January 20, 2012
Why did you decide to get ordained? That’s a question that is quite often thrown at me, usually when I’m not expecting it! And if I’m honest, it’s one I don’t always want to answer.
I’ve been asked that question in the hairdressers, with an attentive audience of other customers. I’ve been asked it by other members of staff in a crowded lift, when I worked in the Hospital, and in one to one conversations with strangers at a party or on a bus.
How can you sum up, in a few succinct words, a journey that has taken place over many years? Depending on who was asking this question, I might wrap up my answer in a variety of ways, some perhaps more spiritual than others, but I guess the short answer would be that it was something I felt called to do.
Both our readings today have the theme of calling. In our Old Testament reading we have the young lad, Samuel, in the temple, and in John’s Gospel, Philip and Nathaniel, who meet Jesus at the beginning of his ministry.
Both our passages are also about the response of these individuals to God’s call upon their lives and the on-going consequences of their response. As we think about these passages, I hope it will encourage us to be open to God’s calling in our lives, and to make new steps on our own journey of faith.
The story of the boy, Samuel, in the Temple was a favourite in Sunday School classes of my childhood and it will be found in most Children’s Bibles. The young boy, brought up in the Temple under the tutelage of Eli, the priest, is called by God to confront the old man and challenge him – not an easy task for anyone, but for someone so young particularly daunting.
What struck me as I read this passage were the phrases,
He did not yet know the Lord and The word of God had not been revealed to him.
Samuel was not a learned Biblical scholar steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, nor was he a Prophet who had great spiritual insight. He was a young boy, who had been given by his mother, Hannah, to serve in the Temple. A love offering to God. He was just a young lad. But God called him. Samuel doesn’t recognise God’s call at first and repeatedly disturbs Eli.
The word of God had not been revealed to him.
It is the old man who discerns God at work and advises Samuel to say,
Speak Lord for your servant is listening.
The Bible tells how reluctant Samuel was to reveal God’s message to Eli. I find this reaction reassuring. When God calls us to something new it may take us out of our comfort zone. When I have found myself in such places, I confess I have sometimes turned a deaf ear, or have not recognised God speaking to me at first. In Samuel’s situation, Eli encourages him to be open with him and accepts the stern message from God that the lad feared to relate. Samuel’s obedience and attentiveness to God was the first step of a faith journey. He was to become a great spiritual leader and prophet, but it took that first step to put the plan into action.
In our own lives, God often gives us opportunities to step out in faith, and when we do it can be the start of something significant. For example, as I made my way to the Macmillan Unit at the Northern General Hospital one Saturday morning, I noticed a woman smoking, just outside. I nodded a “Good Morning,” and made some inane remark about the weather. She looked up and asked if I worked at the hospital. I explained I was a Chaplain and what my role was. She then asked if we could talk, and I sat down with her. She shared with me her concerns for her partner who was in the unit. She was a Catholic but her partner was not a church attender. He didn’t have long to live and was scared of dying. We shared a quick prayer together and, with her permission, the Chaplains visited the patient and gave him and her spiritual support. A chance conversation or God’s call to care?
The call of Samuel reminds us that God can use all of us in his service, young and old. We do not have to have a degree in Theology; all we need to do is be open to his prompting and willing to do his bidding.
Our New Testament passage from John describes the calling of two of the disciples, Philip and Nathaniel. John says his purpose in writing his Gospel is that we “might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, for such faith brings life.” John, in his gospel, wants us to focus on who Jesus is.
As children we have a mental picture of our parents and what they mean to us. When we become adults, we learn more about our parent, through our interaction with others who know them as friends or work colleagues, and we discover that our parents are not just our carers. We get a fuller, more rounded image of them. This is what John is trying to do as he reveals Jesus to us.
The calling of Philip and Nathaniel gives us some background on the social makeup of Jesus’ disciples but, more important, John wants us to consider how they respond to his call. It is in their responses to Jesus’ invitation that we, the reader, discover how Jesus was perceived by them and begin to build our own picture of Jesus’ character.
Philip and Nathaniel‘s response to Jesus helps us as we begin our own journey of discovery about Jesus.
Jesus meets Philip and invites him to follow him. Philip’s response is very positive. He recognises in Jesus someone who is important and he wants to share his encounter with others whose opinion he values. He looks for his friend Nathaniel, and invites him to come and meet this amazing person, “The one Moses wrote about in the Law and about whom the Prophets also wrote.” So, through Philip, we are given a picture of Jesus as someone distinctive, special. There is something about his meeting with Jesus that affects him deeply. Philip’s affirmation of Jesus confirms to the Reader that here we have someone to learn more about and to take seriously.
Nathaniel, however, is far more sceptical than his friend. Can anything good come out of Nazareth, he asks. As a man of Galilee himself, this seems a strange comment to make, but such prejudice is not uncommon even today. Go to any football match and you will soon hear disparaging comments made by rival fans of their opponents home town or even another district within the same city. I guess the point being made here is that Nathaniel, as a scholar, would not have expected the person described by Philip to come from somewhere like Nazareth, a fairly insignificant little town. However, as Nathaniel meets Jesus, he changes his mind. He becomes aware of Jesus’ insight and declares, “Rabbi, you are the son of God, the King of Israel.”
Giving someone a name is one of the responsibilities of parenthood. Names in the Bible often described a person’s character. Nathaniel, for example, means gift of God. The names bestowed on Jesus by these two disciples give him authority. Here, in this short passage, Jesus is described as; a prophet, a great leader, a teacher of the law and God’s Son. These are powerful words and give us, the readers, some insight into what it meant for these two men to encounter Jesus. It was a life-changing event.
What about us?
Some of us here today may be able, like Samuel, to point to a specific moment when they responded to God. For others, it may have been a more gradual awareness of God at work in their lives. Some may still be on the journey of discovery trying to decide who Jesus is. Wherever we are on the road of faith, God is there with us and I believe he will continue to call us to new challenges and opportunities.
When I arrived at Ordination College, I couldn’t help wondering what am I doing here? Within a few minutes I met up with Frances, who was also starting the course. Our paths had already crossed some years before on the Readers’ Training course. Neither of us had any idea that the other one had been selected for ordination. As I began to chat with the other new students, the same question kept being asked, “What made you decide to get ordained?” We were all mature students, who had a variety of careers, and as I listened to their stories it was wonderful to hear how God had called so many different people, from a range of backgrounds, to take this step of faith. All our stories were different, but the common theme was a growing awareness that God was asking us to do something.
But, of course, we don’t have to get ordained to play a part in the Kingdom of God. He calls us all to his service – young and old; each of us has a role and he gives us the ability to fulfil it. God’s call isn’t a one-off experience. It’s a conversation that continues throughout our life. Maybe God is calling you to make a commitment to follow him, inviting you to trust him for your future. Maybe God is calling you to take up a new challenge in your spiritual journey. Maybe God wants you to let something go, so that you can move in a new direction.
Let’s be quiet and listen, and open ourselves to God speaking to us.
Lord speak for your servant is listening.
Help me to know your will and help me to be obedient to your call. Amen.
by Revd Linda Furbey