1 Samuel 3:1-10
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 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. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
The church elder got up to read the scripture chosen for the day and the young teenage boy selected to sing the refrain nervously stepped to the lectern and sang, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” I can remember it vividly. It was pure and holy and sacred. I remember being in Vacation Bible School as a young child learning to sing, “The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E!” I remember when I first came to serve among you here in Tulsa, it was the practice of the elder reading the scripture to approach the Communion Table which set up high on the Chancel, to lift the biggest Bible you’ve ever seen and carry it over to the pulpit and spread wide it’s pages to be read before the congregation. It could have been read in many other ways but this visual was designed to say, “Look at this! Hold your breath for a moment! Something holy is about to be shared.”
I love the Bible. It is the book that has been in my life longer than any other book. From my picture Bible, to the one I received at my baptism to the one I received when I graduated from high school to the one my parents gave me at my ordination… the Bible has always been an essential part of my existence. It’s just a book, right? Pages run through a printing press, bound, and many shipped out of China to the ends of the world. China! The very country where the book itself has been banned at various points in her history. I’ve been to that very printing press in Nanjing. It is impressive. They had a running ticker of how many Bibles they had printed… tick, tick, tick. Amazing! Some six billion copies of the Bible have been sold. Harry Potter has only 400 million copies sold, coming in third place. Nine out of ten American households own a Bible – the average American household has three. The YOUversion Bible App has already been installed over 365 million times on unique devices all over the world – 1,880 Bible versions in 1,288 languages — for free… and without advertising. Isn’t that something? I’ve heard Craig Groeschel, the LifeChurch founder whose church created the Bible App tell the story about how it happened. The short of it was a teenager had slipped into the office where a team was having some conversation and was like, “Uh, it would be super easy to make an app.” “Really?” they said. “Uh, yeah.” And just like that… he did and the world is reading the Bible again… a new generation… a new time, place, medium, village, language. Why tell you all of this? Because it is simply amazing to me. The reach. The impact. There is something beyond the words of the pages that transforms life like nothing else seemingly does.
Rev. Meghan Larissa Good, a millennial Mennonite pastor speaks to this power.
“Hardest to pin down is the naked power of the book itself,” she says. “Millennia of readers testify that those who listen carefully find themselves addressed by a voice beyond the page that somehow penetrates and breaks things open. God, in some strange and unique way, actually talks here; and where God starts talking, chains are broken, wounds are healed, and whole worlds are upended.”
So there’s that. But… we also know such power can be destructive. Many a war and tremendous violence have been conducted on somebody’s word that the “Bible told them so.” When the Hebrew writer says in Chapter four, “Indeed, the word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow…” some have used the Bible for that very purpose – to slice and dice and harm and exterminate whole communities or races of people or to draw castles around their own holy understanding that leaves little room for anyone else to get across the mote to share the joy of being on the inside. The murder in Christchurch, New Zealand, is shuddering… there is no place in any Holy Book that can justify such hatred and violence. Only deranged extremists of our faith and that of others have felt justified in such slaughter. It is not the peace which our Muslim, Jewish, and Christian siblings promote.
One way we can stride in this direction for peace is to encounter God in Scripture in a way that brings life and hope to all… not death or fear. I want you to think about your engagement with scripture. Maybe it’s always been a part of your life. Maybe you’ve given it little thought and have just chalked it up to a weird collection of stories that don’t have anything to say to us today. I wonder how you approach the Bible. Do you read Scripture primarily for information or transformation? Do you imagine it as a text book or a love letter? There is room for multiple realities, of course, but in creating a sacred rhythm between God and follower of God, it is good to consider what it means to savor the Scriptures. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, What could God open to you if you opened the Bible in a whole new way? That’s what we’re after today.
Scott Allender recently referred to these two Harvard psychiatrists who stated quite starkly the following: Ouch. We are the most over-informed, under-reflective civilization in human history. Whoa. Information is more accessible than ever. And we may eat it but we certainly are bypassing the chewing and digestive processes. My son Dane reminds our family of this every time we eat. He reminds me of his great-grandma Briley who always took an additional twenty/thirty minutes to eat her meal after the rest of us were done. Dane is the same way. And we’ll wait and he’ll say, “I’m just savoring my food, guys.” And like our information, we hardly have the patience to savor anything anymore. When’s the last time you savored Scripture? And if you are reading… are you just trying to get through it… to reach some reading plan goal?
Think about Luke 6 where Jesus talks about loving our enemies as a true mark of the Christian faith. We’ve heard it before perhaps and we’ve got somewhere else to be soon so we just plow on through that chapter so we can check it off the list. But if you’re reading relationally or for spiritual transformation, you might only choose 6-8 verses and approach it with no other agenda than listening and deepening your intimacy with God. How does it feel when you read Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies.” Feel it. Wonder about it. And maybe you’ll start feeling some discomfort and a fist rising up from your gut that says, “I don’t this so! I’m not okay with that!” It surprises you because you were feeling all spiritual trying to do your daily scripture reading and now you’re just feeling all judgy (which we may be prone to do). But feel it a bit and ponder, “What in my life is pressed against what Jesus is saying here?” What may be revealed is that under my piety, there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel all that loving right now. In fact, I’m harboring some anger against someone who’s hurt me. I thought I had let that go but clearly its still there under my skin. What does this awareness on this particular day tell me about where I am not like Christ? Am I being transformed into a more loving person? Now… instead of just buzzing through the words, “Love your enemies,” – God and I are getting somewhere – some level of intimacy that may just change me in some deep way. This is how we were meant to read the Bible… not in quest of sound bites to back up our political leanings… but to engage the very Word of God… who is Christ himself… that we might be transformed. After all, this is the Bible’s bold hypothesis: “It’s a grand leap of faith – that there never was any closed cosmic system from which God could be barred or into which God has to break as a stranger… God is closer than the world ever dared to imagine.”
Rev. Good reminds us that “The early Christians believed the Bible was rightly read when it led to contemplation of, and participation in, nothing less than Jesus himself. This means we don’t just read Scripture – we read through Scripture like a window.” I think we have come to fear Scripture… a sense that we can’t understand it or that we should be more familiar with it or that we’ll not use it well and so we give up on the engagement. Ah… but don’t do that, my friends. Pick it up again, as if for the first time, to savor it a bit at a time… listening for what God may be saying to you now. While the text may be the same, your life changes day after day and therefore your encounter will be different time and time again.
I appreciated a friend who’s taking our Enneagram class on Wednesday nights who was struggling a bit to decipher what Number or personality type he may be. He said almost soberly, “I’ve been through some hard things and I’m not sure I’m the same now as I was back then.” Life does throw us some tough curveballs. Life is hard and we make choices and things happen that are out of our control and we wonder, “Who am I now?” And scripture can be a companion in a wholly new way. Those sacred texts are most effective not when we read them but when they read us. The more we can loosen some of our preconceived ideas or fundamental perceptions about what the text says or means and encounter it in a fresh way – the more we can see our lives in the new-thing-view that God may be doing in our lives now.
It’s why I picked, perhaps, an obscure text to speak about encountering God through scripture because the story of young Samuel doesn’t have anything to do with him engaging his sacred text, the Torah. Not at all. He’s just available. And if we could start with availability, we’d be well ahead of the game. Little Sam was living in a spiritually dry time… “The word of the Lord was rare in those days,” says the text. There was corruption and greed and bad stuff happening and it was just a spiritually dry time. But Sam was living in the Temple as was Eli the priest. And one night, Sam was dreaming perhaps when he hears his name called, “Samuel! Samuel!” He jumps out of bed and runs into Eli’s room hollering, “Here I am?” What do you need?” Now Eli’s up in years a bit. His bed time ritual takes some time with the Ben Gay and the whole bit and he’s tired. And this whipper snapper comes running in and waking him up. “Beat it, kid! It wasn’t me.” Sam goes back to bed but that voice again, “Samuel! Samuel!” And the boy shoots back into Eli’s room: “Yeah! I hear you calling me. Here I am!” And Eli says, “You’re killin’ me Smalls. I’m not yelling for you… get in bed. Now!” And Sam dips his head and climbs back onto his bunk. And I’ll be darned if Sam doesn’t hear his name called again. This time, he’s got to be thinking, “The old man has lost his marbles!” What else can he do but go see what Eli needs. “Hey there, sir. I heard you call my name and I’m back… please don’t yell at me.” And Eli, realizing like a parent does when something is truly up with their kid, he says to young Sam, “My boy, I see what’s happening here. The Lord is looking for some available ears. Go back to bed and when you hear your name called, respond by saying: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Don’t you think the kid is a bit wide-eyed now? We don’t pick that up in the story but I’d sort of be like, “Uh… will you come with me? And can I have a drink of water… and maybe a snack?” Anything from having to go back to bed. But Sam drags his blankey back to his room. He lays down and pulls the covers all the way up over the tip of his nose and stars at the ceiling… and waits. And lo and behold, the voice comes again: “Samuel!” Big gulp. What was I supposed to say? Oh yes. “Uh… speak, Lord, for your servant is all ears.”
That’s availability. That’s what we’re looking for. That’s the approach I’m suggesting we have when we approach the Bible. I don’t want to coerce you or manipulate you or brow beat you with Scripture. It’s too beautiful for that. I want you to encounter the living God and be willing to say, “Speak to me, Lord, I’m available and listening.”
There was an acronym floating around for a while… because Christians love themselves some acronyms, right? F.R.O.G. – forever rely on God. W.W.J.D. – What would Jesus do. We love ‘em, don’t we? There was one for the B.I.B.L.E. – Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Cute, right? And I get the sentiment. It’s a pithy statement and, at one point, maybe something I expected of the Bible myself – “sort of like a Roomba owner’s manual, only for the human soul.”
Rev. Good spoke of this too. She said,
“If the primary purpose of the Bible were to efficiently convey the most basic, universally relevant knowledge necessary to maintain a well-ordered life, most of us would expect a very different kind of book. We’d want a little more quick-reference-index, a little less poetry; a little more guidance on romance and dating, a little less detail on how to build a giant ark without power tools.” She says, but “this is no fairy-tale or snow-globe world. The Bible tells the story of what is. It’s the true story of a world where hearing is imperfect, where motives are mixed, where evil exists, where bias lingers, where good intentions can go wildly astray. And where God persists in showing up.”
If God persists on showing up then maybe I should too. For that’s where we meet the Word; the Word who is Christ himself. The Word that existed before words existed. Kayla McClurg continues that sentiment…
“The Word that longs to quiet the storms within and among us, light up our darkness, stir our complacency, bring us back fully to ourselves. The Word longs to be in conversation with us; not get our opinions on every subject, be impressed by our clarity and wit, but just hang out with us, dwell among us. The Word has come to teach us our mother tongue, our native language — the language of compassion and fearless encounter, the language of love.”
Yes. Available. Encounter. Thank you, God.
How do you know God is calling? Even the idea of God calling you to do something feels so strange and like a call on your Smart Phone from an unidentified number – you’re not inclined to answer. There’s so many voices wanting to yank you into their sphere of influence. How do you know? E. Stanley Jones… missionary to India called this a “traffic jam of wills.” He was a bright young man in his early 20’s and everyone wanted a piece of him. His alma mater said, “We believe God is calling you to teach here.” His friend wrote him a letter, “I believe God is calling you to evangelistic work here in the States.” His denomination tells him, “We believe God is calling you to the mission field in India.” He felt called to India and served his whole life there. He remembers having this open conversation with Gandhi one day saying, “How can we make Christianity more natural here in India… more available to people who may be interested?” and Gandhi roughly says, “Christians should first seek to live more like Christ.”
That’s always the challenge, right? We may be quick to say, “The Bible says…” but until we can show, “This is how Christ lives,” many won’t be inspired to crack open the Scriptures at all. The old adage, “You may be the only Bible some will ever read,” applies well here. Information alone just makes us arrogant if it doesn’t filter down through the clay to the roots of our souls where real, humble transformation takes place. Pastor Courtney is offering a Bible 101 course on Tuesday nights starting very soon. A brother in our very church and I are praying for clarity on the possibility of a Bible study on the Book of Acts for which we need some leadership to rise. Maybe these are calls of God on your life? Who knows?
Sometimes, when you’re struggling to hear the call of God, you’ve just got to make a new effort. Make a start at something. See if any traction is gained. Starting is always a sign of hope. Every time I get dressed to go out for a run, I’m hopeful that, even if I’m slow, my getting out there; trying something; making my legs available to what could lead to the transformation of my cardiovascular system, is hope. Making any beginning is stating the belief that a good outcome is possible. When we sense God calling us to make a beginning, at whatever that may be, it’s important to not let discouragers or opponents or distractions turn us away. What is waiting for a start in your life? What have you been wrestling with, wondering if God may be giving you a nudge? Have you tested it? Do you need some training for it? Have you sought the wisdom of scripture to simply make yourself available to God within the words of our holy text?
I was in third grade. My father, who was also my pastor, taught me a word from John 3:16 – again the number one scripture written on hairy chests of shirtless men at football games for decades now – isn’t it crazy where scripture shows up? You probably know this word. “For God so loved the world that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” My dad invited me to put my own name in that text where the word “world” was. “For God so loved Mark…” Now the sentence doesn’t read correctly if you don’t alter any of the rest but I can’t remember how we handled that. But that first part? Can’t shake it. Can’t forget it. “For God so loved Mark…” Really? “And you can do that?” I asked. “You can put other people’s names in there too?” “Until you cover the whole world, son.” I want to be available to that kind of God. That kind of love. That’s an encounter that can change the world. So, I’m listening, God. And maybe you’ll listen too… you know, for your name to be called? May we, like young Samuel, be ready to respond
 Meghan Larissa Good. The Bible Unwrapped: Making Sense of Scripture Today. Herald Press. Harrisonburg, VA. 2018. This quote as well as other places where Rev. Good is named in this message come from this book.
 Sacred Rhythms. Ruth Haley Barton. IVP Books. 2006. Her influence is evident in this message as well as in the formation of the entire series. This paragraph about approach to scripture reading is an example she shares in this book.
 Kayla McClurg, comments on John 1:1-18 for January 4, 2016. inwardoutward.org.