Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

1 Samuel 3: 1 – 10, Psalm 139: 1 – 5, 12 – 18, 1 Corinthians 6: 11b – 20, John 1: 43 – 51


Reading through, mulling over, and praying about this morning’s readings I found myself wondering what it is like to hear them only once. Week by week we come to church, or perhaps just occasionally, and, as part of the service, hear a number of passages from the Bible. For the most part, they are beautifully read with meaning and expression. I suspect though that few of us will do more than listen and perhaps follow the words in the service sheet. The experience of many years of leading Bible Study groups suggests that most here today will not immediately be able to find all four readings at first go in the Bible. And sadly, many of us who do worship regularly either don’t have, or seldom use, a Bible. The Friends of the Cathedral ensure there are bibles in the pews and, of course, the Cathedral Shop stocks a number of different bibles and can always order specially.

The Bible, which is really a library, is a rich treasure trove full of wonderful things. No sensible person sets out to read all the books in a library beginning with A and working through to Z – there is simply too much, and it becomes too confusing (although I have to confess that one of my daughters set herself the challenge of reading every book in the school library and got pretty close to doing so). We need someone to help us, to point us in the right direction, to suggest a starting point, and then a way forward which builds on what has been read previously. A good librarian will help us get so much more out of the books we read, than if we simply dipped in at random. And yet that is often what we do with the Bible – we dip in and out pretty much at random, not really understanding the logic behind the choices made for Sunday readings, and seldom reading one book from beginning to end. Few of us have the biblical and theological knowledge to make the connections, and appreciate the subtleties, of the words in front of us. The increasing trend to e-reading means we don’t even have any real idea of how long a book is, or where it fits within the whole.

This morning let me be your guide as we look at two intertwined themes which, I believe, are in at least three of today’s readings. The first idea is that God calls people, invites them into a way of living, gives them a specific task to do. The second is that in each of the three examples I will talk about, help was needed in listening to what was actually being said.

The call of Samuel is the obvious first one to look at. It’s a lovely story, I hope well known, and one that I remember being fascinated by as a very young child. Could God really be bothered with a young boy – so as to call him to a specific task and purpose? (As an aside we could look to Psalm 139 and notice the way the psalmist stands in awe of the God who ‘created my inward parts, you knit me together in my mother’s womb … you knew my soul, and my bones were not hidden from you…’). Called by God in the night Samuel initially assumes it is the old priest, his friend and mentor, calling him. Outside his experience, he can’t imagine, and so doesn’t even think, that the call might be coming from God. And Eli? He was an old man, and, given the other information about Eli – that he was not a good priest, that his sons were exploiting their father’s position to enrich and gratify themselves – possibly had not heard God’s call for some time. Eventually though Eli realizes what is happening and is able to advise the boy Samuel.

Today’s reading ends with Samuel’s response to God, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” This is no easy call to glory. Samuel is reluctant to tell Eli about his strange conversation with God in the middle of the night, and with good reason. The message he has received, and must pass on to Eli, is that Eli is doomed. He and his family will be punished; his sins will go unforgiven. Not an easy message for a young child to give to his teacher.

The second reading from 1 Corinthians finds Paul remonstrating with his beloved, but difficult and fractious, congregation. The Gospel of freedom in Christ, to which they had so recently been converted, has already been perverted. The freedom from their former way of life – carefully listed a few verses before today’s passage – has been interpreted as license to do what they like, and would seem to include gratifying the lusts of both the sexual and the stomach’s appetites. Throughout history Christians have grappled with two extremes. There are those who say that, because I am going to heaven, I can do what I like on the earth – knowing God is a forgiving and loving God. And there are those who have beaten the body with all its natural desires into submission – strict fasting, flagellation, sexual abstinence.

As St Paul teaches the Corinthians they slowly begin to realize that this new life they have taken on at their baptism is a way of life, with continued growth, learning and deepening of understanding. The words with which today’s passage began – ‘you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified’ – these are just the beginning of a life lived as one in whom the Spirit of God lives – hence the reference to their bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit. If Eli and his sons neglected the actual physical temple of God, the Corinthians are in danger of abusing the metaphorical temple of God.

And so to the Gospel of John. Today’s short passage continues a story that begins with John the Baptist pointing out Jesus as the Lamb of God. This identification causes two of John’s disciples to follow Jesus. One of them, Andrew, immediately goes to tell his brother about this strange new man on the scene. To him, Jesus gives the name of Cephas, Peter. We’ll hear a lot more about both Peter and Andrew in the Gospel as it unfolds. But, as we heard a few minutes ago, it is Philip who is the first in John’s Gospel to be specifically called by Jesus to follow him. Philip’s first reaction is to find Nathanael – presumably a close friend, may be even his brother. He identifies Jesus in language that is thick with theological allusion – this is the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.” When he hears where Jesus comes from Nathanael scoffs – can anything good come out of Nazareth? The scorn in Nathanael’s words would easily rival the comment about certain Caribbean and African countries allegedly made by the US president this week. And is on a par with a later comment in the Gospel made by the chief priests and Pharisees – no prophet could possibly come out of Galilee. (See John 7: 52)

Like the better known incident with Thomas at the end of the Gospel, Nathanael quickly moves from scepticism and scorn to adoration of Jesus, whom he refers to as Son of God, and King of Israel. We don’t hear a great deal more of Nathanael, but we do of Philip. It is Philip to whom Jesus turns when confronted with the enormous task of feeding the Five Thousand, and it is Philip who turns to Jesus on the night of the Last Supper to ask where he is going.

Samuel in the night wondering whose voice is calling him; the Corinthian converts confused by their lack of understanding of the Gospel; Nathanael with his initial skepticism – all, in some way or other, are called by God; and all, in some way or another, are helped to a point of understanding and response to God, by another.

Some questions for us today:

  • Whose voice or voices do we listen to in our day?
  • How successfully do we discern the ‘voice of God’ given the cacophony of sounds constantly around us?
  • What can we do to help us listen more clearly, discern more deeply, and so follow more clearly the call of God?

The Chinese monogram character for ‘listen’ includes the symbols for the ear, the eyes and the heart, and a single line indicating undivided attention.

The Latin word meaning ‘to hear’ gives us both audience and obedience.

As we listen today and tomorrow for God’s call on our lives, may we do so with our undivided attention, using ears, eyes and heart. May that listening lead to our obedience to God’s will and ways and so bring us to that point where, with the psalmist, we may praise God in the knowledge that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

And so to the last lines of the well-known prayer of St Richard of Chichester:

O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,

may I know thee more clearly,

love thee more dearly

and follow thee more nearly, day by day.