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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 01/15/2012

The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  As an opening line, that paints a pretty bleak picture.  The word of the Lord was rare, visions were not widespread.  You picture kind of a colorless, gray background, a movie where people move through their scenes blankly, mechanically, without emotion and nobody seems happy; it’s a world that’s had life and hope sucked out of it; pretty grim.  The word of the Lord was rare, visions were not widespread. 

In today’s first lesson, there were reasons for this gray background, mostly the fact that the son’s of Eli were scoundrels.  Eli was the priest at Shiloh and he’d been a good priest, but his sons were not following in his footsteps.  They had no regard for the Lord or for priestly duties.  They made a mockery of the sacrificial system, eating the best parts of the animals that were sacrificed rather than offering them to the Lord; they blasphemed the Lord and Eli couldn’t do anything about it, he couldn’t control them. 

So the Lord had seemingly stepped back and distanced himself from this place and these people.  The Lord had announced to Eli that his family would be punished, they would lose what they had; actions do have consequences.   They had been promised authority forever but now the sentence is punishment forever and there is no appeal.  When Eli was told about this, his response was pretty much blank and without emotion like the movie I mentioned; it is what it is.    In the meantime the word of the Lord was rare; just the gray background of absence.    Even Eli was doing little more than going through the motions of his priestly duties.  

All in all, it is a pretty bleak picture, almost anti-Epiphany in nature.  Light is supposed to be the primary symbol of the Epiphany season, but in the background of this first lesson there’s not much light; the word of the Lord was rare, visions were not widespread, then on top of that we’re told that Eli’s eyesight was growing dim; for him the world was getting darker.  So we’re dealing with darkness here, not light, a growing cloud over Eli and his family…

…but then there was Samuel.  We don’t worship a God of darkness; we worship a God who doesn’t like darkness, one who overcomes it.  One of the verses of today’s psalm that we didn’t read says, “Darkness is not dark to you; night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.”  There are those times of gray absence though; it happens in the Bible, it happens in our lives.  Is that absence and darkness just how we perceive things, or is it real?  Does God sometimes step away from us and leave us on our own for awhile?  I’ll let you wrestle with that; it’s a heavy theological question and from the biblical accounts it’s not really clear, but either way the sense of absence is real.  What’s also real though is that God doesn’t leave us in darkness; it’s never the last word.  There can be absence, there can be consequences for actions, but with our God, something new emerges, another chance, another opportunity…and so we have Samuel. 

The focus of this Old Testament story is not on the ending that was announced for Eli and his disobedient sons, it’s on the new beginning to be made with Samuel.  He was a child who grew up in the temple with Eli as his mentor, obedient Samuel who had been dedicated to the Lord by his mother.  Samuel represented a new beginning because the Lord’s work will be done, in this case not by the family of Eli because of their sin, but by this boy who receives a word from the Lord at a time when such words were rare.  But the silence ends, the light returns in the person of Samuel.  His words will be heeded, they will not fall to the ground; there is a new beginning; there always is, and…it won’t be the last one.

Samuel represents another example of God’s resolve to do something new.  This theme of new beginnings is one that I hammer away at because I think it is the core story of the Bible, one that gets told and retold through the stories about Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jacob and his sons, Moses, King David, the people of Israel in exile and those are just a few examples.  Time after time there are new beginnings, new possibilities. There are bad things that happen in the Bible too, endings like we have for Eli and his family, and, at least in the telling of the stories, God is sometimes responsible for those bad things, those endings.  That can be upsetting to us but isn’t that the story of life?  We do experience endings, but not as the last word, because…the Bible tells us so;  then there was Samuel or…then there was Jesus.

For us, Jesus represents the ultimate new beginning as we have just celebrated again during the Christmas season.  During this season of Epiphany we get another chapter of this story of new beginnings as Jesus begins his ministry.  All of the gospels connect Jesus to the ministry of John the Baptist; Jesus is baptized by John as we heard last week and so he is somehow rooted in that tradition; but at the same time he represents a break from it, something new.  Something that started with John is fulfilled in Jesus and that something is what we consider throughout the rest of the church year.  It’s a something that we are called and invited to participate in as it represents a new beginning for us too.

Today’s first lesson was about the call of Samuel which represented a new beginning, a story of light and life returning to a gray and dying landscape, a story of new words and new visions.  Today’s gospel is part of the story of Jesus calling his first disciples which would be a new beginning for them as they were invited to “come and see.”  They would become part of the new beginning of Jesus.

In this story from John’s gospel I find Nathanael to be the most interesting of those called by Jesus, although actually in the case of Nathanael it’s not Jesus but Philip who does the calling.  What’s interesting though is that Nathanael resists the call with the classic line, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nathanael was skeptical, but you get the sense that it was more about him than it was about Jesus.

The thing about new beginnings is that they sound like a good thing, something that we all would say we are in favor of and we’re glad there are so many Bible stories about new beginnings; but new beginnings also involve change, and most of us don’t do change very well; we’re comfortable with what we know and even when it’s not very good, it can be easier to stay there.  That may have been Nathanael’s problem. 

I was looking for trash bags at Snyder’s on the highway the other day because I knew they had the kind I liked for our big trash barrel at home; but I couldn’t find them because they weren’t where I expected them to be.  I wasn’t about to ask for help so I wandered around the store for awhile and finally found them.  At the checkout counter the clerk politely asked, “Did you find everything OK?” and I said, “Well, yes, after awhile but they weren’t where they used to be,” and she said, “Nothing’s where it used to be.” I said, “I don’t handle change very well,” and the clerk just laughed.  With their renovation, it’s a new beginning for Snyder’s on the highway, but I’m not sure I want to be part of it.

Nathanael was happy under the fig tree; he knew where the trash bags were.  So he wasn’t so sure about this invitation to come and see and we can be the same way.  These stories of the call of Samuel and of Jesus’ calling his disciples are a reminder that we too are called to come and see and at some level we have responded positively to that invitation; we’re all here today, we are involved in worship and doing the work of the Lord.  To really respond positively though involves change; you can’t claim to follow Jesus and remain the same.  Your focus and your priorities must change; that’s true of us as individuals and as a culture and a country.  You can’t follow Jesus and not pay attention to what he said and when we really think about that it’s easy to be like Nathanael and come up with our own reasons why we’re not so sure about this.  We want to make compromises with our commitment, we want to make compromises with the offer of new beginnings and believe me I speak of pastors as well as lay people.

The good news is that God is persistent with the invitation to new beginnings.  Samuel was confused at first, but the Lord kept calling.  Nathanael resisted, but Jesus kept after him.  Both of them became faithful servants and that is good news.  The caution is that there are endings too.  The new beginning for Samuel was an ending for the family of Eli and as I said there was no room for appeal.  There are times of absence and there are  endings, so there is tension between that and the good news of God’s persistence.  There will be new beginnings, but those new beginnings may include endings too. 

There’s tension, but hope always breaks through the tension because there will be new visions, there will be light shining through the gray background; the word of the Lord will be spoken and it will be heard.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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