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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tingle.


1 Samuel 3:1-20

I.
            I am guessing that Samuel is about 8 or 10 years old here.  You may remember the story before this.  His mother, Hannah, prays for a child and God finally gives her Samuel.  She has promised to dedicate the boy to God, so when he is only about 2 or 3 she leaves him to live in the Shiloh temple with the old, blind priest Eli and his corrupt, irresponsible sons.
            Thus is the future of Israel somehow nurtured and reared in the belly of a system that is doomed, even though it doesn’t know it yet.  Samuel learned the priestly duties from Eli.  And he would have witnessed the mercenary, depraved, and cynical abuses of power by Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas.  They were using the temple and religion as a way to feed their own gluttony and lust.  They did not give God what was God’s due.  
            Samuel sleeps every night in the sanctuary itself.  Samuel apparently has a bed right inside the room where the very Ark of the Covenant rests.  Eli is in another room, but Samuel sleeps in hearing distance of the Ark.
            And one night he is awakened by a voice calling his name.  So he goes to find Eli, assuming that the old man is the one calling.  But Eli tells Samuel to go back to bed, probably saying that it’s only a dream.  This happens three times until Eli realizes that the boy is hearing the voice of God. 
            This is something that hasn’t happened in years, and Eli probably has to ransack his memory to recall what one is supposed to say when the voice of God calls.            This is a time, much like ours, in which the voice of God is not heard very often.  “Visions were not widespread,” it says.  That is an understatement about our time.  Meaningful, reliable visions are virtually non-existent today.
            The priest, Eli, is also almost blind.  So there is no possibility of vision there, literally.  He represents the religious and political establishment of his day.  They go through the motions, doing the rituals, saying the words, performing the sacrifices, leading the prayers, advising the people, probably organizing warriors when the nation was in danger.  But there is very little understanding of the content and meaning of what they were doing.  There is no vision of or from God.  People can’t see where they are going or what the point is.  They don’t even really know who they are anymore.
            And then there is the corruption represented by Eli’s worthless sons, who steal from the offerings to God and even sexually abuse the women who come for worship.  Israel is mired in blindness and corruption.

II.
            But now this boy is hearing a strange voice and Eli knows very well Who it is.  So he instructs Samuel how to respond if he hears this mysterious voice again.
            The next time the voice occurs to Samuel, he says what Eli told him to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  And then the Lord actually comes and stands there in the sanctuary to speak to Samuel.  And the message is that Eli’s family is through as priests of the Lord.  God is tired of their corruption and Eli’s irresponsibility in not stopping the misbehavior of his sons.  This priestly order is over.  God does not yet say that new leadership is coming to Israel, or who that new leader may be.  But we can assume that it has something to do with this child who is now receiving visions and voices from the Lord.  In other words, God is announcing through Samuel a change in leadership.
            We live in a time of change as well.  Whether we are talking about the church, or about our society, or even the entire world, we find ourselves in the midst of great, even tumultuous, transition.  The old order is finished.  Much of what we always knew and depended on is being swept away. 
            The old regime is perishing, as all old regimes perish, weighed down by its own sinfulness.  Just as Hophni and Phineas abused their power for self-enrichment, so also the leaders and classes that have been in charge among us are deflating under the pressure of their own greed.  We see it over and over again in Scripture: systems that fall into injustice are inevitably overthrown.  Eli’s sons did not give God what God wanted.  They used their place of privilege to enrich and satisfy themselves.  They thoroughly abused the people’s trust and made God look bad. 
            When the people in positions of power do this, it means the system is doomed.  And what are we to say of our own time, when clergy and coaches are using their positions to satisfy the most base lusts, and bankers and politicians seem to suck more out of the system than they contribute, and the powerful accrue an increasing percentage of our wealth?  And judges are more concerned with advancing their careers than protecting the weak?  How did Phineas and Hophni become the exemplars of leadership among us?  I’ll bet they said that questioning their behavior was the sin of envy, against God, too.
            The church is not exempt from this by any means.  What are we to say with our own obsession with the infamous 3-b’s: buildings, bucks, and butts?  These are among the crass, materialistic, and quantitative measurements of the “successful” church that we could have learned from Eli’s sons.  I am wondering if this whole regime of the church isn’t over too.
           
III.
            God says he is “about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.”  And then God says that Eli’s family will be punished for their blasphemy.  What does this mean about making people’s ears “tingle”?  Some other translations talk in terms of shock or ringing. 
            I think that when people hear how the privileged and powerful house of Eli is brought low and removed from their place of authority it will make ears tingle two different ways.  If you are among the privileged and powerful yourself, your ears may tingle with fear, trepidation, anxiety, nervousness, and alarm, feeling that “if this could happen to Eli and his sons, it could also happen to me.”  That person would have the choice of either changing their ways and abandoning their abuses, or circling the proverbial wagons and arming for defense, or going on a rampage to pillage as much as possible from people before the inevitable reckoning.
            The other groups whose ears will tingle will be those who had resigned to life being corrupt and evil, who now hear that justice will assert itself.  The bad guys will actually get their comeuppance!  “There is a God!” as we like to exclaim when something beneficial happens that we did not expect.
            Our ears tingle when we hear about something anomalous happening, something that goes against our expectations and turns part of our world upside down.  I think our ears should be on a constant tingle whenever we hear the word of Scripture, because the Bible is almost exclusively about the upending of the world, the ignominious fall of mighty empires, and the lifting up of the poor, the slaves, the sick, and the grieving.
            In this case, God takes the responsibility for the religion out of the hands of the privileged men, and gives it to a boy.
            “Samuel,” it says, “lay there until morning.”  He can’t sleep.  Could you?  I suspect Eli wasn’t resting easy either.  The text says, “He opened the doors of the house of the Lord.”  No doubt he opened these doors every day.  But the text gives us this little detail here because it symbolizes the way Samuel’s whole ministry will open up what had been a closed and corrupted system.  Samuel will bring God’s word to the people; he will make God available to the people; he will open up the barriers that separated God from the people, abolishing the idea that God was confined in a certain shrine, tended to by an insider class of specialists.  The Word will now go forth.
            Now it is not about who your father is, but your experience of God’s word.  Now your lineage doesn’t matter.  All that matters is God’s call.  This call will be confirmed in the following chapters, as Samuel leads the people to victory over the encroaching Philistines.        

IV.
            Samuel reports to Eli in the morning.  He is apparently reluctant to repeat what the voice told him, because Eli has to threaten him to spill it.  And then Samuel tells Eli everything.  Eli’s family is to be stripped of the priesthood and delegitimized.  The Lord’s word is uncompromising and definite; there is no hope of appeal.
            Eli does not get angry.  He certainly does not punish the messenger.  Neither does he show a lot of grief or even surprise.  He simply says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”  So Eli shows trust in the Lord, in the end.  He knows what’s what; he knows the Lord well enough to know that he and his family were in for it.  He appears to acquiesce in the Lord’s judgment.  He submits to the word of the Lord, even though it is spoken against him. 
            Eli does stay in charge until Samuel grows up.  By then the people recognize the real prophet of the Lord, and Samuel takes over.
            The point is our need to hear, recognize, and submit to the word of God.  We see a similar dynamic at work in the gospel reading.  Nathanael does not recognize the Word of God, Jesus, when first he hears about him.  He rejects the idea that anything good can come out of that backwater town, Nazareth.  Philip has to invite him to “come and see.” 
            The Word of God must be experienced.  He must be seen and heard; we have to go to him with openness.  When Jesus and Nathanael have that conversation, it ends with Nathanael’s remarkable confession, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  He submits to the Lord.  This is the only appropriate response when confronted with the Word of the Lord.  You do it.  You participate in what God is doing.
            These stories remind us that God is way bigger than we are, and that God is in charge.  What God wills for the world will happen as inevitably as the tides or the sunrise.  You cannot stop it.  If you try, you will be ground under by God’s tectonic movement.
            And we know in Christ that God’s movement in the world is always for love and justice.  The sins of Hophni and Phineas are out of synch with God’s will; they are rejected and turned over.  Their family, which had been on top, now sinks to the bottom.  God brings a new messenger, Samuel, to convey the Word to the people. 

V.
            How many of us, when informed that our world is about to be turned upside down, would answer with Eli: “It is the Lord.  Let him do what seems good to him”?  How many of us recognize God in the form of an apparent nobody from nowhere? 
            But that is practically the nature of God’s Word.  It almost always comes as a surprise, with a message that challenges everything we have always accepted about the world.  In fact, it is a good rule to say that if the Bible is saying something you agree with, you’re probably not reading it right.  Eli was wise enough to realize this.  If Samuel had said, “Uh, yeah, Eli, God says everything’s cool and you’re doing a great job,” Eli would have seen through that immediately.
            Are we ready for our world to be turned upside down?  Can we interpret that as a good thing?  Because that is the good news.  And our job is to put ourselves in a position where we can receive this as good news for us as well.
            The good news is that, contrary to what we have been told to depend on, God is coming into the world for healing and justice, goodness and love, righteousness and peace, blessing and redemption.  May we have the presence of mind to say with Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  And may we have the trust of Eli that, when we hear what God is doing, we may say, “It is the Lord.  Let him do what seems good to him.”
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