I Have a Dream

(Epiphany 2, Samuel 3.1-20)

 

1-15-06

 

The boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.  The Word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. (1Sam3.1)

 

Our Old Testament reading this morning describes the prophet Samuel’s well-known vision from God.  And it came we are told, at a time when visions from the Lord were not widespread.  At a time when either the Lord was not speaking, or people just weren’t listening.

A time, I submit, like today. 

So let’s look at our story of Samuel in detail, with an eye on the parallels and the lessons that might be applicable to our current times. 

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Now Samuel lived at a time in Israel ’s history when it was undergoing significant changes.  The previous couple of hundred years had a succession of so-called judges that ruled and kept together the federation of twelve Jewish tribes.  By all accounts, it was not a successful style of government.  And so the people began to realize that they would never be able to remain an independent country unless they had more consistent leadership; specifically in the form of a king.  And so the books of Samuel take us through the first two kings of Israel , Saul and David.

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So the best way to start the story of Samuel is to look at the last sentence of the Book of Judges.  It says,

“In those days there was no king in Israel ; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”

Now that is not necessarily bad to have people be governed by their own internal ethical and religious codes.  But I believe that history has shown many times over that it is not a system that will stand the test of time.  Left to their own devises, people invariably turn away from what is right and begin to lean toward things that look good and feel good. 

And sin always looks good and feels good, doesn’t it?

And so it was with Israel in those days.  Full of sin and corruption.  And the worst of it was that even those most entrusted with God’s word were among the offenders. 

A priest named Eli, lived in Shiloh , and was the high priest of the temple where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.  Now Eli was a good and god-fearing man, but he was getting old and his eyesight was getting dim. 

Therefore Eli’s two sons were sort of left in charge.  And they were crooks.  They abused their priestly powers to demand food and favors from all who came to worship and bring sacrifices to the holy place of the Ark.   Now many people complained to Eli about his sons, but try as he could, he was unable to convince them to do the right thing. 

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But God also hears the complaints of the people and god decides that things need to change..

But as God is prone to do when God decides to bring change, He usually chooses a very unlikely hero.  Well, in this case heroine.

Her name was Hannah and she was the first wife of a man named Elkanah (el-KAY-nuh).  Although they had been married for quite some time, Hannah had not managed to bear a child.  So Elkanah had taken another wife, Peninnah (pee-NIHN-uh) who not only managed to easily have several children, she also managed to find ways to remind Hannah of her barrenness.  All of which just made Hannah all the more miserable. 

Now Elkanah and his family had the custom of making an annual trip to visit Shiloh , to present a sacrifice to the Lord at the sanctuary where the ark of the covenant was kept.  And it was on one of these trips, that Hannah was particularly distraught.  And so she brought her case to God.  And while standing near the sanctuary of the Ark , she lamented her torment and her troubles to God.  And she prayed that God would give her a male child.  And as part of her prayer, she also made a silent vow to God, that if her wish was granted, she would give her son to the Lord.  She promised that his life would be set aside for service to the Lord.

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Well, God answers her prayer.  And Hannah gives birth to a son.  And she names him Samuel.

And, she also keeps her promise about dedicating Samuel to the Lord’s work.  On a subsequent trip to Shiloh , and while Samuel is still just a toddler, she takes him to Eli.  Hannah tells Eli the circumstances of Samuel’s birth and leaves her young son in his hands.

So Samuel grows up in the direct care of high priest Eli, and gets a first hand experience of the work of a priest.  

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And that is where today’s reading begins.  Samuel is still a youth, and he is sleeping in his customary spot outside the room of Eli.  And the Lord calls to him, “Samuel!”  But Samuel thinks that it is Eli calling him, so he runs to see what the old priest wants.  Of course, Eli doesn’t know what he is talking about.  Well, that sequence repeats itself a couple of times, until finally Eli realizes that Samuel must be having a vision.  So he tells him that if it happens again, he is tell the Lord that he is listening. 

Sure enough, it happens again.  And Samuel say, Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.”  And the Lord tells Samuel how Eli and his family will be sent to eternal punishment for the sins of Eli’s sons.

The next morning, Samuel is naturally very reluctant to tell Eli what was in the vision.  But Eli insists, and so Samuel tells him the truth.  And Eli, in the face of that devastating news, does the right thing.  He says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

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So the Lord makes clear to Samuel (and to us), that the Lord will honor those who honor Him.  And God will punish those who treat the Word of God with contempt.  And so the mantle of prophet passes from Eli, who could not bring himself to act on God’s condemnation of his sons; to Samuel, who has been chosen to be the successor.  And Samuel’s calling is clear.  He is to speak God’s word accurately and with courage, whether the message is popular or not. 

And God promises to help that process by making sure that none of his words fall to the ground. 

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That’s the thing about visions – and also about the Word of God.  The message is not always one that we want to hear. 

It makes me conclude that the lack of godly visions are probably as much a result of dim eyesight on the part of the people than because God is withholding guidance.  So one of the first lessons that I see in this reading is that in times of corruption; times of decadence; times of plenty; those are the times when the Word of the Lord is rare. 

And it is rare, because those are the times that we are not honestly seeking God’s direction. 

Like Eli and his sons, we hear what we want to hear and we do what we want to do.  And if a person of vision comes among us, we are much more likely to find a way to silence them, than we are to actually pay attention.

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I chose to talk about Samuel today, because so much of this story reminded me of our world today, and also because it reminds me of the person that our nation will honor tomorrow.

Like Samuel, Martin Luther King Jr. had a vision – a dream of a better life for all people under God.  And I would say that he was also a prophet.  A person who courageously spoke God’s truth, even those parts that people did not want to hear.

King’ famous speech about his Dream, was no less than a vision from God.  Because it was a vision in which all could enjoy Christ’s abundant love together – as one people. 

A vision that people of every color could live together in peace and brotherhood. 

Since his day is tomorrow, I read again King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and a few other speeches from more than 30 years ago.  And believe me; his words still carry the same meaning and message in today’s world as they did in then. 

King’s work and words were the work and words of the Gospel.  King’s vision was that we could all be transformed in Christ’s image.  And that we would all live together in the abundance of God’s love for us.  Not that some of us would have abundance and others the scraps – but that all would share equally. 

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I wish I could tell you that  dream has been realized or that the work is complete, but that is no more true than if I said that Jesus’ desire that all people would know the love of God has come about. 

But I will say that change has occurred – progress has been made. 

And that a life lived faithfully in the service of God and to others is always (no matter how short) a life of abundance, and never a life lived in vain.

The Word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech was in Memphis , Tennessee in April of 1968.  He had gone to Memphis to help striking sanitation workers in their effort to be paid a livable wage.

And in that speech, King said this about helping the workers.  He said, “The question is not, if I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?”  The question is, “If I do not stop to help these workers, what will happen to them?”

The day after he made that speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped out on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis , and was shot dead by a coward with a rifle. 

But those words leave us with our marching orders.  Because it is up to us to pick up the cross and to proclaim God’s Word and to keep King’s vision alive.  Our part is to heed the word of God – particularly those parts that are difficult or troublesome.  Particularly those words that we do not want to hear.

Those words that remind us our love of Christ is measured by how we love and help our neighbors - particularly those without jobs or money.

The words that tell us that serving Christ is feeding those without food. 

Words that say seeing Christ is visiting those in prison. 

And finally that being like Christ is to heal and pray for the sick.

Prophetic words.  Words of vision and truth. 

 

We speak the truth, and God will not let any of our words fall to the ground.

Amen.