Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany Sunday 29 January 2012
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, 29 January 2012.
Readings: 1 Samuel 3.1-20; 1 Corinthians 14.12-20.
The Christian life is a consecrated life. The Christian is a life which God has blessed with the gift of freedom. To help us lead such a life we tell the stories our ancestors told and told again. This evening we listened to the story of the calling of Samuel. We pray the story as much as we read it. It becomes our story. The boy Samuel learns, in the end, to recognise the voice of God and to respond to that voice, and we can learn to do the same. Let me explain what we are getting into when we read about the calling of Samuel in its historical context. Nothing is random here. Everything has meaning. This is the classic narrative of the calling of a prophet, with the themes of God’s intervention, and a vision of sorts at a time, we are told, when such visions were rare. So the drama is set up for us, the contrast between the old priesthood, the House of Eli, on the way out, and the new boy, Samuel, on the way up, now consecrated by God as one of his prophets. In other words, the story explains a regime change.
Now let’s set the story free from its place in history. It’s about a boy asleep in the temple shrine and he wakes to hear the voice of God. This is the story of our life, from spiritual childhood to maturity. God calls us from our place of refuge, our customary place in the world, to his place of encounter, where all is new, untried, full of promise. God finds us where we are. In the imagery of the Bible, this is waking from sleep. In our lives, this could be turning away from our tightly controlled self-obsessed lives, to a new spaciousness, where there is room for another, for God. God’s voice is a human voice, so all people can hear it, but like Samuel we mistake who is speaking, and turn away from God, thinking it’s just our conscience, or some echo of other people’s views or our childhood beliefs, because then we can ignore the voice. But God does speak to us, and he calls us day by day to the consecrated life He wills for us. How do we know when to listen out for God? The calling of Samuel helps us. God’s voice always comes out of silence. There is silence and then there is the word, and the Word becomes flesh. Samuel was lying in the sanctuary of the Lord where the ark of God was, when the Lord called ‘Samuel, Samuel’. With silence comes inner stillness. With inner stillness, God’s voice is clear to us. Our words too must come out of silence. Then we can say, Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth. Thy servant will remain quiet, for a change. What is the New Testament equivalent of the calling of Samuel? I think it could be The Annunciation. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word. God’s silence joins to our silence, and that is where we meet Him. It takes time to get to that point. Eli, the old priest, understood. Maybe we can begin to see the signficance of silence in church. Silence before a service. Silence during a service. Silence after a service. This is not the suppression of idle chatter. Idle chatter just moves on somewhere else. The silence we know is an active silence and part of the liturgy, because it points beyond mere absence of sound to the presence of God. No need for elevated thoughts, indeed much better without. What must cease is not just the idle chatter without, but the ceaseless chatter within. Silence simplifies. In the silence of our hearts, in the emptiness and spaciousness we shall find there, God calls us by name, and we can then say, Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth. This is a central Christian experience, it is our consecration, our calling, we can be awake and united with Christ who fills our hearts. Here is the hope and joy of the Gospel. Here, in terms of the story of Samuel and Eli, is the new regime for us. “When anyone is united to Christ there is a new world; the old order has gone and a new order has already begun.” [2 Corinthians 5.17]
That vision of the consecrated life, renewed each day, can help us to continue what often seems an unrewarding search for God. It so happens that the perfect prayer for such a life follows this sermon in the hymn, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. How do we account for the popularity of this hymn? I don’t think it’s just the hymn tune and the poetry. It’s possibly because the hymn is a prayer, which begins where we are and ends where we yearn to be. It makes no doctrinal demands, it’s a heartfelt prayer for God to speak to me, and for me to have the courage to listen, “in simple trust”, like Samuel, like Mary, like those “beside the Syrian Sea”. The American author of the words of the hymn was John Greenleaf Whittier, in 1872, and what we have in the hymn was part of a longer poem called the Brewing of Soma, about hallucinating pagan priests who drink this soma juice to try to contact God, and all the people get intoxicated, but we don’t sing about that, we have only the verses about the authentic vision of the divine. Whittier was a Quaker, and his words draw us gently away into the silence of eternity, where God is to be heard. Maybe tonight the hymn can become a prayer, which begins and ends in the silence within. The five verses are a perfect description of a Christian prayer life, your prayer life and mine. We begin with forgiveness, the new start we have to make each day of our lives; we move to a new trust “without a word”, without complaint, question, reservations; we unite our prayer to that of Jesus; and we ask to know the beauty of God’s peace in our lives. And then, and only then, finally we know what God sounds like, in the last two lines of the hymn. Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still small voice of calm. The earthquake, the wind and the fire, are from the first Book of Kings, and they are the three places where God is not. God is not in the earthquakes, the winds and the fires, which break out in our thoughts, our addictions, our likes and dislikes, and our fantasies. And we are not those thoughts either. They are as nothing. God can, and will speak through them to you and to me by name, in a still small voice. We don’t have to do anything to make this happen. Jesus has already opened the way to the Father. All we are doing is being a little more open to the freedom which has been given to to us. And our reply to God is our consecration, in our answer we are blessed and we are forgiven and we are free. It is more than an answer we give, it is a joyful acceptance of a particular way of life, a prayerful life, ordered lives confessing the beauty of thy peace. Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth.