Called into Openness
I just need to get this out of the way first – that gospel story is a terrifying! As a parent whose child has gone missing in a distant city (very briefly – thanks be to God!), my heart starts beating out of my chest just imagining what those three days were like for Mary and Joseph.
So, two things:
Kids – that whole not being where your parents think you are thing – DON’T EVER DO THAT! You cannot possibly comprehend how traumatizing it is. So, just don’t, OK? Cool.
For any of you who share my instinctive panic – let’s just breathe. I truly understand that it is hard to look for a deeper spiritual lesson in this text, when we are fighting off a sympathetic panic attack, but we can do hard things. So let’s try to set aside the anxiety and listen for the gospel.
By the way, listening for the gospel means not only believing that there is “gospel” – good news – in our scripture readings, but also believing that this good news is RELEVANT in our lives… that it calls on us in some way that really matters.
And today’s stories - of the young boy Samuel and the 12-year-old Jesus might present a challenge to that belief, because… what do they have to do with us? None of us are children who were dedicated to service in the temple at a young age; and I’m assuming that none of us have heard the audible voice of God calling to wake us from sleep and commission us to become prophets. Neither are any of us the Son of God incarnate, amazing the teachers in the Temple because of our understanding and our answers.
Samuel and Jesus were special. They were set-apart. They were called to be leaders of God’s people…. What do the stories of Samuel’s call or Jesus’ growth in wisdom have to do with us and our ordinary lives?
I think that they are a reminder that our lives are ANYTHING BUT ORDINARY, because ALL of us are called. And ALL of us can grow in wisdom.
In terms of our calling, Biblical scholar Rev. Beth Tanner addresses this truth in her commentary on the story of Samuel, even as she acknowledges how foreign Samuel’s back-story is to our cultural framework. It’s just not a thing, in our day and age, to promise our first born to serve in God’s church, and to then drop them off with the pastor as soon as they are weaned, so that they can grow up as servants in the Lord’s house. But we DO have a deeply foundational understanding of both dedicating and calling in the initiating rite of our faith:
Professor Tanner makes the point that, “in baptism, we confirm God’s blessing and call on the life of a child. We affirm, just as Hannah (Samuel’s mother) does, that our children do not belong to us, but are given to us by God.”
When we are baptized, each and every one of us is called to live as citizens of God’s kingdom. Baptism is the initiating point of our faith. It’s the realization of God’s promise – made accessible through word and water – that we are loved and that we are called to live our lives as ambassadors for God’s way of acting in the world.
Which means that we need to understand God’s way of acting in the world. That’s where the gospel story offers its relevance for our lives.
The final verse of today’s gospel reading tells us that Jesus “increased in wisdom.” This means that even Jesus - God on earth as a human being – wasn’t born ready-made. He learned. He grew.
Here at Abiding Peace we recognize growth as central to our mission. One of the core phrases from our mission statement is that this is a “place to grow in faith.” But what does that mean? What does it look like to grow in wisdom?
Luke-Acts scholar, Rev. Ron Allen, argues that “in the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, Jesus is the model for the apostles who are the leaders and models for the church,” and the modelling that we get in this unique story – the only one we have from Jesus’s childhood – is one of growing in wisdom and stature, which, as Professor Allen explains, “refers to the capacity to discern God’s realm purposes and to respond accordingly.”
We are all called. And that calling requires us to understand how God works in the world, so that we can live that way.
So,what do these two stories teach us that can help us to live out our calling and to grow in wisdom? I find three primary lessons in these two stories, but they can all be summarized with one word: Openness.
Samuel and Jesus were open to God. They didn’t think they already knew it all. They didn’t grasp onto the right to set their own agenda for their lives. They were open and ready to answer their calling, and that openness is what prepared them to do great things in obedience to God.
I see that openness taking shape for us in three specific characteristics. The first is Samuel’s readiness to serve.
Samuel is just a little boy, asleep in the middle of the night, when he hears a voice calling his name. And immediately he jumps up, and runs to Eli. “Here I am!” He doesn’t know what is needed, but he comes without question. Even when it’s not convenient to his schedule, he’s ready to serve.
It’s the most beautiful picture of faith that I can imagine: a sleepy-eyed child who responds to a calling voice with perfect willingness and trust: “Here I am, for you called me!”
The second characteristic of openness is the willingness to listen. Both Samuel and Jesus started to live into their calling by listening.
For Samuel, this comes with the response that Eli teaches him: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Samuel’s task is to deliver a message, and that means that he has to listen. He has to listen to hard words, as it turns out. We did not read this part of the story this morning, but once Samuel tells God he is listening, God tells him to deliver a condemnation of Eli’s son’s that Samuel would far rather not pass along. But he is able to hear it because he is listening. Because he has recognized that his job is not to speak his own words, but rather the words God is giving him.
For Jesus, even though he has astounding understanding already at the age of twelve, he also starts by listening. He seeks out the wisdom of the teachers, listening to them and actively asking them questions. He doesn’t assume he already knows it all. He starts by listening.
Finally, the gospel story teaches us that openness means defining ourselves according to our relationship with God, and nothing else.
This goes against the grain in a lot of ways. I’ve already revealed my personal sympathy for Mary’s rebuke when she confronts Jesus with her priority claim on him: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
But Jesus’s response is a claim of an even more fundamental identity and loyalty than that of being Mary’s child. Even family does not have a priority claim on him compared to his calling to be about the work that God has set for him.
Total, trusting openness. Readiness to serve. Willingness to listen and learn. Openness to defining our core identity and purpose through our relationship to God. Openness asks a lot from us! It’s far easier to be “ordinary.” We usually assume that ordinary means we get to live our own lives according to our own wishes. But we are all called to be active participants in God’s work in the world. We are called to be open. THIS is our gospel. This is our good news.
And if that news sounds a bit overwhelming, our youth picked a song for our Hymn of the Day that I hope will encourage us. We will be singing “On Eagle’s Wings,” as a reminder that we are not called to do any of this in our own strength.
The stories of the young boy Samuel, and even of the twelve-year-old Jesus, are reminders that God doesn’t call us because we are already prepared, or because God thinks we already have everything we need to do the work of bringing God’s will to earth.
Rather, God calls us to be open, and then God raises us up on eagle’s wings… and holds us all in the palm of God’s hand. Thanks be to God.
Beth Tanner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=224
 Ron Allen, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2708.