Bruce Van Blair
Sunday, May 29, 2016

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Prior Sermons in Series on Stories of the Bible

NEXT STORY (June 5):
David & Bathsheba
II Samuel 11:01-12:24

Samuel's Boyhood
I Samuel 1:1-3:21


(Children's Story)

     Today we are going to talk a little bit about Samuel as a young boy. But I want to mention to you first that Samuel is an exceedingly important person in the Old Testament. Lots of people more or less skip over Samuel. It’s easier to understand the impact of Moses or David; it’s easier to remember the deeds of Samson or Gideon. Samuel is subtle and mysterious, and his importance is scattered all around instead of being in one or two easily remembered events.

     Nevertheless, Samuel is the most powerful and influential leader in Israel from Moses to David. He has a lot of the spiritual stature of Moses. He intercedes with God on behalf of the people – that is, he pleads the case of the people before God. He carries the message and instructions of God back to the people, just like Moses did. He is a warrior leader, like the judges before him. He takes national leadership and drives the Philistines out after their terrible victory at Aphek. He reforms the nation’s worship and calls the people to sincere worship of Yahweh, much like Elijah did later. He also rides as circuit judge, keeping order and justice (with all the wisdom of a Solomon). In his spare time he is a mystic, he anoints and deposes kings, he helps widows, and he gives oracles.

     Samuel is always more than he seems. His influence is always greater than the positions he holds. He stands between two great ages: he is the last of the judges and the first of the prophets. He is pragmatic, yet far more spiritual than political. He is kingmaker, priest, warrior, and judge. He is also seer, mystic, and one who walks and speaks with God. Today we are only going to talk about Samuel as a young boy, but I just thought you should know that he became a very great man. Nobody becomes a man without first being a little boy; nobody becomes a woman without first being a little girl. Who you are, how you decide things, and how you behave are already deciding what kind of men and women you will become.

     Samuel lived before the Jews had conquered Jerusalem. There was no temple yet. The tabernacle was a large, complex tent structure that could be taken down and set up as they traveled. It was a lot of work, so they did not move it very often if they could help it. At the time of our story, the tabernacle was set up at a place called Shiloh, which means that Shiloh was the center of the nation and its worship when Samuel was a boy.

     Of course, there was always a High Priest in charge of the nation’s worship and spiritual life. This responsibility had passed on from Aaron (Moses’ brother) down to Eli, who was High Priest when Samuel was born. By that time, Eli was getting to be an old man, and his two sons, Phinehas and Hophni, needed to take over the responsibilities of the tabernacle: leading worship; preparing sacrifices and festivals; teaching; helping people to live by the Covenant, settle disputes, and be faithful in worship and service before God.

     But Eli’s two sons were jerks. They did not take God or worship seriously. They were more interested in horsing around, satisfying their own desires, getting rich – using the temple and the priesthood to get what they wanted for themselves. Since God did not step in physically and directly to stop them, they soon concluded that God either did not know or did not care, or that maybe God just couldn’t do anything about it. Their father Eli was a nice, conscientious, sweet, sincere man; he did not do bad things directly himself. But like many people, he was more interested in being liked than in being faithful. So he did not have the courage of his convictions, and he let his sons go from bad to worse.

     Meanwhile, God had already been taking steps to bring a true spiritual leader into the High Priesthood instead of Phinehas or Hophni. God turned to a devout and humble couple named Hannah and Elkanah. Hannah (grace, favor) had no children, and she prayed daily that God would be merciful and grant her a son. And she promised that if God would do this, she would devote the child to God’s service from the earliest possible age. She thought it was all her idea, but humans always think that everything is their idea.

     So Samuel was born to Hannah. And true to her promise, as soon as Samuel was old enough, she brought him to Eli to be raised in the tabernacle. Samuel would be like an apprentice; he would do whatever chores Eli asked, and Eli would instruct him in all the ways of the tabernacle and the priesthood and teach him the sacred covenants.

     And so it was that, at a young age, Samuel heard the voice calling him. He thought it was Eli calling for him, so he went to Eli, who had not called him. The third time it happened, Eli caught on. We always get very attentive when the Bible starts talking about things in threes. Eli then gave Samuel instructions that would change his life forever: When that voice calls, you must reply, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

     That voice calls every human who ever lives. We never know when it will call; Jesus kept telling us to always be watchful and ready for it. It had called to Phinehas and Hophni, but they would never listen or reply. Some humans fill their heads with so many fears and worries that they cannot hear the voice. Others fill the air with constant noise or entertainment or the sound of their own voices talking and they do not hear it. But that voice calls to every living person.

     However, it never continues unless we reply – and our reply must promise, as Eli told Samuel, that we will give our undivided attention and that we will obey. “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

     So at first Samuel thought it was Eli calling him, but it was the voice of the Lord speaking in Samuel’s mind. Some of you have already heard that voice speaking in your mind. Some of you have been too busy or distracted with other things. Some of us hear but will not obey.

     If you are going to know this story, you might as well know what it means. It means that the next time you hear that voice speaking in your mind, you must say, “I will listen to you with more attention than I give to anything else on earth. And I will do whatever you ask, Lord, just as soon as I can tell what you are asking.”

     “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

     Will you remember that?


     Phinehas means “brass mouth” – what he said was not exactly pure or worth much. Hophni can mean “pugilist,” but more likely refers to a person who had both hands full – with bribes. One was a liar and the other was greedy, and they were the leaders of the spiritual life and devotion of God’s Chosen People at the time Samuel was born.

     God had arranged (we do not think in these terms, but the writers of First and Second Samuel did) for the Philistines to win a major battle (at Aphek) in which the brothers Phinehas and Hophni were killed and the Ark of the Covenant was stolen. Obviously it was just a coincidence, but it felt to Israel like God was saying, “Spit on me and I’m leaving.” When Eli, who was in his nineties, heard the news, he fell off his seat, broke his neck, and died. Who was left to step in but young Samuel, who was an entirely different breed. He worshipped Yahweh with true COMMITMENT and DEVOTION (the C and D words). He was already trained and ready.

     Israel, or at least many within Israel, responded to Samuel’s leadership with relief and gratitude, as the nation felt its identity and destiny coming back to the fore. The Ark was returned and the Philistines were driven off. Everywhere that Samuel turned, it was as if the people could feel the presence and guidance of God and God’s intentions. “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” For Samuel, that was not a children’s story. It was a way of life.

     His influence became enormous. Yet Samuel never wanted to be dictator, never wanted to be king, never wanted to be in charge in any formal way. He merely told what he thought God was indicating. And indeed, he anointed Saul as King against his own desires. For Samuel, Yahweh was King, and human kings would only get in the way; why wouldn’t everybody just listen to that voice within the mind and reply, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening”? But times were hard, and Samuel believed that the Lord was being responsive to the pleas of a people not yet ready for such an individual covenant of obedience. So he acquiesced and left the vision to a later Jeremiah – and to a Jesus – to bring a New Covenant.

     It’s just my way of asking: How are you doing with the C and D words? How are you doing with commitment and devotion?

     It started out with the F word: FREE. Are you free to follow God? Then it went to the M word: MARRIAGE. For a season, it seemed like the M word struck more terror into the hearts of young Americans than any other fate or folly. Then some people began to notice that it was not just marriage itself, but what marriage implied or called for. In trying to obtain the blessed parts of marriage without incurring the blight, people discovered that the blessing and the curse were the same thing – it just depended on which end you lifted first. It was not the marriage that was the problem. It was the commitment and devotion behind it, underneath it, surrounding it. That was the very thing people longed for. That was also the thing they feared.

     Commitment and devotion on any and every level has been the bane of our society in recent years. We do not want to be loyal to God, country, mate, employer, relatives, friends, or anything else. What if we commit and devote ourselves to some person and get rejected or abandoned? Even if we want to, can we make ourselves take such a horrendous chance again? What if we believe in God with all of our heart and soul, and it turns out that God is just another human fantasy? Oh yes, we long with everything within us to be committed and devoted, but do we dare?

     All covenant bonds operate on similar principles. The marriage crisis is merely a reflection and a symptom of the religious crisis. People want a long-term, lasting, sincere relationship full of integrity – without calling it marriage; without the state or society or rules laid down from outside; without marriage messing it up. People want to be close to God, find their true inner beings, have dynamic spiritual lives – without calling it a church or religious community; without the disciplines and beliefs and traditions from outside; without religion messing it up.

     How are you doing with the C and D words? With commitment and devotion?

     I happen to think that many of us within this church like community, do not long for disposable friends, want lasting and meaningful marriage, want to belong to Christ’s church. We are even learning to trust God’s mercy and guidance if it takes us more than one try to find our way into such things. In other words, I happen to think that we like and want commitment and devotion. It’s almost indecent to say such a thing right out in the open; didn’t you feel it sort of gasp and wobble there, as I said it? Yet I think it’s true all the same.

     I want to say three things and do not have time to say them well, but you can hear them well. You can be reminded and rejoice. That’s not all of worship, but it will do for openers.

1.) The first thing I think we should do is check our mental image of the C and D words. Maybe you don’t have this problem, but I have a great tendency to confuse commitment and devotion with other things: strain, heroics, challenge, danger, unearthly discipline, suffering – sweat (or blood) pouring off the face and soul.

     When I stop to think about it, most of the times (not all of them, but most of them) that I have seen or been in situations of anguish, danger, strain, enormous effort, and the like, the real problem was that there had not been sufficient commitment and devotion. It had come to the strain and anguish because the C and D words had been absent.

     On the other hand, over and over I have seen people enter into covenant with God where they fully extended permission to God to send them anywhere and use them any way at all, and the result was peace and order and effective behavior, often laced with more fun and relaxation than ever before – all flowing more and more into their lives.

     Is Jesus more committed and devoted to God when He is up having a picnic in Caesarea Philippi than He is when He prays in the Garden, “Not my will, but thine, be done”? I don’t think so. The circumstances are just different. Is a mother more committed and devoted to her children when she sits in a hospital room praying for their lives than when she helps them roast hotdogs over a summer campfire? I don’t think so. The circumstances are just different. Getting committed and devoted does not mean signing up for the hospital room, as if that is what we want. On the other hand, if the hospital room is what it comes to, would you want to be anywhere else?

     It is not the commitment and devotion that is so strenuous. It is when life gets hard or evil presses against the commitment and devotion that we feel the pressure. And that, of course, is precisely when we really want commitment and devotion to be true and to hold firm.

2.) This second one is even shorter and simpler: Is there anything or any ONE worthy of your commitment and devotion? That’s the real religious question.

     Have you asked it lately? Oh, we make it sound so boring and prudish and tame and ho-hum: Do you believe in God? Do you believe in God?! Who do we think we are, to go around believing (or not) in ONE so far beyond us? Then we start these long conversations about definitions – what does “do” mean, what does “believe” mean, what does “god” mean – as if that is somehow going to shed light on the dilemma (when we don’t even know what “you” or “in” means). It is, as we used to say, an existential dilemma – not an intellectual one. Have you personally encountered anything in life that is of more worth than you are? I mean, of more worth to you than your own survival, well-being, pleasure, wealth, or happiness?

     Samuel’s story reminds us of it all. What the story cannot put into words is what it feels like to Samuel when he hears that voice in his mind and finally comprehends – although it is beyond comprehension – who it is that is speaking to him. It does not matter if you are a boy or a man or a girl or a woman. That voice, once heard and listened to, does not demand or require respect; it does not have to. It just is what it is: worthy of all commitment, devotion, reverence, allegiance. So Samuel is never in the driver’s seat with that voice. The dilemma for us who hear it ourselves (whether we heard it earlier or not) is relinquishing control.

     If you hear God and do not wish to offer commitment and devotion and worship and adoration, where does that leave you? “Bereft” is the old word, I think. Is there anything or any ONE worthy of your commitment and devotion? That is the religious question.

3.) Where does that leave us – or with what does that leave us – in our musing today? There is no peace, no satisfaction, no steady aim, no real love or belonging in our lives without the C and D words being there, front and center, strong and steady. Isn’t that a kicker? Sin, alienation, damage, and aimlessness all are the result of the loss or absence of commitment and devotion.

     We live in a world that hates the C and D words, and pretty much looks and acts like it. How fortunate and blessed – not superior, just blessed – if we have stumbled (or been called) into a better WAY.

     “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”


Copyright 2016 by Bruce Van Blair.   All rights reserved.