Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 28 January 2018
1 Samuel 3.10 Speak, for thy servant heareth.
If God did address me directly, I might listen to what he says. Somehow it never happens in that way. If we want to have another go at getting through to God, then the story of the calling of the boy Samuel is a good place to start. It is the story of our spiritual formation, shown to us in a series of scenes or images. We see the young Samuel lying down in the temple of the Lord. The imagery is that of sleep, darkness, the blindness of the old priest Eli, and the innocence of the Samuel, who did not yet know the Lord. This is when God calls us, not when everything is going well, but when we are spiritually dormant, drifting; God calls us by name. What happens then? It’s all in this story which you will be pleased to know I am not going to repeat. But some truths for us arise out of Samuel’s experience. For example, here is human misunderstanding by Samuel of what God is like. God’s call is heard in human terms, as if Eli was the one who called, not God. We do that all the time, make God manageable; then we can answer God back. When the real God does speak in the story, what he says is not what anyone wants to hear. Eli’s family is to be punished for blasphemy. Samuel is the one who has to break the news to Eli himself, the very man who has told him the right way to answer God. This is the sort of bind we get into in our religious experience. We expect comfort and joy and good news from God all the time, but what is more likely, and what we should expect from the God who speaks through Christ, is a wake-up call to reality, a new alertness to what is happening in our lives and in the world, and a conviction as to what we are called to do, which we might well try to resist. For me most haunting picture in the story is young Samuel, having spoken to God, lying there for the rest of the night, appalled by what he has heard, too frightened to tell anyone, wary of the prophetic task entrusted to him by God. How different this is from the easy listening of much modern religion, when God confirms what we have already decided is a good thing for everyone to do.
For the first hearers of this story, the calling of the prophet Samuel was the story of before and after. In the bad old days, the religious establishment was corrupted by the behaviour of the sons of Eli and therefore “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” After the intervention of God, which was often then described in terms of a dream, the new power in the land, Samuel, makes a clean sweep. God has called Samuel, so Samuel can now speak on God’s behalf. God has brought to an end the old regime. It’s tempting for us to dismiss these Old Testament stories as the products of a primitive culture, because in our minds we have replaced that bitter old crosspatch of a God in the Old Testament with the loving liberal God of the New Testament who gives us everything we need. It’s a good cop, bad cop routine. But there is only one God. The same God who spoke to Samuel speaks to us. For us too there will be a before and an after. For us too, spiritual formation is when God forms us, not when we form ourselves. We need to be woken from our sleep. All we can do by ourselves is see traces of God at work – so we deal in concepts, theories, doctrines and like Eli we peer out half-blind, looking for God’s footprints, and making little shuffling movements in his direction. We interpret everything in terms of our own little world, our fleeting ideas. Nothing wrong with that, it’s what the self does, with its very limited resources. It doesn’t take us very far. We can never know and love God in himself, that is, speak direct with him, unless God intervenes and transcends this ordinary mode.
Christianity is the story of God’s intervention in a way we can understand, a human way. We have been woken up, freed from those recurring dreams, our illusions. The greatest illusion of all is that what I do is more important to me than what God does. We expect the earth. But God doesn’t ask for much. All God asks from us is that we take him at His word. Perhaps the most significant words of the story of the call of Samuel, are spoken not by Samuel, not by God, but by the doomed half-blind Eli at the end of the story, when he hears from Samuel that his tribe is condemned. “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.” There is our before and after, not just the before and after of Samuel, but the before and after of Eli. Before God’s call, we are centred on self, and such are the pressures, the illusions, the arrogance of modern life, that we remain centred on the self, we think we can do without God. But then God calls. After God calls us, as he does, maybe not in a dramatic fashion, but if anyone is persistent, it is God – after he calls us, there is no turning back. Our spiritual formation is beginning, that is to say, God is forming our spiritual self. It’s not a re-programming. We don’t get to heaven disguised as someone else. We’re the same complicated persons, but we are no longer centre stage. We learn to trust that the voice we hear is the voice of God, and that there are no limits to what he will do for us if we trust that voice. “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.”
Spiritual formation, spiritual progress, can seem very daunting. Our spiritual formation, in this life, is complete when we learn to trust that the voice we hear is not our own voice but the voice of God, and that therefore we have no alternative but to answer, as Samuel did. Speak, for thy servant heareth.