Our world and our culture are changing rapidly all around us. With new communication technology and increasing global interaction, we face a world that will be radically different from the one in which we have lived for so long..
Of course, some see the changes, any changes, as threatening. And so they move into a doomsday mode and adopt a negative view. They decry any change as a change for the worse, where some people see only problems, others see opportunities.
If that is true in individuals, I suspect it is also true of society. And it is true of the church. Never has there been more interest in religion and spirituality in this country than now. The human need to be Spiritual remains even in those societies that strive to deny the Spiritual and believe not in God but themselves. Of course, some of that spirituality is of the weird kind, and certainly not Christian. But that also tells us that there are opportunities to proclaim the Gospel.
The Old Testament reading for the second Sunday of Epiphany is the story of God’s call to the young man Samuel and his commissioning as a prophet to Israel. In many ways, this young man Samuel represents the turning of history for Israel.
The setting of this story is 200 years after the people of Israel leave the slavery of Egypt, travel through the wilderness and enter the long promised land flowing with milk and honey.
They enter the land of Canaan and as they settle and adapt to this new life, the old ways are forgotten, the old lessons of dependency on God become lost and new ways of living seem at odds with all that went before.
The priests continued to worship and maintain the sanctuaries throughout the land. They tried to keep the spiritual vitality alive. But the people could see little advantage in serving God. They became preoccupied with their own interests and their commitment to God grew dim.
And so gradually they began to forget who they were as God’s chosen people and what their mission was in the world. The new generation of children that were growing up had finally abandoned God for pursuit of their own pleasure. The Book of Judges ends with one of the most chilling verses in the Bible. "Everyone did as they wanted to do."
It is against that background that the young man Samuel enters Israel’s history
The first chapters of 1 Samuel tell us of the miraculous birth of Samuel. God heard and answered Hannah’s prayer. As soon as we hear of the birth of this child, we know that there is hope for Israel. We know that there is indeed a future and possibility simply because God has brought it about. But change does not always come easily, and we do not yet know the shape of that future.
And so the stage is set for the text in chapter three that we have heard this morning.
There are three characters in the story: the old priest Eli, the young man Samuel, and God. Too often we focus on Samuel and forget about Eli. But if we listen carefully to the story, we realize that Eli has a significant role in the story. It will take all three of these figures in the story for Israel to have a future.
Eli by this time was an old man, nearly blind. He was priest at the sanctuary at Shiloh, and likely had been all his life. In the previous chapter (2), we are told that Eli’s two sons were worthless fellows who despised the things of God. They had violated the very sanctuary of God
Eli represents Israel and the path that she has taken in allowing the things of God to grow dim, like his eyesight. Eli represents the old ways that Israel had been following now for 200 years, paths that have led to spiritual blindness and a deafness to the voice of God.
Yet there is a glimmer of hope here. We are also told in verse 3 that "the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was." It is no accident that this story takes place at night. The darkness represents the same thing that Eli’s blindness represents: the lack of spiritual vision and the failure to be God’s people.
The lamp of God and the ark both symbolized the presence of God in the sanctuary. In this story they represent the presence of God in the darkness into which Israel’s spiritual blindness has led them. In the midst of the darkness of failing vision the flame of God’s presence is still alive.
And in the darkness there is Samuel, the miracle child! The child born to a barren woman! In the darkness lies the future, just waiting for God’s presence to fan it into a new flame!
We must be careful here that we do not romanticize Samuel and make him the hero here. The story is not about Samuel. But he is the instrument of God's work.
We all know the story of God's call to Samuel. God called to him. He heard God’s voice, but did not understand. He was only a boy and had not yet learned to distinguish the voice of God from all the other voices in his life.
He went and asked Eli if he had called. Eli told him to go back to bed. Twice more this happened. Finally, the third time Eli began to understand what was happening. He explained what Samuel should do and how he should respond.
The fourth time Samuel responded to God's call, and was given the prophetic message from God. It was a message about change, about the ending of the old ways of doing things in Israel.
Although Eli can be seen as the villain in the story the truth is that he is important and was there to guide Samuel in the right direction. Even though the old ways were dying, they still had a role in guiding the new generation into their calling as God’s people. Eli enables the young Samuel to be one who will bring change so desperately need.
Eli may not be a hero, but his role was to facilitate and enable the change that God was bringing. He was the transition figure between the past and the future, the cutting edge over which the old became new.
And what of Samuel? Does he become the hero? Yes but if we look later at Samuel, even after being the prophet of God for many years, he had sons of his own. And his sons were worthless fellows, just like the sons of Eli. Eventually, Samuel himself came to the position of Eli, and faced the judgment of God on his own family and his heritage!
Samuel filled the same role as Eli, as he presided over yet another change in Israel’s history. Samuel was commissioned by God to appoint the iftt Kings of Israel first Saul and then David, an act that would bring his own leadership of Israel to an end.
So what does this mean for us?
I think that perhaps we need to realize that some things are ending. I’m not saying we have to see the church in the metaphor of a blind old man who is ready to die. But we do have to recognize that what has been will not be again. The stability and power of our Faith is not in all the trappings of our religion, but in the living God in our midst. We can easily disrupt the new work of God in the world if we try only to hang onto what has always been. Not everything needs to change, or should. But then, not everything can remain the same.
Certainly there is change in the wind. Pope Francis is challenging the Roman Catholic Church to look afresh at some of its deepest held assumptions and practices.
The Church of England is also undergoing change with the long awaited decision to allow women not just to be priests but Bishops as well
In our Diocese we await the news in few months time of who will be our new bishop of Edmonton, taking over from bishop Peter after 15 years as our Area Bishop
And there is change here too at St Matthias and within the communities of Colindale where we see the evidence of that change all around us.
We need to listen to God in these times of change and for some of us to be like Eli, to ensure that the voice of the future is heard and the Word of God is honoured. For all of us we need to be ready to respond to God when he calls: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."