15 Jan 2012
“Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the Lord where the ark of God was. The Lord called to Samuel, who answered, ‘Here I am.’” (1 Samuel 3:3b- 4) In the name …
Jimmy Carter, a past US President, has just written a new book. One of the stories he tells is about his brother, Billy Carter. If you’re at least 50 years old, like me, you probably remember Billy Carter. Jimmy Carter grew up to become the governor of Georgia, then the President of the United States of America, and now he travels around the world as an ambassador of peace. He volunteers for Habitat for Humanity and he teaches Sunday School in his church. Billy, on the other hand, grew up and had a beer named after him, Billy Beer. Jimmy Carter told the story about this brother of his who was on his deathbed. A dear and lifelong friend had come to see Billy before he died. As they were exchanging solemn last words, Billy told one of his dearest friends that he just had to tell him something before he died, that he couldn’t go peacefully to his grave without revealing this secret. Billy Carter then told his friend that he had been having an affair with his wife. From his deathbed, Billy recounted how he watched his friend’s face turn ashen and his jaw drop, how he was left speechless. Then after a few moments Billy simply added the words: “Just kidding.”
Now this story fits perfectly into my picture of Billy Carter, the eccentric and laid-back brother of an ex-President. It would be just about the complete opposite of the deathbed words of Eli, an aging priest of ancient Israel. Eli does not come across as much of a practical joker. He’s a pretty serious man, and a pretty sad one. He is tasked with serving at the religious sanctuary at Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The Ark was the holiest symbol of God’s presence among His people Israel, and the priests serving before it were the most honoured of ancient Israel. Eli was an aging man. His time was coming to an end, and the care of the sanctuary at Shiloh was about to be passed-on to his sons. They, however, were not worthy of such a position, and Eli knew this. They treated God’s people and God’s shrine with contempt and selfishness. They used it for their own gain. This greatly saddened Eli, but he never reprimanded his sons, and he allowed their abuses to continue.
This is the situation into which Samuel enters as a child. He’s a mere servant at the sanctuary, not a priest. And one night as he lay sleeping, Samuel hears his name being called. He thought by Eli. “Here I am,” says Samuel. Eli was sound asleep and tells Samuel to go back to bed. Samuel leaves, but then hears his name called again. A second time Eli sends him away. By the third time, Samuel may have thought that Eli was playing games with him, Billy Carter’s “Just Kidding,” but by now the old priest realizes that it may be God calling to the young boy. When Samuel’s name is called for the forth time, he doesn’t rush to Eli’s side. Insead, he begins a life-long conversation with God as one of his most famous and powerful prophets, and it all began with what he thought may have been an old man’s joke.
This call to Samuel reveals something about God that none of the people of God should ever forget. Eli and his sons have inherited their position. They are the ancestors of Aaron, the brother of Moses. They belong to the priestly caste of Israel. Samuel, however, belongs to one of the tribes of Joseph. He has no lineage like that of Eli and his sons that sets him apart for the work of God. Yet God chooses him over the others to be His voice. God seems duly unimpressed with our titles and pedigrees. God instead looks at the soul and the character of a person, and more often than not He sees something that the rest of us miss or ignore. The unexpected seems to constantly reappear as a theme in the stories of God. There’s a lesson there for us as Christians and even as church!
Now jump more than a thousand years into the future and our story is about John the Baptist. If you remember from Advent, John was of the priestly tribe – just like Eli. His father served in the Jerusalem Temple and John was expected to do the same. Instead, he fled to the wilderness. There his preaching drew crowds to his side. Some in those crowds didn’t come for the day; some stayed and became disciples of John. According to today’s Gospel, John was walking with two of them as Jesus passed by. John declared of Him: “‘Behold, the Lamb of God.’” In this Gospel account, John has the privilege of leading the first disciples to Jesus, but again the unexpected is central to the story. The encounter and John’s exclamation all seem to be spontaneous, as does the choice of John’s disciples to go and follow Jesus. What a change that singular moment made! God doesn’t have to give warning.
When these two disciples of John the Baptist approach Jesus, His first recorded words in the Gospel, and really a theme that continues throughout the whole of the Gospel, are heard in Jesus’ question: “‘What are you looking for?’” (*) Sometimes religion and the religious can be drawn off track by assuming that faith is always about the answers. Maybe though faith is more about searching for the answers. Maybe answers can’t be imposed upon us. Maybe that’s part of the message of today’s readings. Maybe answers come through an openness to hearing the unexpected voice of God like in Samuel who only needed to say, “Here I am Lord.” And maybe the church is like John the Baptist pointing out Jesus as our paths unexpectedly cross in life. Maybe that’s the privilege of church, to help us all find our chances to meet Christ, and when we do to hear for ourselves, “What are you looking for?” Maybe it’s the chance to discover rather than to be told, to not be given pat answers but to be given the chance to find our own answers. Whatever church and faith are, they are not only the mechanics of religion. That was Eli and that was the Jerusalem Temple. A faith-life on automatic is a faith on life-support. That we may be present to Christ and able to say “Here I am,” and open to Him in all of His unexpected revelations, may this be our prayer that we offer in His name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo