Sunday, January 14, 2018

Epiphany 2B

1 Samuel 3:1–10

 

LORD, SPEAK TO US

 

O God, you revealed your Son to all people by the shining light of a star. We pray that you bless the people of St. Andrew with your gracious presence. May your love be our inspiration, your wisdom our guide, your truth our light, and your presence our benediction; through Christ our Lord. AMEN.

 

A crisis of leadership had gripped the land. Tribal divisions threatened to tear the people apart. Decades of fighting enemies both from without and from within had taken its toll. Leaders tended to be more interested in their own power, fame, and wealth than in the well-being of the people. Dedicated public servants were hard to find.

 

Sound familiar? The parallels may not be exact, but there clearly are similarities between Israel in the time of Samuel and our own time. The crisis of leadership in our nation and around the world has indeed been heightened this week by vulgar and racist remarks of our President concerning Haiti and African nations. These are not the words of someone who grasps what it truly means to be a public servant. The people of Israel desired wise, competent, unifying leadership, devoted to God and to the well-being of the people. The prophet Eli and his wicked sons Hophni and Phinehas were clearly not up to the task. Many were clamoring for a king. Eventually Israel would be granted a king—Saul. In the meantime, however, God called the prophet Samuel to step into the leadership void.

 

Our lesson for today is the account of God’s call of the young Samuel. The calling of one so young reflected God’s loss of confidence in Eli and his sons. We are also told that it was a time in which the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread.

 

At our Team Ministry meeting on Thursday we discussed how Samuel had to learn how to listen to the Lord. The Lord had to call Samuel four times before Samuel, with Eli’s help, discerned that the Lord was calling him. It was early morning. Samuel was still lying down in the temple, where the ark of God was. The Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel excitedly responded, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; lie down again.” Notice that Samuel heard the voice of the Lord, but he did not recognize it as the Lord’s voice.

 

A second time the Lord called, “Samuel!” Samuel immediately got up and went to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; lie down again.” Notice that once again Samuel heard the voice of the Lord, but he did not recognize it. Verse 7 of our lesson offers an explanation: “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

 

Then the Lord called Samuel a third time. Samuel went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli finally perceived that the Lord was calling Samuel. He instructed Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if [the Lord] calls you, you shall say, `Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Samuel did as Eli instructed. This time when the Lord called his name, Samuel was ready, saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” With Eli’s assistance and the Lord’s patience, he had learned to listen for the voice of the Lord.

 

The Lord then told Samuel that he was going to punish the house of Eli. Eli and his sons had not provided the leadership needed in Israel. Samuel was afraid to share these words from the Lord with Eli. Eli, to his credit, insisted that Samuel share exactly what the Lord had said. Once he heard what was to happen, Eli’s response was, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” It is hard not to feel a bit of sadness for Eli. Despite the shortcomings of the house of Eli, at least in that moment he acted like a servant leader and accepted what God considered best for the people of Israel.

 

It could certainly be said in our own time that we are lacking the servant leadership we need. It could also be said that the word of the Lord is rare and visions from God are not widespread.

 

Sometimes the people of God so struggled with the lack of a word from the Lord in a time of crisis that they were haunted with an overwhelming sense of the silence of God. In Isaiah 64:12, given the hardships of postexilic Israel, the prophet asked: “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” In Psalm 28 the Psalmist implies that if the Lord is silent to him, it will be like he is a dead man. In Psalm 62 the Psalmist affirms that God alone is his hope and salvation. Thus, he asserts: “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” In Psalm 83 the Psalmist, deeply disturbed by havoc the enemies of God and of God’s people were causing, pleaded with God, “O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God!”

 

Like the prophet Isaiah and these Psalmists, many of us may have an overwhelming sense of the silence of God in our troubled time. We may long for a clear word from the Lord. The problem, however, may not be that the Lord is silent. Perhaps the Lord is speaking, perhaps we are even hearing the voice of the Lord, but like Samuel we are not recognizing it. Who are the Eli’s who can help us learn how to hear the voice of the Lord?

 

The truth is that we are blessed with many sources and resources to teach us to listen to the Lord. God speaks to us in many and various ways. Occasionally it may be in a dramatic way, but most often it will be in the course of daily lives.

 

As Evangelical Lutherans we believe that God speaks to us in Word and Sacrament. In worship we hear the word of God proclaimed by the preacher. But the act of proclamation is not just the responsibility of the preacher. Guided by the Spirit, each person who hears that proclaimed word is responsible for interpreting what it means for their lives and putting it into action.

 

The Sacraments have been called the visible word of God. Today we will receive Holy Communion. God’s love for us will be communicated in a tangible way through the body and blood of Christ.

 

The Bible is the written word of God. It is read in our worship on Sunday mornings. We are also encouraged to seek a word from the Lord through daily devotions or study. There are many fine daily devotional resources. Here at St. Andrew we offer Christ in Our Home, The Daily Texts, and Bread for the Day.

 

Our Christian Education programs are intended to help teach us to hear the voice of the Lord. As followers of Jesus, we focus on the gospel accounts of his life and teachings, his death, and his resurrection. The challenge is for us to discern who Jesus is for us today and follow him wherever he may lead. We need to fine tune our ability to hear his voice.

 

God can speak to us through significant events in our personal lives— for example, in such events as the death of a loved one; the diagnosis of a serious health condition; and the loss of a job. God can speak to us through major public events— such the breakout of a war; the election of an unexpected political leader; or a major economic, ecological, or natural disaster.

 

God can speak to us through dreams and visions. That may not seem as common today, but clearly the Bible testifies to God communicating through dreams and visions.

 

God can also speak to us through ordinary events and people in our lives. In Julie Aageson’s new book Holy Ground: An Alphabet of Prayer, she defines prayer as “paying attention, listening for God’s voice in others and in the ordinary events of daily life” (2). The story of Samuel and Eli teaches us that one of the most common ways God speaks to us is through the words of a trusted mentor or friend in the faith. Who are your trusted mentors & friends in the faith?

 

One final point about learning to listen for the voice of the Lord. Samuel viewed himself as a servant of the Lord. The servant posture seems to be a key to hearing the Lord’s voice. Samuel answered God’s call to be a servant leader for the people of Israel. We seem to be suffering from a dearth of servant leaders in our time. A case could be made that there is a correlation between the rareness of the word of God and the scarcity of servant leadership. We, of course, have good examples of servant leaders in our time and place. In my lifetime Martin Luther King, Jr. stands out as a servant leader. But we especially need more in a time like this.

 

For those who do not see themselves as leaders, we also need servant helpers. On New Year’s Eve my wife Donna and I attended church with her sister and brother-in-law. They go to North County Christ the King Church, a large non-denominational more conservative congregation in Linden, Washington. I did not want to go to church on New Year’s Eve. I wanted to take a Sunday off. I was not primed to hear a word from the Lord. The preacher was not a dynamic speaker, but he said something that stuck with me. It was not dramatic, but I am convinced it was a word from the Lord for me and all who attended that day. As part of the sermon, looking ahead to 2018, they posted on the big screen all the community ministry projects the congregation was involved in. He encouraged his listeners to make a commitment to be part of something bigger than themselves in 2018— something that would impact future generations as well as the current generation. Then he added something to effect, “If God calls you to be a leader, step up and be a leader. But even if you view yourself as more of a helper, make a commitment to help a leader with your time and financial support. Whether as a leader or helper, the key is to commit to be part of something bigger than yourself.” In his own way this preacher was casting a vision of what it means to be a servant of God in our time and place. 2018 is a year to join Samuel, the people of North County Christ the King, and people of God throughout our nation and world in saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Surely the Lord has something bigger than ourselves for each one of us to do.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.