God’s Word of Hope for Weary and Wounded Would-Be Disciples
By Rev. Lori Patton
1 Samuel 3:1-20
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asks.
Do you get the impression that maybe Nathanael has been around the block a few too many times? That maybe he’s just seen a little too much of the world? He is not exactly overflowing with confidence, there, is he? According to John, a cock-eyed optimist is something Nathanael is not.
Later on, in Romans 5:3-5, Paul will write that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
But that’s not where Nathanael is, now. In Nathanael’s experience, suffering produces more suffering, and more suffering produces world-weariness, and world-weariness produces cynicism, and cynicism does not disappoint . . . as long as you only expect to be disappointed!
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Can anything good come out of Wisconsin?
Can anything good come out of the government? Can anything good come out of Hollywood? Can anything good come out of Presbytery, or the Synod, or the General Assembly, or one more committee meeting? Can anything good come out of the Religious Right? Can anything good come out of the ‘too-Liberal’ Left? Can anything good come out of public education? Can anything good come out of this world, at all, anymore?
Or have we just come too far, seen too much, believed and been disappointed too many times by our families, our teachers, our friends, and our leaders? Do we even have it in us, anymore, to hope for anything better, from our world or from ourselves?
That’s Nathanael. And, maybe it’s some of us, here today.
I suggest, anyway, that this might be a fair summation of the feelings and thoughts of those Israelites who came to worship at Shiloh in 1 Samuel, while Eli’s sons were acting as priests, there.
You see, there’s a reason why God delivers such a grim judgment concerning Eli’s sons in the passage for today. Those two men, Hophni and Phinehas, were in a position of great power. As hereditary priests, in the line of Aaron, they were charged with interceding with God on the people’s behalf, standing between the people’s sins and God’s judgment. And they had been royally abusing that power for some time, now, using it to extort gifts and sexual favors, and doing it all in the name of a God in whom they had apparently ceased to believe – or at least, they had ceased to believe in God’s justice, and had come to look upon God as their servant, rather than the other way around. They seemed to have a lock on everything. Who was there who could challenge them? What hope could the people have that things would ever get any better, that God would ever hear their prayers and help them, when all access to God went through official channels that were the very source of the corruption and so much of the suffering?
That’s where young Samuel comes in.
Samuel – just twelve years old at this time, according to the tradition – is placed in one of the toughest positions any young person can imagine. Not only does he have to accept the unprecedented fact that God is speaking directly to him – for at the beginning of the passage, we are told that such divine messages were rare in those days, and I don’t imagine that even then 12-year-olds were encouraged to claim divine revelation denouncing their elders . . .
Not only does he have to wrap his young mind around the very fact of God speaking to him, but then, on top of that, the gist or core of the message is a judgment against the house of Eli, against his mentor and legal guardian, someone whom he seems to have held in real affection, and someone who certainly held real power over his young life. Even though Eli had already heard, via another prophet, this judgment against his family, Samuel still may have had good reason to fear being scape-goated, since he was the one messenger that Eli could ‘shoot’ with impunity, if he were inclined to ‘shoot the messenger’ carrying bad news.
So, Samuel stands at a crossroads: to play it safe, or not to play it safe; to keep his mouth shut and stick with the status quo, or to speak the truth that had been revealed to him. The choice would affect the course of the rest of his life, and the rest of the course of the history of Israel.
As we heard in the reading for today, though Samuel is reluctant at first, eventually he ‘lays it on the line’ and speaks truth to the major human power in his young life. That will turn out to be good practice for later on in his career, when he’ll have to stand up to King Saul, and train up his successor Nathan to be prepared to speak the truth (no matter how devastating) to King David.
Samuel decides to become a trustworthy prophet.
There are a lot of people looking for trustworthy prophets – both in biblical times and today.
That’s what Nathanael’s seeking – it’s why he does “come and see”, in spite of his cynicism. As certain as he is that everything in the world is rigged, that the deck is stacked against anything good coming into his life or into this world, he still has just enough hope left in him to “come and see” Jesus.
Lots of people are looking for trustworthy prophets today – people who’ve given up, perhaps, on expecting anything really good or truthful through the ‘official channels’ of school, family, church, the news media, and government. Instead, people end up looking for hope in unlikely or unhealthy places – in popular culture, or in drugs, or in abusive relationships. As many of you know, my special area of study in my doctoral studies was the relationship between popular culture, psychology, and religion. But what I learned is that popular culture – like psychology – is great at helping people to formulate the big questions in their lives, to identify the problems they need help with, but it’s not so great at coming up with the answers to those questions, or developing real solutions to the problems we have.
I subtitled my sermon today ‘God’s Word of Hope for Wounded and Weary Would-Be Disciples’, because there are many people in today’s world who would be disciples if they could find the way. They’re wanting to be, they’re looking. But the best that pop culture, for instance, can do is keep their hope alive from one day to the next (like a feeding tube or respirator for a coma patient) – it can’t ultimately save or cure anyone.
People who are searching for trustworthy prophets need to be told to “come and see” Jesus, and to find trustworthy prophets among all of us here in the church. People need to be able to see the Church as a safe place full of people who will look for real answers to the tough questions in our lives.
We’re here today because we have found a trustworthy prophet in Jesus – whose title ‘Son of Man’ means ‘final judge’ as well as the ‘messenger who makes God known’. But more than that, in Jesus Christ we have found God incarnate, walking and living among us, sharing our pains and fears and our joys and loves. We have found a God who always stands with the victim, and never with the abuser. A God who is on the side of the frightened child, and not the coach or priest who would abuse that child.
But having found Jesus, Nathanael himself became a ‘trustworthy prophet’, spreading the news abroad to all whom he met.
And that is also what we are called to do.
We are called to testify that yes, something good can come out of the church. Something worth believing in. To testify that God does not stand with abusers of power against the abused, or with the super-rich against the disappearing middle class and the ever-growing ranks of the poor in our country. Rather, God stands always with the abused, the wounded, the weary. God stands with the vulnerable and needy of this world, demanding justice, truth, and faithfulness.
Friends, in 1 Corinthians 6:20 the Apostle Paul reminds us all that we are precious in God’s sight, having been bought with a great price, and that therefore we should not let ourselves be dominated or enslaved or abused. We are God’s – we belong to God. And God has called each of us to become a trustworthy prophet, speaking God’s true words of hope and truth and love in this weary world of ours, and providing a safe haven for all who are weary and sick at heart.
As disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have been given a great gift – the gift of salvation, and of our eternal hope and knowledge of God’s love. Now, let us go forth to share that gift with a world that is desperately in need of that message, through our words and through our deeds this coming week.