In The Light of God

Sunday 18th January 2015
Year B, The Second Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
1 Samuel 3:1-10

God's call to Samuel is one of the most graphic instances in the Old Testament of the way in which the divine will interacts with the human condition. Even before his conception his barren mother Hannah dedicated him to God and from his birth he was brought up by the old, blind priest Eli in an early version of the Temple. And so, at one level, his calling was not unexpected but its terms were highly unusual: Samuel was not destined to be an institution-based priest nor of a monastic turn, he was to be God's messenger, sometimes encouraging but often punishing, with a temperament to match for although Samuel starts out as a sweet little boy the most generous commentator would describe him as irascible.

If you had said to Samuel that religion and politics don't mix, he would not have understood you: it was Samuel who argued with God against the creation of a monarchy but instituted it at his insistence; it was Samuel, under God's guidance,  who appointed, anointed and deposed Saul after he became a disappointment to God and himself; and he then appointed and anointed David. Samuel was as comfortable slaughtering on the battlefield as he was sitting in the council chamber; and, even after his death, Saul tried to summon him through a medium.

It would, of course, be naive to draw parallels between Samuel's calling and our calling to serve God but we can surely learn from it and the first issue that arises is whether there really is a contradiction between the temple and the forum. All of the great Old Testament figures, whether they were priests, prophets, generals, politicians or kings, either accepted or specifically denied, at their cost, the role of God's will in their public and private actions and the inference surely is not that we should keep religion and politics apart but that to be a true follower of God means applying our principles to political matters rather than proposing a division between the two, for to do this is to accept the atheist/humanist position that religion is purely a private matter. It isn't.

What we do publicly and collectively as Christians is a vital part of who and what we are. After my last sermon on the plight of exiles and refugees a listener asked me what we should do practically about the situation. My reply was that we could not change the world but that we must act with integrity in our own small world; and that might mean at the very least contesting things which other people say and even speaking out on our own behalf. We cannot expect the wicked to stay quiet just because we do; and we must always remember that wickedness, to use a rather harsh term, doesn't always appear in a threatening guise; it is often our friends who make statements which at the very least we ought to challenge; but often we choose to ignore what we should contest.

But to be effective Christians in the world we need to spend much more time than we generally do working out the detail of what God wills for us and our world. This is not easy because the most often used term in the New Testament for proper behaviour is righteousness and, after that, the Gospels are concerned with virtues such as love, compassion, humility, restraint and generosity; but how we exercise these virtues in practice is not an easy matter and, therefore, requires deep thought and prayer rather than the glib denial that public conduct has anything to do with the divine will. The idea that God is only 'concerned' with our private, predominantly sexual, conduct to me represents an ungodly retreat.

Perhaps the most important thing of all, reverting to my earlier comments, is that on most occasions saying nothing is not a Christian option. It is one thing to praise British reticence but quite another to think that reticence is a virtue; it isn't; it's a tactic.

So the first important consideration when seeking to fulfil the will of God is to decide what to say and when to say it. If we take my recent example of the way we treat refugees, exiles and immigrants, it might, for a start, be a good idea to ask ourselves whether we know the difference between the three groups, or classes, of people or whether we are lumping them all together. We might, next, ask ourselves how we reconcile saving thousands of people from drowning and refusing them a safe place to live and, in conclusion, we might want to ask ourselves what the proper collective and individual Christian response might be. What should we do about the shared, selfish, unchristian political consensus?

Even if there were not a General Election this year, we still have to face major, complex issues which entangle immigration, the European Union, climate change and the level of responsibility we ought to bear in caring for the poorest countries such as those struck with Ebola.

Now I have to say that I am not of the moral school which urges right action to avoid divine retribution - I think we must do the right thing for God's sake - and while I reject any simplistic idea of action and retribution based on a tariff system still, we cannot be oblivious of the history of the relationship between God and 'his' Chosen People. We, as Christians, ought always to be aware that we make all our individual and collective decisions not under the shadow but in the light of God.