Second Sunday after Epiphany: January 17, 2021



This is another week that has been hard to write. We have heard threats of more domestic attacks, some for today, on state capitols, the federal capitol, and even on perceived “liberal” churches, particularly in Arizona and Montana. We have heard of planned violence for the inauguration this Wednesday, and, as I write this, even as I first preach this sermon, I do not, will not know if those threats are real, or will be carried out, and it feels like I should. It feels like I’m supposed to know, because knowing would change what I say today.

I see other people trying to say that Christianity as a whole is under attack because people, myself included, are condemning the theology of those who carried signs saying “Thank You Jesus” while they stormed the Capitol Building, and I think about just how strong the temptation to make idols, to make gods out of Wall Street, out of money, out of political parties or political leaders, even out of a nation, or an idea of what a nation could be or lies about what our nation once was. It makes me think about the fact that too many people are willing to listen to their own desires and say they come from God. The truth is, if you think God is always telling you what you want to hear, or to do things you already want to do, it usually is not God you are hearing.

I have, in a few sermons, explicitly mentioned the lectionary, but in case you missed those Sundays, it is a three-year cycle of readings meant to, over the course of those three years, cover most of the Bible. I choose to follow it for our worship because it provides structure to the church year and because it takes the choice of texts out of my hands, preventing me from picking texts that I think respond to current events. I want to explicitly say it: I am not choosing the texts week to week. I chose to follow a prescribed pattern precisely so I would not be tempted to choose texts aligned with current events. I have been amazed at the work of the Holy Spirit as I have been given those texts anyway.

This week, as I have been wondering about how we decide who to follow, about how so many can end up trapped in versions of Christianity that seem, to me, to so thoroughly miss the point, we get two texts about the call to follow God.

Samuel is one of the great prophets, and will come to play a major role in the history of Israel, serving, during the occupation by the Philistines, in the three offices of prophet, priest, and ruler, three offices that will later be attributed to Christ, before anointing Saul to be the first king of Israel and then working to replace Saul with David after Saul disobeyed God.

Before Saul and David, before the Philistines occupy the land and seize the arc, we have Eli, one of the last judges, a respected religious leader charged with overseeing the arc, currently housed in a shrine at Shiloh, and the father of two sons who fell far from the tree. We have Samuel’s father, Elkanah, with two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. Penninah had children, Hannah did not. Hannah went to the shrine at Shiloh and prayed for a child. Hannah prayed so completely that Eli though she was drunk and went to chide her. Hannah explained her prayers and Eli blessed her instead. Hannah gave birth to Samuel and dedicated him to service to the Lord, turning him over to Eli to raise in service to God. Hannah sang a song of thanksgiving and joy to the Lord, a song that would be echoed centuries later by Mary, singing about her expected child, Jesus.

Eli’s sons were also raised to be priests, to follow their father, but they were greedy and served themselves rather than God. They used the honor and good name of their father to steal offerings. They worked to enrich themselves, to build their own power and wealth. I do not want to make this too much a sermon about them, but they are not the last. God recognizes the con, God sees through the grift, and so God raises up Samuel as a prophet. It is worth noting that Samuel’s sons eventually fall to the same vices as Eli’s sons, but we aren’t there yet.

Today, Samuel has been dedicated to God, given by Hannah and taken in by Eli for God’s service, but God has not yet called Samuel. Today’s lection tells us that “the Word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” I wonder if Eli’s sons are to blame, if their blatant abuse of the people’s trust had caused people to not only distrust Eli’s sons, but to also distrust God, to close themselves off to God. I believe that God is always working in our world, but there are times where we, individually and collectively, are less willing to see it, are less able to see and hear it as we seek to drown out the Word of God with our worship of idols, with our created gods. But, in a moment where I think the text is speaking both to a specific moment and to a general promise, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.”

There, in the shrine at Shiloh, where the ark of God was housed, the lamp of God still burned, waiting for Samuel to answer God’s call to carry it out, and so God called Samuel.

We may be tempted to read this text and to criticize Samuel, to chide Samuel who, three times, mistook the voice of God for the voice of Eli. We should not. Samuel approached God with a healthy skepticism. Samuel had seen, in Eli’s sons, the damage someone could do when they falsely claimed to serve God. Perhaps Samuel had been so affected by growing up here at the shrine, where his mother had surrendered him into service to God, but where he grew up instead watching Eli’s sons steal offerings and abuse the people in their service to themselves that he, too, did not think God still spoke.

Whatever the reason, the first three times God called to Samuel, Samuel went to Eli. Both Eli and Samuel were likely growing more frustrated each time. Eli at this child who kept coming in to wake him up, Samuel at Eli who, Samuel thought, kept calling him and then denying it, until finally, Eli realized what was happening and told Samuel what to do. Eli told Samuel that if God called again, Samuel should stay still and answer “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel does jump first to the thought that God is calling him. Samuel waits and looks to other explanations first. And, finally, when Samuel does tell God: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” God does not tell Samuel anything Samuel wants to hear. God tells Samuel things that Samuel surely already knew, that Eli’s sons were a problem, but God also tells Samuel that Eli, too, will be hurt by his son’s failures. Samuel is afraid. The text does not tell us why Samuel is afraid. We do not know if he was afraid of disappointing Eli, or if he was afraid of retribution from Eli or Eli’s sons. Eli knows there is a reason God spoke to Samuel and not to Eli, and so Eli asks Samuel to repeat what God said.

We do not know if Eli’s reaction is what Samuel feared, but if it was, Eli does not justify that fear, but recommits himself to serving God and training Samuel.

God does not tell Samuel or Eli what they want to hear. God does not promise an easy path. Both Samuel and Eli will live to see Eli’s son’s fall in battle and to see the Philistines seize the Ark of God.

Later still, when the people ask for a king, God does not tell Samuel what he wants to hear, does not tell the people what they want to hear, but promises that a king will not fix their problems, will not be the answer they seek, but as the people still insist on a king, God tells Samuel to anoint Saul.

Time and time again, Samuel and the other prophets listen as God tells them the things they do not want to hear. Time and time again, God’s word frightens us. Time and time again God’s Word reminds us that we do not serve ourselves, that God does not serve us, but that we serve God. And still, too often we declare that this time, God is telling us to take the easy path, to take the road we already want. We tell ourselves that God is saying that God will follow us even as God is calling us onto a new path.

So, I ask you all, when you think God is telling you to do something you already want to do, stop. Ask yourself, ask your family, ask your neighbor if they think you are hearing God, and only then should you stop, and say “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

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