I Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51.
God calls servants who are known intimately—in their most secret selves.
After the various celebrations of secret good news—Christmas and Epiphany—are complete, the Lectionary readings return to “ordinary time” for a few weeks.
The readings from the Hebrew scriptures resume where they ended last year, taking us further in the selective reading of the historical books, the “former prophets.” The Epistle readings will take us through selections from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, while the Gospel selections will review the early events of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, mostly from the Gospel According to Mark though with occasional assistance from the Gospel According to John.
I Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20).
The prophetic reading presents a time when vision and divine guidance were lacking in Israel. The reading shows God moving in a mysterious way to call someone to hear the divine word that had become rare.
The boy Samuel is a young servant in the temple establishment at Shiloh, where God’s throne, the Ark, currently resides. Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah to the temple staff there, returning to God the son whose birth was literally the answer to her prayer (I Samuel 1-2:21).
In the lay-out of the Shiloh sanctuary, the head priest Eli lives in his own quarters, while Samuel is a night guard in the holy place itself. During the night God calls Samuel’s name. We understand that Samuel is lying not far from the Ark, from which God’s voice would come. Three times Samuel runs to Eli asking what he wants, and the head priest finally catches on that the kid is being whispered to by God. He tells Samuel how to respond, and we are told that Samuel follows instructions.
When he hears his name called in the dark of the sanctuary, he knows that he is being addressed by God’s very self!
While Samuel is God’s man for the future—prophet, judge, and king-maker—Eli represents the old corrupt establishment. However, he retains enough savvy (and integrity) to discern the signs of a new divine initiative. In the rest of the chapter (optional reading) Eli forces Samuel to reveal the word of judgment on Eli’s house—and the old priest accepts it as God’s will. Samuel, appropriately, goes on to become renowned as a prophet in Israel (verse 20).
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18.
Our psalm reading is part of a profound meditation on one of the old stock features of the individual lament psalm.
A standard lament psalm presents reasons why God should rescue the speaker from the surrounding troubles. These reasons sometimes include that the speaker is really and truly innocent, and does not deserve punishment or condemnation by others.
However, there are times when an accused person has no human means of establishing to others one’s innocence. When human courts cannot decide, one can only appeal to God. Only God knows whether the speaker is truly innocent! Clever speakers can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time, but they cannot fool God. God knows the innermost truth about the speaker. Therefore, the speaker in a lament will appeal to God to “try my heart, visit me by night, …if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me” (Psalm 17:3, NRSV). No one truly knows me except God, and with God there is no concealment.
These are the premises of the lament psalms composed for the falsely accused righteous ones, laments that they may say and repeat through the night as they pass their test in God’s own presence.
Our psalm assumes this background, that God always knows the inner truth of the one being tested. It is a marvelous expansion on this theme, turning it into a powerfully moving meditation on God’s all-knowing presence.
The opening states the basic point: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me” (verse 1, NRSV). The poet then elaborates on God’s knowledge of all one’s actions and thoughts, whatever one has done, and concludes: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; / it is so high that I cannot attain it” (verses 2-6).
The second stanza of the psalm, verses 7-12, omitted from our reading, recognizes that being fully known in one’s inner being can be threatening! It can make one want to escape such knowledge. “…where can I flee from your presence?” (verse 7).
The third stanza, climaxing our reading, turns to that collection of mysteries that makes up one’s bodily life and the destiny of one’s days, so unknown to others, but well known to God, who made them all.
For it was you who formed my inward parts…
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret…
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed” (verses 13-16).
Personal conditions unknown even to oneself, and the eventual course of one’s life—these are easy knowledge to the Divine One.
And there is a final exclamation of awe at God’s knowledge: “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! / How vast is the sum of them!” (verse 17).
I Corinthians 6:12-20.
At first glance the Epistle reading does not seem to have much to do with our theme—the calling or the deep inner knowing of God’s servants. Instead, it is about the need to avoid sexual immorality on the part of the Corinthian Christians. But some links with our theme may turn up all the same.
This is as explicit a passage about sexual sins as we will find in the Lectionary. The Lectionary suggests that this is the moment in the three-year cycle for the Christian congregation to ponder this issue. The topic is especially appropriate given the apparent change now going on in American public discourse about unwanted sexual advances.
First, however, a word about language. The NRSV, following the tradition of the Authorized (King James) Version, speaks here of “fornication.” For example, “The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord” (verse 13). Few words sound more Biblical and old-fashioned than “fornication.” It tells your hearer that you want to talk about a current social reality but you are using archaic and antiquated terms.
The Greek word we are dealing with here is porneia, a noun that names the sin (“the body does not belong to porneia,” verse 13; “flee from porneia,” verse 18). There is also an agent noun, pornē, which refers to one who is a professional at this sin, translated “prostitute” (verses 15-16). And there is a verb, porneuein, meaning to engage in the sinful activity (latter part of verse 18). (One may recognize in this group the ancestry of the English term “porn-ography.”) Lexicographers are agreed that porneia includes adultery but is not confined to it. Adultery is porneia, but so are several other sexual sins that do not involve marriage.
How to get this porneia word group effectively into English is not easy, but translations that handle the language of this passage better than the NRSV are the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and the New International Version (NIV), both of which translate the sin as “sexual immorality.” Even better is the New Century Version (© Thomas Nelson, 1997), which translates porneia as “sexual sin.”
Our theme in this Sunday’s readings is God’s inner knowledge of those whom God calls. Of all things secret and hidden, sexual sins has to be near the top of the list. Such actions are likely to be hidden from all except God and at least one other guilty party. Sexual sin—sex outside a covenanted union—involves threats not only of exposure, scandal, and betrayal, but also of personal guilt and shame. The prayer that confesses that God knows all may be very important for the servant of God, innocent or otherwise. (This psalm is for the innocent, Psalm 51 for the repentant sinner.)
As Paul expands his treatment of this issue, he puts it in terms of the Christian’s physical body belonging to Christ. “He who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit” (verse 17, NIV). The Lord here is Christ, and Paul seems to mean that the spirit of Christ takes over one’s whole self in such a way that the body is preserved from corruption and is a fit temple for the Holy Spirit (verse 19). All the weight and threat (or relief) of the psalm’s “God knows everything” is contained in the apostle’s declaration: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (verses 19-20, NIV).
What we have then in this passage, perhaps, is a guide for the self-understanding of the servant of the Lord in reference to one particular domain of sinfulness. The called servant has been known by God and therefore has experienced the full weight of both sinfulness and forgiveness through the knowing Lord.
The Gospel reading relates the story of Jesus meeting the wry and crafty old Israelite Nathanael. Jesus has called Philip and Philip has gone and told Nathanael that they have found the Coming One spoken of in Moses and the prophets. He is Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael’s famous reply is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
However doubtful, he comes along. When he meets Jesus, what Jesus says reveals that he already knows Nathanael in his inmost character: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (verse 47, NRSV). When Nathanael asks how he knows him, Jesus says he saw him back when he was under the fig tree where Philip found him. This is apparently conclusive for Nathanael, and he confesses movingly who Jesus is: “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Nathanael apparently recognizes that he is known by his Lord, and that means he is called to confess and serve the Son of Man. Jesus’ confirming word further assures Nathanael that in future he will receive even greater revelations concerning this holy man: “I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (verse 51), like Jacob in the revelation at Bethel (Genesis 28:12).
As Jesus begins his mission, he knows truly and intimately those who will in time carry it on.