Sermon 31st December 2023

Texts: 1 Samuel 3: 1-10,  John 1: 43-end

What is the one thing that we are given after our birth that costs nothing and yet is absolutely essential for all of us to have? The answer of course is our name; the name that for most of us we will be called throughout our lifetime. The name that is uniquely ours albeit others may share the same name. When I am in the neonatal unit our babes usually are given a name straight away but occasionally parents like to spend longer mulling over the various alternatives until they are quite sure they have chosen the one that they believe to be just right for their precious newborn. Once sadly we had a baby waiting to be fostered whose mother had not given him a name but as soon as a foster family was found their youngest son immediately hit on the perfect name for this little scrap of humanity. A name that now dignified him and by acquiring this name, this title in a sense made him an integral but always individual part of God’s family. 

When as can tragically happen I am asked to do a baby blessing for a baby who did not survive I always use these words from Isaiah ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.’ to help remind the grieving parents that God knows their child by name and that child will for ever be in his care just as we all are. And of course the sacrament of baptism confirms for us this  all but incomprehensible truly intimate  relationship between God and  us mortals;  mortals whom he has chosen to be his adopted  and named children

And in the Bible we find many examples of God decreeing what someone’s name should be.  Abram who became Abraham, Jacob who having wrestled with God was told that from then on his name would be Israel, The son of Zechariah and Elizabeth knew their son must be called not by his Father’s name but have the name John which means in Hebrew ‘Yahweh has been gracious’. And of course, it was the angel who informed Joseph that his son must be called Jesus which again in Hebrew means ‘Yahweh saves’ or ‘Yahweh is Salvation’.

In our Bible readings today we hear of two people being called by their names in order that they might serve God. Samuel (In Hebrew meaning ‘name of God’) that young boy who heard his name being called and being completely unfamiliar with God’s voice assumed it was Eli who was calling him. And it needed Eli’s wisdom to realise that his young charge was being called by no less a person than God himself. And with this understanding when Samuel was called for a fourth time he could respond: ‘Speak for your servant is listening.’ And in our gospel story it is Philip who is God’s instrument and calls Nathanael ( In Hebrew ‘God has given’) to come and meet Jesus, the man foretold by both Moses and the prophets. And Philip’s response to this call is decidedly sceptical ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ but nonetheless he continued to follow Philip if only out of curiosity and hence to discover that here indeed was The Son of God, The King of Israel.

And, in both instances, I came to realise that in being called by God as surely we all are we often need a third person to help us in recognising that fact. Samuel needed Eli’s wisdom to instruct him as to exactly who was calling him, and Nathanael needed in the first instance a call by Philip before he could hear the words of God’s Son spoken to him directly and respond to them. And in both instances the given names were crucial to the story. They were called as unique individuals not just as some nameless person randomly picked out from the crowd. In God’s eyes none of us can remain anonymous.

So, have you been called by God? The answer may well be ‘No’ in that most of us, myself included haven’t as it were had a direct line to God but that said I am convinced that one way or another we have been called and that call may very well have come via a third person. Either someone who has interpreted our sense of being called as coming from God or who has called us in order that we might be led into the reality of God’s presence Maybe as you return home you might like to reflect on this idea that there have always been people in your life who have helped you in some way to come to know and understand God’s purposes, God’s call for you. A call he will continue to repeat as he did with Samuel until we are finally able to understand who is calling us and to respond: ‘Speak for your servant is listening.’

And here I think it is really important to stress that because we are all uniquely gifted God’s call to serve him will reflect that. God would simply not know what to do if we were all called to ordained ministry and in fact the mind boggles at the very idea. No, we are all called in different ways as St Paul recognised when he wrote, ‘The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers to equip the saints for building up the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.’ (Ephesians 4: 11-13). And I would like to rewrite this as ‘The gifts he gave were that some would be welcomers, some would be listeners,  some would be readers and  prayers, some would be flower arrangers, launderers  and cleaners, some would provide refreshments,  some would keep the books and some would simply be present with a generous, heart- warming  smile and a kind  and thoughtful word and all these work together to bring the Light of Christ’s love to the world.

‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ Those are the words that we surely need to remind ourselves of every day and always be prepared to have God call us by that name to act in his service. That call can come in an infinite number of ways and again just think of some of the Bible stories of people being called by God to recognise that God has many ways of making that call to us and often it will by indirect but nonetheless completely valid intermediaries.  The beautiful words of the hymn express so well what it is God is calling us to do for him. ‘Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown , will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you, and you in me? And again, it must be stressed that we are called by our own unique name and thus we are called to respond each in our own individual way: ‘Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you, and never be the same. In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show. Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you, and you in me.’

A Last Beatitude by Malcolm Guite The blessed are the ones we overlook; The faithful servers on the coffee rota, The ones who hold no candle, bell or book But keep the books and tally up the quota, The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’, The quiet ones who organise the fete, Church sitters who give up their weekday hours, Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate. God knows the depths that often go unspoken Amongst the shy, the quiet and the kind, Of the slow healing of a heart long broken Placing each flower so, for a year’s mind. Invisible on earth, without a voice, In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

Rev’d Virginia Smith / 13th January 2024

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