Weekly Preaching: January 17, 2021

January 13th, 2021

The lovely vignette in 1 Samuel 3:1-20 must delight the naturally spiritual while baffling cynics. If someone says I heard God speak to me, I tend to think he’s hearing his own hunches or preferred stirrings. How does anyone hear God in 2021? We should recall that Samuel was in the temple — all the time. Prayers, sacrifices, the retelling of Israel’s old stories: these were constants for him. For us, the more deeply we are absorbed in liturgy, daily prayers, weighing Scripture, and conversation with wise people (Samuel did have Eli to test what he heard), the more we hear God, however indirectly.

Israel was in a mess. Eli was getting too old to lead (his loss of vision is what happens to the elderly but also symbolic of the people’s inability to see the things of God), and his sons were wicked. “The word was rare in those days” — because the Lord was quiet? Or because no one was listening? Does this sound like our days? But “the lamp had not gone out” — so clever, as it’s a lamp, but it’s also theological! God does speak: “I am about to do a thing at which the two ears of everyone that hears it will tingle.” The preacher has to play on this business — and even dare to dream that God will do a new ear-tingling thing even in our day.

As Barbara Brown Taylor explains so eloquently in When God is Silent, prayer should be less “Lord, hear our prayers,” and more “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Through all those disciplines the church offers, we may begin to hear, but the ears will tingle. God won’t speak conventional wisdom, and God won’t pander to our preferences. Thomas Merton was right about why we don’t hear or have a vibrant spiritual life: “Much of our coldness and dryness in prayer may well be a kind of unconscious defense against grace.”

What does grace feel like? Marianne Williamson suggested that “When you ask God into your life, you think God is going to come into your psychic house, look around, and see you just need a new floor or better furniture, that everything needs just a little cleaning — and so you go along thinking how nice life is that God is there. Then you look out the window one day and you see that there’s a wrecking ball outside. It turns out your foundation is shot, and that you’re going to have to start building it over from scratch.” For Israel, the building of the whole nation is collapsing and needs radical reconstruction — which may sound like our nation and world…

Paul provides a way of exploring this more fully in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. What word could speak more directly into the sickness of the modern soul than his idea that “lawful thing” are not necessarily “helpful.” Without castigating hapless people, the preacher needs to expose the common ethic in which we don’t break laws, or if we stretch them we try not to get caught. I’m a pretty good person because I don’t steal or cheat on my spouse, I pay my bills, I’m nice sometimes to my neighbors. 

Isn’t mere legality not only an exceedingly low bar, but might even be alien to God’s will? As it’s the Martin Luther King weekend, we have ready at hand examples of Christians acting quite legally and yet immorally and in unholy ways — which led to a holy, vigorously church-based civil disobedience. I'll poke around and find a King story or two.

How countercultural is all this? “You are not your own, but the Lord’s.” All political rhetoric makes you master of your body, your self, your life, telling you what you deserve, what’s in it for you; but Paul is all about that you belong to God – which isn’t a burden or threat, but the most liberating news imaginable! "Rights talk" dominates our chatter and Americanism, but in the Bible it's not the rights that you have but God's rights. However, if you stick up for someone who's been denied their rights, that's theologically sound — although we might call it working for justice.

“I will not be enslaved by anything.” We are enslaved by a great many things. Samples provided in your sermon! — but invite folks to fill in their own blanks. It is slavery. Nancy Reagan simplistically told potential drug users “Just say no” — but anything to which you can easily “just say no” isn’t something you crave or would undo you. Our freedom is an illusion. We are in bondage to sin, self and habit until God liberates us and sets us free by the miracle only the Holy Spirit can work. And then, we aren’t “free” as in I’ll do what I wish now! but rather we are free for servanthood, dogged obedience to God. 

The pointed, merciful word God would speak is there in verse 19: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit in you, which you have from God?” – such a compassionate, liberating word. We struggle mightily with the body. It’s too fat, not muscular enough, unwieldy, breaking down, sagging – whatever. What we put in there tells us a lot about our fear – even if we are super healthy eaters, right? What we do with the body tells us even more about our fears – and where the body goes. Just try googling the word “body” and “temple” together, and you’ll get some lewd stuff. Our bodies can feel like enemies, problems; Plato said the body is a prison.

Paul said it’s a temple. “Glorify God in your body.” What if I thought all day, every day, as much as possible, about my body being this temple, and my goal then would be to worship, to glorify God with the thing? – including being merciful. 

How God views our bodies might be illuminated by the Gospel reading, John 1:43-51. Having just invited Andrew and Peter to go to Galilee with him, Jesus “found” Philip. “I once was lost, but now am found.” Interesting to ponder the way the mobile God finds people who aren’t particularly on the hunt for God. And then Philip “found” Nathanael. One of the ways God finds people is through God’s people – although notice that Philip claims to have done the finding himself: “We have found him.”

Jesus finds not one, not even two, but four, and eventually more. He doesn’t seem interested in solo spirituality. We believe to find ourselves in Jesus’ community, together. We need one another. We need friends. These men probably were friends prior to Jesus materializing. They certainly knew Zebedee and his sons, James and John. All from the same small hometown, Bethsaida. Archaeologists can’t quite agree on where it was, but it’s fascinating to visit Et-Tell, where some of the houses excavated have fishing looks lying on the floor. A real place, with real people.

And their friendship changes. They had no doubt done business together. They’d probably enjoyed meals, an evening stroll, they knew one another’s families. Friends. But once they follow, their friendship shifts into one of serving together. Aristotle thought of friends as those who help you to be wise and virtuous. Augustine saw friendship as the way to help one another to love God. I wonder if they were mutually surprised by themselves, dropping everything and traipsing off after somebody they never heard of five minutes before. Jesus must have been immensely, hauntingly attractive, beautiful, compelling.

Philip has so little to go on, and yet he has everything: he’s seen Jesus’ face. So he finds Nathanael, who is skeptical. Philip doesn’t launch into any logic, he alludes to Scripture but doesn’t quote anything. He grabs him by the hand (maybe, at least in my imagination he does!) and says “Come and see.” That’s the witness, right? Not a sledgehammer of truth, but an experience that makes you sure that if somebody else simply saw, it would be enough.

Our calling is always to come and see. We don’t ponder anybody at a distance. I often say if you only hang around with people like yourself, you become arrogant and ignorant. We go to others, to those not really expecting us. And we find Jesus, and ourselves, there. A rich donor was visiting Calcutta and met Mother Teresa. She pulled out her checkbook and said How can I help you in your work? Mother Teresa pressed the checkbook back into the woman’s purse, took her by the hand and said “Come and see.” She led the woman into an impoverished barrio, and found a hungry, frail child. “Care for her.” The woman took the child in her lap, wiped her brow, fed her. Transformative. Mother Teresa was right when she said When we care for a child, we are caring for Jesus. When we love the unloved, we are loving Jesus.

I’m forever intrigued by what Jesus says to Nathaniel. Jesus recognizes him, prompting Nathaniel to ask “How do you know me?” Jesus answers, “I saw you under the fig tree.” I don’t really know what to do with that. There’s no moral to it. Just worth pondering and playing with it: Jesus saw him under the fig tree. He noticed him.

Paul McCartney crooned “I saw her standing there.” Or sticking with the Beatles: “I’ve just seen a face I can’t forget…” Play around with these and other ideas of seeing, being seen, being noticed. Why was Nathaniel under the tree? Seeking shelter from a sweltering sun? Looking for figs? Who knows? I love preaching that just opens up a biblical moment, leaving room for people to find themselves, see something you might’ve missed.

Jesus’ clinching words intrigue: “You will see heaven opened, and angels ascending and descending.” Can we sing “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” in worship? Clearly alluding to Genesis 28, when Jacob wasn’t praying or seeking God. He was on the run, anxious, exhausted, trying to sleep with a rock for his pillow. He dreams of traffic between heaven and earth, and when he wakes up, stunned, he says “Surely the Lord was in this place but I did not know it.” Maybe Nathanael and Philip thought the same thing. This is the spiritual life: not eyes closed in prayer, Bible open, kneeling at the altar or singing a hymn. It’s being out and about – and God was and is there, although you might realize it only in retrospect.

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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