannah, a woman who has travelled with her husband and his 2nd wife and children to Shiloh for a time of sacrifice and worship. Hannah came to the shrine as she was deeply distressed and weeping, to pray to God. Hannah was childless while her husband’s second wife was fertile and kept rubbing Hannah’s face in it. Eli assumes Hannah is drunk; such are his expectations of the shrine he has charge over. Eli is obviously not used to people coming into the shrine to pray and fall on their knees before the Lord or seek the word of God.

Eli realises Hannah’s real need and fortunately his priestly training comes through and he blesses her. Hannah goes back to her husband, becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel. Hannah had promised God that if he would give her a son, she would offer him back to God. A few years later Hannah returns to Eli with Samuel and leaves her baby/now toddler with him. Brave thing to do as his parenting seems much to be desired.

Despite this, Samuel was ministering before the Lord and seemed to grow and prosper under Eli’s care. Then the time comes when God calls Samuel. This was a rare event. It was certainly not something that Eli, now a very old man, had ever experienced. It takes him time to work out what is going on.

It is Eli who tells Samuel what to say. He knew. It just took him a while. Good news for us! The story of Samuel and Eli is often used to help those to work out their vocation, or their calling in any form of ministry, not just the ordained. So there are no excuses.

The central feature here is the willingness of Samuel to seek Eli’s help and then respond to God’s calling of him. Samuel responds by offering himself as a servant to God, ‘Speak Lord for your servant is listening.’ From this moment, God begins to speak to Samuel. This is not an easy task. One of the first things that Samuel has to do is give Eli some very bad news.

God is going to punish his house forever for not restraining the bad behaviour of his family. There is no way out. Priests in the Old Testament were called a higher standard; this was common knowledge. The consequences of blasphemy and desecration of the temple and its objects was taken very seriously by God. Eli seemingly could not or would not live up to God’s standards nor did he insist his sons did. Eli does not put up defence or fight. Maybe this was a quiet epiphany for him.

We are all called by God; to be loved by him and to be with Him forever (salvation). In response to His love and salvation, we are to do our part for his kingdom on earth. Samuel and Eli were called; one did what was asked and the other did not. There are consequences.

In the New Testament reading, we see the epiphany stories and consequences for the new disciples. Jesus found Philip and said to him ‘Follow me’. So he did! Just like that. Then Philip found Nathanael and with little prompting (at least that we know about) came to Jesus.

When Nathanael first meets Jesus, he is looking for a thrill, for some excitement. He wants to see everything that Jesus does as magical and entertaining. But Nathanael has no idea about what is to come! No clue on how God will choose to bring heaven and earth back into unity through the Son of Man, Jesus.

Nathanael’s name in Hebrew means ‘God gives’. Yes he does! God gives us his love, his grace, his joy and his peace; to name a few. God gives us heaven. When we follow Jesus, we will see heaven opened. That will be one epiphany!

Samuel’s response to God’s call is one of willingness and work; he worked and served under Eli at the shrine. Samuel’s obedience is rewarded by God as he becomes a trusted prophet. Philip and Nathanael willingly follow Jesus, not having really any idea of what was to come.

How will we react to God’s calling on us? We/you all have one. We have the assurance and often need the reassurance that God is with us. As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him. He is with you! He is with me.

It is true that it is what we don’t do that we regret more than the things we do. The start of a New Year is a good time to blow off the dust! The Lent Groups are starting soon – join one of those. You might just be amazed at what God has to say to you or might be calling you to. We can work it out together.

Whatever you are called by God to do might not seem amazing. You might be thinking ‘sure Sue. I’m old, I’ve done my time.’ Here’s the thing, if God was done with you, you’d already be dead. He would have taken you home.

So by the mere fact you are still walking around and breathing means He has things for you to do.

Who needs you to be praying for them?
Who in your family has not yet put their faith in Jesus?
What don’t you know about the Bible?

I’m going to leave some space now for some quiet reflection/prayer to think about what it is that God is calling you to do at the start of this new year.

If you know what your calling is – thank him for that.

If you don’t know – but want to know – ask him for clarity.

If you don’t know and don’t want to know – then pray to want to!

Loving Lord, as we remember the at this time the story of the wise men and the gifts they brought to the infant King, we pray that we in our turn may offer him the gold of obedience, the incense of lowliness and the myrrh of devotion; and all for his honour and praise. AMEN.

Easter 7: Ups and Downs


Acts 1:6-14
John 17:1-11

Life and the world can often feel up and down. Prices are up, spirits are down. Interest rates are up to try to keep inflation down. We can be happy one minute and weeping the next. In our Gospels since Easter there have been many ups and downs. Jesus was lifted up onto the donkey and hailed as a hero. Next he was beaten down and lifted up onto the cross. To be brought down and put into the tomb. We are told he descended to the dead and rose again on the third day. According to the end of some of the Gospels and the opening verses of Acts, Jesus has been travelling around in human form meeting and eating with people. Seemingly appearing and disappearing at will.

This past Thursday was Ascension Day. Ascension was the final act of Jesus’ ministry on earth, his return to heaven. Jesus ascending into heaven has been depicted in many pieces of art – often with his dangling feet at the centre while a crowd of baffled onlookers look up. Many poets have tried to capture the meaning and feeling of this rather odd event.

Jesus made it as clear as he could that he was going up to be with God in heaven and would send down the Holy Spirit; the Counsellor to be with us always.

One cannot help but to think about his disciples. Poor men! They had been through so much in the last few weeks! The Bible is not clear exactly how long it was between the resurrection and ascension. The Church year says a few weeks. However long it was, the disciples are imagining that life might go back to the way it was, only better. They ask Jesus, in verse 6 of Acts: ‘Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’

They seem to have gone back to old assumptions that Jesus was going to kick out the Romans and set up a new Jewish kingdom and they would be part of the ruling party. Yes! However, in the next moment, they realise that is not what is happening. Jesus is not staying with them as he was ‘lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.’

Maybe to the disciples the dream really was over. Jesus refused to tell them what was going on. Instead he left them with a job to do; to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. It is worth giving some thought to what the walk to Jerusalem would have been like for them. Acts does not give away any emotion or descriptions. They watched Jesus go up and now they are left feeling down.

The disciples were left, however, with two valuable lessons after all they have been through. The need to stick together and the need to pray.

When they returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room where they were staying, they prayed together. No one wandered off to do his own thing. They still needed to be unified. We need to remember and remain rooted in Jesus and to each other. We can desire to go our own way when uncertainty comes, when the ups and down of life get too much. As churches it can be tempting to flop back into our tribes and carry on as we scrabble for something that looks like the normal we once knew. I know there is a desire to ‘go back to the way things were’ – but friends we are not. Nothing in the world is. This is not all bad!

The second lesson was about prayer. Jesus prayed. Jesus prays.

In John 17, after washing the disciples feet and before his arrest, Jesus prayed. He spent the last few precious hours of his life praying. For the disciples and for us. He continues to pray for us. In the Acts and Gospel readings this morning we see examples of how the Apostles prayed in the early church and how Jesus prayed just before his death.

I am making some assumptions here that I assume are right: first is that you do in fact pray. Secondly that you do think about prayer and praying. I think that this is an important question to ask ourselves this morning.

What do you think you are doing when you pray?

Are we telling God what to do?

Giving him information about a situation, a person or ourselves – information that he already knows and then offering suggestions on what the Almighty might like to do about it?

Are we presenting a laundry list of ills and complaints?

Are we praising and thanking?

Are we pleading and begging?

What do you think you are doing?

I suspect it is a combination of all the above things! God knows everyone’s heart. Every thought, the deepest secrets and hurts, the highest highs and joys, He knows every crack and break. God knows before we even utter a word from our mouths what the condition of our hearts are. There is no fooling him!

Do you expect an answer? I do not think I could pray with no expectation that God is going to do something. I have to be willing to wait and trust. Wait to see what the answer is and not rush off in fear that I won’t get what I want or worse, no answer at all. I also have to trust that even if I don’t see a clear answer (ie: voice from heaven, message written in the clouds) that God has heard my prayer and will do as He sees fit. Even if – even if – I don’t get the answer that I want.

Jesus is also praying for some very specific things for the disciples with the underlying message of unity in God and Jesus. We are all bound together in love.

Helpfully, if we find ourselves stuck on what to pray for, Jesus also gives us some ideas. In John, verse 12 he talks about protection. Jesus asks God to protect the disciples with the same power that God has already given to Jesus. This is what ‘in your name’ means. He guarded them while he was with them. Jesus has been utterly faithful to the task assigned to him: to keep and protect those God has given to him.

This is an important thing to do for those given to our care; pray for God’s protection on them. Not only from physical dangers, illness and all the other bad things that can happen. But they will stay under the spiritual protection of God that comes from staying close to Jesus.

The next thing that Jesus prays for is joy; this means rejoicing, celebrating, enjoyment, bliss. So often our joy in a worldly sense is never quite complete. It is only in Jesus that our joy will ever be complete. It is only the love of God that brings us joy, brings us salvation.

Thirdly, Jesus prayed that the disciples would know the truth and be sanctified by it. Sanctify here means to be set apart for God and God’s purposes alone. It does not mean that someone is better than anyone else, but they are different. Jesus is praying that the disciples will be set apart to do only what God wants them to do. Jesus was sanctified, set apart by God to fulfil his purposes.
For us, we can pray that our people will know the truth of God and go into the world to live and share it.

Of course there are many more ways and things to pray about for those we are called to pray for. I think that protection, joy and truth are very good places to start. Remember that He knows the condition of our hearts. We also need time and preparation for the answer even if it seems hard. God is faithful!

Jesus sets an example of how and what to pray as He prayed for his disciples right before his death. He prayed for protection, joy and truth.
Leave some space for you to think about the people who know and love who could use protection, joy and truth today.