This is the text of Rev. Graham Crawford’s Sermon for the Morning Service at St James on 18 January 2015.
As I hope you will recognise as this sermon progresses, the readings from the lectionary for today could not be any more apt considering the recent developments within the Church of Scotland.
The situation in Israel at the time of our reading from Samuel was this:
The temple, which was actually little more than a series of tents at this time, was in Shiloh.
There resided the Ark of the covenant and therefore the priests, descendants of Aaron, who served the Lord in the Temple.
The chief among the priests was Eli, who was by this time a fairly old man.
As the priesthood was a hereditary affair, his two sons were also priests.
However, instead of seeing the priestly status as a responsibility, they saw it as a privilege to be used and abused.
When their father was not watching, they would take the best meat from the offerings to God and eat it themselves.
They would sexually harass and abuse young women who came to worship.
They were abusing their position whenever possible, believing that they were untouchable.
As we shall see from our scripture lesson this morning, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Scripture: 1 Samuel 3: 1 – 21
3 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.
2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called Samuel.
Samuel answered, ‘Here I am.’ 5 And he ran to Eli and said, ‘Here I am; you called me.’
But Eli said, ‘I did not call; go back and lie down.’ So he went and lay down.
6 Again the Lord called, ‘Samuel!’ And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, ‘Here I am; you called me.’
‘My son,’ Eli said, ‘I did not call; go back and lie down.’
7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
8 A third time the Lord called, ‘Samuel!’ And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, ‘Here I am; you called me.’
Then Eli realised that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, ‘Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’
Then Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’
11 And the Lord said to Samuel: ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family – from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family for ever because of the sin he knew about; his sons uttered blasphemies against God,[a] and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.”’
15 Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, 16 but Eli called him and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’
Samuel answered, ‘Here I am.’
17 ‘What was it he said to you?’ Eli asked. ‘Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.’ 18 So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, ‘He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.’
19 The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognised that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.
Behaviour has consequences
These two stories reflect the prevailing theology of the Old Testament writer that centres on one important lesson: Behaviour has consequences.
The righteous prosper; the wicked fall.
The presence of evil appears first as a lack of respect for God.
Eli’s sons behaved in blasphemous ways, despite their position as priests, and they would suffer for it.
The traditions are mixed with regard to Eli’s role. Whether he personally benefited from his sons’ behaviour, quietly condoned it, or simply failed to control it, Eli also was affected by it. Sin has consequences that go far beyond the sinner.
No believer can read the story of Eli and his sons and feel secure in sin again.
The wandering prophet declares an amazing thing: an eternal promise of God was not so eternal after all.
Yahweh had promised that the descendants of Aaron would lead Israel as God’s priestly representatives forever. However, let us be clear that the Old Testament Hebrew actually has no special word for “promise.”
The text literally reads, “I said that your house and your father’s house would walk before me forever.” Words of speaking can be translated as “promise” in certain contexts, and this certainly seems to reflect Yahweh’s intent.
Of course, the Hebrews regarded any word of Yahweh to be as certain as the strongest human oath. However, God will not be entrapped by his own words.
Yahweh’s promise to Aaron’s descendants was based, apparently, on the condition that they would remain true to their calling.
When the priests in Shiloh chose personal gain over humble service to God and God’s people, they forfeited their right to represent the LORD, and there was no way to regain it.
The sons of Eli were so confidently secure in their position that they forgot it was a privilege—and they lost everything.
This text offers a special challenge to libertines of every age who are so certain of God’s grace that they overlook God’s judgment.
We cannot accept God without also accepting God’s way of life, because God changes things.
Those who live with smug assurance that personal behaviour has no consequences are in for a rude awakening.
In considering this I believe we need to read it alongside the New Testament lesson for today from Paul.
When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he was writing to a church which existed in a town where there was the temple to the Greek God, Aphrodite.
In common with so many cultures, including our own, the Greeks had confused love and sex.
As a result there were over 1,000 temple prostitutes in Corinth and sex was considered part of the temple worship ritual.
Thus the temptation towards sexual immorality was incredibly strong.
Let’s hear what Paul had to say:-
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 6: 12 – 20
12 ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’– but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.’ The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’[a] 17 But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.[b]
18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.
Where is the Church of Scotland today?
I wonder where that leaves the Church of Scotland.
It has swept adultery under the carpet for decades.
It now looks as though it is going to embrace homosexuality.
The Presbyteries have voted on the overture anent ministers in same sex civil partnerships and approved the overture by a vote of 45% verses 55%. Therefore, it looks like this year’s General Assembly will sign it into law.
The minister whose appointment caused all this to come to a vote has already made it clear that those on the liberal wing of the church are not prepared to stop there, that in his view it is simply a matter of time before the Church of Scotland agrees that its ministers can participate in and officiate at same sex marriages.
In an attempt to keep the church together we have a so called “mixed economy” and there are opt-out clauses for those ministers and congregations of a more evangelical position.
There are groups, such as the Church of Scotland Evangelical Network and the Covenant Fellowship, which have vowed to continue to uphold the evangelical position – opposing these changes while remaining within the Church of Scotland – but there are still others who have decided that “enough is enough” and they have pulled out of the Church of Scotland, either becoming independent or joining one of the more conservative branches of Presbyterianism.
Christianity is in many ways a strange religion.
So many of the world religions offer a position where that which is spiritual is good but that which is physical should be shunned.
Yet Christianity is unique in that at the heart of our faith is the story of God himself taking on human flesh and blood in order to offer both physical and spiritual healing.
Yes, we have freedom – freedom from sin and guilt – but that freedom does not extend to those things which hurt ourselves or others.
It does not lead to freedom from God.
Every sin hurts.
Drinking too much can lead to alcoholism; eating too much to obesity.
Sexual sin is no different and, like every other sin, it can grow into a bad habit that controls you.
Sexual immorality is a temptation that is always before us – probably to an even greater extent than for the people of Corinth.
TV, movies and books all treat sex outside of marriage as “normal”, even desirable; while marriage, itself, is seen as confining, boring and joyless.
Think about all the jokes such as: “Bigamy is having one too many wives; monogamy is the same thing!”
Or others who say: “Of course, I support marriage: why should I suffer alone?!”
It is seen as a badge of honour to have slept with more than one person in your lifetime, while those who reserve it for within the confines of marriage are seen as distinctly odd (viewed even with suspicion).
God does not insist on sexual purity just to be a killjoy as some would have you believe.
God knows the power of sexual sin to destroy lives, families, even churches and communities.
God wants to protect us from damaging ourselves and others and so he offers to fill us – our loneliness, our desires – with himself.
And yet anyone on the outside looking in would think that the Church of Scotland is obsessed by sex.
We have spent more hours, devoted more special commissions, spent more money on this issue than about any other in the last 7 years.
And yet the real issue that is dividing the church isn’t sex.
The issue dividing the church is how we interpret and use God’s Holy Scriptures.
That is what is at the root of the issue; it is just that this particular issue has brought to light a deep division.
As a church, as a congregation, St. James now has to decide how to respond, just as Samuel had to decide how to respond to the call of God at Shiloh.
Know God instead of knowing about Him
While the story of Samuel’s call is told for the larger purpose of predicting the fall of the Eli’s family, the nature of the story suggests important truth regarding any individual’s personal relationship with God.
The story begins with a note that “the word of God was rare in those days”.
The priests did not communicate with God, and only the rare, wandering prophet could bring close the word of God.
When Samuel does not immediately recognize the LORD’s voice, the narrator takes pains to inform us that Samuel did not yet know the LORD— the word of Yahweh had not been revealed to him.
Surely Samuel would have known about the LORD.
Neither Hannah nor Eli would have been so remiss as to leave him ignorant of the important stories that revealed the character of God to Israel.
However, knowing about God and knowing God are two different things.
In Old Testament Hebrew, the word “to know” suggested intimate knowledge that grows from a personal relationship.
This is what Samuel gained in his night-time conversation with God.
We have to avoid communicating to each other and to our children the notion that knowing Bible stories and reciting memorized Scripture are equivalent to knowing God.
It is much easier to teach abstract knowledge.
To teach someone else about relationships requires risk.
We must tap into our soul, become transparent, and invite others to view our own relationship with God.
If we fail in this task, the word of God will become rare in our days, too.
Yahweh’s midnight visit to Samuel suggests that God calls each of us personally, not generically.
And God will speak in a way that we can understand.
To Samuel, the voice of God sounded like the voice of Eli as he heard his name called again and again.
It was a familiar and comforting voice.
God may speak to us in the words of a parent or close friend, even – dare I say it – the minister.
But, on the other hand, of course, ears are not required.
God may whisper to our hearts and minds as we drive our cars, or sit by a loch, or lie awake in the still of the night.
God’s call to each of us may not be as specific as it was for Samuel, and the common notion that God has planned our lives to the last detail is almost certainly overstated.
Yet God has given special gifts to each of us, and God calls us to use those abilities in service to him and to his world.
The first three times Samuel heard God calling his name, he responded in a most appropriate fashion, even though he thought it was Eli calling.
Samuel said, “Here I am! You called?” The Hebrew word he uses literally means “Behold, me!”
Those who follow God best are those who know themselves and who make themselves available in God’s service.
God may call us when we least expect it, or at the most inopportune time, or in the most unlikely situations.
God may have to call more than once to get our attention.
God’s call is rarely as clear as we like, and the world is filled with distractions that make it hard for us to distinguish God’s voice.
Nevertheless, we may be sure that God has a word for each of us.
Likewise, we may learn from young Samuel that no one is too small or too unimportant or too inexperienced to be used by God for difficult and important work.
In fact, God seems to take particular delight in calling “little people” to do big things.
The story of Samuel’s call is a perpetual favourite for many reasons, not the least of which is the belief that it can be our story, too.
It is the story of every one of us who, in our own bumbling and stumbling way, have said, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening!” I invite you to say this today.
Heavenly Father, your church stands at a crossroads.
It is being pulled apart in two different directions.
Families, congregations and Presbyteries are being torn apart over issues of theology and interpretation.
Lord, we want to hear your voice clear and loud.
We seek your guidance as to the way forward for our congregation.
Lord, help us to be able to hear you loud and clear, to be able to say: “This is the Word of the Lord”, to the people of this town.
For this we pray in Jesus’ name.