1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
Entering the Mennonite nursing home in Vineland last week, I noticed one of the volunteers taking the lights off the Christmas tree in the lobby. Seeing as she was 4 feet nothing with no ladder in sight, I offered to help with the top of the tree. As we packed away Christmas, I thought of Ann Weems’ poem:
It is not over, this birthing.
There are always newer skies
into which God can throw stars.
When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born,
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.
Those who wait for God
they watch with their hearts
not their eyes,
for angels’ words.
But it feels like it is over, doesn’t it. Everything points to it being over. The Christmas tree lays out on the curb waiting for pick up. The decorations are all back in the crawl space. Mary and Joseph are hibernating in their bubble wrap. The oracles of outside decorations have been silenced by a pull of the plug. Those who were excited for the holidays are now happy to get back to their routines. Sure feels like Christmas is over.
Is it really so easy for us to silence the proclamations of “Peace on earth” by merely switching radio stations or opening another play list? Can guiding stars be extinguished so easily by merely pulling out the batteries? Can a new community formed by the common quest of shepherds and wise men simply be stored away behind the cardboard of boxes? Can the birth of God, Emmanuel, ‘God with us’, be so simply isolated from us by sticking it on a basement shelf? Is this birthing over?
Samuel faced the same dilemma. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, had been barren for many years. Her husband, her family, the whole community ceased associations with her because she was cursed by God. These curses are contagious, don’t you know. So Hannah spent many years in prayer and supplication to God. Apparently, God heard her voice because, like many faithful women before her, she was redeemed by having Samuel. She was so thankful to God, not only for Samuel, but for having been restored to her family and society, that as soon as Samuel was weaned, she took him to the temple to offer his life to God.
So Samuel was raised in the temple. He was steeped in religious training and observances. Good old Eli had been his mentor. But there was a problem. Just as we have packed away the story of Christmas, the Israelite people had packed away their stories into the ritual and traditions of the temple. This God, who actively keeps covenant with them, who led them out of slavery in Egypt, who guided them through the desert by star and cloud, who led them across the Jordan to a land flowing with milk and honey, had become the object of sacrament and worship. The problem is, objects don’t speak. No one expected to hear the voice of a living God any more.
Let’s not be insensitive here. They had built God a very fine place of worship. Some would say opulent in its gold and silver. But, once they finished their services full of tradition and ritual and story telling, they left the temple and God behind. There are those who have said of that time that religious lethargy had left the people devoid of divine animation. Isn’t that a great phrase? Devoid of divine animation. We should take the time to ponder that wisdom.
Others said that rarely did their worship provoke an encounter with the divine. Samuel understood this better than most because, you see, Samuel had been raised alongside Eli’s two boys Hophni and Phinchas. These boys were typical PKs (preacher kids). Maybe familiarity breeds contempt but they were rather rebellious, these two. Accounts have it that rather than being of service in the temple, they used to take advantage of their privileged positions. They were known to take the choicest parts of the sacrifices that people brought in for God to feed their own appetites. Supposedly, there was a little hand dipping into the collection plate as well. Eli’s dimming sight seems to be a metaphor for his attitude towards all this as he seemed little inclined to do anything about it.
This attitude was not isolated to the temple. The monarchs of the time were more concerned for their own security and wealth than the well-being of their people. Their own appetites led to an abuse of their power. Eli, the priest, the spiritual director of this community, lost his sight of this as well.
Maybe that is why God called young Samuel. Samuel still held the idealism of youth. Samuel could believe, would eventually believe, that it really was God’s voice calling him. Those who pack God away will find it hard to believe that voices are calling to them from cardboard boxes in the basement.
Now, admittedly, it took Samuel awhile to get this. He was used to hearing Eli’s voice and he had been raised to heed it. But when he finally believed Eli that this voice wasn’t his, he was opened to the possibility that this just could be God, alive and well, calling out to him. To Samuel, God was not an object. God was a deity. Samuel didn’t think he was going crazy or that demons were haunting him in the hallways of this temple. He simply said, “It is I Lord. Your servant is listening.”
Your servant is listening. Just a few weeks ago the angels proclaimed, “Behold!” We all sang it. Just a few weeks ago we all stood in this place holding candles, peacefully swaying as the lights were dimmed and we all sang “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Did that time provoke an encounter with the divine? I know it felt warm and special. But did it provoke an encounter with the divine? Did this moment produce divine animation within us? What does that really mean?
Listen to what the Lord asked Samuel to do. God asked this boy with peach fuzz on his face to confront his mentor, his minister, the one who raised him from a pup, and tell Eli that a time of reckoning is coming. “I don’t want your sacrifices, I want your heart.” God asked this knocked-kneed kid to go stand before the King of all Israel and declare that God does not tolerate abuse. God will not tolerate the powerful preying on the weak. “Who do you think gave you this power? It wasn’t so you could feed your own appetites.”
As we sit here today, Syrian and Russian bombs are raining down upon Damascus. 10,000 have died and 600,000 others are fleeing the genocide of Myanmar. A sitting President describes countries less fortunate than his own as…(well, we don’t have to denigrate the sanctity of this space with such vulgarity).
Was God born in our hearts a few weeks ago or was that merely sentiment? Does our worship provoke an encounter with the Divine? Has our religion become lethargic, devoid of divine animation? Is this birthing over?
Are there still those who long to hear an angel’s voice and touch a star? Those willing to kneel beside some shepherd in the hope of catching a glimpse of eternity in a baby’s smile? Are there those who will still sing “Peace on earth and good will to all people everywhere.” even though it may be out of season? Are there those, O Lord, who will keep ablaze the flickering candle in the darkness of the this world? Here I am Lord. I am listening.