January 18, 2015
The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. That’s quite a statement. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. The expectation, of course, of the writer of First Samuel is that that should not have been the case. The expectation is that God’s people should have been hearing regularly from God, that God’s word should have been a regular part of their daily lives. In the normal, routine relationship between God and his people, the writer expects that God would be speaking and that the people would be listening and responding to what God has to say.
That’s how it is supposed to be anyway. But apparently, there’s been some sort of disconnect. Either God is not saying much, or the people aren’t doing a whole lot of listening. It’s not that God has gone silent, there’s still a bit of direction that comes from God from time to time, but those times are rare. And its not that the people have become completely deaf to God’s word, and are ignoring it altogether, its just that they’re not paying a whole lot of attention when God does speak. And that’s certainly not an ideal situation at all. Ideally, God speaks, and the people listen and respond. That how its supposed to work. And so what we’ve got here is a not so good situation. It isn’t a terrible situation, its not a major crisis, its just that it isn’t very good. And obviously, it needs a remedy, and it usually falls to God to provide that remedy.
So how did we get to this place where the normal relationship between God and his people has fallen into disrepair? How is it that God has gone quiet, and that the people have become less and less attentive when God does speak? Is it God’s fault? No, but he does bear a part in it. Is it the people’s fault? Pretty much. It usually is.
Sometimes God goes quiet, because the people have stopped paying attention. Now, I know that sounds counter-intuitive. One would expect that as the people begin to pay less and less attention to God, that God would be making all that much more noise to get our attention back. But sometimes, when we’ve made it clear to God that were not interested in hearing what he has to say to us, God goes quiet for a while. God leaves us alone. God lets us see for ourselves just how well we get along without him. And that’s just what’s going on in our passage this morning. God has quit harassing his people for a while. God has gone quiet, because very few people are listening.
Eli is the priest in our story. He is the spiritual leader of God’s people. He’s a good man, but he’s gotten a little bit old, and a little bit physically blind, and most likely a little bit spiritually deaf in his old age. And he’s allowed his faith to slide downwards a little bit. I’m not sure why this happens. One would expect that as we grow older, that our faith would deepen; that as our bodies begin to decline toward death, that our faith and our hearts would be becoming more and more alive: that wisdom and maturity would be mounting and that sensitivity to God’s word would be a part of our daily experience. But not so with Eli. Its too late to crawl inside of his heart to find out what he was thinking; its too late to speculate about why he let his faith dwindle, but this serves as a powerful warning to all of us. As our bodies get closer and closer to being dead, our hearts should be becoming more and more alive. And this is a particularly strong warning to me. Eli was a priest. He was God’s representative to the people. It was his job to bring God’s word to the people. Above all others, he was the one who was to be the most attentive to God’s word, he was the one who was to be receiving the visions. And I’m a pastor, and Eli’s calling is my calling. So consider your pastor warned along with everyone else. Especially as I get a little bit old and a little bit physically deaf. Pray that I might escape becoming a little bit blind to God’s word. We don’t want it to be said of Thomaston Baptist Church that the word of the Lord was rare in those days and that visions were not widespread.
To complicate matters, Eli had a couple of grown sons who were absolute scoundrels. Now most of us realize that there’s not a whole lot that we can do about our grown children, except to encourage them and pray for them. Grown children make their own decisions, and there’s not much we can do about it. We can’t choose a relationship with God for our children, they have to choose it for themselves. And sometimes a child can grow up in a loving, caring home, be exposed to a loving, caring church throughout their entire childhood, and still choose not to become a follower of God. It’s not our fault. We didn’t fail. And so we pray. And sometimes we put our arms around each other, and we cry. And that’s OK.
But Eli’s sons are another matter entirely. They didn’t just reject the faith, they’ve hung around the place of worship to cause as much trouble as they can. They have no regard for the Lord and no respect for worship practices of any kind. It was sport and game for them to disrupt the worship services, and to engage in illicit sexual relationships with the women who served at the place of worship. The strong implication is that they were raping them. They were terrible, disrespectful, unbelieving scoundrels who delighted in behaving abominably in front of everyone.
And Eli did nothing about this except to ask them to stop behaving so badly. The writer of First Samuel implies that Eli should have disciplined them. Not so much because they were his sons, that time was long past, but because they were disruptive. We would have to do the same thing here. If we had someone who was disruptive, flagrantly disrespectful and publicly behaving abominably, we’d have to ask them to leave, and we’d have to take steps to make sure they stayed gone, especially if they had no intention of repenting. But Eli couldn’t bring himself to do that.
And so God will remedy the situation. I like this about God. When we feel powerless to act, when it doesn’t occur to us to act, God steps in. God does not stay quiet forever. In a situation where the word of the Lord is rare, and visions are not widespread, God will ultimately act to remedy and restore the relationship with his people. There is always hope, even in the darkest of times.
As it turns out, there was a young lad named Samuel living with Eli in the place of worship. How he came to be living there with Eli is a fascinating story in and of itself, that has some wonderful parallels to the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus all rolled into one. I’ll not go there this morning, but I will encourage you to study the first two chapters of First Samuel on your own. I think you’ll be amazed.
And one night, Samuel is snoozing away on his bed, and he hears a voice. The voice is calling his name. “Samuel! Samuel!” And the boy is suddenly awake, and he’s up, and he’s off to Eli’s bedroom, because he knows that Eli is calling for him. Eli needs something. “Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli did not call him, and he tells him so. Go back to bed Eli says to the lad. And so he does. Not long later Samuel hears the voice again. And he runs to Eli again. “Here I am, for you called me.” And again, Eli says, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” And so Samuel went back to bed. But a third time Samuel heard someone calling to him, and so for a third time he rushed into Eli’s bedroom. “Here I am, for you called me.” But this time, Eli perceived that something was up. He realized that Samuel was hearing the voice of God. He realized that God had broken his silence, and that the word of God was coming to Samuel. It turns out, That Eli, in spite of all of his problems, is still still spiritually attuned enough to intuit that God is speaking. I’m thankful for Eli at this point in the story, because Eli must also be intuiting that God is about to do something new. And so Eli says to Samuel, “Go lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” I deeply admire this guy, Eli. He’s the priest. He’s a good man. He’s mostly been faithful; if God has begun to speak, it should probably be to Eli. But there’s no jealousy here. Eli is comfortable that God is speaking to Samuel. Eli knows in his heart that God is doing a new thing, and he’s OK with that.
And so Samuel went back to bed, and sure enough, God showed up again; this time sort of in person. I wish I knew exactly what that meant. The text says that the Lord came and stood there, calling as before. “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel doesn’t know it yet, but God is going to be standing along side him until the day he dies. And this time Samuel obeys Eli. He says, “Speak for your servant is listening.”
The news, however, is not good, and it frightens Samuel. Eli’s role as priest is over. God is indeed doing a new thing. With this news, it is not surprising that Samuel could not go back to sleep. He lay there until morning. And in the morning, Eli was anxious to know what God had said. And he pressed Samuel to speak. But naturally Samuel was reluctant, and so Eli pressed him all the more.
And here is where my admiration for Eli grows. When Samuel finally tells Eli what God has said, Eli graciously receives the judgment. This is complete surrender to the will of God. Eli says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” That is amazing. Eli is able to look beyond himself. He fully understands that God is doing a new thing, but that God is doing that new thing without him. And while he may not be entirely pleased about how things have turned out for himself, he can set that aside knowing that God is doing a new thing in the lives of his people, and that from here on out, the word of the Lord will no longer be rare, and that visions will be more widespread. I firmly believe that Eli can rejoice in this judgment.
Which brings me to a final thought: it seems that acceptance of God’s judgment is essential when it comes to realizing new hope for the future. Eli, for all his troubles, was able to do this. And he was able to do this because he saw a hope and a future for God’s people, even though it did not include him. When we are chastised, we must accept it, otherwise nothing good can come of it. We must learn to say along with Eli, “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.” In saying this, even though he knew he was going to be punished, Eli has regained all of his spiritual vitality. His heart is alive once again.
After this, the word of the Lord was not rare, and visions abounded. Samuel was a faithful prophet. The Lord was with him. And the whole nation, the whole people of God, heard the word of God as Samuel transmitted it to them.
Recently, the head of the religion department of a major university reminded us again that churches are in crisis. She reminded us that people are no longer interested in church. Her solution to this problem was that churches needed to stop being so “Churchy.” She claims that churches need to do away with churchy things like sermons and singing and choirs and Bible studies, because they are no longer relevant. Instead, she says, that churches should focus on things like social issues and the environment, because that’s what people are really interested in. If ever there was a way to make the word of the Lord rare, and visions not widespread, this is the way to do it.
Let us pray that we will never arrive at the place where the word of the Lord is rare, and that visions are not widespread. Let us ever be responsive to God’s word, so that God will never find reason to go quiet on us.