“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
This morning’s sermon is for those who may be going through a hard time; it matters not what kind of hard time – just a hard time. And if you’re not going through a hard time at the moment, you’re welcome to listen in…
I like to think that the book of Samuel was written with a certain amount of nostalgia. Samuel’s stories are beautifully told and have a certain “once upon a time” quality to them. You may recall, for example, the story of the birth of Samuel. Samuel is born of exemplary, pious parents, with Hannah his mother barren until she prays at the temple in Jerusalem. When Samuel is born, Hannah sings a beautiful song, and with great piety and with the appropriate sacrifices, gives the miracle baby to the priest Eli so that the boy might be raised in the temple. It’s all so wholesome!
When I hear nostalgic stories that look back wistfully upon “better” times, I immediately suspect that times weren’t actually all that good when the story was written. And things weren’t that good when the book of Samuel was written. The book of Samuel was written by Israelites living in exile in Babylon. The exiles were grieving over the loss of their homeland. They were wondering what they did to deserve exile. They were wondering how Jerusalem – the city where God’s temple was and the center of their universe – could have been conquered. They were yearning for home. The Psalmist’s perhaps sums up how their feelings best:
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept…
As for our harps, we hung them up on the trees in the midst of that land.
For… how shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?
It is out of deep disappointment and grief that the book of Samuel was written. Weeping by the waters of Babylon, the author imagines a better time. Hanging his harp up on the trees in the midst of that land, he imagines a time when, though things were difficult – “the word of the Lord was rare… [and] visions were not widespread” – yet God still spoke to His people… and a boy listened! The author imagines the story to take place in the temple in Jerusalem:
The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down… where the ark of God was.
In the Holy of Holies, the very place where the voice of God spoke to Moses from the “Mercy seat” at the top of the ark. God speaks the boy’s name:
I suspect the author imagines God speaking to Samuel because the word of the Lord is exactly what the author himself wishes to hear; the word of the Lord is exactly what the Israelites wish to hear. The word of the Lord was rare in their days, too, and the story of God speaking to Samuel held out to the Israelites the possibility that God would yet speak to them, too. And that God would hear them, too. “Samuel,” after all, means “God has heard.” This morning’s story, then, is a story of hope for the Israelites – hope that God would speak to them again, hope that they might once again worship God in the Temple, hope that they might have another chance to live holy lives given to God. This morning’s story is a story of hope for once again finding intimacy with God.
For those of us who may be going through a tough time, I have a hunch that we would say, too, with the author of the book of Samuel, that “the word of the Lord is rare.” I have a hunch that we – like the author of Samuel – know somewhere inside of us that God has spoken to us. We know that intimacy with God – like Moses talking with the Lord in the Holy of Holies – is possible, and that it maybe happened at one time. And maybe our hearts look back to a time when all seemed right, when life was “good.” But now like the Israelites, we’re in exile. Maybe we yearn to hear a word from the Lord; maybe we wonder if God hears us. Maybe inside we’re sitting down by the waters of Babylon and are weeping; we’ve hung up our harps, and we’re on alien soil.
If we – like the Israelites in this morning’s lesson from Samuel – are going through a tough time right now, why not try hope? Why not hope for God to speak to us again? Why not hope to lie down in the “Temple” at night and hear God call us by name? Why not imagine God speaking to us – maybe for the first time in a long time – from our “Holy of Holies” within? As sweet as it must have been for the Israelites to tell the story of Samuel and to imagine God speaking to them, so might it be sweet for us to tell the story of God coming and speaking to us.
For God desires to come to us wherever we may be in “exile.” He desires to comes to us in our yearning. He desires to come to us just as we are wherever we are, to call us by name. Because God loves us, and wants to comfort us and befriend us. And as we let God come to us, and as we listen to what God might have to say to us, maybe we can – along with the ancient Israelites – see hope. And maybe our hope will look like their hope: God coming to us in our exile, God calling us by name, God speaking, and our hearts listening.