Universal Vocation

Sunday 17th January 2010
The Second Sunday of Epiphany
St Francis, Hassocks
1 Samuel 3.1-20
Ephesians 4.1-16

The last words of the Book of Judges which historically directly precedes the First Book of Samuel says: "and in those days ... every man did that which was right in his eyes." It is not surprising, then, that the second half of the first verse of our reading from the beginning of Chapter Three of the First Book of Samuel says: "and the Word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision" which we might better translate as: "And the Word of the Lord was rare in those days (and) visions were not widespread" (NRSV).

This was a rather nondescript time in the history of the people of Israel when the memory of the Exodus had faded and before the great days of King David. The seemingly never-ending struggle for survival went on, this time against the Philistines. The Ark of the Lord was in Shiloh; it had not yet arrived in Jerusalem and the Priest Eli's sons were fornicating gluttons.

We learn in the first two Chapters of the Book that Samuel was dedicated to the Lord before his birth in exchange for his mother's being able to conceive and bear a child in a narrative that is almost identical to that of the birth of John the Baptist, the only significant difference between the two being that it is Samuel's mother who sings the hymn of praise, prefiguring the Magnificat which is sung not by John's Mother, Elizabeth, but by Mary, the mother of Jesus. Even so, with all this build-up, it is still surprising when the young Samuel experiences the first of his many visions of God indeed, after Moses, Samuel is the figure in the Old Testament who is most often described as being in direct receipt of God's messages.

Samuel hears a call but thinks it is his master, Eli; and the same thing happens three times because "Samuel did not yet know The Lord." It even takes Eli three interruptions before he cottons on; and then The Lord tells Samuel how he is going to give Eli and his family a hard time: "... at which both the ears of everyone that heareth it shall tingle".

Our reading from Saint Paul's letter to the Ephesians begins: "... the prisoner of The Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called". So here we have Samuel at the beginning of his momentous vocation to serve the Lord which culminates in his crowning of King David and Paul near the end of his momentous life which began with Jesus appearing to him in a vision on the road to Damascus, now sending out the next generation.

From these two readings, then, we can immediately draw out four messages, two from Samuel and two, following on, from Paul: first, no matter how chaotic the times may seem, The Lord never abandons us. It may seem, as we sit here as a tiny congregation that we are a dying breed, that Christianity is "on the way out" but this is not so. If anything, virulent attacks by atheists like Richard Dawkins have, thankfully, put some spine back into us; and surely nobody thinks that we can measure the strength of Christ's church according to how many people turn up on Sundays. We may think that our world has never been so Godless nor so coarse; but that is surely what the people of Shiloh felt when Eli's sons seduced female worshippers and stole their sacrificial meat offerings; and yet the Lord sent Samuel who, in turn, crowned David, the greatest King of Israel. In a nutshell, then, the first message is that we should not make superficial comparisons between our state and the state of other people now or in history; and we must not give up but must go on trusting in The Lord.

Secondly, The Lord will not just call once and then go away. He will go on calling again and again until we get onto his wavelength, go on calling until he hears the reply: "speak, for thy servant heareth."

Thirdly, Paul points out to the Ephesians that they all have different gifts and that all can serve. Finally, he sums up why we are here in that great hymn:

"One lord, one faith, on Baptism, one God and Father of all."

But I think we should go behind the obvious messages of our two Readings to think about the meaning of vocation as we have before us two of the great figures of Biblical vocation; Samuel who, almost single-handedly, as the agent of God, restored Israel to Covenantal faithfulness; and Paul who, again, almost single-handedly, proclaimed the new Covenant of Christ to the Northern Mediterranean world. As far as we can tell, neither of these figures was imposing by the world's standards. The narrative that spans the life of Samuel has plenty to say about how imposing were King Saul and King David, how beautiful was David's wife Abigail, but about the central character it is silent, save for a reference to his wearing a mantle (1 Samuel 28.14) which is hardly a celebrity recommendation; and Paul says that others would say of of him: "... his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible" (2 Corinthians 10.10). It is not, therefore, immediately obvious from assessing people in the usual way, whether or not they have a vocation. Paul says that we all have different gifts and that, therefore, the idea of vocation is universal, not particular to people with certain kinds of conventionally admired gifts.

I remember when I first went to be trained as a Reader that all the other people seemed so much holier than me; but I still felt that I had been called. And I know I find it too easy to judge people according to whether they preach passionately, or at least tidily. But I should know better; and we should know better. Our lives have all been blessed by the unpredictable; how often have we been grateful for being wrong, for rejoicing that things did not turn out the way we planned, or foretold.

We have to keep a look-out for what life has to tell us and that is inextricably tied up with looking out for The Lord; for he is not somewhere else, in another sphere, out of touch "up there". The whole point of the history of God with Israel and the History of God with us is that we have been graced by the incarnation, death and Resurrection of Jesus and we know God in Jesus because of the Spirit within us.

So when we finally hear the call of The Lord, after so many times of trying, we can answer: "speak lord; for thy servant heareth".