Vicar’s sermon 14.1.24 1 Samuel 3.1-20

The story of the little boy Samuel hearing God speak to him in the night must be one of the most well-known bible stories. Well known I suppose to those brought up going to Sunday School (admittedly not so many nowadays). Many of us can perhaps picture the drawings of Samuel in children’s bibles? I can picture him wearing the little tunic that his mother Hannah has made him. The lamp in the tent of meeting is often drawn ‘about to go out’ and the elderly (usually bearded) figure of Eli the old priest is shown telling Samuel to ‘go back to bed’….with two grown up sons I guess Eli thought his parenting days were well over. Rest assured, the story is still told in Collective worship in our schools but the engagement of children whose parents have lost contact with the church feels different. In my Sunday School days I at least had framed the story within the context of people going to special places for prayer, indeed of people praying and talking to God. Nowadays, even as I tell the story I’m not sure what our children are truly hearing.
What we often overlook in the story is that, for all that Samuel begins to recognise God’s voice, his first message is a message of judgment upon his protector Eli. Eli’s sons have been taking advantage of their status at the shrine in Shiloh and feathering their own nests from charges made on the pilgrims visiting the shrine: the boy Samuel is the one who must break the news to Eli that his family is to be judged.
Pushing beyond the Sunday School version of the story we have a narrative about discernment. At the end of our passage we are told that the people of Israel ‘knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet’ – they recognised something in him that was ‘True’ (with a capital T). Earlier on we have had Samuel’s attempts to recognise God’s call, and Eli’s perception that the Lord was indeed speaking to Samuel. (I wonder whether that was based on his own experience…that there had been a time when Eli had heard God’s voice?).
Before Christmas I preached about being attentive to God. The example I gave was of a waiter on table who, by experience and intuition ‘attends’ to those he serves: they are watchful, they notice when and (when not) to appear beside the customer to clear a table or pour a drink. My point before Christmas was that the church (this church, the national church, the Church of God) is much more than a society or club that can tick over from year to year. The church (this church, the Church of England, the Church of God) is a spiritually constituted body of people who seek to understand and obey the leading of God. And so ‘Discernment’ is something we must exercise and something that takes work. Our concern is to hear (like Samuel) what God wants of us…and to do it. But how do we hear? How do we know? How do we recognise His voice in amongst the many other voices demanding our attention.
On the surface our Old Testament story is about just Samuel and God. Clearly he grew up to be a gifted leader of God’s people (though it should be said that he single handedly undermined Saul’s kingship from the off – he wasn’t without fault). But we can’t read the story without recognising that Eli had his part to play in helping Samuel recognise and hear God’s word. …and ‘the people’ too play their part for they recognise Samuel’s gifts. Discernment, the recognition of God’s word, in this story takes place in community. Eli, for all his failings (and they were many) plays his part in directing the young boy in the way that he should go. The people of God (for all their failings in these early days of their life in the Promised Land) play their part too, offering their affirmation to Samuel’s leadership. It is very difficult to be a leader if no one is following.
In the New Testament the church in the Book of Acts is presented making decisions ‘that seem good to us and to the Holy Spirit’. The apostles were clearly an inspiring bunch, the apostle Paul’s leadership style might cause quite a stir in most parishes nowadays but none of them were lone workers. For all their inspiration by God’s Spirit they worked together to consider the church’s next steps under God.
So even as I recognise Samuel’s particular gifts I’d want to hold out against the ‘strong leader’ model of leadership that is so tempting nowadays: Samuel operated within a context that directed his ministry in its early years and then recognised and supported it. When his ministry outgrew the confines of the tent at Shiloh he had allies with whom he worked as he sought to remind people of their covenant with God. It is tempting when the lamp of God is burning low in our own Church to want strong leaders to ‘get on and do’ stuff. We want our Archbishops to give a stronger lead. (We also want to be able to criticise them ferociously when they do so). Across the diocese there are congregations waiting for the Messiah to arrive in the Vicarage: seeking a vicar who will revitalise their church, fix the building, turn around the church finances and pack the pews…. by doing what exactly?
No. We need discernment. We need wisdom. We need to be attentive to God’s word to us, His people at this time and in this place…and that needs us all to play our part as those (plural) who (as the New Testament again says) have the mind of Christ. The task of discernment is a corporate task. So in this coming Lent we will set aside some time to ‘listen’ to what God might be saying to us. That will involve quiet reflection. It will involve attending to the scriptures but it will also involve attending to what we are noticing around us. How has the church changed over the last few years? How has the town changed? What do our numbers and statistics show us…what do they mean? Who is new: what gifts do they bring? Who is no longer with us: what gifts might we pray for? Where are we seeing life and energy? What is going on in the Diocese and the County that shapes what we are able to do here in Barnard Castle? These are not just questions for me. They are questions for us?
And one final thought lest you think that this ‘listening’ is something to be left to others (its most definitely not for you). Our story this morning is about God speaking to a little boy. It is a little boy – someone who probably thought themselves to be insignificant in the scheme of things- who is able to voice the word of God for his time and place. Christian tradition has long recognised that God speaks through the most unlikely of voices. It is actually written into the Order of St Benedict that special attention should be given to voices of the youngest members of the community precisely because they see matters differently. So you do have a voice and you do have a place. Whether you have been attending this church for years…or have just arrived in the parish and are finding your feet ‘we are the body of Christ’, everyone has a contribution to make.This should not surprise us. The Christmas story makes room for the shepherds – they are the folk who proclaim the birth of the messiah. The story makes room for the magi – those right on the outskirts of faith. Jesus repeatedly goes out of his way to welcome those who are normally excluded from the conversation and draw them in to what God is up to. That gift, of drawing everybody in, allowing all voices to be heard is something for us to aspire to because it is as we draw our attention to the usually unheard voices that something new and creative can happen.
So, details to follow but ‘Speak Lord, your servants are listening’ – that’ll do for a title for our Lenten journey.

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