Merry Christmas to you all!!
I'm in the process of cleaning up my Mac's desktop, and I ran across this sermon I gave at the North Georgia Annual Conference this year. The sermon text was first Samuel. Since I haven't posted much lately, (I actually started working on a new post this morning, be patient) I figured you might enjoy reading/skimming it:
Tonight I draw my inspiration from a sermon given by the Rev. Denise Bratcher.
I’ve grown up in Georgia. And for as long as I can remember, every Georgia summer brings with it bright sunshine, juicy watermelon, trips to the lake and temperatures well into the nineties. Summertime also brings drought.
Plants wither. The lawn bakes brown. Idle conversations invariably turn to lamenting the lack of rain and speculating when the next shower might occur.
My granddaddy in South Georgia is good at predicting the weather. I don’t really know how he does it; often times he’ll look up at the sky and feel the wind on his face and predict – to the hour – when the rain will come.
Have you ever been outside and just known a storm was coming? The air hangs heavy. The color of the sky turns. The clouds change direction. You can even feel the air pressure drop if you stand still long enough.
One of the sweetest smells is the smell of rain drifting in on the southwest wind on an August afternoon. There is nothing that compares to it. After a long, hot, and dry Georgia summer, when it hasn’t rained substantially in three months, you smell that rain and know the drought will soon be over. After going so long without it, when it comes, I feel like running out in the yard to dance around in the droplets and taste the rain on my tongue.
It’s the kind of rain you can feel coming.
I think that same feeling – that feeling of being on the brink of change – can happen in circumstances other than the weather.
I’m no prophet. And I’m not sure I want to be a prophet because prophets are often painfully and dangerously unpopular.
But as I contemplate where the church is right now in this post-modern culture, and where it might need to go, I feel a change in the air. I feel a new wind blowing through the church. And my senses tell me that the church’s climate is changing.
I’m not quite sure yet whether this change is a ravaging storm or the sweet rains that end a drought. But I do believe that the wind of opportunity, the wind of new beginnings, is blowing. (click to continue)
Our world and our culture are changing rapidly. With new technology and increasing global interaction, we face a world that is becoming radically different from the one in which we once lived. Our own society is changing. There are new ways of thinking and there are new ways of doing things.
Change can be threatening. But times of change are often the best opportunities for us to hear God.
Frankly, I’m not sure what all of this means for the church. I think, though, that one of the greatest challenges we are facing as a church is figuring out just how we are to proclaim the Gospel in such a rapidly changing world.
The Old Testament reading is the story of God’s call to young Samuel and his commissioning as a prophet to Israel. This young man represents a turning point in Israel’s history, and he comes at a time when the winds of change and opportunity are blowing.
The setting for this story is the period of the Judges. (The Judges were local tribal leaders whom God raised up to meet specific crises facing the people of God.)
Israel had been settled in her land for some 200 years by then. And the Israelites had brought with them great expectations, glorious promises, and hope for a bright future. When they entered the land of Canaan, they crafted altars and constructed sanctuaries. They began living as God’s people in the new place. But the years passed by. They became comfortable. The fervor with which they celebrated their deliverance faded as they struggled to create a new life in their land.
The priests continued to worship and maintain the sanctuaries. They tried to keep Israel’s spirituality alive. But the people could see little advantage in serving God. They became preoccupied with their own interests and their commitment to God waned and grew dim.
Gradually, the Israelites forgot that they were God’s people. Sure, a few of the elders remembered the old days and tried to keep the worship of God alive. But the new generation would have none of it. They had abandoned God in pursuit of their own pleasure.
As the last verse in the book of Judges puts it: “Everyone did as they wanted to do.”
It is on this stage with this backdrop that young Samuel enters the annals of Israel’s history.
The beginning chapters of first Samuel tell us the story of Samuel’s miraculous birth. The book begins with a barren woman who is desperate to have a child. With nowhere else to go with her burden of grief and shame and pain, Hannah makes her way to the sanctuary at Shiloh to pray and cry out to her God for what she needs most in this world.
When Hannah prays for a child at Shiloh, she is praying for a future, for the possibility of something beyond the barren present. Children – to the Israelites – were symbols of hope and newness, symbols of renewal and stability in an otherwise unstable world. Children were the promise and hope of tomorrow.
As we hear Hannah’s story and listen to her pray, we realize that this is not just a story about Hannah’s lack of a child. We realize that this story is about Israel. Israel has come to a crossroads. They have all but abandoned God and have gone their own way. Yet, without God, they have no future.
God heard Hannah, and answered her prayer for a child, and that child grew.
She had promised to dedicate him to the Lord. And as soon as Samuel was old enough, she took him back to that same sanctuary at Shiloh and placed him in the service of God in Eli’s care.
So now the stage’s curtain has been drawn.
We should note that there are indeed three characters in this story: the old priest Eli, the young man Samuel, and God. Too often we tend to focus on Samuel and forget about Eli.
If we listen carefully, though, we realize that Eli’s role is quite significant.
Eli is an old man now, nearly blind. He has been priest at Shiloh almost his entire life. He inherited the position from his father, and he plans to continue that tradition and pass the priesthood on to his two sons.
But in the second chapter of first Samuel we are told that Eli’s two sons are worthless and despise the things of God. Eli does try hard to persuade them to change, but they do not listen. His sons embody the misdirected course of Israel.
At the beginning of tonight’s Old Testament reading from first Samuel chapter three, two significant details were mentioned that in fact serve as theological commentary.
First, the situation that ends the book of Judges is reflected: “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not common.” What a sad commentary on God’s people.
Second, we are told that Eli’s eyesight is failing him. In his day and time, blindness was often a metaphor for lack of spiritual insight.
Here is where we must slow down and begin hearing this story with fresh ears. We need to begin to hear this in a bigger, and deeper way. This is not just a nice Sunday School story about a boy who has a spiritual experience.
Eli is representing Israel and the darkening path that she has taken in allowing the things of God to grow dim.
Yet, in this darkness, there is a glimmer of hope.
We are told that, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.”
It is no accident that this story takes place at night.
The darkness – like Eli’s blindness – illustrates the Israelites’ lack of spiritual vision and their absolute failure at living out their calling to be God’s chosen people.
The lamp of God and the ark are both symbols of God’s presence in the sanctuary. They are symbols of God’s presence, symbols that remain, even in the darkness that the Israelite’s spiritual blindness has led them into.
In the midst of the darkness of failing vision and amidst the pitch black night that is descending like a pall over Israel, the flame of God’s presence is still burning.
God has not abandoned these people.
And in this darkness there lies Samuel, the miracle child. The child born to a barren woman. In dimness and confusion the future lies sleeping, just waiting for God’s presence to awaken it!
We must be careful, though, not to overly romanticize Samuel, because the story is not about Samuel alone.
We all know that God called to him. Samuel heard God’s voice, but yet he did not at first recognize the voice he heard as God’s.
Samuel – after all – was only a youth and had not yet learned how to distinguish the voice of God from the voice of the surrounding culture. It is interesting, however, that even though the word of the Lord was rare in those days, it was a youth who heard it.
“Samuel!”, the Voice calls out.
Bleary eyed, he gets up from his mat in the sanctuary and goes to Eli.
“Yes sir? What is it?”
Eli rolls over in his bed and sends him away. Twice more this happens.
The third time it dawns on Eli what is happening, and he explains to Samuel what he should do and how exactly he should respond.
Samuel returns to his mat and waits.
“Samuel!” the Voice calls. This time – because of Eli’s insight – Samuel knows that the Voice is the voice of God.
And this time he knows how to respond, “Speak Lord”, says Samuel, “for you servant is listening.”
The message God goes on to give Samuel is a message of change, a message about the end of the old way of doing things. God tells Samuel that Eli’s sons will no longer be allowed to lead Isreal. Eli’s priestly family will be removed and replaced.
Samuel lies anxiously in bed dreading the morning light, and the questions that will come along with it.
Morning comes and just as he dreaded, Eli asks the dejected Samuel what God said in the night and presses him -- threatens him even – to tell all.
Finally Samuel tells Eli of his sons’ miserable fate.
We might have expected Eli to become angry at hearing of the end that is coming for his family. We might even have expected Eli to deny that Samuel ever heard God at all.
But Eli’s response is unexpected to us.
Because we tend to focus on Samuel in this story, we may be surprised at Eli. After hearing the devastating news, Eli simply says, " After all, it is the LORD; let him do what he sees as good."
Eli still had enough faith that he could recognize God’s work in the world. Even as the old ways pass on they still help convey truth.
Eli’s spiritual eyes were dim, and he had not heard the word of the Lord in ages. He did not at first recognize God’s work. But in the end, he recognized God. When young Samuel sought answers to his questions, Eli was there to guide him in the right direction. Even amidst all the turmoil and change taking place in the nation of Israel, a new leader was born.
A new leader was called by God to carry light to God’s people.
But Samuel needed the guidance of blind old Eli to know how to respond. Even though the old ways were dying, they guided the new generation into its calling to be God’s people.
Eli does not emerge as a hero in this story. At the end of his life, Eli fights no great battles, brings no new victories, leads no great building projects, becomes no great champion of justice, preaches no great sermons, builds no new altars. He has even failed to teach his sons the way of God.
We are so accustomed to looking for the hero of the story that we easily pass by Eli, and write him off as a pitiful old man with no purpose other than to get quickly out of the picture and let the new way come about.
And yet, Eli is the one.
It is Eli who gives young Samuel the tools he needs in order to be and bring the newness the people so desperately need. In Eli’s quiet acceptance of the new word of God, we see a gentleness and a piety, a commitment to God, that allows God to work far beyond blind old Eli.
Eli may not be a hero, but he succeeded in his role of enabling change.
He was the transition figure set between the past and the future, the cutting edge over which the old became new.
I believe Eli served God well. Not as a hero, but as an ordinary person with all the frailties – and wisdom – that come with age. Eli had enough faith to guide a young boy who was seeking answers to questions about God.
We need more people like Eli.
People who are less concerned with being the hero, people who can guide the leaders of tomorrow. We need people who -- as the book of James puts it -- “show by the way they live their good life that their works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”
We need more Elis.
And what of Samuel? Does he become the hero that Eli is not?
After Samuel had been a prophet of God for many years, he had sons of his own. And his sons were worthless, just like Eli’s. Samuel now, was being faced with the judgment of God on his own family.
Near the end of his life, Samuel’s role came full circle back to Eli’s role. Samuel was charged with facilitating the transition from the past, and so as an old man, he anointed young David as king and passed the torch of the future on.
When I think about this story I cannot help but think of the changes emerging in our society, our culture, and our church. And the question that keeps nagging me is, how do we meet the challenges of that change? How do we remain faithful to our Christian heritage and yet still speak with meaning (to) our present culture?
How do we listen and see what God is doing, and how do we become more a part of it? How do we rekindle the flickering flame of God’s presence in our lives, and fan it into the light that will be a light to the world?
Perhaps we need to realize that some things are indeed ending. Perhaps we have to recognize that some of what has been will not always continue to be.
We need to remember that the stability and power of our Faith is not dependent upon anything, other than the Living God’s presence in our midst.
We can easily disrupt God’s new work in the world if we desperately cling to what has always been. Now, everything need not change. But then, everything cannot remain the same.
Perhaps we are not all called to be Samuels. Instead, God is calling some of us to cast our lots with Eli and to show the Samuels how to seek the answers to their God-questions.
We too often overlook the crucial task of enabling others to hear God’s voice for themselves. What greater opportunity is there?
And perhaps some of us young Samuels need to realize that we don’t always know how to recognize the voice of God. The Eli’s of our church have more to teach us than we might think. We should never give up our yearning for the future. But in our zeal to move forward, let us not forget who taught us how to do so.
Let us not assume that we know the way on our own.
I know that the greatest power that we the church have is God’s presence in our midst.
God is present as the Elis of the church recognize the Voice. God is present as the Samuels of the church hear and respond.
It may take two generations – like the generations between Eli and Samuel, and Samuel and David – before we become the church of which we dream.
But if we only dream of the past we may not be able to see the Samuels of the day standing by our bedside asking for guidance. If we only dream of the future we may not have the opportunity to respond to the voice of God.
I’m no prophet but I do believe this: The new life that comes to the church will come because the Living God is present in our midst. New life will come to the church because we have recognized and heard the voice of God.
But hearing is not enough.
We must respond.
Whether we respond as Eli or as Samuel, each of us is a part of the new future that God is bringing.
Our sky is turning color. The sweet smelling promise of August rain is hanging in the air. And if you sit still enough you can almost feel the air pressure dropping.
I won’t pretend that this coming rain does not also bring with it great challenge and risk. There is the risk of newness bringing an end to the security of the past. There is also the risk of rejection for announcing the newness that God is bringing. There is challenge. There is risk.
But one thing is certain, there will be no continuing on as usual. The rains that have already begun, the changes that are already in progress throughout our culture and church, will not allow us to keep on with the status quo. As a great preacher once said, “You and I will never know the potential God has given us until we step out in faith and take the risks we are called to take.”
I don’t know about you, but I know I’m going to keep a close eye on the weather.
Both of my ears will be open, lest I miss hearing God speak.
And if anyone comes to me having heard a Voice calling in the night, I will be ready to tell her – or him – to continue to listen for God’s Voice and to respond… to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”