Commentary for Second Sunday after Epiphany

Commentary for Second Sunday after Epiphany

Texts are 1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, and John 1:43-51

By Father Doug Woods

1 Samuel 3:1-20.  A while ago, we made reference to 1 Samuel 2.1-10, Hannah’s Prayer.  Today’s reading is from the next chapter.  You’d be doing yourself a big favour if you read all of the first three chapters (3½ pages), just to get the context of today’s reading.


Gathering some facts from other recorded historical events, e.g., about King David, we can estimate a few things about the life of Samuel.  David’s reign was about 1010-970 BCE.  Exactly how old was he when his reign began?  We don’t know, but a reasonable estimate about his birth might be about mid-11th c. BCE.  Given that Samuel was already reasonably old by the time of David’s birth, we might date Samuel’s birth sometime in the late 12th century.


Samuel’s story is remarkable.  Hannah, Samuel’s mother, is childless until well into her marriage.  She prays to the Lord to give her a child, and God responds.  Hannah is over the moon, and she promises to give the child to serve at in the temple at Shiloh.


I’ll skip straight to Chapter 3.  How old is Samuel at this point?  Again, we don’t know, but the Jewish historian Josephus estimates he would have been about twelve years old.


This is a “call story”; God calls Samuel to serve him.  It’s interesting that neither Samuel nor Eli gets it at first.  Samuel hears his name being called, and he assumes it’s Eli calling.  All Eli can say in response is “I did not call; lie down again.”  He thinks Samuel is dreaming?  Some suggest that Eli doesn’t see what’s going on because he, himself, is not familiar with the Lord.  Finally, after this little story has repeated itself three times, Eli figures it out; it’s God calling, so he says to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  One thing which really catches my attention here is what an incredibly nice boy Samuel is.  Was he never troublesome?  It kind of reminds me of that verse in Once in Royal David’s City:  “Christian children all should be mild, obedient, good as he.”


But I digress.  God has called Samuel to speak for him—so, Samuel is a prophet—but the first thing he has to do is bring bad news to Eli.  If you’ve read the latter half of Chapter 2, you’ll see why.  Eli’s physical blindness now mirrors his blindness to his sons’ misbehaviour.  Samuel is now awakening to the Lord, while Eli continues to sleep.  Through this story, Samuel is trying to figure out who is calling him.  Eli misinterprets here just as he did when he observed Hannah praying; he thought she was mumbling in a drunken stupour.


I carry away a couple of things from this.


1) Never judge a book by its cover.  In our world, for example, we shouldn’t assume that a person is good just because they have a lot of education or because they hold public office or because they’re ordained.  We need to judge by the way they actually live their lives.


2) Prophets are not people who can predict the future; they are people to whom God speaks, and they are called to speak the word of the Lord.  Sometimes, as in this case, a prophet is called to deliver bad news, and that’s what’s happening here.


Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18.  If you’re feeling that this psalm is familiar, it might be because you heard it at a funeral.  Psalms for funerals are chosen as a reminder that God is always there; you can rely on God.  The most famous one is Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd”, but there are others, e.g., Pss. 121, 122, 126, 130, 132, or 134.  Have a look.  You’ll see what I mean.


Depending on how you’re feeling, you might find this nearness of God either welcome or threatening.  If you’re feeling oppressed, you might be reassured that you have a champion who can take care of you and make things right; that’s welcome.  A lot hangs on the concept of “making things right”.  That might be something you’d long for if you were being oppressed, but it might feel threatening if you’re the oppressor!  Actually, this is very complicated.  The feeling of being oppressed is a very subjective thing.  I’ll just sketch a couple of possibilities:  1) If you’re an evil person, you might well feel oppressed if anyone stands in your way or contradicts you.  2) If you’re essentially a good person, it might never occur to you that someone is oppressing you—you’re naïve?


Some bibles label this psalm “The Inescapable God”.  If you’ve ever read or heard the story of Jonah—Jonah and the whale—you’ll know another story about the inescapability of God.  What’s the line from that song?  “You can run, you can’t hide.”  For better or for worse, God is always there; God is in the very Creation in which we live; God is in us.


I find great reassurance in this.  God knows us and cares for us.  God knows us because God is intimately involved in Creation.  God knows me better than I know myself—it seems I’m forever learning something new about myself!  Is that how God calls Samuel?  Does God call me?  Do I hear it?  Do I even know what’s going on?


1 Corinthians 6:12-20.  We’ve said on a number of occasions that the church in Corinth was clearly a blessing, but it could be a little rough around the edges.  We know that this church had many very gifted people, but often the giftedness brought people into conflict with one another.  Each one saw her/himself as #1, as more important than any of the others.  I once belonged to a church where the priest said that being the priest there was like being in the Calgary Stampede:  “But you not only have to ride a bucking bronco; you have to ride all of them at the same time!”


It seems that some of these gifted people also said, “You can’t tell me what to do.  I’ll be the judge of that.”  Paul’s reaction to that was something like, “Yes, but real love gives freedom to the other person, and that’s what God does for you.  So now the question is, ‘How do you use your freedom?’”


As members of the people of God, it’s not about us; it’s always about the other.  It’s not about what I’m entitled to or what I deserve; it’s about what I can do for you.  That’s what God does for us.  The most powerful thing we can do is to put the other at the centre.


John 1:43-51.  Here’s another “call story”.  Jesus calls Philip.  Why did he do that?  Was it because he recognized Philip as a fellow-Galilean—maybe by his accent?  He says, “Follow me,” and Philip does so.  Again, why?


Well, we have to go back a little bit to get to the answers to those questions.  Ultimately, it goes back to John the Baptizer, who put himself “out there”.  By his preaching and baptism, he attracted followers, but as we’ve already said, none of those followers would have come if it hadn’t already been in their hearts in the first place.  We already know we want to be there; we just need a little push.  And that’s what we see John doing – a little push.  So, who puts it into our heart?  Who finds whom?  We’ll let those questions sit for a minute.


Our text begins with “The next day … .”  So what happened before that?  Two days before that, John spoke to the priests and Levites who had come from Jerusalem: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”  In other words, “I’m not the one you’re looking for; I’m not the Messiah.”  John establishes himself as one who points to the Messiah.


And the next day—the second day—he does just that: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  This is the day on which Andrew and one other of John’s disciples follow Jesus.  John gave them a little push.  And then, Andrew begins what’s called “friend evangelism”.  He goes and finds a friend, his brother Simon, and says, “You’re not going to believe what just happened to me … ” and he brings Simon to Jesus.  Jesus cements the relationship with an act of great power; without even getting to know Simon, he demonstrates that he already knows Simon:  “You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).”  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” (Ps 139.1) He knows that Peter is strong.  After all, Peter means ‘rock’.  He is a rock; he has the strength to be a fisherman, but he also has the strength to be a leader, and that shows itself over and over again in the gospel stories.


And the next day—the third day—Jesus calls Philip: “Follow me.”  Very simple and direct.  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”  Then comes more friendship evangelism; Philip goes to Nathanael and says, “You’re not going to believe what just happened to me … .”  Ah, but Nathanael is a tough nut to crack.  I won’t call him cynical, just as I wouldn’t call “Doubting Thomas” cynical or non-believing.  Let’s say skeptical: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  It looks almost like inter-town rivalry, such as you find between Port Hope and Cobourg, Peterborough and Lindsay, and so on.  And here’s how Philip answers: “Come and see.”  No pushing.  No shoving.  No reasoning.  Just inviting.  “We’ll let the facts speak for themselves.”


Despite his skepticism, Nathanael comes along.  It was already in his heart?  Philip just gave him a little push?  Yet, despite the push, he’s still skeptical—until Jesus speaks to him: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” i.e., Nathanael won’t lie, he won’t fake it.  If he has questions, he says so.  Better an open skeptic than a secret betrayer.  Nathanael’s reaction: “Where did you get to know me?” i.e., “Have we met?”


Then, as with Peter, Jesus demonstrates that he knows you: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you?”  How could he?  He wasn’t even there!  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”


Jesus’ response is breath-taking:  “‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.’  And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’”  This is Jacob’s vision in Beth-el!  This is Jacob’s Ladder!  And Jesus is the ladder!  Jesus connects heaven and earth!  And the skeptic gets it:  “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  That’s what happens when a skeptic gets it.  The faith is strong and unshakeable.


Please note this:


  • The most natural and effective evangelism is between friends.
  • The most natural and effective evangelism happens when there’s no arm-twisting or convincing; it’s just “Come and see.”
  • “OLord, you have searched me and known me.”  God finds us, not the other way around.

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