Tuesday, June 13, 2006

2 Corinthians 3:16

...but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.

Have you ever looked back at a situation and realized you have been a complete and total idiot? It happens to me far more often than I’d like to admit. On more than one occasion I have congratulated women on being pregnant who were not pregnant. I’ve told a proud dad what a beautiful daughter he has only to find out he has a son. When I run into road construction that closes a lane, I promptly get out of the left lane and harrumph and honk self-righteously at cars that zip around when I discover that it is the right lane that is closing.

We all do things like this. And it often happens when I don’t have all the facts about something. When I get the facts, an “Aha!” moment happens and I realize the error of my ways (and I can scramble about to correct myself).

Paul says something similar about our turning to Christ here. Alluding to Moses in Exodus 34, Paul believes that those who live without Christ have an incomplete knowledge of sorts. Just as I live differently once I get all the facts, so Paul believes that those who turn to Christ will have their veil removed and be empowered to live differently, live better.

Turning to the Lord is the business of our whole lives. It is a process of slow yielding, sometimes gentle, sometimes difficult. Yet it has one purpose: removing the veil. We are called on to live life with an unveiled face, choosing reality in Christ over the different veils we sometimes choose: our consumer culture, our preferences, our own sense of ourselves. All of these things blur the image of Christ in us and sometimes block it out completely. We are called on to seek the Lord persistently that we may see things as they are.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, June 11

Hi all--here is the sermon from Sunday, June 11. It's based on 1 Samuel 3:1-20, the story of the Lord calling Samuel.

If you’re at all a sensitive person, you have to love the little boy Samuel. He’s so eager! In the middle of the night, he hears a voice calling him–“Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel doesn’t know this is the voice of God; he believes quite reasonably that it is his father figure, the supervising priest Eli, calling him. So he goes to Eli and he says, “Here I am. You called for me–what did you need?” Eli says, “I didn’t call you–go back to sleep.” Then it happens again, the whole story. By the time it happens the third time, Eli begins to catch on that something supernatural might be happening; God might be calling the boy. So Eli tells him to go back to sleep and if he hears the voice again, he ought to say, “Speak, Lord; for your servant is listening.”

And, of course, the Lord does come again and speaks to Samuel, and Samuel does what he is told; he says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” I do love the little boy Samuel and the way he is just so innocent, so guileless. He does exactly as he is told to do; and he doesn’t ask too many questions. With this attitude, he is truly ready for whatever call God might put on his life. And God put a lot of calls on Samuel’s life; Samuel was used in a mighty way.

And the fact Samuel was so willing to do whatever was a good thing, especially here in the beginning–because God had quite an interesting assignment for the little boy Samuel. God said, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. I am going to punish the house of Eli forever because of the thoughtless blasphemy of his sons.”

Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were spoiled hellions. As Eli’s sons, they too were priests but they were very bad ones. For instance, in those days, they practiced animal sacrifice. In a day before priests were paid servants, the way priests ate was to eat the meat of the sacrificed animals. But it was very important in their religious system that the fat be given to the Lord; the fat was burned off and the priest could eat from what was left. But Hophni and Phinehas were not content to eat meat without fat–they wanted the tasty fat for themselves. So they went to the priest who was sacrificing the animal for the people and demand that they give them the raw meat so they could eat it the way they liked it, even though God said it was wrong. And if the priest protested, they threatened the priest and said they would take it by force. All in all, Hophni and Phinehas would constantly abuse the priestly system for their own benefit, taking what belonged to the Lord and using it for themselves.

And Eli, the chief priest, knew his sons were scoundrels, but he didn’t care to discipline them. And so God says he is going to punish this household because the sons were blaspheming God by their actions, and their father didn’t love God enough to trouble himself to discipline the child.

And all this is a lot to lay on a little boy, a lot to lay on Samuel. We read that he lay there until morning, and then, as was his job, he arose in the morning and opened the doors of the house of the Lord. And Samuel was afraid to tell Eli what he had seen–wouldn’t you be? For one thing, Eli was Samuel’s boss–imagine if God told you to tell your boss God was going to punish him forever. Wouldn’t you be afraid at what your boss could do to you?

And Eli calls Samuel, and somehow when he looks at him, Eli just knows that God has given Samuel a vision; and he asks Samuel what God has said. Samuel tells him, and Eli accepts the vision. Eli was a good man, a noble man, even if he was an ineffective parent; and so he accepts the vision of God. That in itself was a miracle, that Eli heard and listened, and didn’t reject him and throw him out or hurt him. He merely listened patiently; he probably suspected God didn’t much care for his parenting style, and he’s probably not all that surprised, but at the very least, he doesn’t take it out on Samuel. He just listened to him.

In fact, people kept listening to Samuel. We read that as Samuel grew up, the Lord saw to it that none of his words fell to the ground. I love that image–none of his words fell to the ground. Each word that Samuel spoke was heard and heeded by the people it was intended for. In fact, we read that from Dan to Beersheba knew that Daniel was a prophet. Dan was the northernmost town in Israel, and Beersheba the southernmost. The text is basically saying that Samuel’s fame spread all over the kingdom, and that everyone knew his words came from God.
Samuel was not exactly the most likely candidate to receive the word of the Lord. Samuel was not impressive to look at, not a tall man with a booming voice who spoke with a voice that just sounded like God. He had no titles, no education, no experience. All he had done was to sleep at the church, tend the fire, and begun to learn a little bit about what it was to be a man of God. Heck, he was still just a kid, just a boy, more fit for playing than prophecy.

Yes, the deck was stacked against Samuel, especially when you consider the heavy message he had to carry to Eli. It’s one thing to ask a seasoned veteran prophet to go and deliver a difficult message like this. It’s quite another to ask a young boy to do something like this. When I was a boy, I had trouble taking the trash out once a week and remembering to feed the cat. Suffice it to say that I was not ready to be a prophet like the young Samuel.

But, after all, this is the point. When God calls people, God has a unique way of doing it. God often calls people to do things that seem impossible. Maybe you can see this in your life, even now; maybe you can see how God has called you to do something that seems impossible. Maybe right now you are in the middle of high school, one of the hardest times of life. Your body is changing so quickly, your life is changing so quickly, everything turns around you so quickly. And God didn’t call your parents to do that, even though they have the life experience where they might be able to manage it. He called you to do it. Even though you might have less experience and ability, God gave this calling to you.

Maybe you are facing a difficult situation with your children and you don’t know the right way to turn and you think, “Why did God call me to this situation? There’s nothing special about me, I’m not a trained psychologist or a doctor, I don’t know how to handle this difficult situation. Why did God call me instead of someone more, I don’t know, talented, or special?” But again, God didn’t call the superparents down the street to this, even though they might be able to handle it. He called you to it.

Maybe you are staring down the barrel of a difficult decision in life. On one hand, it seems most honoring to God if you do this, and on the other hand, it seems most honoring to God if you do that. And only one choice is right, and you know that the world is going to change no matter which you choose, and it feels like everything is riding on you. And you think to yourself, “I need someone else to make this decision for me, because I don’t know how to make it. I need my mother or my father or at least a mother or father figure to do it because they’d know how to do it better than me. But again, God didn’t call your mother or your father to make this difficult decision. He called you to make it.

Now there is a reason that God called you into whatever difficult situations it is that you face today. It is the same reason God called Samuel into the very difficult situation he faced as a very young boy. And it is very different than the reason the self-help books might tell you. The self-help books tell you that when you face trials, it reveals all the character and all the potential you already have in you. But the real reason I think God calls Samuel and you and I to profoundly difficult situations is different. When we are on the other side of those situations, when we have overcome them and found that we are still alive and stronger than we were before, then we have to realize that it was God who gave us the strength to do it. It was not some human potential that we’ve been carrying around with us all along and just didn’t know it. It was more than that. It was not natural; it was supernatural. The only way we come out of these difficult times alive and reasonably well-adjusted is when God’s spirit touches us and gives us strength and wisdom that is beyond what we naturally have. Then we are able to do more than we ever could before, more than we could on our own.

When God called Samuel to this amazingly difficult task, it was not so Samuel could discover his own strength. It was so he could see for himself what amazing things he really could do with the power of God’s Spirit. Samuel was not just a regular little boy–he was a little boy with God’s Spirit living in him and giving him strength.

And because Samuel has God touching him, he has amazing abilities, and he also has extra responsibility to the world. Both are part of the package–he has amazing abilities. He is able to judge the people with wisdom; he is able to discern right from wrong; he is able to hear the voice of God directly. Truly, he has amazing, supernatural abilities. But he also has extra responsibility to the world. He is responsible for doing things ordinary people don’t have to do. He has the burden of leadership of a people who will not listen to him. He has to deliver not only good messages from God, but also difficult ones, ones that will be difficult to speak and difficult to hear. Samuel’s touch of the Holy Spirit gave him abilities but it also demanded that he use those abilities for God’s purposes. To whom much is given, much is required.

Last week, we celebrated the holiday of Pentecost. And the great news of Pentecost is that God’s Spirit has been poured out on all flesh. In Samuel’s passage, we read that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. God’s Spirit was not widely known or recognized. But today, in the post-Pentecost era, the Spirit has come to all who are in Christ. The Spirit is not reserved for preachers, for theologians, for professors, or for “professional Christians” of any stripe. God’s Spirit lives in all of those who call Christ Lord, be they stockbrokers or just plain broke, whether you are a divinity-school graduate or a Sunday school dropout. The Holy Spirit lives in all of those who have invited Christ into their lives.
And so we share Samuel’s amazing abilities, not natural abilities, but supernatural. God has touched our lives in such a way that we have lived through things we never could have without him. God has given us the ability to thrive where those without him wither. To live this way is an extraordinary blessing, and an extravagant gift. To live, always knowing that God’s Spirit is with us, giving us strength in any situation, is such a lavish gift straight from God.

And yet it also comes with extraordinary responsibilities. For while we are given the most beautiful life, it also comes with a calling, a calling that can weigh heavily at times. It is a calling that used to be reserved for the few but has now come to all of us. It is a call to be the hands and feet of Christ in a world that often rejects rather than embraces God, a world so upside down they don’t know how to embrace God anymore. It is a call to embrace the suffering of people and create a place for them to come to when they need to come home. It is a call, in short, to live a life that society says is fading away but God says will last forever.

So my prayer for you and the whole church today is that you will know the power of God’s Spirit, that same Spirit poured out on Pentecost, the same Spirit given to Samuel; that Spirit alone will give you the amazing gift of life; that Spirit alone will strengthen you to do what is impossible for ordinary people. I ask this for your sake, that you may know true joy; but also for the sake of the whole world, where there are people who desperately need people touched by the spirit.