Tag: Prophetic Ministry

The Prophetic Call — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11C (Jeremiah 1)

God Touches Jeremiah’s Mouth – Winchester Bible (12th century)
 
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
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                I was ordained some thirty-four years ago, the day after I received my M.Div. degree. Even though hands were laid on me that day in June and I received the marks of the profession, I never expected to serve as a full-time pastor. I thought my call to ministry would lead elsewhere. I might not have envisioned the way things turned out, but you never know for sure where a calling will take you. Even if we sense a call to ministry, how do we know if it’s the correct course?  Should we expect to hear God speak to us verbally? Will there be other signs that will confirm the call? I wrote a book on spiritual gifts because I believe we are all gifted by God for service in God’s realm. Such service might entail ordained ministry, but more likely than not, it won’t. While these gifts might be rooted in our very being, I’m convinced that they can be used in a variety of ways both inside and outside the church. So how do you know where, when, and how gifts might be used in service to God’s realm?
                There are examples of rather dramatic calls to ministry to be found in Scripture. Moses sees a burning bush and Paul is knocked off a horse. Sometimes prophetic calls come in the midst of dreams and visions. Some, like Isaiah’s, are rather vivid. Others, like Jeremiah’s, are equally powerful, but may not be as visually dramatic. In most prophetic calls, the one called will resist. Moses did and so did Isaiah. The same is true of Jeremiah, as we see here in Jeremiah 1. In the verses preceding our text (Jeremiah 1:1-3), the narrator tells us something about the one whose call we read about in this passage. We learn that Jeremiah is a PK (a priest’s kid) who first heard the word of the Lord during the reign of King Josiah, Judah’s last great king. The Word of the Lord would continue to speak through him during the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah (both sons of Josiah) and continue on until Judah and Jerusalem went into exile. Jeremiah ministered to the people as they fell from glory into despair.  This is the context in which Jeremiah heard the call to prophetic ministry. While he resisted, he would, in the end, embrace it.  
 
                The Word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah in the days of Josiah revealed to the young son of the priest Hilkiah, serving at Anathoth in Benjamin, begins with the declaration that Jeremiah was born—while he was still in the womb—God selected him for this job. The word that came to Jeremiah declared: “Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.” A passage like this is powerful. How can you say no if God intended that you follow this path even before birth? At the same time, it can lead to problematic conclusions. If we take this too far, we will have to understand the trajectories of our lives to be predetermined. If God intended for Jeremiah to follow this path, could he have done something else with his life? That leads to the question of whether I could have taken a different path in life. Do I have a choice in the direction my life takes? Because I have embraced an open and relational understanding of God, I do believe we have choices. While God issues calls, we can choose how to answer that call. In Protestant circles, the idea of cooperation with God often has been deemed heretical. I’ve come to see things in a different light, so how might we read this passage in a non-deterministic fashion?  
 
                I think we can start with Jeremiah’s word of resistance. Jeremiah wanted to make sure he was hearing God correctly. Besides, like Moses before him, he complains he’s not much of a speaker. He’s not been to seminary or taken homiletics. He doesn’t know if he’s a deductive or an inductive preacher. He’s not read Tom Long or Fred Craddock. He’s just a boy. While there have been lots of boy preachers down through the ages, who take homiletics before they took up their calling, I’m not sure that’s the point. Jeremiah wasn’t sure what to make of this calling. He wanted to make sure this fit with who he was.  
 
                Jeremiah might not have unclean lips (that was Isaiah’s defense), but he was young. Nevertheless, God was undeterred. He had chosen Jeremiah for this work, and God wouldn’t take no for an answer. God said to Jeremiah, don’t say to me “I’m just a boy.” I’ve got work for you to do. You’re the one I want to do this, so go and do it. Don’t be afraid of your audience, for I am with you. There is a passage in the New Testament that seems to echo this word. In the first letter to Timothy we hear this word of advice given by an older mentor to a protégé:

 12 Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.  [1 Timothy 4:12-14].

It is a common complaint by young pastors that their abilities are discounted due to their “youth.” Timothy is told to ignore the complaints and instead tend to the work set before him. Jeremiah is given the same word of advice, though here it’s God and not a mentor.
                Having issued the call and answered Jeremiah’s questions, God provides the message. In Jeremiah 1:9, we watch as God puts a hand on Jeremiah’s mouth and says to Jeremiah: “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” Don’t worry about what you’re going to say, for the words will be provided. Once again, we need to be careful about how we read this. If you’re a preacher, does this mean that you can simply stand in the pulpit and without any preparation start talking? Does this mean that three years of seminary training are not needed or are irrelevant?  I hope that’s not the case! At the same time, the word here is simply a reminder that Jeremiah won’t be going out on his own. God will be with him by the Spirit.
                As Jeremiah goes out into the world, with the Spirit guiding and encouraging him, he has a job to do. God appoints him over nations and kingdoms. Jeremiah will pluck up and pull down. He will destroy and overthrow. He will also build and plant. There is both deconstruction and reconstruction. As a prophet he’s not only called to denounce or condemn the ruling authorities, he’s also called to provide an alternative.
                So, how should we hear this passage?
                Going back to the beginning, where we read of the call that occurs in the womb, might we see this as an affirmation of our own uniqueness as individuals? Might we not see this as a reminder that we are all unique, that is, we’ve been formed by God with a sense of purpose? It’s not that there is some kind of “purpose-driven life” that we must discern lest we take the wrong road in life. Instead, I would like to read this as a reminder that we are all gifted and called to be witnesses to God’s grace in the world. We’re gifted and called to speak of justice in the world. That may involve speaking truth to power. The other word we hear is that God provides the message. We might find it present in scripture or maybe somewhere else. What hear in this passage is that Spirit will lead us in bearing witness to God’s realm. As for those of us who are called to preach, it is wise not to hear this as permission to avoid doing your homework before you preach. It’s good to do your biblical and theological study before you preach. You might take a look at what’s happening in the world around you. What word might God have us hear as we traverse a world torn apart by violent acts and rhetoric? The way we respond to the call may depend on our place in life, but the responsibility remains the same.
                When the call comes, will we respond by singing the following?

 “Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” [“Here I Am, Lord,” by Daniel Schutte]. 

Picture Attribution: God Touches Jeremiah’s Mouth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55596 [retrieved August 17, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WinchesterBibleJeremiah(cover).GIF.

 

Judgment Day — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 6C (Amos 8)

Amos8:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me,
“The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by.
The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”
says the Lord God;
“the dead bodies shall be many,
cast out in every place. Be silent!”
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
On that day, says the Lord God,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and the end of it like a bitter day.
11 The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.
 
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            There are men, women, and children held in cages at the southern border. Many are refugees fleeing violence in their homelands. The polls suggest that a majority of white Protestants do not believe that the United States has any responsibility for refugees. What might Scripture say to this polling? What might the prophet Amos have to say to us who claim to be servants of God? The first reading for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost takes us back to Amos. In the previous reflection, I examined Amos’ encounter with the religious establishment in the northern kingdom of Israel as revealed in Amos 7. He was told by the priest to go back home and take care of things there. You see, Amos came from the southern kingdom of Judah, a kingdom that was a vassal to the richer and more powerful northern neighbor. The folks in the north didn’t care for Amos’ message. Now we come to chapter 8. Amos will not be silenced. He becomes even more pointed in his word of judgment. Of course, Amos doesn’t claim to be a prophet. He’s just a farmer sent on a mission. This isn’t his profession. It’s not his day job. He’d rather be back home tending to his farm. But God had other plans. God had a message and Amos is the chosen messenger. Isn’t that like God, to choose the unexpected person to deliver the message? Prophet after prophet asked who am I that you would send me. Jesus came out of a small town in a backwater area to reveal the truths of God to humanity.

 

            God has a message for the people of Israel: “the end has come.” In a passage that begins with the image of the abundance of summer fruit ends with a word about famine (of the Word of God). Throughout the passage, the message is clear: Things might look good at the moment, but judgment day is on the horizon. At the moment things were going well economically in Israel under Jeroboam II, the greatest of the northern kingdom’s monarchs. While Jeroboam and his friends were doing well, it apparently came at the expense of the people. God is not impressed. Judgment is at hand. The songs of the temple, which were probably songs of praise, will become songs of grief. Wailing will be the predominant voice in the temple—the one that would not welcome Amos into its midst.

 

            Scripture doesn’t prescribe a political system. We who live in the United States experience a very different context from what was experienced in the centuries in which Scripture emerged, including the Book of Amos. Israel under Jeroboam II wasn’t a democracy. Instead, monarchies, oligarchies, tribal chieftains, and empires provided the context for these messages. Prophets would speak to these realities, holding the powers of the day to account. They most often spoke on behalf of those whom Jesus in Matthew 25 called “the least of these.”

 

            The Word of the Lord came to Amos, who delivered to the political and religious leadership in Israel has a definite economic tenor: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,” judgment is coming. You will seek a word from the Lord, and you will not find it. You will grow frustrated, but the reality is, you’ve set something in motion that you don’t seem willing to stop. Instead, you monkey with the financial system, so it benefits the powerful at the expense of the people. Some of us might remember the financial debacle of 2008. Amos declared: you buy “the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s not a recent thing. It’s been going on for millennia. The Word of the Lord consistently calls the perpetrators of injustice to account.

 

            The declaration that comes to Israel is apocalyptic in nature: “On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.” On that day God will turn their “feasts into mourning, and all [their] songs into lamentation.” The day of judgment will come. The day might look bright at the moment, but the clouds are on the horizon. A day of bitterness is coming, so be prepared. Famine is on the horizon, but not one involving bread. It’s a famine of silence. God is finished speaking to Israel. They’ll run to and fro seeking guidance, but it will be too late. Prophets have come and gone, and they have been ignored. So, God is finished with them. They have chosen their pathway and they will suffer the consequences.

 

The word of God revealed through Amos is not a happy one. I would rather hear a word of grace. I want to be comforted. Words of judgment are difficult to hear (and to be made the center of a sermon). The question is, do we need to hear words like this to get our attention. Things were going well for the northern kingdom at that moment, but dangerous times were ahead. Within a few decades, this nation will disappear from history.

 

How should we hear this word, we who embrace the premise that God is love? How does judgment factor in? God appears in Amos as a rather angry figure. It’s justified, but it’s unsettling. But perhaps love for creation requires a bit of anger on God’s part.  So, we come back to that poll that suggests that a majority of white Christians, haven’t been paying attention to the prophetic words that are present in Scripture. Now, that might be due to silence on the part of the preachers. Martin Luther King responded to white preachers who told him to take it slow and easy. Don’t be so forceful in your message. Dr. King responded to their counsel from the Birmingham jail. Could it be that many in the churches are no longer attentive to the word of God? Is there a famine of the Word in our midst? It’s not that the prophetic word has been silenced, it’s just that we tend not to listen.

 

The way I understand prophetic ministry—in its biblical context—is that the future is not predetermined. Israel could change its ways. It could listen. It could turn (think of Jonah’s message to Nineveh, which though fictional is a good reminder that repentance forestalls judgment).  The question is, will it/we listen before the prophetic voice goes silent? Will we? 

           

Picture attribution: Caillebotte, Gustave, 1848-1894. Fruit Displayed on a Stand, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=50942 [retrieved July 15, 2019]. Original source: http://www.mfa.org/.

 

Not Measuring Up? — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 5C (Amos 7)

Amos the Herdsman – Amiens Cathedral
 
 
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,
“See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”


12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

 

16 “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’


17 Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”
**************

                The prophet Amos wasn’t what you would call a “court preacher.” He wasn’t employed by the monarchy or the religious establishment. In other words, he wasn’t a spiritual advisor to the king. As far as the monarchy and the religious leaders were concerned, he was a nuisance who brought to the land unwelcome messages. He made people feel uncomfortable. And Amos didn’t seem to care. Besides, he came to Israel from down south, from the rural community of Tekoa in Judah. According to Amos, God sent him to speak words of judgment against Jeroboam II and his regime that ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel, despite the fact that he came out of a vassal kingdom. Why bother with him. He was just a disgruntled neighbor, from a less powerful and important realm. When Amos came north, he encountered a nation that was its height. This was the reign of Jeroboam II (r. 786-746 BCE), one of the most powerful and successful monarchs in Israel’s history. So, why bother with this troublemaker?  

 

Sometimes we preachers want to think of ourselves as the spiritual descendants of a prophet like Amos, but I doubt the moniker fits most of us. He was too much like the guy standing at the corner with the sandwich board declaring that the end is near at hand. No, there must be a better model for us than him. Yet, here we are, with Amos standing before us, bringing what he says is another message from God. He offers Jeroboam a word from God about a plumb line.

Plumb lines, which were strings with weights attached, that was used to make sure the walls of the building were built straight and true from top to bottom. If they weren’t, the typical two-story house of that region would collapse. You don’t want that. Jeroboam and his kingdom might seem to be prospering. The stock market might be on the upswing. Employment numbers are good. The military is strong. The nation’s enemies are being kept at bay. Yet, here’s the Word of the Lord—you’re not measuring up. If you don’t get your act together you will soon collapse. History is on the side of Amos. Jeroboam might die with Israel at its height, but a quarter century later the Assyrian’s would march in and lay waste to the nation. The people of Israel and Judah might be related. They were neighbors. But they were also rivals. One nation survived (at least for a time) and the other disappeared from the map.

Amos delivered his message to an unreceptive audience. The priest at Bethel, the capital of the northern kingdom, a man by the name of Amaziah, told Amos to go home. Go earn a living elsewhere. This was the king’s sanctuary. It was his temple. He set the rules. There is a principle that was widely used in the period after the Reformation as differing religious entities took root in Europe. The principle goes by the name of Erastianism. The idea is that the religion of the king is the religion of the people—consider that Henry VIII and his successors (to this day) declared themselves the Head of the Church. That’s what Amaziah was trying to communicate to Amos. Go home. Your message is a foreign one. It doesn’t fit with what the king has decreed. Besides, the king is successful. He’s rich. He’s powerful. As for Amaziah, he represented a religious elite that supported and sustained a system that oppressed the people. The word of God was that he would get his just desserts.

Amos is not your typical preacher. As I said, he’s a bit like that street preacher with his sandwich board. He’s parked outside the Temple, annoying everyone who comes into contact with him. When Amaziah tells to go home and prophesy elsewhere (earn your living somewhere else), Amos simply says:  “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” He told the priest that he was just a simple farmer, a layperson, who didn’t want to come north. It wasn’t his idea. No one was paying him for this. In fact, he had to leave behind his fields and flocks to make the journey.  But when God said go, he went. He was standing there before the temple because God said: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

                Amaziah told Amos to go away, don’t prophesy here. But Amos persisted. He delivered the message God had given him for Israel and for Amaziah. What is the message? Your land will be taken. Your people will die by the sword or go into exile. Things might look good right now, but before you know it, things will turn bad. Why?  Because you’re not following the ways of God. While the passage doesn’t spell things out, we will get there. It has something to do with justice.

                Speaking truth to power isn’t easy. It can be dangerous. Think about St. Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, who was murdered while saying the mass in his chapel because he dared to oppose the political leadership that was oppressing the people. Now, he was a religious leader and not a layperson. But others have taken up the mantle of speaking truth to power. Lay people can be the most effective voices for justice. That is true here. Amos draws attention to the injustices of the day, injustices that had caught the attention of God.

What are we called to do? Amos heard the call and heeded it, even though he didn’t have any prophetic credentials. He was a farmer, not a preacher or a theologian. It’s not that we preachers and theologians don’t have our place, but the voice of God can and does come through the voice of the people. As for the religious leaders, we out to be circumspect. When we become the mouthpieces of an oppressive regime or when we justify unjust acts—the detention of refugee children in overcrowded and filthy camps—what might God have to say? How do we measure up?    

Picture Attribution:  Amos the Herdsman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29259 [retrieved July 8, 2019].

 

A Prophetic Calling — Reflection on 1 Samuel 3

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 

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                In a few weeks I will celebrate the thirty-third anniversary of my ordination to ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I have an ordination certificate to remind me of the time and place at which the event occurred. I do remember that day, which followed a day after I received my M.Div. degree at Fuller Seminary. What I can’t remember is the exact moment or time at which I sensed a call to ministry. I can’t say that I had an extraordinary experience of God speaking directly to me, issuing a call to ministry. But, at some point along my life path I found myself moving toward that Sunday afternoon in June of 1985, when a gathering of elders from Temple City Christian Church and other clergy, both Disciples and non-Disciples, laid their hands on me and offered a prayer of consecration, setting me apart for ministry in the church. I will admit that at the time, I didn’t expect to spend my future years as an actual pastor. I assumed I would be a professor of some type. I would go on from there to pursue further education to support that dream. Here I am, some thirty-three years later, having spent the past twenty years serving as pastor of three different congregations.
When did the call really come? Could seeds have been planted back when I was a child, serving as an acolyte at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Dunsmuir, California (now in Mount Shasta)? Was it when I was asked to become a lay-reader as a teenager, because Fr. Green felt that I had the voice to lead portions of the liturgy?  Whenever the call came, I find myself in this position of service in the church. My story is probably like many others, including the possibility that seeds were planted in childhood.
                The prophetic call stories in the Hebrew Bible are intriguing. They are all somewhat different. In many of them, the one being called is reticent to say yes. As we saw in the reading from Isaiah 6 for Trinity Sunday, Isaiah confessed that he was “a man of unclean lips,” and therefore unworthy of being able to face God, let alone hear a call from God. In the end, however, his lips were purified when a seraph touched his lips with a live coal taken from the altar in the Temple. After this act of purification, Isaiah answered “here am I, send me.” Jeremiah responded to God’s call, including God’s declaration that God had formed him in the womb for this purpose, by telling God that he was a mere a child and didn’t know how to speak. God responded to Jeremiah’s resistance by touching his mouth and putting words in Jeremiah’s mouth so that God’s word might be proclaimed (Jer.1:4-10). This leads us to the story of the call of the prophet/judge Samuel. Samuel is living with the aged priest Eli. He’s helping to serve in the Temple at Shiloh. It was there that the Ark of the Covenant was being kept. It is in this context that Samuel receives his call from God.
                The background story to Samuel’s call to prophetic ministry parallels that of John the Baptist. Both prophets were born to older mothers who were considered barren, and therefore felt the shame of the community, but then by divine intervention their mothers conceived and bore sons who would grow up to be prophets. It is worth noting that in the ancient world, as well as some parts of our contemporary world, to not bear a child was considered a sign of divine judgment. Thus, the prayer of Hannah was for a child to be born, not so she could fulfill some maternal dream, but so her shame might be removed. This might not be our cultural dynamic, but it was true in the days of yore. So, when the desired child was old enough, Hannah brought her child to the Temple in fulfillment of a promise made to God. Again, this might not be our way of thinking, but it was the way things were. That is how Samuel came to live with an elderly priest whose sons were less than honorable. It is the reason why Samuel is in this position to hear the call of God while sleeping in the Temple.
                The call of Samuel is set up by the declaration that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” What might this mean? Could it be that the people were not in a frame of mind to hear that word? Could the reference to Eli’s eyesight—perhaps blindness—have a spiritual reference point? Could this be due to spiritual complacency? Could it be that there is no word, because no one is ready to hear it? That leads to the question: Is Samuel different? Is he, as the miracle child, the one person who is in a position to hear God’s voice?  

                As we ponder these questions we find Samuel asleep in the temple at Shiloh. As he sleeps, he hears a voice calling his name. Considering his job description, he is likely sleeping near the Ark of the Covenant. For those of us who have been influenced by Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s probably easier to envision a voice speaking from the Ark. But, this isn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is the Bible. When Samuel hears this voice, he goes to Eli and asks the priest what he wanted, at which time he’s sent back to bed. Just a child’s vivid imagination! After all, the word of God was rare in those days. This will happen two more times before Eli decides that something is up. Eli may not be the most faithful priest, but he knew that God could speak. So, after the third time, Eli tells Samuel to answer the voice with the words: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” As one reads further along in the story, we discover that Samuel has heard God’s voice and Samuel will speak for God to the people. He will even anoint kings.
                That Samuel could respond to this calling, serves as a reminder that God is not without witnesses, even when things look difficult. After all, the “lamp of God had not yet gone out.” There was hope that the flame of God would be carried on to the next generation through the call of Samuel.
                So, what might this say to us? Could it be that we should help young people, including small children listen for God’s voice? If so, how might we do this? For me, it might have been serving as an acolyte and then as a lay reader. For who knows when a call will come?

Bob Cornwall is a Disciples of Christ pastor, church historian, and author. He currently serves as Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, along with an M.Div. from Fuller and a B.S. degree from Northwest Christian University in Eugene, OR. Bob has authored several books, as well as numerous articles and book reviews. He currently edits Sharing the Practice (Academy of Parish Clergy) and among the books already published, he has a number of books that have appeared with Energion Publications — Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Study Guide, Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for a New Great Awakening, Worshiping with Charles Darwin, Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer and Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, and Faith in the Public Square (2012). He’s also the author of Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015). For more on my books, see my Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/robertcornwall.