Did you ever wish that this (hold up Bible) held all very clear answers to life’s questions and problems? That all you had to do is identify a problem and then look up the answer? I know I do. This book does contain wisdom, guidance, and direction, but they are not always clear. For one thing, the Bible isn’t a book it’s more like a library, a collection of books, written over thousands of years. Some of it is poetry, some short pithy statements like we find in Proverbs, some letters and so on. Some of it is grand sweeping narratives, like we’ve been exploring this fall. It’s the gospels, the accounts f the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the communities that grew up afterwards. And of course, it’s the story of faithful people, trying to work out their relationship with God and one another.
All of it has to be read in the context of its time, we may have to read what comes before or after the prescribed reading in order to gain a better understanding of it.
Last week we read about the Israelites at the beginning of their wilderness journey, learning how to trust God and live in God’s ways. We skip over a huge swath of narrative… the remainder of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth and wind up in 1 Samuel. How did we get there?
After forty years, they stood on the banks of the Jordan river and crossed into the land God promised them. It took some time to settle down and there were many conflicts and mistakes along the way. There was no leader or king, and each person did what they wanted or felt was right for themselves, and the situation deteriorated as over time the people forgot what they had learned about being God’s people. God raised up judges to be leaders who reminded people of God’s ways, but they had only limited success. By the time we get to today’s story, the people had built a shrine to house the ark of the covenant that they brought from their wilderness years, and there was a seer there — not exactly a judge, not exactly a prophet, but someone who could help conduct worship and interpret God’s word to the people. His name was Eli. He had become something of a foster-parent and mentor to a child, Samuel, because his mother Hannah had promised him to the service of God at this shrine. (Adapted from Teri Peterson)
We pick up the story in 1st Samuel chapter 3, again this week, I’m dividing the reading into two parts, listen to the first 10 verses:
3 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 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.
4 Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’[a] and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5 and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down.
6 The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 7
Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’
Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’
This is a wonderful passage and about mentorship, about not recognizing God’s voice until someone else points it out to you and about listening to God. It’s often used with youth… it speaks to how wisdom isn’t confined to a particular age or stage. Neither does God’s call. It fits completely with our context and our transitional journey as we have been continually asking ourselves, “What is God calling us to do in this time and place?”
Samuel only has one voice he is hearing, even though he doesn’t recognize it as God’s immediately, he thinks it’s Eli calling him from the next room. Even when he thinks it is Eli he responds with, “Hineni, here, I am.” How many competing voices do we have?
How many voices call out for our attention? How often does God call out for out attention before we respond like Samuel, with “Hineni, here I am, Lord. Speak, for your servant is listening.”
The next part of the reading gets really dark… it’s not the one that is used at youth gatherings! The Lord speaks to Samuel and says some really hard things. Listen to the second part of the reading.
11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,[b] and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’
15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.
16 But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ 17 Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’
18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.
Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’
19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.
In order to understand this part of the reading, we need to look at 1 Samuel 2. In it Eli’s son’s, priests of the temple, were taking the choicest of the food that was brought for themselves. They were raping the women who served in the temple. They were not living up to their calling as priests of the temple. As I said before, this book, does not have easy answers. So when Samuel tells Eli what the Lord has said… that Eli’s house will be punished, because Eli failed in his priestly duty to oversee his sons in their priestly duty, that Eli’s punishment is that his sons will be killed, both on the same day.
These are hard, hard words. Would you have the courage to deliver them to your mentor? Your priest? The one who has guided you and taught you since you were a young child?
This marks a turning point in Israel’s story. Eli is the last of a long line of priestly rule, after him come a series of prophets who rule Israel and then the people clamour for a king. It’s a shaking up of its governance. A slashing away of the old order. It marks a turning in how they will relate to God and one another. That’s a story for another day though.
But right now, they are in that messy middle of the old order is collapsing. Just like we are in the messy middle of things collapsing. Not just in churchland, but in the rise of things like awareness of Black Lives Matter, of Indigenous Rights, of Climate and Economic justice. One of the difficult things for those of us who have benefited from the current system is that it may feel like things are being taken away from us. I wonder if instead, we could think of it others are simply asking/demanding/getting the things we have always taken for granted. Like clean water… and the freedom to walk down a city street and not be asked for ID, for garbage dumps not be built next to your community.
It may feel like things are breaking down… but maybe they are breaking open. Maybe things are being revealed. The reading tells us that Eli’s eyes were dim, perhaps our eyes have been too.
In a couple of weeks, the Transition Team and Executive are going to present you with a number of options for ministry for the future of Stairs. Along with their recommendation and the reasons why. You will have an opportunity to ask questions and offer comments and they will take those questions and comments into consideration before we have a congregational meeting in November.
Not everyone is going to agree on the priorities for ministry here at Stairs. You know that line of scripture, ‘Where two or three are gathered?’ It would be interpreted as ‘Where two or three are gathered there will be a difference of opinion! 😉
Eli and Samuel could have fallen out over Samuel’s words to Eli. They could have broken off relationship. But instead they remain in relationship. Despite the hard words that Samuel has had to say. Despite the hard words Eli has had to hear. They maintain relationship.
That is the message that is for us today. When things feel like they’re ending, and they will… When the familiar gets shattered, and it will. When the way forward is not clear, and it won’t be. I hope you all say, Hineni, Here I am, Lord.Remember, stay in relationship with one another.
Thanks be to God, for the challenge and the opportunity of being God’s people today, amen.
1 Samuel 3: 1-21
October 17, 2021