In truth and love
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. 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.
Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” 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.
And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose 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.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”
Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” And he said, “Here I am.” And 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.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.”
And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. (1 Samuel 3:1-20 ESV)
The events in Paris in the office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo are still reverberating around the world in words and deeds. Such violence is condemned and history is replete with the testimony that violence is counter productive. The cry of ‘free speech’ includes images – and whether written, audio or visual – ‘free speech’ is insisted upon by many. Questions arise whether and where there are or should be limits. I have been intrigued by the discourse that claims the right to offend and I have wondered whether a day will come when the behaviour and limits that generally prohibit anti-Semitism and anti-racism might be extended to anti-Islamism or anti-Christianity. These discussions are not new. I remember, twenty years ago, saying when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast blasphemes against Christianity that in the public square of a democratic, multicultural, poly-religious society the public broadcaster should at least be an equal opportunities blasphemer and blaspheme all religions! Of course we are dealing with intent and effect. Communication is ever so complicated and nuanced but the simple in me returns to the Bible and finds two guidelines – truth and love. Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). That presumes we know what truth and love are.
Sometimes we don’t even know who is talking. Samuel! Samuel!
The account of 1 Samuel 3 whereby Samuel is confirmed as the Lord’s prophet – one who would judge Israel – deliver them from the oppression of the surrounding nations – in this case the Philistines – when the house of Eli was judged severely and the work of the priest was taken from him and his sons is usually truncated by lectionary compilers and Sunday Schools as God calling the boy Samuel. The voice of God was little known and the boy Samuel ran three times to Eli until Eli twigged what was happening and instructed Samuel not to run to him but instead to listen. Of course it is a valid message – when God speaks, listen – I imagine we would – but how often does this immediate experience happen?
Then and now there are a plethora of voices calling out ‘Thus says the Lord’. In the supermarket of religions each aisle has many calling out for your attention. Who is talking and to whom shall we listen? What message draws us? Messages we secretly want to hear or which resonate with how we think things should be? Rescue messages? Prosperity messages? Help in adversity messages? I mightn’t be perfect but I’m better than many people messages? These are the God as my genie or butler messages – God is Alfred to our Batman.
Children, teenagers and adults can long to have the experience that Samuel had – to hear God – but it generally doesn’t happen as we hope. God far often is mediated to us not immediate – even Samuel had to be directed what to do should the voice come a fourth time. And then there is the message. My guess is that it is not what Samuel expected. The playwright or author might know what will be said next – people in relationships after a while might know what will be said next – if God turns up we might want to know about ourselves, our future and the like – but the speaker has his own agenda – we do when we speak – so why shouldn’t God? And Samuel hears the message of judgement against Eli – severe that sacrifices will not expunge the stain of the sins of Eli and particularly his sons. We have no way of knowing what Samuel knew about the judgement Eli was under – see the message from the man of God in the previous chapter – but Eli knew. Samuel hears God – we get excited, anticipatory – maybe God might talk to me? – and then we hear a message of judgement – for someone else (thank goodness) – no message to us personally but we are the messenger. Who knows the psychology going on the boy that night but in the morning he gets up and attends to his tasks as normal. He has to be called by Eli to speak. Perhaps there is a reluctance henec Eli’s adjuration (‘May God do so to you …’) and Samuel speaks – told him everything, did not hide anything – and the message is factual, no additions or deletions – God is speaking.
How did you hear Eli? “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.” Weak? Resigned? Fatalistic? Faithful and trusting despite the judgement he (and his sons) deserved? Eli speaks. Isn’t that also a message? Should we pay attention? Who is speaking? Eli? God through Eli? To Eli? To Samuel? To us?
1 Samuel 3 tells us powerfully that God speaks but I wonder whether we only tune into the voice and the vision. God spoke to Samuel – in time Israel knew he was the Lord’s prophet and his words were not wasted. God also spoke to Eli – that’s why God spoke to Samuel – but messages that make ears tingle are judgements where God tells it like it is about us – holds a mirror to us and there’s no escaping the truth. And God also speaks through Eli – after all we hear what he says as did Samuel – a confession of faith if nothing else – that God is good. Should we hear this message too? God isn’t stopping the consequences of sin happening – and desecrating the holy things – priestly pollution is seriously serious – for the priests’ role existed so that people could confidently come to God yes in shame and remorse and repentance but do so safely to offer sacrifice and receive forgiveness and blessing and the priest made this possible by distinguishing between the holy and the common and the unclean and the clean (Lev 10:10) and this was sadly spectacularly failing in the house of Eli. Later the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 3 will talk about destroying God’s temple – really people – which results in destruction for those who do so – but also that while people’s work might be burned up by fire and they suffer loss, they themselves will still be saved.
God’s Word! Why does it have to be so tough at times? Because we are talking about a sovereign living Being speaking according to his own will, his own plans, for his own purposes. His words are powerful. They create. They also can be sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). They are unexpected at times and comforting at others. And we no longer go to Samuel or wait for him to make his rounds to judge and deliver us for we live in the knowledge of the truth that the Word is made flesh and that this God is both good and love. We would never have written this script. That in Jesus the fulfilment of prophet, priest, and king we discover that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The light of his empty tomb doesn’t shine on the pages of the Bible as it were but shines through them and the Holy Spirit then takes what we believe he has prepared for us in written form – what we call today the Old and New Testaments – and uses it as the basis to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify us in the faith that says ‘I believe that Jesus Christ – true man and true God – is my Lord’. God is still speaking. The Bible is God’s Word. What we have to do is listen to his Word to us.
It is easy to listen to what we want to hear – chapter and verse – favourite passages and stories – to comfort and challenge or energise us – but we do run the danger of just listening to ourselves. That is why we need to hear all of Scripture – search all of it, wrestle with all of it for it all conveys Jesus. We shouldn’t have an Old / New Testament divide – ‘old’ equals bad grumpy God – ‘new’ equals good cuddly God. For it all tells us things that we didn’t expect – from surface through to deep – seated sins – we can be cut to the bone crushed and like dead men walking we can see with horror the depth and perversity of sin – and there is also another message that is not obvious because the blood and gore often get in the way of the ears working but at some stage we hopefully hear ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ and the unexpected hits home – God in Jesus forgives me, even me. He is gracious to me and I don’t deserve it but he loves me so much that he speaks to me – truth and love.
And so we keep listening. Please, not just on Sundays – each day – read and read and meditate and ponder and store up all these things in your heart – and from that we speak and live the truth in love.
- 1 Samuel 3:1 - 20