January 17th, 2021 homily on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51 by Pastor Galen
Speak Lord, Your Servant is Listening
Samuel had grown up in church. His mother had longed for a child, but after many years of being barren, she finally reached a point of desperation, and cried out to God, promising that if God would give her a son, she would dedicate her child to the Lord, to serve God in the temple for his whole life.
Sure enough, God gave her a son, whom she named Samuel, and when he was still a young child, she brought him to the temple to serve the Lord, where he was raised by Eli the priest.
And so Samuel quite literally grew up in church. He knew every nook and cranny of the temple. He knew where the spare candle sticks were stored, and where the extra incense was kept. And he probably knew where all the best secret hiding spots were, and most likely he hid there quite frequently when trying to get out of doing his chores around the temple.
What Samuel didn’t know, however, was how to recognize and discern the voice of God. It wasn’t necessarily his fault, however, since 1 Samuel chapter 3 tells us that “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; [and that] visions were not widespread” (1 Sam. 3:1b).
But one night, Samuel heard the voice of God. Samuel was alone in the temple. Eli had already gone to his room for the night, leaving Samuel to lock the doors and make sure that the lamps in the temple went out before he went to sleep.
I imagine Samuel sitting there in the front of the temple, watching the flames in the lamps die out. He started to get a bit drowsy and so he stretched out and fell asleep on his cot near the area where the Ark of the Covenant, the most sacred object in Israelite worship, was housed.
Suddenly, Samuel was awakened by the sound of someone calling his name. “Samuel. Samuel!” Assuming it was Eli, Samuel jumped up and ran to the priest, saying, “Here I am, Eli!”
Eli answered, “I didn’t call you. You must have been dreaming! Go back to sleep.”
Samuel went back to his cot and lay down, and sure enough he heard the voice calling him again. He ran to Eli, convinced once again that it must be Eli calling him, but Eli just shook his head and again told him to go back to sleep.
When Samuel heard the voice calling his name a third time, Eli realized that God must be speaking to Samuel. He sent Samuel back to bed with instructions to say “’Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place” (1 Sam. 3:9). And the Bible says that “the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’” (1 Sam. 3:10).
Eli knew better than to try to guess what God might want to say to Samuel. And so he gave Samuel the tools to hear from God for himself. He taught Samuel to be open to whatever it was that God wanted to tell him.
This event proved to be a pivotal moment in Samuel’s life. Samuel went on to become one of the greatest prophets in Israel — a prophet who consistently heard from and proclaimed the words of God to the people.
Without this experience of hearing from God, Samuel probably would have grown up going through the motions. Offering the sacrifices that needed to be offered, doing all the good religious things that he was supposed to do. But because Eli taught him how to hear and discern the voice of God, he became a powerful leader and prophet, who helped others hear and experience God for themselves.
Philip and Nathanael
If Samuel represents the religious kid who was raised in the church, Nathanael, in our Gospel lesson, represents someone quite the opposite.
The truth is that we don’t know a whole lot about Nathanael, but based upon his interaction with Philip here in John 1, it seems that Nathanael was somewhat more skeptical and cynical towards religious leaders than his friend Philip — especially religious leaders who came from backwoods, smalltown places such as Nazareth. To Nathanael, Nazareth was the wrong side of the railroad tracks, the wrong part of town.
And so when Philip excitedly announced that he had found the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45), Nathanael snarkily replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46b).
All of us probably have someone like Nathanael in our lives. The relative, friend or neighbor who is skeptical towards anything having to do with organized religion, the person who has strong opinions and prejudices towards certain groups of people.
Philip didn’t try to argue with Nathanael, however. He didn’t call him out on his prejudice, or try to argue the finer points of religious doctrine. He simply invited Nathanael to “come and see” (John 1:46). To see the one about whom Moses and the prophets spoke. To see the one who had been baptized by John in the river Jordan, the one whom John the Baptist described as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). And yes, even to see if indeed anything good can come from Nazareth. Philip invited Nathanael to “come and see.”
An Encounter with Jesus
Maybe it was curiosity, or maybe he wanted to try and prove Philip wrong, but Nathanael did go with Philip to meet Jesus.
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he called out, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47). In other words, here’s a guy who says exactly what he thinks! Someone who doesn’t in any way try to hide his prejudices or his skepticism. (Jesus always was able to find the good in people!)
Nathanael asked Jesus where they had met before, and Jesus told him that he saw Nathanael hanging out by the fig tree before Philip called him. Nathanael was blown away. Apparently the fig tree had been quite a distance away, and there was no way Jesus could have known he was there without something miraculous going on.
Nathanael responded by saying, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49). And Jesus said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “You think that’s amazing? There’s more where that came from. You haven’t seen anything yet!”
Samuel and Nathanael — two very different people, hundreds of years apart in history. Two young men at very different places in their lives. Samuel, raised in the church, who started serving the Lord at a very young age, needed to learn to hear and discern the voice of God for himself. Nathanael – skeptical and jaded, needed an invitation to see and experience Jesus in order to believe.
Both had encounters with the living God that shaped and impacted the rest of their lives.
Come and See
As followers of Christ, part of our calling is to invite others to follow Jesus. One of the words that’s often used to describe this is “evangelism.” But most Christians I know would rather have their teeth pulled out than to engage in “evangelism.” The word “evangelism” conjures images in our minds of street preachers yelling into megaphones, or people going door to door passing out tracts.
But Eli and Philip show us that introducing people to Jesus can simply be pointing them in the right direction, encouraging them to humbly open themselves up to what God might want to say to them, providing them with the tools and resources that they need in order to hear from God. Evangelism can be as simple as inviting someone to come and see, or to say, “speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
The stories of Samuel and Nathanael remind us not to make assumptions about where others are in their relationship with God. We should not assume that because someone grew up in church that they’ve learned how to hear from God, nor should we assume that because someone has stopped going to church that they would never be interested.
Of course, evangelism is always best when it’s not obligatory or forced, but rather when it flows out of our own experiences with God, and out of our natural conversations with others.
And so, like Philip, we look for opportunities to share our own encounters with Jesus, and we invite others to see and experience Jesus for themselves. Like Eli, we look for signs and evidence that God may be speaking to someone, and we gently encourage them to open themselves up to what God might want to say to them.
Over these next few weeks and months as we journey along with Jesus through the Gospels in our sermon series, let’s look for opportunities to invite those around us to “come and see” — to take a deeper look at who Jesus is, and to experience Jesus for themselves. We don’t have to have wonderful, fully fleshed out apologetic arguments. We don’t necessarily need fancy evangelistic tools or resources to draw them in. What they need — what each and every one of us needs — is a word from God, a fresh encounter with Jesus.
And so let us open ourselves up to what God may want to do in and through us. Let’s listen for what God might want to say to us. And let’s invite others to join us in our journey.