Epiphany 3 Reflection
|Greek Orthodox icon of prophet Samuel|
It has been said that you can’t read or hope to understand Samuel without first of all reading the book of Judges. There is wisdom in that advice. In Judges the reader gets used to seeing a pattern in the history of Israel. The people enjoy God’s favour; they rebel and fall away from the covenant; they are punished and suffer disaster; they repent and return to God’s ways; they enjoy God’s favour; they rebel and fall away … and so it goes on. We see the story of a system of tribal alliances and a terrible lack of cohesion; God appoints Judges over the people. The judges are required to go on circuit to bring order and cohesion, but the system is fairly casual. Alongside the story of Judges is the continual undercurrent of a demand for a different model: the people want a King to lead them into battle – they want to be like other nations.
In Samuel we see the last of the Judges and, in a brilliantly written history we observe a tragedy unfold as the last of the Judges passes and anoints the disastrous first of the Kings of Israel – Saul.
We are at a point where much is passing away. We find Israel in a state of gathering dark – Eli fading in his powers, the lamp of God in the Temple at Shiloh (where the ark of the covenant was kept) has gone out, young Samuel is surrounded by the darkness, and we are told that this is a time when both visions and the word of God are rare (and we may draw our own conclusions).
There is tragedy in the story: Eli is a great man but his family has let him down. His sons are scoundrels. The ministry of God through Eli’s family has been severely compromised – and Eli’s time is coming to an end. There is also hope in the story – if we go back to the start of Judges we hear something of Samuel’s history: we are told that his mother Hannah is barren but that she prays for a son. Her prayer is answered and she keeps her vow to offer Samuel to the service of God. So, when the time is right, she leaves the infant Samuel to grow up in the House of Eli and to so minister to the Lord. In due course this bears fruit when God calls Samuel through the darkness; and Samuel, under guidance from Eli, responds and we find him in communication with God. At long last, something is happening.
Now it would suit my purposes better if our Gospel were from Luke not John and the story was of the Annunciation – it would be so thematically tidy to let the two prayers of Hannah and Mary make the connections for us – how Hannah gives birth to Samuel who will usher in the Kings of Israel; while Mary gives birth to the Son of God. Instead we have other connections that we need to recognise.
God finds Samuel in the darkness of the temple at Shiloh. In John’s gospel we hear an account of the first days of Jesus and we hear of him deciding to go to Galilee, where we are told he found Philip. It is worth dwelling on that choice of word, on being ‘found’. The point of that word is that the finding is done by Jesus, not through any action or merit on Phillip’s part; likewise one may say, in comparison with the story of Samuel in the temple at Shiloh, the initiative is from God; it is in God’s purpose to find Samuel. So in dark and difficult times, we are reminded by these great stories that God’s great purpose is not thwarted; that God acts and continually acts in our affairs, however dark and difficult the circumstances may be.
We also hear in the gospel that
1:45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."
Is it alarming at all if I suggest that Philip is really not being honest? That he is in fact running ahead of himself and of discoveries that have yet to be made and that will be made in the faithful following of Christ? Thus far they have not had time to suggest any conclusions about who Jesus is and, anyway, this is knowledge that will come from God and through the purpose and the initiative of God alone.
This is why Nathanael’s rough response "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?", is refreshing and even encouraging – it has an earthy, grounded scepticism about it – that is reinforced by Jesus humorous greeting (v.47) "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" a greeting that echoes the story of the ever deceitful Israel or Jacob as he was known. But Jesus speaks truly and Nathanael seems to understand that here is someone who really knows him, understands him, and has most truly ‘Found’ him and with this realisation the story of God floods the page; flooding the lives of those so touched.
As always this leads us to the question of our lives and of our times, of our being found by God in the labyrinth of our days; we should not get too anxious! We are all God’s creatures, his dearly loved creation – and the question is really whether we are prepared to be found; there is no forcing of the door in this matter; it really is much simpler, “We just say, God, if it is your will, let it be with me as you wish. Help me.”