The Word of the Lord Was Rare in Those Days (and Ours)

Sermon delivered on Trinity 1B, Sunday, June 3, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 3.1-20; Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18; 2 Corinthians 4.5-12; Mark 2.23-3.6.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

What are we to make of the strange and intriguing story found in our OT lesson today? What can it possibly have to do with us? Much, because underneath the intrigue and the terrible act of judgment pronounced on old Eli and his sons lies a message of hope and we all could certainly use a fresh infusion of real hope.

Before we look at the actual story, some context is needed to help us interpret it correctly. This story is set in the time of the judges in Israel. Israel’s great leaders, Moses and Joshua, the men whom God chose to lead God’s people out of their slavery in Egypt and to conquer the land God promised to their forefather Abraham, were dead and Israel had no one to lead them. Given our corrupted human nature, the results were predictable. The Israelites did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord instead of being his faithful image-bearing people to bring God’s healing and goodness to the land, and God punished his people for their evildoing by bringing new conquerors to oppress and enslave them. The people in turn would cry out to the Lord, who in his great love and graciousness raised up leaders in Israel called judges, to lead God’s people and free them from their oppressors. Interestingly, some of the judges whom God raised up were themselves deeply flawed individuals, Samson being the poster boy, but God used them anyway to bring freedom and relief to his persistently rebellious people. This in itself should give us hope that God can use even us, deeply flawed as we are, to help achieve God’s purposes. The writer of the book of Judges sums up the period this way: “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judges 21.25). 

We would have to live with our heads buried in the sand not to understand what the writer was saying about the darkness the enfolded Israel without a godly leader who would encourage God’s people to live truly as people of God because we too live in a land where people do increasingly what seems right in their own eyes. When we do what is right in our own eyes, darkness and chaos inevitably follow because we are hopelessly corrupted and sin-sick. So, for example, we have jihadists who murder innocents to achieve some sense of perverted justice in their own eyes. We have young people who shoot up schools, in part to achieve a sense of justice for being left out and/or ignored or bullied. We are asked increasingly to endorse sexual relationships and gender confusion in the name of tolerance and love, all the while ignoring the fact that these things run contrary to God’s created order and will surely not turn out well overall. We have folks who take to social media to say racist, sexist, and hateful things about those they do not like. We don’t argue ideas anymore. We try to shame and discredit those with whom we disagree because doing so seems right in our own eyes. We turn a blind eye to all kinds of injustice and evil in the world and come up with all kinds of rationalizations to justify our own questionable moral and ethical behavior. And Christians are not exempt from any of this. Look no further than the fiasco that has engulfed some of the old-guard leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention over their treatment of women who have been abused or raped because these men were doing what seemed right in their own eyes. This isn’t a white man’s problem. It is a human race problem because as Saint Paul reminds us grimly, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God in whose Image we are created (Rom 3.25). In addition to the hopeless condition of our sin-sickness that prevents us from pulling ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps, we are a nation increasingly susceptible to this phenomenon of doing what seems right in our own eyes because for years now we’ve been told to think for ourselves. We’ve been urged to reject the wisdom and teaching of our various traditions and look what it has brought us. Not all is bad, of course, and some traditions need to be challenged, especially when they have become distorted by folks doing what seems right in their own eyes. That’s one of the points of our gospel lesson after all. But in the areas of moral and ethical behavior, we are essentially no different from the people of ancient Israel. We are more interested in doing what seems right in our own eyes than seeking to obey the word and wisdom of God as revealed in Scripture. No wonder the word of the Lord was (and is) scarce and visions far and few between.

This was the historical context for our OT story today. If that weren’t bad enough, old Eli had two sons who had apparently turned the Tabernacle of the Lord, the very place where God chose to live with his people, into a brothel (with stuff like this, who needs reality TV?). As the writer explains earlier, “Eli was very old, but he was aware of what his sons were doing to the people of Israel. He knew, for instance, that his sons were [having sex with] the young women who assisted at the entrance of the Tabernacle” (1 Samuel 2.22). Eli rebuked his sons, but not in a way that got them to change their behavior, and he apparently did nothing further to stop this serious problem from occurring. It seems that even the priestly family was doing what seemed right in their own eyes. With all this in mind, is it surprising that the word of the Lord, i.e., God’s guiding presence, was rare in those days? We see the same thing happening in our country as people increasingly refuse to submit to the life-giving power of the word of the Lord and do what seems right in their own eyes.

Hey Father Maney! I hear some of you saying. You told us this was supposed to be a sermon about hope. If this is your idea of preaching hope, please stop and let us slit our wrists. That kinda seems to be what is right in our own eyes. Patience, grasshoppers. If we are not willing to take a hard look at our own reality, we will hardly be in a position to see hope when it presents itself. Despite the darkness that enveloped God’s people, despite the fact that the word of the Lord was scarce in those days (and ours), the writer reminds us that God had not totally abandoned God’s people in judgment because that is not who God is. God did not create us for destruction. God created us for relationship and life. And so we are told that the Lord’s lamp, a symbol of the very presence of God, had not gone completely out. God spoke to the young boy Samuel, who despite being dedicated to the Lord by his mother Hannah (1 Samuel 1.19-28), did not initially recognize the Lord was speaking to him, precisely because the word of the Lord was scarce. It was so scarce that it took a groggy Eli three times to recognize that it was God who was speaking to the boy. Once Samuel responded to God, however, I’m pretty sure he wished he hadn’t because the first word Samuel heard was an oracle of judgment against his beloved mentor, Eli, and his family. What a predicament for the youngster! God was ready to bring about the hope of a new beginning but first a terrible ending had to take place. God will not be mocked. We must realize that doing whatever seems right in our sin-sick eyes will not lead to our healing and restoration. The world, including parts of Christ’s Church, is in the mess it’s in precisely because we are not willing to submit to God’s wise leadership over us contained in God’s word. We are too busy trying to cling to equality with God and have been from the start!

But God does not abandon us because God is faithful to his created order (us included) and because God loves us, despite our rebellion and the judgment it brings. We must remember that stories like this fall under the overarching story in Scripture of how God is going about rescuing us from our death-producing sin and the evil it unleashes in the world. Even when the darkness of our sin and rebellion threatens to totally consume us and we wonder why God has abandoned us or how God could possibly love us in the first place, stories like this remind us that God is still in charge of God’s created order and is actively seeking us out to have a life-saving relationship with him. As the psalmist reminds us in our psalm lesson this morning, God is actively and intimately involved with us, even while we are being formed in our mother’s womb (listen if you have ears)!

As God’s people in Christ, we are reminded of God’s love and care for us in the death and resurrection of his Son, who died for us while we were still God’s enemies (Romans 5.6-11). Saint Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson that the light and love of God always shines in our hearts, despite the darkness that dwells in us and the world that seeks to snuff out God’s light and life-giving love for us. As the apostle also reminds us, we have life only by dying to ourselves, only by actively putting to death all that is in us that is actively opposed and hostile to God. We can’t do this on our own, of course. We do it in the power of the Spirit who lives in us and who makes our risen Lord available to us every day. The folks of Samuel’s day did not have this privilege. God only poured out his Spirit on a select few, mainly the prophets. But at Pentecost that all changed and now all believers have an Advocate, God himself, to defend us against the Accuser and his minions (and ourselves). This lifelong, difficult, and often messy process of putting to death our desire to be God’s equals so that we can do what seems right to us allows us to share in Christ’s life-saving death on the cross. And when we share in Christ’s death, we also get to share in Christ’s resurrected life, as Saint Paul reminds us in today’s lesson, Rom 6.3-5, and elsewhere. We are not saved by our works, by our status or our money or our power or—I know this is hard for you who are looking at me to believe—our looks. We bring nothing to the table that gives us hope for life with God, either in this world or the next. We have this hope only in the death and resurrection of the Son of God, whose story is contained in Holy Scripture and whose presence is available to us in the power of the Spirit. Without this hope we still live in darkness. Without this hope, frankly healing services like today’s are nothing but a farce.

So here are two of many things to reflect on this week from this story of Eli and Samuel. First, God never imposes God’s will on us. God created us for relationship with God and each other and invites us to accept his invitation. If we choose to enter that relationship we must also be willing to submit to God’s authority contained in Scripture and revealed supremely in Jesus Christ. It’s never a good thing for us to think for ourselves when it comes to matters of God and God’s word. We must call on the Spirit and the collective wisdom of Christ’s Church to help us know God. Second, there are times in our lives and in our culture (like today) where it seems that God has abandoned us. The word of the Lord is scarce and visions are few, i.e. it appears that God is far away and doesn’t care about us or our plight. The story of Samuel and Eli suggests otherwise. God is always present and acts in sometimes very surprising and unexpected ways. After all, who expected the Creator of the universe to become human and die a terrible and shameful death on a cross to rescue us from our sin and its resulting death? Of course, the enemies of the cross seek to silence us and we can expect to be harassed and even persecuted for proclaiming the word of the Lord, and that can make us afraid. And in the context of our healing service, we become afraid when we come to the Lord for healing and nothing apparently happens. When we become afraid, we must ask the Spirit to reveal Jesus’ presence to us and to open our minds and hearts to God’s word, which is critical for our faith. After all, the last book of the Bible (Revelation) was written by a man exiled by the Roman authorities for his faith in Jesus. There he wrote about the eventual victory of God and his Christ over the powers of Evil and Death. God will judge all that is wrong with God’s world and that includes us. But we aren’t afraid because we are people who believe in the power of the cross and God’s love poured out for us there. That faith, that hope, and that love unite us with our resurrected Lord and remind us light and life are our destiny and present reality, not darkness and death. And that story is contained in God’s word. So hang on to that hope, my beloved. Encourage each other as you proclaim it to the world because you know you are proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.