The Prophet's Calling

John 1:43-51I Samuel 3:1-10

It’s a bit unusual for a Presbyterian pastor to bring an icon into worship. After all, ours is an iconoclastic tradition. If you look around this sanctuary, its ornamentation is plain. The stained glass wouldn’t look out of place in a mosque or synagogue. And this is very much in keeping with our Presbyterian heritage. The Reformers, among them John Calvin, were known for removing the statues of saints and paintings of Biblical scenes from the churches of Europe. There were two reasons for this: the first was the Old Testament prohibition on making “graven images.” However, church history seems to undercut this argument – ecumenical councils prior to the Reformation, on several occasions, had been convened regarding the question of icons, and each of them had held it up as a valid practice. The ancient church believed that, in the incarnation, God had blessed the material. Therefore, faithful Christians should use the material to bless God. The second reason the Reformers put forth for bare bones ornamentation carried a bit more weight, however. The items themselves – the paintings, the statues, the relics of saints – had begun to carry power in and of themselves. People prayed to them, touched them to gain healing. And for the Reformers, an important line had been crossed. The icon had become an idol.

An idol is something that is worshiped as though it were God itself. We remember the golden calf that Aaron forged for the Israelites while they waited for Moses and the stone tablets at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Idols have taken many forms through the years: nationalism, racism, sexism, even religious triumphalism. When we deem an object, a person, even an ideology more important than (or even confused with) God, then we become idolaters. From the shadows of Mt. Sinai to the cities of South Africa, idolatry has plagued otherwise well-meaning people of faith through the centuries.

Icons, however, are something quite different. They are not objects of worship, but rather point to something beyond themselves. There is value in their beauty, but at best they are objects worthy of respect. Their true beauty lies in their mystery, their ability to shape the life of faithful contemplation. Icons are temporary. They have flaws and imperfections. They can be destroyed. But if they are treated as “windows to God,” as they are sometimes referred, then they give glory to the everlasting, perfect creator. In the end, there is a fine line between an icon and an idol, and there was wisdom in the Reformers’ insistence on radical simplicity as a way to focus the attention of the church back to its source and its Lord. But as we look closely at the two, as we distinguish between icon and idol, we learn something about those whose stories we read in Scripture.

Our Old Testament lesson introduces us to Samuel. His mother Hannah had brought him to serve Eli, the priest, in gratitude for answered prayer. One of his tasks, our story lets us know, is to spend the night in the temple in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. It is during one of these nights that he hears this voice, calling him by name: “Samuel! Samuel!” And the young Samuel, like Abraham and Moses before him, and like Isaiah after him, answers: “Here I am.” But there’s something different here. Unlike these other luminaries of the Hebrew Bible, Samuel doesn’t seem to understand that it is God’s voice that he hears. He awakes, there in the temple, right next to the Ark, and yet he doesn’t recognize the voice of the divine. Instead, he thinks that the old priest Eli is calling him, rousing him for some task. Not only does Samuel do this once, but three times! But Eli, bless his heart, doesn’t seem to be much sharper than his young protégé. It takes the devout priest three times himself to understand what is happening, and then he coaches Samuel on the proper response: “OK, Samuel. I see what’s happening. This is God that is speaking to you. So go back and lie down. And if you hear the voice again, stay there! Don’t come here. Don’t wake me up. And here’s what you say: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ Got it? Are you sure? That’s a good boy. Now go back to bed.”

And even after all of that, Samuel still doesn’t fully get it! The voice does come again, and Samuel responds: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Eli paints this vivid picture for him, tells him that God is speaking, and yet Samuel – perhaps from fright, maybe from exhaustion – forgets to address the deity at hand.

And yet, God sticks with this bumbling little priest in training. Samuel does great things. He is the prophet who speaks on behalf of the Lord for many years. He is the one who anoints both Saul and David as king over Israel. And through it all, he keeps messing up. Here and there, moments arise where poor, thick Samuel displays the same obtuseness. He doesn’t ever fully get it. Samuel, at his best, is an icon, pointing the way to faithfulness. No one would ever make the mistake of forging him into an idol, an object of adoration.

And Samuel is not alone in Scripture. The prophet Nathan tells David to build the Temple, but does so ignoring the first rule of being a prophet: ask God first. Peter, the rock on whom Christ builds the church, is the same one who denies him shortly thereafter.

As we talk of these great Scriptural figures of faith, I can’t help but be reminded today of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His every spoken word seemed as rich as honey. His every thought seemed rooted in the hopeful vision of what the world could be: a beloved community where lion and lamb lie down together. The legacy he left behind was wondrous, for this city, and for the world. And yet, he was a deeply flawed man: in recent years, his philandering has become well known; his place at the center of the civil rights movement inflated his ego at times. But through it all, Dr. King followed the calling of a prophet. He spoke a word of faithful challenge to places of overwhelming power. He painted a picture of what humanity could and should overcome. And he did so at his own ultimate peril.

When we speak of our notable figures of faith, of Kings and prophets, we tend to lionize them. We make them larger than life, flawless, impeccable heroes worthy of our finest eulogies. But even at their best, they do no more than reflect the glory of God’s hopeful, challenging vision of the community of faith. At their best, they are icons, windows to God, where the light of shining grace reflects to illuminate places of deep and distressing darkness. They all are imperfect vessels through which we might just be able to hear the voice of God calling us, naming us, drawing us out.

We should stand in immeasurable awe of those who have gone before and risked it all for the sake of the cross. And we should not desire to compare ourselves to great prophets like Samuel or Martin, or disciples like Philip or Nathanael, those Christ called in our gospel text. And yet, we should be aware of our calling. Allow me to use myself as an example. As your preacher, I bring you what I hope is a faithful understanding of the Scripture from this pulpit. As your teaching elder, I share what I hope to be faithful thoughts at committee and Session meetings and Bible studies. And as your pastor, I join you in what I know to be powerfully moving moments of deep pain and wondrous joy as we pray together. But I do so as broken and imperfect and flawed as each one of you. Each of us has a role to play in this calling of the prophet. But none of us here is a savior. As pastors, elders, members, friends, visitors, spouses, parents, children, we cannot look to ourselves, or even our church, for redemption. That belongs to Christ alone.

Instead, I believe that we can see ourselves, as a community, in the figures of Samuel and Nathanael and Martin and Philip. God has called us together. In this place, in this time, our paths merge. We join in common discernment, listening, challenge, growth, and faithfulness. And in our life together, our hope is that we, like Philip and Nathanael, will be able to recognize the presence of God in our midst. My hope for each one of us and for us as a Church is that we would be icons, created in the image of God, but flawed and destructible, reflecting the miraculous grace of God. And doing so, we will have the faith to say to others: “Come and see what God is doing.”

sermonsMarthame Sanders