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God is with us everywhere

Commentary
In accord with the Epiphany season, all the lessons deal with the issue of where God is to be found, and the answer is that he is found unexpectedly in all realms of life (the lesson that Epiphany itself teaches, as we find him in the stars and in the pilgrimage of the wise men seeking him in the backwater town of Bethlehem).  

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
The first lesson is the story of God’s first revelation to Samuel, when still a boy. The account emerges in a book whose origin as a distinct work derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel as well as 1 and 2 Kings). It is probably the result of two or three sources: (1) early oral traditions; (2) editor-molded material into a connected history, implying a critique of the events by deeming Israel’s kingship problematic and utilizing stories of Samuel to make this critique; and (3) the Deuteronomistic editing of the previous strands (the result of sweeping religious reforms in Judah under King Josiah in the seventh century BC).

The story begins with the boy Samuel lying down in the temple in Shiloh (where apparently the ark of the covenant was then housed). At the same time his spiritual mentor Eli, the high priest and judge of Israel in the 11th century BC, was lying down in his room (vv. 1-2). It is noted that this was a time when the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread. During the night while Eli and all slept, the boy hears his name called, but three times incorrectly he responds thinking Eli is calling him (vv. 4-8).  Eli directs Samuel to remain lying down and if called again to respond to Yahweh. The lad complies when the Lord came to him again (vv. 9-10).

The lesson continues with Yahweh recounting to Samuel a warning he had already issued to Eli through an anonymous spokesman (in 27:36) that due to the blasphemy his sons had undertaken and his failure to restrain them, the sin could not be abrogated by sacrificial offerings (vv. 11-14). Samuel is reported to have laid there until morning, eventually telling Eli after assurances (vv. 15-18). It is reported that Yahweh was with Samuel as he grew, and all Israel knew him as a trustworthy prophet (vv. 19-20).

Many have noted the growth of the Nones (no religious affiliation) in the American population; according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey 21% of us have no religious affiliation -- the fastest-growing religious group in America. But a Gallup poll undertaken the same year revealed that 89% of Americans still believe in God. Why this disconnect in data? A 2016 Harris poll provides some clues. It seems that nearly half of the Nones raised in the church (49%) have left the church because they could not believe -- stating that science more than miracles explains the world. Sermons on this lesson could address these social dynamics. We need a version of Christianity that does not rely on miracles (in the way most Americans understand the term). The story told in this lesson makes clear that God does not reveal himself in the miraculous ways we would expect. Rather, we have a God who reveals himself in ordinary people and events -- in children and not in the powerful or those with status, not in visible miracles but in the internal voice we hear about taking up a task for God. This sermon can be an apology for Christian faith, a way of strengthening faith, for those struggling with the cultural currents that have given rise to the numeric growth of those leaving the Church. Our faith is not about visible, grand miracles! Especially noteworthy in the lesson is the reference to the fact that the Word of the Lord was rare in the time of Samuel and Eli (v. 1). And so it is today; this story of God’s continuing presence through ordinary means is still a timely word!

1 Corinthians 6:12-20
The second lesson is taken from one of Paul’s authentic letters, written from Ephesus prior to his epistle to the Romans to a church he had established (Acts 18:1-11). Relations had become strained with this Greek church, and the letter aims to address the doctrinal and ethical problems plaguing the church. This lesson addresses a controversy touched off by some Corinthians who were teaching that his views entailed that all things are lawful (v. 12), and so they could indulge in satisfying sexual desire, much like we satisfy desire by eating. Paul responds by noting that not all things are useful and that the body is not made for fornication (v. 13). We are members of Christ, he asserts, a temple of the Holy Spirit (vv. 17, 19). Some things like adultery, he adds, are not beneficial and we should not be dominated by such desires (vv. 12-13). The resurrection is said to raise the faithful, for we belong to the Lord (v. 14). Paul justifies these moves by noting that two become one flesh in sex, so that in sex with a prostitute we become who she is (v. 16). All the more reason to shun such behavior, as we are now temples of the Holy Spirit, are no longer our own (v. 19). Paul reminds the Corinthians that they have been bought with a price, now belong to Christ, and may glorify God (v. 20).

In an era like ours where freedom has come to be associated with permissiveness, we need this word. Studies of the millennial generation suggest that they have come to interpret freedom as pursuing what makes you happy, but that means no one can get in the way and you can’t get in the way of others, so ultimately you’re alone in your freedom (Jean Twenge, Generation Me, pp. 116, 5). It’s not much better for the aging boomers, as people are more alone than ever before (one in four households of all age groups are comprised of just one person).

This is a lesson whose insights about unbridled sexual desire can be a paradigm for understanding our present dilemmas. The pursuit of one’s immediate desires is an exercise of freedom, but it is not good for you. It does not matter if the prostitute is sex, drugs, the latest gadget, or some other pleasure -- we lose ourselves to these desires. We have lost ourselves, and that is why so many of us feel so isolated.

The text moves us to consider that we are most free in relationships, especially in the relationship with Christ that has been created. Help parishioners appreciate that our bodies belong to the Lord, that we are not alone! This can be accomplished by helping parishioners to appreciate that just as we are free in a good marriage or friendship (can really be ourselves), so faith understood as marriage to Jesus helps us recognize that in our freedom we belong to Christ, that we are now most ourselves and free when we are doing his thing. Freedom in Christ leads us to companionship and to a life of service and doing good (doing Jesus’ thing).

John 1:43-51
The gospel is the story of the call of two of Jesus’ disciples -- Philip and Nathanael, an account with no parallels in the other gospels. John’s gospel was the last of the four to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three gospels. The book has been identified with John the son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved. But it is likely that the book was written by a disciple of John. Hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-biblical church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, who claimed that the gospel is a “spiritual gospel,” presumably one based on eyewitness accounts of the author (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). Its main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God (20:31).

Philip and Nathanael recognize Jesus as the messiah (the one about whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote (vv. 43-45). Nathanael expresses surprise originally that the messiah could be from Bethlehem (backwater town that it was) (v. 46).  Jesus recognizes who Nathanael is prior to meeting him (having seen him under a nearby fig tree), and Nathanael is led to confess Jesus as Son of God and King of the Jews (vv. 47-49). Jesus’ comments about Nathanael being a Hebrew in whom there is no deceit is probably a reference to the fact that Israel (Jacob) gained his blessing through deceit (Genesis 27:35). After he confessed Jesus to be Son of God, Jesus is reported to have challenged Nathanael as to whether he believed only because of this prophecy of identification, for Jesus claims that there will be greater things to be seen in his ministry (vv. 49-50). The greater things to be seen are heaven opening, the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man (v. 51). In John’s gospel the Son of Man seems to represent the link between heaven and earth (3:13; 5:26-27; 6:62).

One option in this sermon is to help hearers appreciate that God’s presence is revealed in more than astonishing miracles, that he is present in ordinary things which from the perspective of faith then look like miracles. The poll data and points made in the comments above on the first lesson are relevant for such a sermon on this lesson. But in this lesson the text also demands that preachers help the flock to see that wherever God is present, even in ordinary things, that event is a miracle, even if it looks ordinary. A third sermon possibility on this lesson is to consider Jesus’ comments on the greater things to come -- that he is the Lord who has greater things in mind for us in the midst of our despair, confusion, or yearning like Nathanael originally felt.

All the lessons have something to say about God’s presence with us, that we are not alone. That presence -- a freeing, undeserved gift -- is truly miraculous!
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