Thursday, January 11, 2018

January 14, Second after Epiphany, Prophecy #2: "Follow Me, Here I Am"

1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

From our First Reading, I am going to explain how the prophecy of little Samuel develops.

The prophecy begins as recitation. Samuel recites verbatim what the Lord God had told him.

But this objective recitation gets framed within little Samuel’s subjective experience, his childlike mind and innocent thoughts and natural fear of what he’s been told. His experience of the prophecy becomes part of the prophecy. 

And so does the hearing of the recitation by old priest Eli. The prophecy has become three-dimensional: the prophecy includes the objective recitation, plus the subjective experience of reciting it, plus the other subjective experience of hearing and receiving it.

And then it gets four-dimensional, when it extends through time, when the story is passed down and then written down in a book, so that it can be read out loud. The book itself is a prophecy. You know the First Book of Samuel is listed as an historical book in Christian Bibles, but in the Hebrew Bible it is counted among the Prophets. The story of the prophecy becomes the prophecy.

So when we read the story out in church, the prophecy gets prophesied all over again, and again in three-dimensions: the lector reading it out, which recapitulates the original objective recitation, then the experience of the lector and the preacher, which recapitulates Samuel, and then the listening of the congregation recapitulates old Eli and his “let it be.”

And the prophecy keeps moving forward into the fourth dimension of time, to open up space in the world, space in our lives, and in that space to welcome our questions and answers and our hopes and fears, inviting our faith, and in that space to call us into a community of mutual speaking and listening, generating our testimony and witness for us to share in shaping the world, so that we might share in creating the new creation.

I said last week that Biblical prophecy is typically conversational; not exclusively, but typically. Some prophets were loners, but Jesus gathered a fellowship, a community. Jesus says, “Follow me.” Follow me into my words, follow me into my life and conversation. And the Gospel reports this marvelous three-way conversation zipping around between Jesus, Philip, and Nathanael.

It’s electric and it moves fast, from the “follow me” to a “eureka-we have found him,” to a sarcastic put-down, to a second invitation, to a double-entendre compliment, to a defensive question, to a surprising answer, to an ecstatic profusion of titles, to a penetrating rhetorical question, to the climactic prophetic prediction. In the beginning was the talk, and the talk was made flesh and dwelt among us. We can detect an image of the Holy Trinity in this three-personned prophecy. The conversational prophecy began with Philip confessing his name, and it ended with Our Lord’s climactic prediction.

I said last week that Biblical prophecy is more typically speaking than seeing. But not exclusively. And when it is seeing, it is rarely seeing the future and usually seeing the hidden reality of now, seeing beyond the veil of human limitation, seeing the present world as heaven sees it. Here Jesus calls it “seeing greater things.” 

And the vision that he predicts is strange. He adapts the Old Testament vision of Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob’s staircase, stretching from earth to heaven with angels moving up and down, and he makes himself the escalator! Shall we picture a giant, stretched-out Jesus, toes in the earth and finger-tips in heaven? Or the other way around, toes in heaven and fingers in the earth, so that we can see his face? Where is Jesus when he says, like little Samuel, “Here I am”? Is he in heaven as the Son of Man, representing us and pleading for us and judging us, or is he here with us, the Son of God in whom the whole of God is pleased to dwell? Or both? How to interpret this strange vision? Does the prophet always understand what she can see?

Prophecy tells more than we can understand in order to challenge our understanding and to nourish it. Prophets often don’t comprehend the greater implications of their prophecies. When Nathanael confessed Jesus as “the Son of God and the King of Israel” he meant those titles as equivalents, and at one level they were, so he was right, yet he did not comprehend the greater implications of those titles.

I know that I often have to speak to you of things I do not fully understand. And yet I always appeal to your understanding. So let me invite you to speak of things you do not fully understand. Not from willful ignorance, but because you want to be as open to what’s beyond you as was Samuel, you want to be as quickened by it as Philip and Nathanael were, and you want to enjoy it.

But prophecy can be trouble. It can tingle your ears. Little Samuel could sense the trouble in it. With touching economy the narrative reports him sleepless after the message, and then he goes about his chores as if nothing had happened to avoid Eli.

In coming weeks we will read other troubling prophecies. Biblical prophecy can sound hurtful or vengeful, but even then its purpose is to clear away and open up. It makes space in the world, space within the clutter of humankind’s initiatives, space within the rubble of human self-aggrandizement, and space within the garbage of human pride. Space in your own life, space within your fears and commitments and assumptions.

And into this space that prophecy makes, Jesus says, “Follow me.” He invites you to follow him into the great conversation that both judges the world and renews the world. He calls you both backward and forward. You follow him into these old books and stories, these poems and histories, these ancient narratives, and then as you talk about them with other listeners God speaks to you.

Somebody asked me how come God doesn’t speak to us anymore like in the ancient days. God is still speaking, but in a different way, by means of the four-dimensional Biblical conversation that you can be part of. It will be the Lord, though you can never neatly distinguish God’s voice from your own subjective experience or from the back-and-forth of dialogue, but by the Holy Spirit it will be the Lord. That’s the way that the Lord Jesus has set it up with his companions.

And you also follow him into the present and the future, as his conversation moves forward in time, and as you put it into practice, on your own and in community. Not just ethical practice, but prophetic practice, bearing witness to the truth amidst the prevalent confusion, and by your lifestyle you testify against the news which is not fake but has no hope.

One of you told me this week that it’s precisely in times that we are living that prophecy is relevant and necessary. Right within the sad and crazy world the dynamic conversation is gradually, and with humility, creating a new heaven and new earth. “Let this be, let that be, it is the Lord.”

Jesus says, “Follow me,” and what do these lessons tell you to say? Like little Samuel, you can say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Because you have to do a lot of listening to share in prophecy. Listening like Eli too. More listening than talking. I love the picture of little Samuel being open to God by being present to himself. Being patient in the silence for the still, small voice of God.

And you can also say something more basic, what little Samuel said to begin with, “Here I am.” Three times he said it, “Here I am,” which in Hebrew is Hineini. I have spoken to you of this before. It’s what Abraham said to God at the sacrifice of Isaac. “Here am I, here I am.” It’s what the Virgin Mary said to the archangel. It’s what Adam failed to say when he hid himself from God.

You have to choose to say it, “Here I am,” because there is so much to push you off, and even the Word of God pushes you off at least a little bit. Why does the Bible say that? What does this passage mean? And do I have to join another conversation, do I have to enter another community? Can’t I just hear God’s voice on my own?

I am not saying you can’t ever. But the deep purpose of the conversational prophecy is that it requires love and it’s a practice of love. You don’t just listen for God, you listen for each other. You don’t begin with, “Let me tell you,” you begin with, “Here I am.” The love that little Samuel had for old Eli is important to the story. “Here I am, I present myself, I am present to you, I offer myself to you.”

Our great example is the three persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally present to each other in their original and loving conversation. Even prophecy comes down to love. In love Jesus calls you, “Follow me,” and you practice love when you answer, “Here I am.”

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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