Hearing and Telling, Discernment and Prophecy

Epiphany 2
January 14th, 2018
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

Last year I took an online course, offered through my alma mater, about the rise of fake news.

The course was a response to the preponderance of fabricated stories which affected the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and highlighted the way such fake news is created to take advantage of social media and subsequently becomes accepted as true.

I took many things away from the course, but probably the most powerful revelation, because it is also the most frightening, was the ease with which people share fake news with others.

Viral is the term used to describe such frenetic sharing, and the term’s relation to the spread of disease is equally applicable when it comes to fake news.

The truth is often more elusive, and much more difficult to pass on.

This has to do with a number of factors, ranging from people’s discomfort with and inability to interpret factual statements and numerical data, to a lack of visceral resonance with rationality (think head reaction vs. gut reaction), to an innate sense of wanting to be proved “right” in our assumptions about the world, regardless of whether or not there is any factual basis for those assumptions.

Fake news, or at least, what we might call “successful fake news,” bypasses the truth, which is usually complex and challenging, for a simplified appeal to the story we already want to tell.

Hearing real truth, amid the din of all the fake news offerings, is hard and requires a honed skill set possessed by precious few in our day.
The word we in the church use to describe such practiced and intentional hearing is “discernment,” and it is the primary way we seek to know the will of God.

Discernment is a way of listening for direction and guidance while filtering out the cacophony of voices and narratives that may be telling us what we want to hear, but are not telling us the truth.

In short, we human beings struggle to discern whether the guidance and direction that we are receiving spiritually is from God, or from other sources with less wholesome designs.

And when we wonder about who to trust, and what is real truth and what is fake news, it becomes especially hard to feel confident sharing the truth with others.

How do we both discern the truth and gain the confidence to pass it on?

That question is at the heart of both our Old Testament and Gospel readings today.

We get the wonderful story of the Call of Samuel, a tale filled with details that make up a good narrative, and hear in John about the call of Jesus’ first disciples.

In both cases, there’s a back story that plays an important role in us hearing these call stories well…in being able to discern how their truth might be applied to our own lives.

For the Gospel, that back story is the fact that John the Baptist’s prophetic word about Jesus being the Lamb of God is initially heard and believed by Andrew, without him having direct contact with Jesus.

Andrew has to sift through other prophetic pronouncements of the age and believe John’s testimony is true enough to act upon it, which he does by following when Jesus tells him to “Come and see.”

After Andrew’s discernment is confirmed as true, he shares the good news with Peter, so Peter can “come and see” for himself.

This dynamic: discernment, testing of the discernment, then passing the news on is how the gospel gets spread.

In this same way, after Jesus invites Philip to follow him, Philip invites Nathaniel to “Come and see” for himself, and Jesus then reveals to Nathaniel that what he is witnessing is part of a great arc of God’s truth that stretches from Jacob’s ladder all the way to the present age.

Samuel’s call is part of that great arc and models a similar “discernment dynamic.”

And just like in the Gospel, the back story is important for understanding.

The boy Samuel was a sort of child of prayer.

His mother Hannah prayed so fervently for his birth while in the Temple, that the priest Eli thought she was drunk.

And when she gave birth to Samuel, she made good on her vow to dedicate him to the Lord by giving him into Eli’s care.

She sings a song as she leaves Samuel with Eli, that became the model for Mary’s Magnificat. Here is a brief excerpt from that song:

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let no arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

You see, Eli’s sons, privileged members of the priestly caste, were taking advantage of the people, exacting undue offerings and threatening people from their position of power.

In a way, they were turning the received truth of God into fake news for their own benefit, which had the effect of dulling the people’s faith.

That is what the opening statement “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” is referring to…this difficulty in discerning truth in an age of scoundrels and institutionalized abuse.

Oh that such a time and age would have been relegated to the past, and we would not know it in our own!

Samuel’s struggles to trust that the voice he is hearing is God’s and not simply his adopted spiritual father Eli’s voice, parallels our own struggles to hear the voice of God in this world of fake news and alternative facts.

It takes Samuel three times, and assurance from a trusted adult, that what he is hearing is the truth.

And when the word of God actually comes, it is not necessarily what he wants to hear, nor something he wants to announce.

The Bible says he “was afraid to tell the vision to Eli” because he knew it was not a message that Eli would want to hear, and would hurt his mentor greatly.

But again, through encouragement and a certain amount of faith, Samuel ends up prophesying what the Lord told him about Eli’s scoundrel sons, Eli responds to the bad news faithfully, and Samuel’s role as a discerning prophet of the Lord grows from that day forward.

It is hard for me to not think of other such prophets who have struggled with both clarity of discernment and the strength to share the word of God with others.

Monday is Martin Luther King Day in the United States, and I know that the man and modern-day prophet struggled with the challenges of knowing God’s will and announcing it in his time.

Especially because as his prophetic word grew stronger, so grew the opposition to the changes it required.

And there are a host of us, not so widely known but no less faithful, who struggle yet to discern the true voice of God, to test it faithfully, and to pass it on to others.

One of the main reasons that I participate in this community called the church is because I believe that the great arc of the story that we explore each week aids us in filtering out what is “Gospel truth” and what is fake news.

I believe that by doing church together, even with all its challenges and struggles, we are better able to test the discernment we receive both personally and communally.

And I firmly believe that we are ALL called to pass on that truth and announce the coming of God’s reign in Jesus Christ.

A reign that shakes the foundations of what we accept as normal in our world in favor of the way we know it is, was, and ever shall be in the kingdom of God.

We are called to pass on the true and good news of justice and peace in God, and to live in such a way that the truth is revealed to others even beyond the words we speak about it.

We are called to Come and See ourselves…to be replenished and renewed in our faith, as a weary traveler is rejuvenated from springs in a vast desert.

And we are also called to invite others to come and see for themselves.

So that all might know the love of God in Jesus Christ, all might know and proclaim the great story of God that bends toward justice and wholeness, and so all might leave the fleshpots of fake news for the truth of the Gospel.

Discernment, testing of the discernment, passing the good news on.

Come and see this week, dear people of God, and be not afraid of announcing God’s word in this present age, regardless of the consequences.

Like Hannah, Samuel, Mary, Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathaniel, Martin Luther King Jr. and the great cloud of witnesses that have come before, you will find life there, and the living God will be your strength and your guide always.

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