1 Samuel 3:1-10
The search for identity and purpose is all around us.
You only have to look at the situation in Italy, as those with vastly different visions of what it means to be Italian compete to run the country.
You only have to look at the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, temporarily without a visa to enter the UK, who now seems to be becoming an Israeli citizen. Is he Russian, or British, or Israeli? What is his identity?
You only have to look at Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories themselves. What do the actions of Israelis and Palestinians say about their identity?
You only have to look around us in the UK. The EU referendum has revealed a massive division in British society between at least two vastly different visions of what it means to be British.
All around us there are questions of identity and purpose, and our Bible readings today all have something to say about identity and purpose.
Samuel got off to a strange start. I have gave concerns about a small child being transported from their home and family, where they are loved, yet the hand of God is there in all of this. In this famous encounter, just as the darkness of night began to give way to dawn, God gently spoke to the child, and life for Samuel would never be the same. Samuel’s identity and purpose were secure. He would by this time have been in his early adolescence and would go on to serve as Israel’s last Judge, its first Prophet, and its king-maker.
From the time he was weaned until now, the child Samuel, dedicated to God by his parents, had lived with the priest Eli, helping with Temple duties. He had witnessed and shared in the routines and rituals of Temple worship and no doubt had witnessed the excesses of Eli’s sinful sons. In our reading, Samuel was charged with bringing a message from God to the elderly, frail, and compromised Eli. The message was direct and severe. Samuel shrank from breaking such bad news to the mentor whom he clearly respected but, prompted by Eli himself, he delivered it word for word. It seemed to come as no surprise to Eli. Samuel gradually found his identity and purpose, and grew into it.
Moving from the boy Samuel’s developing awareness of God’s purposes for him, we hear the psalmist’s mature and assured witness to God’s enduring presence, a testimony to God’s enduring presence and protection, from conception onwards, gave the psalmist their identity and hope. The psalmist is clearly not fazed by God, regarding God as a friend on whom he can utterly depend. If you’ve ever seen an ultrasound image of a baby growing in a womb, you’ll realise quite how astonishing it is for us humans to see that, and then we have to get our heads around the psalmist reminding us that God knows us even better than that. Wow! The psalmist wrote of us being “fearfully and wonderfully made”, and he couldn’t have known that centuries later one organ alone, the human brain, would be described as “the greatest, the most awesome phenomenon in the universe”. The psalmist is rejoicing in the way that his body has been fashioned and formed, and this leads him to find his identity, his security, and his purpose in the God, God who searches him, and us, for a response of loving trust. This is a psalm of someone searching for their identity and finding it in God.
And then we hear from Paul, writing to the new Christians in Galatia. This passage happened to crop up in the URC Daily Devotions this week, which I commend to you if you’d like a short email every day to start your day with God. I think that what we read in this passage is Paul being a bit confused about how his old Jewish faith and his new Christian faith relate to each other. Discovering grace, God loving us without measure, as a Christian must have led Paul to think that the law was now irrelevant. Yet, we read that Jesus came to fulfil the law, not to abolish it. Paul might have been a bit muddled up in this passage, but when you read the whole of his writings, it’s very clear indeed that he found his identity and purpose in Christ.
We live in a world crying out for identity and purpose, but many of us are also crying for identity and purpose in our own lives. Perhaps you remember a couple of years ago when the Archbishop of Canterbury discovered that his biological father was not the man that he had thought it was. He had this to say about that:
“In the last month I have discovered that my biological father is not Gavin Welby but, in fact, the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne. This comes as a complete surprise. My mother (Jane Williams) and father (Gavin Welby) were both alcoholics. My mother has been in recovery since 1968, and has not touched alcohol for over 48 years. I am enormously proud of her. My father (Gavin Welby) died as a result of the alcohol and smoking in 1977 when I was 21…My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one’s father is other than imagined is not unusual. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal…This revelation has, of course, been a surprise, but in my life and in our marriage Caroline and I have had far worse. I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes…At the very outset of my inauguration service three years ago, Evangeline Kanagasooriam, a young member of the Canterbury Cathedral congregation, said: ‘We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?’ To which I responded: ‘I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.’ What has changed? Nothing!”
However the past might affect any of us, it is in Jesus that the child of God finds true identity.