Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Hearing God

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

We heard two stories this morning from the Scriptures. The common thread between them is that they are both stories of people hearing from God.

In John 1, we have a glimpse into the first week of Jesus’ public ministry, at which time he was beginning to call his disciples. After returning to Galilee from Judea, Jesus calls Philip, and then Philip goes to find Nathanael to bring him to Jesus.

Who is Nathanael? That’s a little bit of a mystery, since there is no Nathanael listed with the disciples anywhere other than in John’s Gospel. Well, there’s no way to be sure, but the best answer is that Nathanael is Bartholomew. Nathanael is not mentioned in the other Gospels, and Bartholomew is not mentioned in John. Also, Bartholomew is not really a name; it means “the son of Ptolemy.” So, perhaps Nathanael is his name, but many people knew him as “the son of Ptolemy.”

Philip says, “Hey, we found the guy that Moses and the prophets were talking about.” That is, “We found the Messiah. He is Jesus from Nazareth.”

Nathanael is not so sure. “Nazareth, really?” You see Nazareth was a new town. It had no Old Testament history. And there was nothing in prophecy about the Messiah coming from Nazareth. Of course, we know Jesus was originally from Bethlehem, the City of David, but Nathanael probably didn’t know that.

And there were some other reasons Nathanael wasn’t so sure about Nazareth. Nazareth was just a little town, certainly less than 2000 people. And there were some negative associations with it. There was a Roman garrison stationed in Nazareth. And it was just a couple miles from Sephoris, which was a major Greek city. Many Nazarenes worked in Sephoris or did business there. These kinds of associations with Gentiles were not smiled upon by most Jews.

There may also have been something of a “local rivalry.” Nathanael was apparently from Cana, just four miles from Nazareth. And we have this tendency to think bad things about “the next town.” I’ve seen that every place I’ve lived in Pennsylvania. Maybe it helps us to feel better about ourselves if we say, “Well, at least I don’t live in _______________.”

“Just come see for yourself.” Nathanael does, and Jesus says of him, “Here is an honest man, a true son of Israel.”

“How do you know anything about me?” And Jesus says, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree.” The fig tree was often used as a symbol of peace and security. For example, the prophet Micah foretold of a time when, “Everyone will live in peace and prosperity, enjoying their own grapevines and fig trees, for there will be nothing to fear.” But more than that, sitting under the fig tree was also used as a metaphor for someone who was reading and meditating on God’s word. Sitting under a tree was a nice place to read. It was also where rabbis would often teach their disciples. So Nathanael is in a good place to hear from God.

“You are the Son of God,” he exclaims.

And Jesus goes on, “You will see greater things. You will see heaven open and angels ascending and descending.” This is a reference to Jacob, whom God renamed Israel, and his dream of the stairs into heaven. God is about to reveal something big.

The second story is from 1 Samuel.

“In those days, messages from God were rare.” I wonder if that’s because God was not speaking or because people were not listening. No way to know.

Eli was the high priest at the time, but he is old and infirm. “He could barely see.” And I think that was more a commentary on his spiritual condition than his physical condition. Eli is failing the nation. There is a crisis of leadership in Israel. Eli is not doing his job, and his sons are corrupt. They are using their positions in the Temple for personal enrichment and to take advantage of the young women who serve there. That sounds kind of familiar in our current political climate. But, then again, as Solomon said, “Nothing new under the sun.”

“The lamp of God had not yet gone out.” Now this might refer to the menorah, the lamp in the Temple that was supposed to remain lit at all times as a reminder of God’s presence. If so, then this means that the priests have become lax in their duties. It could also mean that there was still hope for the nation. “The lamp of God” was sometimes used to refer to hope. God is still with them, even if people are not listening to God or seeking him.

Samuel is sleeping in the Tabernacle. Now there was an idea in ancient Near Eastern culture called “incubation.” Incubation was the practice of sleeping in the

temple of a god in the hopes of experiencing a divine revelation. That might be in mind here, but Samuel is not actively seeking a revelation. He is simply doing his duty.

God speaks to him. God speaks to a child, not to the high priest. That might be a surprise, but given what we know of Eli and his failures, it shouldn’t be.

Samuel doesn’t recognize the voice of God. He has never heard from God. He needs guidance from someone who has heard from God. In this case, it’s Eli. But it kind of seems to me that Eli is, shall we say, out of practice, at hearing from God. Nonetheless, eventually, he tells Samuel what to do, and Samuel is able to hear from God.

I think all of us would like to have that kind of experience. I think we believe our faith would be strengthened if we were to hear from God. I also think it’s important to note that many people who have heard from God have also “wandered away” from God later. So it’s not really a solution to a “crisis of faith.”

How do we hear from God?

We might think first of an experience like Samuel, where God audibly speaks a message to us. I believe that still happens, but I also think it’s not especially common. I can only think of one time in my life where I “heard from God.”

I think there is also what I would describe as “the inner witness of the Spirit.” By that I mean that we just have this deep sense within us that we know God’s will. We just know what God wants us to do in a particular situation. And I can think of a handful of times in my life when I’ve had that experience.

And there are some other ways we can hear from God. We can hear from God through a dream or vision. A couple times in my life, I believe God spoke a message to me through a dream.

We can hear from God through another person; that would be a word of prophecy for us.

And we can hear from God through circumstances. God can “open a door” as we are fond of saying.

God can speak in all these ways, and probably others as well. But we always need to be careful that we are really hearing from God. It’s possible that we are just

hearing what we want to hear. How do we know if it’s God or if it’s just what we want to hear?

So when we think we are hearing from God, we need to test that out. Maybe that means that we share that message with other believers to get some kind of confirmation on it. Samuel may not have known what he was doing when he went to Eli, but in the end, he was doing the right thing. He needed help to know that he was hearing from God.

The best way to know if we are hearing from God is to go to the Scriptures. Whatever message we think we are hearing from God; whether through the inner witness of the Spirit, or a dream, or circumstances; it is never going to be contrary to Scripture.

Scripture is always the best way to hear from God. There is no substitute for it. Nathanael was already in the right place to hear from God when he was meditating on God’s word “under the fig tree.” We simply have to spend time in the Scriptures if we want to know God’s will.

In the Wesleyan tradition, we have what is often called the “Quadrilateral.” The Wesley Quadrilateral reminds us that the primary way we hear from God is through the Scriptures. And then our reading of Scripture is informed by tradition; that is through the experiences and reflection of the entire community of faith. And finally, it is further illuminated through our own experiences and reflection. But it’s important to keep those things in proper perspective. We know God first from Scripture, then from the tradition of the whole faith community, and then through our own experience and reflection. If we go first to our own wisdom and experience, then we are likely to be wrong.

I hope that you have already been committed to reading God’s word and praying to him regularly, preferably daily. If not, I hope that you made that a commitment in this new year. And I hope you’re sticking with it, if you did. If we want to know God’s will, there is no substitute for hearing from God’s word.

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