Sermon, Epiphany2   – So close and yet so far Away   – Pastor Noel Due

St Petri

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of unbelief or incredulity, as Dickens put it, it was the season of Light, with a capital “L”. It was the season of Darkness, with a capital “D”. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, …

And it is far like the present period. Here is something else, it’s not just a period of light or darkness, the best of times, the worst of times, belief or unbelief, but it’s a time when it’s not all about you.  Can you believe that? That life is not all about you?  But it is a time in which everything is all about you. If you have a bit of a problem with such paradoxical thinking, you ought not to be sitting in a Lutheran Church. The whole of Luther’s theology was built on that paradoxical dialectical theology. For example, the Christian is the most free Lord of all, subject to none, and the most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.  The Christian is simultaneously a saint and a sinner.

The whole of our theology as Lutheran Christians is built on this sense that we are in the midst of times, which in some way contradict each other, but in another way reveal the glory of God through that very contradiction. So that the glory is hidden in the darkness.  The grace is hidden in the suffering of the cross.  Here we are at a time in Israel’s history in the old Testament reading which I will be preaching on this morning. You can see from the bulletin cover where things were the best of times and the worst of times.  Where it was all darkness, but yet it was the dawn of hope where people had new life coming to them in the most unexpected ways.  Prophecies of judgement and death, cheek by jowl with those promises of new life.

From one point of view this is not a story about Eli the old priest and his sons. From another point of view, it is a story about Eli the old priest and his sons.  In the old Testament, the narrative is driven along through God’s dealings with people. So when we think of the old Testament stories, we think of the names of people like Abraham and Isaac. Jacob, David, Samuel and Solomon, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Isaiah, and so forth.  But those people in their particular stations and vocations of life are used by God to bring out the narrative of what God is doing in, with, through, and under, all of the events of history. So from one point of view it’s not about them at all, but from another point of view it’s entirely about them.

So think for example, of the theology that lies behind God our Shepherd. On the one hand you have things like Psalm 100 which says that we are his people, the flock of his pasture and it’s speaking about all of us together. There is one flock with one Shepherd but on the other hand something like Psalm 23; the Lord is my Shepherd. What we tend to do today is to focus on the individual thing. That’s the way the whole of society has gone.  It’s the way our advertising works’s.  It’s the way our consumerism drives our economies.  It’s all centralised on the person and we’ve lost the sense that we belong to that great community and what happens with us and for us and through us is actually, for the sake of the community beyond us.  This story is about Eli and his sons, but even more it’s about what God is doing in Israel.

One of the problems with the lectionary readings as we have them, is that you tend to miss the context of a reading. You pluck something out. Here we are, we reading from 1 Samuel this week and could be anywhere next week.  As we pluck that one reading out, we miss the flow with the story, and this reading from 1 Samuel ties very closely to the chapters that have preceded it and what precedes those chapters.

It is the period of the judges, and that period was chaos. You’ve got a story of unending decay in God’s people. Morally and in every other way. They are just going down, down, down and down, and then, you have the little story of Ruth and Boaz and that beautiful gift of marriage that God gave to Ruth to restore her. How that becomes a pattern for our redemption in the new Testament.  But the narrative is then taken up through the stories of these people like Eli and Samuel.  Before you get to Samuel, you get to a man called Elkanah and his wife Hannah, and his other wife Peninnah.   Remember that Hannah was barren and childless, and despairing. Elkanah would take his whole family up to the tabernacle every year to offer sacrifices.  Hannah was a woman of faith and prayer and you may remember the story that Eli the old priest, this faithless old codger, was sitting there watching Hannah.  Watching her tears, seeing her lips move because she was praying to herself rather than out loud. What was his assumption?  You are drunk. Put your wine away.  Interestingly, you know in the new Testament when some other people were filled with the holy spirit, some people said something very similar didn’t they, on the day of Pentecost. I think at that point Eli was just giving vent to what was going on in his own heart.

We become very critical of people over the very matters that we ourselves fail in the most.

Eli was a big heavy fleshy man but also a big heavy fleshly man in the theological sense. He had no spiritual life about him, even though he was a priest in the tabernacle. Hannah had her prayer answered! The answer to that prayer was Samuel. Samuel now is the one who is going to carry the hopes and dreams of Israel forward.  All of this period speaks of transition.  Eli and all that he stands for is on the way down. Samuel and all of the promises that he is bringing with him are on the way up. So, we are set in this little reading, at a pivotal point of world history, enacted through people.

So, how do we understand what’s happening here? Well it is full of images and symbolism. Yes, it is full of real people doing real things, but when the Biblical writers pick up on the details, they pick up on those details for a real spiritual purpose. Here we have got this picture of Eli, the old priest whose eyes are growing dim. A very big man, very heavy man, his heart is heavy. Physically, he is not able to move. He’s not nimble. And all of that represents his spiritual state. He is dim of eye. He’s not able to hear the word of God. He is not able to see the visions that God is bringing through his people. His spiritual light is decreasing, if it ever existed to start with, and as the Lord had prophesied in chapter 2, Samuel, Eli and his sons are all going to die in judgement.

I don’t know what it meant for Eli to hear that.Certainly there’s indications that he hated what his sons were up to, because he knew that when he went, his sons would have full control of the tabernacle. His sons were even worse than he was. Not only were they greedy, not only were they gluttons, but they also were sexually immoral. They used to seduce the women who come to worship. They used to lay with those who served at the door of the tabernacle. Perhaps Eli heard the prophecy of judgement as a mercy. Thank God this isn’t going to go on.

The boy Samuel is in the tabernacle, he’s there as a young servant boy. He would help carry things. He would help close and open doors. He would move furniture around. He would be instructed from his boyhood in the way of being a priest in the tabernacle.

Samuel had not yet heard the word of the Lord. The Word of the Lord was rare in those days. A bit like today. Visions were infrequent. People were not used to hearing God speak. There was no expectancy in the temple – perhaps that’s a bit like you. But then as is always the history of God’s dealings with his people, he does something in the most unexpected way. Through this woman Hannah who had been ridiculed ostracised and rejected, a new hope is born and through this little boy Samuel who had not yet heard the word of the Lord.

There is a new beginning promise.So Samuel asleep in his bed, quiet. There were no sacrifices conducted at night time. The lamp of the Lord is still burning. Samuel hears. My sheep hear my voice. Samuel hears his voice calling him. “Samuel”. I call them all by name. Because Samuel is not yet used to hearing the voice of God, he has to develop in his spiritual discernment, he immediately thinks it’s Eli calling. I must see what he needs and no Eli says no I am not calling. Samuel go back. “Samuel” Yes master, you called? “No I did not call Samuel” and then the penny drops for Eli.

The prophecy has been made against me. God would not remove me and my family from Israel unless he had something else to bring up to replace. That’s the way God always works. When God is going to renew and revive his work, he does it through judgement. He removes the blockages. He takes away the barriers, through judgement. Eli knew that if that prophecy had been made about him and his family, then God would be doing something else and the penny drops. He says to Samuel “Go back, it’s the Lord speaking to you”. “Say to him ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’ “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” In other words, Eli says to Samuel, “Samuel you do the thing that I’ve not done. And you do the thing that my sons are not doing. You listen. You hear.So Samuel goes back. The Lord comes the third time to Samuel. He says “speak Lord, your servant is listening”. That simple exchange or relational encounter transforms not just the history of Israel, at this point, but through Samuel, and through all that God was going to do through Samuel, it transforms the history of the whole world. It’s not all about Samuel, but it is all about Samuel.

It is the worst of times because of the darkness, and the despair, and the deadness of God’s people. But it’s the best of times because the lamp of the Lord has not yet gone out. It was a time of darkness because Eli could not see. He was a man who had failing physical sight and failing spiritual sight. He sat in the dark because it was all just darkness to him. Not just night-time but darkness.

But, it was also the time of light, because that darkness is matched by a light which shines in the darkness through this little boy and the darkness could not overcome it. The story of Samuel goes on to unfold how God himself went into the darkness, captured in the ark of the Philistine’s. Taken into the very darkness.

Perhaps all of this is ringing bells with you. Perhaps you look at the church, this church, the whole Church in Australia. The church, however you may be thinking about it and you may be thinking it is the worst of times. But I tell you, it is also the best of times because the lamp of the Lord has not yet gone out and if God did and fulfilled something through Hannah and her little son Samuel, how much more will he complete what is promised through Mary and her son Jesus. If the lamp of the Lord which was burning in the old tabernacle had not yet gone out in the darkness, how much more impossible is it for the light of the world not to go out?

Even though in the midst of the tabernacle, the church, the temple which we are. Even though things may be very dark. God is not finished with the church, but he will not revive or awaken without cleaning out the dross. We’ve had many years of that in the public arena haven’t we. Royal commissions, dreadful things exposed. It’s time first for judgement to begin with the house of God says Peter. And when we’ve been through the fire, we may be able to help the rest of the world cope when God brings their darkness to the light.

It may be just for you personally today. You are feeling it is all darkness. It’s not. The light of the world is still shining in you and on you. The darkness that you feel is not darkness to him. Though you walk through the valley of deep darkness, he is with you, and his rod and his staff will still comfort you. The only thing that you need to do is a Samuel. Speak Lord your servant is listening. Speak Lord, your servant is listening. As you throw all things up into chaos, speak Lord, your servant is listening. As we despair about the church and we look at all of the changes that are taking place across all of the denominations all around the world, “speak Lord your servant is listening”. But please, for God’s sake literally don’t become an Eli. You know that the judgement for not hearing in the old Testament, or the scriptures, the judgement for not hearing is that you can’t hear. The judgement for not seeing is that you can’t see. Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.

In Jesus name. Amen.