For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 2 – 1 Samuel 3:1-21
The first half of this chapter is a great Sunday School story: I can remember as a child loving the hymn based on it, James Burns’ Hushed was the evening hymn, set to Arthur Sullivan’s great tune. After that, though, it turns a bit nasty, so we keep that part out of the children’s ears, and safely inside those square brackets. But the chapter as a whole is a watershed for Israel, and a challenge for all who are positions of leadership today. To understand why, we’ll have to read around the passage a bit (never a bad idea).
Samuel, like so many other key leaders in the Bible, had been a miracle baby, and now as promised he was apprenticed to Eli the priest at the sanctuary in Shiloh. But around the key story we are given a lot more other information about the state of the nation at this time. 3:1 tells us that the word of the Lord and vision from him were rare, and interestingly the next verse tells us that Eli himself was virtually blind. But there was more to it than that. Whilst we have no record of Eli ever bringing prophetic messages from God, nor in fact doing very much at all in terms of his priestly leadership, he does seem to spend a lot of his time sitting around on a throne (4:13), and wringing his hands over the behaviour of his uncontrollable sons Hophni and Phineas. They too are priests, but are totally corrupt, pinching food from those bringing sacrifices, and raping any women they fancied. Eli hears reports from others about their behaviour, but can only rebuke this abuse of power in the mildest of terms. In addition his level of spirituality seems to be very low: he mistakes fervent prayer for drunkenness, in a way similar to some of the bystanders on the Day of Pentecost, and uncannily like some of the mockery levelled at charismatic Christians more recently.
Hannah, Samuel’s mum, had prophesied, in a way very similar to Jesus’ mum 1,000 years later, about God’s penchant for reversing people’s fortunes (2:7), bringing down the proud and powerful whilst exalting the meek. It is the first job of the her son as the fledgling prophet to proclaim that God is about to do just that to Eli’s family.
It is an uncomfortable calling to pronounce judgement, and one which is particularly out of fashion today in a church which has lost much of its prophetic edge and wants to be encouraging of pretty much anyone or anything. Yet we continue to reap the whirlwind from the behaviour of some of our leaders who, like Eli’s sons, use their positions to harm and abuse others. Samuel’s ministry is a hinge-point in the history of Israel, bringing to an end the corrupt period of the Judges and uniting the nation (for a while at least) under the monarchy. This story sets the tone for his future ministry as one who certainly could receive words and visions from the Lord, to great effect.
Over the years I have held several diocesan posts which have been about helping local churches to be healthy and effective. I have learnt two things from this kind of ministry: 1) it’s hard, and 2) effective churches are led by effective leaders. Most leaders have told me it’s hard in their particular patch, because it’s so urban, or because it’s so rural, or because it’s so middle-class … My conclusion is that it’s hard everywhere. But I have come to believe that leadership is key: it is rare to see an effective church with ineffectual or even downright corrupt leadership, and tragically I have seen plenty of both. The Bible encourages us to pray for our leaders, and that is needed today more than ever. But perhaps we also need to hear again some of the prophetic voices who call out bad behaviour and protect the Church from it in a way which Eli so manifestly failed to do.