Harrowing Of Hell
January 17, 2021

Forthtellers of the Gospel

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends:

How are you doing? Where do you land on a scale from one to five?  I know we were all looking forward to this New Year and the vaccine that it promised and promises us but so far, as a parishioner recently wrote me, this new year hasn’t necessarily shown itself to be much better than last year. And there is not one of us in this room that doesn’t know what she is talking about. She, like many of you, has to take care of her child and make sure her young person is attentive to all the online content that any teacher among us would tell you doesn’t really work well for many of our youth. And she has to attend to her job and try to block out the distractions that working from home can entail – especially when your spouse or your flatmate and/or your children and pets are all trying to do their own things in the same space. How many of us haven’t had to learn to creatively use our spaces in new ways? My home office has moved upstairs to my bedroom because my husband’s office necessitates the piano which only fits in the living room/dining room area. As he can no longer perform in live venues, he and his friends have collaborated using new software to record and mix his new compositions together and so a big fluffy coverlet adorns the old Steinway during recording to keep out extraneous sounds. And in the midst of this Alice, our chihuahua, sits on the steps leading upstairs to guard our perimeter from all the people and dogs who come by our window.  But we make it work and we mostly have fun with it!

But who could have ever imagined 2020 or 2021? Who could have ever foretold all that we have been through? The pandemic and the social situations we find ourselves in now are not the kinds of things we can go to the fortune teller to find out. Does anyone remember those Zoltar machines with the Hollywood version of a soothsayer – an early robotic man in a turban and a handlebar mustache who tells your fortune on a little card spit out by the machine? I can guarantee that Zoltar never had a card with “Covid 19” on it. Just as he didn’t have a card with 9/11 on it or even Y2K. And while some of us might remember these events well—they don’t really mean the same thing to a whole section of young people. There are folks turning 21 this January to whom the whole Y2K thing just isn’t a thing… They were born after the sturm und drang about computers crashing all over the world and the power grid failing and the promised apocalypse that someone—possibly something attributed to Nostradamus again– foretold. And there were babies born last year and this month who have never lived in a world without Covid 19. It turns out that foretelling the future isn’t easy and is rarely spot on. But that hasn’t stopped we human beings from trying to since the beginning of time. And we put a lot of energy into it too.  We all know that even a broken clock’s hands are right twice a day, but humanity wants to believe in something – even if it is in the wrong thing.

So, as we begin this new year of 2021, while we correctly feel like we are experiencing things and situations unlike any before, I want to remind us that this has always been so in our ever-changing world. New things, both good and bad, are ending and beginning every single moment of every single day. So, while our brains are meant to identify and recognize patterns– each moment is entirely and uniquely new. In today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, for example, the story of Eli and Samuel probably takes place in the 11th or beginning of the 10th century before the common era – what is referred to as the Iron Age. Back then the centuries went from higher to lower numbers. And Israel was very different then than it was in Jesus’ time or ours. First of all, the nation of Israel as such did not exist.

Under the rule of Joshua, the twelve tribes had entered the promised land of Canaan. But after reaching the land, each tribe was allotted an individual territory to settle. During this period of settlement, there was no central government of Israel and no predetermined pattern of leadership among the nomadic tribes. During times of crises, however, they had to take cooperative action against enemies. In the Iron Age, the superpowers that had dominated the area in the Bronze Age were busy with their own affairs, so they didn’t have a lot of time to get involved with the affairs of Syro-Palestine. Therefore, their influence in and control over the region was minimal which led to the need for and rise of a kind of home rule which had not been previously possible. What came to be initially was more like a confederacy of the twelve tribes than a nation. And judges, called by God, arose from amongst the tribes as the rulers of this ad hoc tribal confederacy.

During this time, Jerusalem was not yet the important city it would become in Jesus’ time or ours. Neither the first or second temple had been built, so there wasn’t a reason for pilgrims to make their way there. In fact, it was the city of Shiloh which served as the sacred center for all the tribes as it housed the Ark of the Covenant (the box holding the 10 commandments) which was under the care of the house of Eli. Today’s reading from First Samuel, however, heralds the beginning of a new age for Israel and a time of transition. The books of Samuel deal with a shift in leadership of and structure in Israel. In these books, we meet the last of the judges—Eli and Samuel—and the first two kings of Israel— Saul and David.

A new day was dawning for the Israelites even as the old was passing away. And it was a difficult time. We are told in today’s scripture reading that, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days and visions were not widespread.” Our passage symbolizes this difficult time of transition by presenting the waning natural vision of the old judge Eli, whose sons had corrupted and used to their advantage their priestly position, with the supernatural vision of young Samuel to whom God now speaks. And the words given to this young judge or prophet are not words of comfort. God has entrusted this young man, who has served Eli since he was a toddler, with the prophecy that the house of Eli would be destroyed.

Can you even imagine how difficult it must have been for Samuel to tell Eli, the one he served, this message? And how devastating it must have been for Eli to hear this? All that the Lord had entrusted in the house of Eli was to be no more. His family was to be decimated. While this not news to Eli, another prophet had already been sent by God to warn him of this before, it was still hard to hear. The prophecy was to come true—down to the very detail that while he, Eli, alone would not be cut off from God’s altar, he would be spared only “to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart.”

Now, as I mentioned before, we humans have always had fortunetellers or prophets. But the Hebrew prophets were different than those of other peoples in the ancient Near East. The prophets of the other religions of Canaan were about foretelling or predicting what was to come while the prophets of the Hebrew people were about “forthtelling” or proclaiming God’s word. So, while the God of Israel sometimes did, indeed, tell the people what is to come, it is not a prediction to show God’s power in knowing what will happen, how it will happen, and when it will happen as some kind of done deal – but rather to give them the opportunity to amend their ways and return to God. The prophets of Israel, as distinct as they were in personalities, all were entrusted with the same mission– to speak to and remind the children of Israel that they were chosen to witness to the love, mercy, and goodness of God. Let me say that again: The people of God were chosen to WITNESS to the love, mercy, and goodness of God.

Look, none of us really knows what will happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. Nostradamus began writing his almanacs during the plague. And with all that folks attribute to him and his work Les Prophéties, he couldn’t have known that he would lose his first wife and two children or, in fact, that he would work as an apothecary against the plague and meet his second wife with whom he would have six children. Putting our faith in those who prognosticate about what will happen when and where, no matter their position and advanced degree, is as misguided as thinking that Zoltar’s cards or tarot cards or Hallmark greeting cards can really foretell what is to come. But what we do know is that our God is good. We do know that we are the children of God and that we who believe in Jesus are heirs to God’s Kingdom right now. We do know that as Paul said to the believers in Rome, “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And as Paul later quotes from the prophet Hosea to these non-Jewish believers: “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God.”

In today’s gospel, Nathanael asks the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” His question comes from the fact that Nazareth in Jesus’ time was a one camel-town without much going on—a city where folks lived but not a place to which tourists travelled. It was not a city like Seattle, New York, or San Francisco, but rather like a city we drive by on the interstate and might pull off in to spend the night before we continue on our way. Who would have ever thought that the Messiah would come from Nazareth? Who would have ever predicted that this Messiah would come not just to the God’s chosen people but came to choose all people instead? After hearing Samuel’s prophecy, the old priest Eli says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” Philip answers Nathanael’s question about Jesus with the words, “Come and see.” And rightfully so.

Come and see means that we while we cannot tell the future, we can rest assured that Christ comes with us wherever we are and wherever we go. When Jesus meets Nathanael, he shares with him the difference between foreseeing or seeing, simply telling what has or will happen and forthseeing. Nathanael is awed that Jesus miraculously saw him sitting under the fig tree, but Jesus lets him know that he really ain’t seen nothing yet—and that he will see and do greater things than he can even imagine. We, too, have been asked to go forth in the power of the Spirit and forthtell–give witness to the love, mercy and goodness of God–and, guess what, we can have fun with it too! Who knows what blessings we will see this 2021?