Samuel and Eli: Learning to listen for the grace of judgement

That story of the child Samuel in the Temple (1 Samuel 3.1-20) is to my mind a very attractive one. I suppose this is because from an imaginative point of view it`s very easy to simply be there in that darkened place… and to envisage the yes, almost comic scene of that little boy dashing backwards and forwards in his dressing gown! But more seriously I think it`s also because we`re drawn into the pathos and the sorrow of it all. The pathos and sorrow that the people of Israel and their faith should have come to such a parlous state. And then we notice with wonder that despite it all the Lord God has not abandoned his people and he was `raising up` the likes of Samuel to be the `trustworthy prophet of the Lord`.

So, firstly, I think this passage, where life for the people of God is not as it should be, is an invitation… an invitation to pray with our own experience of things having gone awry…. In other words, we might reflect a little wistfully that things are not entirely as they should be at home or at work; in the church or the wider world. And then maybe draw some encouragement from that rather poignant remark, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out”. (v10) As a colleague of mine once said, “You`re never done with the God of Israel”.

And then secondly, we might also begin to notice how the writer of this morning`s passage puts their finger on what`s REALLY missing in their common life. We`re told, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (v1). Behind this simple statement is, as I say a great deal of pathos…. But this one sentence gets to the very heart of why so many people and so many parts of the Christian family find themselves in the same kind of malaise we hear about in that reading. Something which is absolutely fundamental to the people of God and to the life of faith was no longer operative. They were starved of the Word of the Lord.

Back in the Book of Deuteronomy we`re told: “(The Lord) humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”. (Deuteronomy 8.3) Now, these are words which Christ himself quoted in another context aren`t they? But again, what`s at issue is this sense that the lines of communication are open and (more to the point) that there is a living dialogue going on between the people and the Lord God.

Putting it bluntly, this is simply what you would expect… It`s the life-blood of faith… And when it`s not… when the Christian community is deprived of this; when the people of God either mocks, treats casually or refuses to live obediently in response to the Word of the Lord we end up like Eli ministering in the Temple. Just going through the motions; the lights haven’t quite gone out but as the text rather movingly says about Eli: “(His) eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see”. Things were clearly, not as they should be. I was told, well over thirty years ago now… “Pray for a love of God`s Word”. So, I would invite you to do the same. ”Your Word, says the writer of the Psalms.. “is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119.105)

But I wonder if you noticed, secondly, that one of the charming things about this passage is, as we`re told, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (v7) In other words, the Lord HAD been speaking but the poor young lad hadn`t recognised it…. He needed some guidance. Maybe this is true of us? Well listen to dear old Eli, who even in his diminished state, can just about remember what`s what. He tells Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (v9) This is the wisest guidance of all.

It can`t be stressed often enough that SO much depends on our willingness to adopt a posture that says, “I am listening”. A great deal depends on being attentive; being present to the person who`s speaking to us doesn`t it? Just as Samuel was told to go and `lie down` there are things we can do in terms of setting aside time; looking at how we`re physically sitting and so on. In other words, it helps to think a little about what will help or hinder our attentiveness.

But the key thing for me is `expectation`. How would it be if you were to begin your prayers with the words: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening”? Could I suggest that you roll those few words around for a while and maybe reflect on what they tell you about yourself and the one to whom you are listening……?

And then, of course, we have to note that the Word Eli received was not entirely comfortable. On the face of it he heard a Word of judgement on his woeful parenting. But beyond that specific issue …..what`s at stake here is a matter of truth. Because this authentic Word of the Lord had the effect of illuminating Eli`s life `AS IT WAS BEFORE THE LORD`. Here he is in all his truth. And the curious thing is that far from running away, Eli wants that truth to be told.

Maybe this is what distinguishes an authentic Word from the Lord. Maybe this is what we might want to look for…. A sense of judgement. Of course, that might sound odd, in fact we might, recoil from that sort of thing…

Some of us might say, “Where`s the comfort in that?” Whilst others begin to imagine that we`re in the presence of some kind of fastidious and overly critical God. But that`s not the point at all. We are taught that our God comes, not to condemn but to save… (John 3). So, Christians always welcome his judgement because it is always a coming into the light; a `setting to rights`… it`s a revelation of how things are …. and far from destroying us, as Christ says: “the truth will make you free”. (John 8.32)

So, pray this morning with that sense that things are not quite as they should be… Remember, the lamp of God has NOT gone out; for you or his Church. But I wonder whether any malaise you experience is because for you the Word of the Lord is rare…. How far is it because you are no longer really listening… or obeying and letting your life be shaped by it?

I might tease you by saying that a good rule of thumb is to note how much time you spend each day reading and being formed by your newspaper and compare that with how much time you give to reading and being formed by Scripture. Which is a rather sobering indication of where our priorities lie. But nonetheless, pray for a love of God`s Word… for the grace of attentiveness. Make these words your own: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening”. Pray for the grace of judgement… for the Word of truth that sets us free.



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