Monday, January 19, 2015

Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-10, for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, "Speak, Lord, for your servant hears"

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The life of the prophet Samuel in the Bible has much to tell us still today, but today we see a major turning point in his young life. Who are Samuel and Eli in the passage? “Samuel” means “God has heard.” Samuel was God’s answer to the earnest prayers of a young Hebrew wife Hannah, living in Old Testament times, who was unable to have children. She earnestly prayed to God for a son, and God heard her prayer and blessed her with Samuel, who, from a young age, she dedicated Samuel to serve in the Lord’s house. Eli was the priest of the Lord at the tabernacle, the tent of worship for the Lord. Hannah had brought her young son to serve under Eli. While Hannah was a woman of great faith, Eli believed in God, but did nothing to stop the wickedness of his two sons, who were complete scoundrels. They committed brazen acts that dishonored God’s name and house—sexual immorality in God’s house; abusing their authority to collect the best sacrifices for themselves, scoffing at their duty.
Surrounded by apathy toward God’s Word, disgraces being done in God’s house by the priests, the sons of his own master—the young and innocent Samuel arrives. He was serving under Eli, but had not yet received a vision from the Lord, and the “word of the Lord was rare in those days.” And later it says, “he did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” Samuel is young, na├»ve, and innocent to the corrupt dealings that are happening in God’s house, but God was going to give him a mighty purpose. In this first vision from the Lord, he would be required to deliver a strong rebuke and prophecy against Eli and his sons because he did not restrain their blaspheming of God. Eli, perhaps to our surprise, demanded that Samuel not hold back any of the words that God had spoken to him, and accepted the words as a just decree from the Lord.
God raised up young Samuel, who at first did not know the Lord, in the days when the word of the Lord was rare, to be a mighty prophet—a servant who heard the word of the Lord and obeyed. What made the word of the Lord rare in those days? The people’s sin? That they didn’t pay attention to God’s Word, or recognize it when it came? Or because God had hidden His face from them and was silent? Perhaps all of the above? In any case, when the chapter is over, God has the ears of at least one faithful servant who is listening, and God is speaking.
Could we say that the word of the Lord is rare today? Do we suffer from a lack of God’s Word? Or maybe instead a lack of hearing or paying attention to God’s Word? This happens easily enough in everyday life. Do any of you have trouble listening or paying attention? To your spouse? Children? Boss? Teacher? Employees? We can list our excuses—distractions, busy-ness, stress, boredom, etc—but at the end of the day we still aren’t listening. We might be missing vital information or creating communication barriers; or our learning, our relationships, and jobs might suffer for it. How much more so, if we are not listening or paying attention to God’s Word? Not only will we miss vital information—God’s own truth, and His Word for our lives—but our relationship with Him, our knowledge of Him will suffer.
One problem might be that we look in the wrong places or listen to the wrong voices. St. Paul warned that this would happen. It happens throughout human history. We turn to what our itching ears want to hear, instead of to the truth of God’s Word, especially when it confronts our sin. Our sin itself plugs up our ears so that we don’t want to listen. We hear only what we want to hear, and sift out the rest. As the rest of the story of Eli and his sons shows, sin is deadly business before God, and we urgently need for that to be made right with God, by putting our sin away and calling on His mercy and forgiveness. God is ready and willing to give it if we will humble ourselves, but won’t forgive those who despise and dishonor Him, and have no use for His forgiveness. The way to His mercy is humbling ourselves before Jesus.
Being at church is hopefully a very good start to show that we are listening—but we can still occupy our seats with minds and ears tuned out, following all sorts of distractions. But if we are indeed listening, then like Samuel we say: “Speak Lord, for your servant hears.” Our lives are open to God’s message and we know He is calling, and we know that we have need of His Word in our life. Even if we are competing with the static from our everyday life, and filtering out distractions, we pray that God speaks to us, and that we would hear. Hearts and ears tuned in, God will speak to us.
Will it come in a vision, like for Samuel? Are we to wait for a still, small voice that speaks while we sleep? While Samuel, and elsewhere Joseph and Mary and others received visions or visits from angels, we understand that these were not everyday occurrences. God does indeed speak this way to people at various times, and still can. But we aren’t lead to believe that every Christian will have these experiences, or even to put our trust in them. In fact we are even warned that even the devil can masquerade as an angel of light to deceive, so we must always discern what truly comes from God (2 Cor. 11:14). We are also warned not even to listen to an angel from heaven, if they speak something contrary to the good news of Jesus Christ that we have received (Gal. 1:8).
So the Scripture actually tells us exactly how we can expect to hear from God today—“In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old through the prophets, but now in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son.” (Heb. 1:1). We hear Him in the Word of Jesus, His Son. Jesus said God’s Word is Truth (John 17:17), and that He came to bear witness to the Truth (18:37). We don’t need a special vision or an angel to hear God, we have His Word right here in our Bible! So you may very well hear from God at your bedside—if that’s where you keep your Bible! But you won’t hear anything unless you open it and read it, or are hearing God’s Word elsewhere as well. We are so richly blessed with God’s Word, that it is far from rare today—it is accessible to us everywhere. You can get free audio recordings, if you want to listen, we have an abundance of English language translations (some better than others) to read; we have church services and Bible studies and devotions that all open up the Scriptures for us. Hearing God’s Word together as a church, and reading it on your own, opens up God’s Word to you. Consider saying Samuel’s words as a prayer when you open the Bible to read each day: “Speak, O Lord, your servant hears!” And be ready, because God will speak!
And, if your life is immersed in the Holy Scriptures, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you when words of Scripture already placed on your heart, come back to speak to you later at an appropriate time. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, speaking to your heart, taking Scripture that you have heard and applying it to your life. These are life-giving words that God gives, and the Holy Spirit’s toolbox to work in our lives. Many Christians have been richly blessed by storing up words of Scripture through memorization, frequent study of God’s Word, though the repetition of the liturgy or Christian hymns and songs—and later come to benefit from that rich treasure they have stored up in their heart. Christians who have endured terrible persecution and been locked up in prison for many years, with no access to the Word of God, have testified to the Light that God’s Word gave them in the darkness, just from what they had memorized. Or for people who are ill or aging, and losing their memory, it is often things like Psalm 23, the Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer, or a well-loved song, that are the last to go. Folks here at Emmanuel who have gone caroling have even seen people who are otherwise almost completely unable to speak, be able to mouth the words of a favorite Christmas carol or the Lord’s Prayer, because those words were stored up when they were young.
When we are ready and listening to what God speaks to us, we will hear His calling on our lives. We will hear the call to repent of our sins, to believe in Jesus, and to go and serve Him in love. Young men or women may even hear the call to go and tell God’s Word to others—serving as a teacher, missionary or pastor. Or you may be called to use your gifts and talents for any other God-pleasing vocation where you can serve your neighbor.
History cycles through ages of people who listen faithfully to God’s Word like Hannah and Samuel, and generations who ignore or despise His Word. Servants who listen, and others who don’t. Jesus was born into a time of apathy and shallow regard for God’s Word; a day where disgraces happened in the Temple of God; much like the time of Samuel. Jesus too, was raised up by God for a mighty purpose. But He was greater than a prophet; greater than all the prophets. He came to a people who would not hear—but He Himself listened. He listened faithfully to God as a Servant, and as God’s own Son. He listened; God spoke, and Jesus obeyed. In servant-like obedience He went to the cross, where He bore our sin, our deafness and inattentiveness to God’s Word, and crucified it there. He rose from the grave so that when our ears are opened and listening at last, that it would not only be the judgment of our sins at the cross that we hear, but also His rising victory in Life! The words He speaks, they are Spirit, and they are life! When we hear them and live by them our life is built on the Rock, and the storms of life cannot shake us.
Lord, open our ears! Make us eager and ready to hear your Word. Help us listen through the distractions and noise of daily life, and listening—help us to obey and do your will. Give us ears to hear, so that when You speak we will hear the Good News of your beloved Son Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose to give us life. We praise you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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