Trouble in the bible
It was toward the end of the time of the Judges, when the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served Baal. But the Lord raised up judges, and he was with the judges, and whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, the Lord saved the Israelites from their enemies, and whenever the judge died the people returned to ways even more corrupt than their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshipping them. The last words of the book of judges are; ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit’.
Into these times Samuel was born, most beloved son on Hannah; in those days when the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions. He lived in a world where people worshiped other gods. Many people didn’t know God, and even some who claimed they did know God, didn’t demonstrate that in their behaviour. Samuel’s mentor Eli was a priest, and the leader of Israel. Eli’s two sons were priests too. But they were a poor example of God’s people. They had no regard for the Lord – they treated the temple traditions with contempt and thought only of themselves. What kind of a world was this for a young man to grow up in? A world where everyone was selfish, where people showed no regard for anyone’s needs but their own. Where even the priests had contempt for God.
The temples were still standing, and we hear that the lamp of God had not yet gone out, but the priests didn’t love God, they didn’t serve God and they didn’t know God. Samuel didn’t know God. Living and serving in the temple I’m sure he knew about God, and I’m sure he believed in God. But as it says in James 2:19, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” The demons know and believe in God, but they still do evil all the time. Knowing about God doesn’t count for much if you don’t live by what you know.
It strikes me that it must have been hard to grow up in a temple in those days. Be that as it may, God chose to speak to Samuel. And given the circumstances, it was not surprising that Samuel didn’t know it was God; nothing, not his experience, not his education and not his mentor, would have prepared him for the possibility that God would speak to him. And let’s face it, when he ran, obediently, to Eli, Eli wasn’t considering it either was he? Not the first time, and not the second time that Samuel told him about the voice calling him. Only slowly did it occur to Eli that God might be at the root of this unusual activity.
God chose Samuel to be his prophet. And he had a hard message. “I am going to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family – from beginning to end.” Samuel was the one to tell Eli, and indeed Israel, the news that would make their ears tingle; that Eli would be judged for his failure to restrain the blasphemies of his sons. And in addition, Israel would be defeated by the Philistines. God finished by saying “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering”. Hard words.
And it soon came to pass with the death of Eli’s sons, Eli, and his daughter in law. And it tells us in ch. 4 that Israel were defeated in battle, and the Ark of the Covenant was captured and taken away by the enemy. ‘The glory had departed from Israel for the ark of God had been captured.’
Trouble in the world
I wonder how differently we might consider the world we live in today, from the world that Eli and Samuel lived in. I’m keen not to make specific comparison with particular groups of people or behaviours, but I’m sure you wouldn’t find it hard to say that many people are doing evil in the eyes of the Lord. Many people are serving and worshiping gods of one kind or another – money, sex, power, control. It often seems that everyone does as they see fit. You only need to look at the news or crime statistics to see how often people choose to violate the person or property of others for their own gain.
There are fewer people in the West who know God today, than ever before. Infact there are fewer people who even know OF God, let alone know God. According to the census results of 2011, Between 2001 and 2011 there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent).
A major faith survey in the UK reports finding that
I believe in either God or a higher spiritual power
I do not believe in either God or a higher spiritual power
I believe in some kind of spiritual power only
I am unsure of my belief regarding either of these
If current trends continue, those identifying as believers in God will fall to 8.4% of the population by 2025. (https://faithsurvey.co.uk/uk-christianity.html)
To push the analogy further, there are many people, like Eli’s sons, who purport to be faithful followers of God who behave in the most disgraceful of ways. I don’t just mean those few Roman Catholic priests, or other Christian priests who have abused others from their position of power. I mean Christians who go to church for an hour on a Sunday and then go out into the world and behave as though they’d never heard the message of Jesus to love one another.
It seems that the word of the Lord is rare in these days, and there are not many visions. People are not looking for, and seeing God in their lives.
Grace in the bible
So despite the fact that the word of the Lord was rare, and there were not many visions, God called Samuel. And he gave him all the time he needed to understand that the call was God. And he equipped Eli, for all his shortcomings, to be the teacher he was meant to be, and make sure Samuel had the prophetic skills he needed to know God and to hear him. God came to Samuel and stood there. He made himself present to Samuel, and Samuel knew God.
And even though the message God had to give Samuel was a hard one, Samuel understood that it was the truth that he had to deliver. God had remained faithful to his people throughout all their sin, but he couldn’t allow the sin to continue. Israel needed to be brought back into covenant relationship. They needed to put their sin out of their lives and be the lights that God had created them to be. Even if that required harsh consequences from God.
It is remarkable that God spoke into these times, to a young boy, and that he was heard. But when we look through the bible, we can see that God often calls people who seem so unqualified for the task he gives them: He called Abraham, an old man to father a new nation. He called Moses, a murderer, to save the Israelites from slavery, He called David, a morally compromised ex-shepherd to be the first king of Israel and Mary, a young insignificant girl to give birth to the Son of God. Then he called pagan astrologers to find the new-born Messiah! Later he called someone who had killed Christians to take the message of Christ to the Gentiles.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised therefore, that he chose a little boy who did not yet know the Lord to become the prophet who spoke truth into the sin or Israel, and anointed their first king.
Throughout history, God has called the people who will listen. God has called the people who, having heard, will respond. And what we know about Samuel is that he continued to listen after that first experience of God. And God was with him as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognised that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord.
Grace in the world
Back when the telegraph was the fastest method of long-distance communication, a young man applied for a job as a Morse-Code operator. Answering an ad in the newspaper, he went to the office address that was listed. When he arrived, he entered a large, busy office filled with noise and clatter, including the sound of the telegraph in the background. A sign on the receptionist’s counter instructed job applicants to fill out a form and wait until they were summoned to enter the inner office.
The young man filled out his form and sat down with the seven other applicants in the waiting area. After a few minutes, the young man stood up, crossed the room to the door of the inner office, and walked right in. Naturally the other applicants perked up, wondering what was going on. They muttered among themselves that they hadn’t heard any summons yet. They assumed that the young man who went into the office made a mistake and would be disqualified.
Within a few minutes, however, the employer escorted the young man out of the office and said to the other applicants, “Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming, but the job has just been filled.”
The other applicants began grumbling to each other, and one spoke up saying, “Wait a minute, I don’t understand. He was the last to come in, and we never even got a chance to be interviewed. Yet he got the job. That’s not fair!”
The employer said, “I’m sorry, but all the time you’ve been sitting here, the telegraph has been ticking out the following message in Morse-Code: ‘If you understand this message, then come right in. The job is yours.’ None of you heard it or understood it. This young man did. The job is his.”
In our world today it is hard to hear the Lord speak to us; so often his voice is drowned out by the calls of modern needs. More often, we are simply not expecting God to stand before us and speak.
But I believe that God calls us all the time. He calls us through the relationship we have through Jesus Christ. He calls us through the bible. He calls us and prompts us time and again, sometimes with his still, small voice, and sometimes with a sledge hammer, sometimes when we feel blown along by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes through the prompting of others – in the way that Eli, prompted and lead Samuel to recognise God and respond.
We live in a world where it is easy to be influenced by other things. Like Samuel’s time, there are a lot of pressures to listen to other voices and be led by lesser gods. The adverts and the pull of money can often shout more loudly in our ears than the call of God, but when we expect it, when we have faith that God is interested in us, rooting for us, loving us, even in a world where many don’t know him at all, then we can be confident that he will stand before us and call us and we will hear his voice.
And God needs us to hear his call. He needs us to carry his words to the people who need to know him. We are people who can tell people of God’s love; that in his grace and mercy he saved us through the redeeming love of Jesus. Each of us is called to live our lives in a particular way that witnesses to the grace of God in a time when so many are worshiping the wrong things. As you go about your week this week, expect God to speak to you, and be blessed by what you hear him say to you. Tell him ‘speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’