Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
The story of Samuel’s prophetic ‘coming of age’ is set in a time when ‘the word of the Lord was rare’. What we might call the ‘supernatural’ action of God ebbs and flows throughout the Bible, and indeed has throughout church history too. Samuel appears at a time of low ebb, and his prophetic career is launched solely by the sovereign intervention of God.
I’ll leave you to decide for yourself whether we too live in a time when there are ‘not many visions’, but this passage raises two different questions: how do we hear and recognise the voice of God, and what is the place of children and parents in this area?
Many of us, I guess, will have had times when we have sensed in some way that God is trying to get through to us. Those more used to this kind of thing, perhaps through charismatic renewal, will know what it means to have thoughts come into their heads which kind of feel like God, or see a mental picture, or experience a dream which feels significant. But so often we are quick to write these kinds of experiences off as our own thoughts, or even a result of that late night cheese we had. Samuel fortunately has Eli as his mentor, and he is quick to recognise what the young boy does not and to encourage him to respond appropriately. I don’t know how good experienced leaders are at encouraging others to learn to trust their instincts and listen actively to the Spirit, but it surely ought to be part of our ministry. The twist in the tail of this story comes, of course, when the message God wants to give is an uncompromising message of judgement on the very man who is encouraging Samuel to hear it. The message is totally without hope: those of us older in the ways of the church need to be prepared, when mentoring younger people, to hear sometimes about the death of our old and sometimes corrupt ways.
It is ironic, therefore, that Eli, who is so good at nurturing and encouraging Samuel in his prophetic career, is condemned because of his failure to disciple his own family. We’re told in chapter 2 about his sons Hophni and Phinehas, and their behaviour in terms of greed, the dishonouring of God’s sacrifices, and sexual immorality, and of Eli’s somewhat feeble attempts to discipline them, and it seems to contrast greatly with his care of Samuel. But we all know that it can sometimes be easier to deal with other people’s kinds than our own.
So how might your church encourage people of all ages to listen to God, and to expect that he might speak? We’re often told that prayer is as much about listening to God as it is to speaking to him, but rarely in my experience are we given any help in actually knowing how to do this. It’s a whole subject on its own, but my top hints would be to give God significant time and space, and learn to believe that the first thing which pops into your head is most likely to be from God, and is usually followed quickly by our own self doubts and rationalisations. My own experience is that children take to this like ducks to water, without the all-pervading self doubt of adults. We also need to help people to know how to handle what they think they may have heard, whom they might share it with, and so on. I personally would also encourage people to believe that the stuff in Deuteronomy 18 about putting false prophets to death no longer applies, and it’s Ok to have a God even if you don’t quite get it right. And let’s pray that the word of the Lord might not be so rare any more.