Monday, November 11, 2013

The Great Story - To Stand or Fall: Listening to the Faithful Listener"

Preached on Sunday, November 3, 2013
Scripture readings:1 Samuel 3:1-21; 1 Samuel 13:2-14

I’ve been thinking a lot, this past year, about hearing. I began to have a whooshing sound in my right ear, since early last summer. I tried my doctor’s prescription for sinus drops, and that didn’t seem to make any difference. My hearing finally seems to be getting better on its own.
Palouse Falls, August 2013
About the time I was a teenager, I had a hearing test which showed that I had much better hearing than most kids my age. I told my dad about this and he was amazed, because I had never acted as if I had such good hearing, as least not when he told me to do something. As for older, married men, doesn’t hearing loss first appear when you don’t hear what your wife is saying?
If we are God’s people, we have a special job related to hearing and listening. On one hand we have to faithfully listen to this world and to each other. On the other hand we must listen even more to God.
One of the great themes of the story of the Bible is that God has a plan to make a new creation by means of creating a new people who are specifically designed for that creation. That requires hearing: hearing God and hearing others, because those people will live in a world of faithfulness and love.
One of the great themes of the story of the Bible is that God seeks to create people who will be what he calls priests. A priest is a person who offers the world to God and God to the world. A priest is a person who listens to the world and hears it on behalf of God, and who listens to God and hears God on behalf of the world. A priest is someone who can speak and act in the presence of God because they have listened to the world. A priest is someone who can speak and act in this world because they have listened to God.
We are called by God, and transformed by faith and by the grace of God, to be part of his new creation. We are called to be able to represent God, to act for him and to speak for him. But we can only do this if we listen more to him than we do to the world. Especially, we can only do this if we listen more to God than we do to ourselves.
In the Book of Exodus, God spoke of this calling to his people. “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) Peter wrote about this calling in one of his letters in the New Testament. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who brought you out of darkness and into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) We are called to declare God in this world: to speak for God and act for God so that others can know God and have God living in them, and through them. This requires hearing and listening.
In today’s part of the great story, as we go through it from Genesis to Revelation, we are in the part of the story that includes the priestly judge named Eli, Eli’s sons, Hannah, Samuel, and Saul. In their own ways they all show us that how we stand or fall (or how we succeed or fail) as God’s priests depends largely on what kind of hearers and listeners we are.
Eli’s sons, like their father, were actual priests in the Lord’s Tent. They offered the people’s sacrifices and prayers to the Lord, and they spoke God’s mercy and blessing to his people. They went through the motions of priests and they talked the talk, but the real life of a priest was simply not in them.
They didn’t listen to God. They didn’t listen to their father. They didn’t listen to the people who came to them. They only listened to themselves. They lived as if everything they had learned about a life of faith, and a life with God, was nothing more than talk. They seem to never have heard the voice of God, let alone listen to that voice.
In a way, the sons of Eli were users. They used God, they used the place of worship and the fellowship of God’s people, they used their father, and they used others for their own agenda.
God’s people include some who appear to think it is all an act. They don’t hear God for themselves, and so they assume that other people of God are all play-acting. Maybe this is because too many of God’s people are play-acting; saying and acting words of love and words of faith, and yet serving themselves.
The Bible is God’s word to us. Eli’s sons are God’s word to us; not to other people. The words about them are written to speak to you when you read or hear them. They are meant to speak to me when I read or hear them. The story has been written so we can know God and know ourselves truly.
This challenges us to look for examples of our own play-acting and self-serving. When we are play-acting and self-serving we can never speak or act for God because we are not hearing him or listening to him.
Eli, their father, actually knew very well what it meant to hear God, and listen to God, so that he could speak and act for God. He was able to teach this truth to Samuel, and so he was a much better father to Samuel than he ever was to his own children.
Eli made Samuel listen to God and be willing to take what he heard from God and give it as a gift to others, even when that was hard and unpleasant. He made Samuel learn to be a real priest, a bridge between God and his people, a bridge between God and the world in which his people lived.
But Eli, as able as he was to hear God, was not able to speak or live out what he had heard for the sake of others. So he never made his own sons learn the connection between God and their lives.
In a way, Eli could hear God and not know how to represent God to the world around him. In Hannah’s case, Eli could see a woman’s lips move in heart-felt prayer, and mistake her agony for drunkenness. (You have to realize that ancient people didn’t read or pray silently. The ancient writers explain this to their readers because Hannah’s silent prayer was so unusual.)
Still, Eli should have known what was going on. He needed help from her to know how to serve her on God’s behalf. He needed her to speak up and he needed to listen when she did. (We all need that help.)
In his own family, Eli could clearly see his sons’ cynical, and selfish, and faithless way of life. What he could not see clearly was what they really needed from their father, which was truth plus action. In their case, they needed discipline, and their father never gave it to them.
Although we are never told anything that the sons said to their father, we know that he must have allowed their voices to speak louder to him than the voice of God, because Eli gave them what they wanted from him. He gave them his surrender. He feared his own children more than he feared God. Eli is a warning to us that, even though we hear loud and clear, there is no real listening to God without being willing to speak (and to do) what we hear from God.
Saul was a continuation of the same warning. The people wanted a king who would make them like the other nations.
They didn’t want to be made new. They just wanted to be made into more of the same old thing. It looked so much easier to fit in.
God gave them a king named Saul, but God refused to let Saul get away with making them like everyone else. God insisted on giving them a king whose kingly job it was to be a bridge between God and his people, to keep his people on the road that required them to be priests, or else fail.
God transformed Saul into someone who could hear the voice of God, and communicate the message of that voice to God’s people. Samuel told Saul that he would be changed into a hearer of God. “The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy…and you will be changed. Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you.” (1 Samuel 10:6-7) The Spirit of God gave Saul the ability to be a king who could hear, and listen, and do what he heard.
Saul was given the gift that empowered him to speak what he heard and do what he heard. He was changed into a bridge (a priest) so that his people could understand what God wanted them to do and to be. This way they would not be like the other nations. They would be something new. They would be a nation of priests.
God always listens to his people and sometimes God gives them what they ask for, but never in a way that lets them off the hook. Like Paul says, “God’s gift and his call are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29)
Saul failed, because he listened to the voice of his people more than he listened to the voice of God. Saul listened to their fears when they were outnumbered by the enemy and his troops were deserting. Saul listened to their fears, and became a person of fear, instead of listening to God’s promises. So Saul became disobedient.
Saul wasn’t merely disobedient because he offered the people’s sacrifices to God instead of waiting for Samuel to do it, instead of trusting that Samuel would show up when he said he would. Saul was disobedient because he backed away from his calling to teach his people to trust God’s power and grace.
If Saul had stood up to his people, they might have understood and followed God’s path. They might have learned to listen to God for themselves. They might have become a kingdom of priests for the sake of Gods’ plan to create a new world of faith and grace.
Samuel learned, even as a child, to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9) And he learned that, once he had heard God speak, he must not hold back.
The story of the Bible always leads us to a God who hears us and does not hold back. It leads us to Jesus. The Bible leads us to God as he comes to us in Christ.
Samuel would have heard his mother’s stories about his birth. After all they did get written down in his book. He learned that his very life came from a God who hears. He learned that this fact that God hears was the very meaning of his name. Samuel means “God hears”.
God heard the prayers of his people for a king and God gave them a king whose job it would be to make his people truly God’s people. God heard their prayers by giving them something better than they asked for.
This is the God we meet in Jesus. Here is the God who heard the cries of a muddled and fearful world and gave us better than we ask for. God heard a world of anger, and despair, and confusion, and doubt, and spoke to that world (and to us) by coming into that world in a way that he actually shared in the world as it is.
God stands by us in this world, in order to save us from it. And he stands beside in Jesus us to save us from ourselves.
God took the risks and died the death that we would fear, if he were not with us. He met and did battle with the dark powers that seem to make the world, and all our good intentions, work in vain.
He overcame the darkness at its worst. He defeated evil, and sin, and death on the cross, and in his resurrection from the dead.

In Jesus, God shows that he hears us and does not hold back. Then he lives in us so that we can hear him very close, every day, and not hold back. We can only stand in life effectively (for ourselves and for others) when we hear this God speak and do what we hear, and not what we fear.

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