Sunday, 15 January 2012

How well are we listening?

Epiphany 2 year B Sermon 

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Three thousand years ago... a twelve year old boy ... hears the voice of God...hears God… call his name...
and ask him to pass on… a special message

and amazingly our story assures us...

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the boy ‘Samuel… had no knowledge of Yahweh...
nor had the word of Yahweh...yet been revealed to him’

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Two thousand years ago... when Nathaniel meets Jesus for the first time... before they can be introduced...
Jesus tells Nathaniel he already knows him. [pause]

It seems strange to me now...
that when I first started preparing this message... I just couldn’t see... how these two stories were linked...and why they’re set down for today… side by side with Psalm 139.

But now I can see how beautifully these readings follow from last week’s reflection…
on God speaking light into the darkness at creation
and bringing light into the darkness of our lives.

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From deep within the history of the Jewish people
the story of Samuel calls us... a story of a young boy
who served in the Tent of the Tabernacle of Moses...
at the Shrine of Shiloh
a boy serving under an old priest…
whose eyes and judgment were failing...
three thousand years ago…during the period of the Judges...
before there were any kings in Israel...

I was intrigued at how young Samuel was...
when he heard God calling his name...
as he slept alone on the floor in the Tent of the Tabernacle...
in the glow of the Lamp of God...

And just as they’d crafted the creation poem in the first chapter of Genesis…this account of Hebrew history…
was composed by the priestly exiles in Babylon…to bring light and hope… to the chaotic world of captivity
to remind the exiles… how God continues to bring light
in the darkness.

And it’s easy to see the story is written much later …because looking back from the time of exile
it’s clear these priestly historians… already knew
as Samuel lay sleeping...that
the Lamp of God was about to be extinguished… leaving the people in darkness. [pause]

And they already knew why
God called this young boy
to shine like a light for those… in his day
who cry out for an end to abuse and exploitation.

They already knew Israel’s enemies from the Gaza
would soon ravage and destroy the Tabernacle
and that in their plundering …an unthinkable…
unimaginable horror would occur. [pause]

The priestly writers in Babylon knew the most sacred of Israel’s religious treasures… would
be carried off… as the spoils of war…the Lamp of God and the Ark of the Covenant…would be stolen by the Philistines… [pause]
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And in a huge tent without windows…like the Tabernacle of Moses…you literally could see nothing at all
without the light of the Lamp of God

that’s why the priests had the sacred task
of making sure the Lamp of God… never went out…

The Lamp of God…in the Tabernacle of Moses….
was known as the 'menorah' in Hebrew
It was made from one piece  of solid beaten gold…
and weighed more than 45 kilograms
The menorah remains today…one of the most popular symbols of Judaism.

and on this golden Lamp was inscribed these words

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The Light of YHWH is the spirit of humankind

And handed down in the scroll of Leviticus
was the command that this Lamp must shine continually before the Lord…from evening until morning;
it shall be a statute forever in your generations.[i]

When Samuel was a boy…it was unthinkable
the Lamp of God be extinguished.

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But there was another kind of darkness at this time in Israel’s history…our story tells us the voice of God was rarely heard in those days…and visions were uncommon.
It seems that God had stopped communicating
even with the High Priest…  but Why?  

With all the ritual...the burnt offerings...the washing ...the incense...the tending of the golden Lamp...
in obedience to the Law…
why couldn’t the priests hear the voice of God? [pause]

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Because…the story tells us…the high priest Eli...
and his sons...also priests... had turned the shrine at Shiloh …had turned the house of God... into a disgrace.

In Eli’s son’s hands…the people’s offerings… to God
were abused and desecrated… the Book of Samuel says:

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The sons of Eli were scoundrels; they cared nothing for Yahweh...nor what was actually due the priests from the offerings of the people. Whenever anyone offered a sacrifice, the priest's servant would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand... while the meat was still being cooked;
to claim for his own whatever the fork brought up.

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If the people tried to stop this sacrilege…well…
their meat would just be taken by force.

And because Eli’s sons… abused their power with
everyone who came to the Tabernacle...the story tells us

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The young men's sin was very great in Yahweh's eyes, because they treated the offerings made to Yahweh
with contempt. [pause]

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They were happy to wear beautiful robes…
and claim their rank and status
but they ignored the priestly code. There was corruption and pollution in the Tabernacle of Moses.
And the voice of God did not speak into that darkness [pause]

When the Philistine invaders finally arrived to steal the Ark and carry off the Lamp...
all that was left was a weak and corrupt priesthood...

And as the priesthood fails and people cry out in protest and the light is about to disappear

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our God  who shines light into darkness…
a twelve year old boy…whose job it is
to keep the Lamp of God shining through the night…

God speaks… into the life of a young lad… with…

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no knowledge of Yahweh and to whom the word of God had yet to be revealed.

before this boy had any understanding of God whatsoever
God spoke to himand guided him and called him by name …and a revolution in Israel’s thinking about God occurs…

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someone with no formal training…no life experience …
no status…can be called by God…
to shine the light of God’s love for the people who cried out against the injustice and desecration of the priests

In a time of darkness Samuel would be set

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‘as a light among his people’
to proclaim the will and the way of God,

a priest was not needed to mediate between God
and God’s people…

God …would speak to them directly
maybe even call them to be prophets…before they know anything about God or God’s word… [pause]
because God already knows them!

That’s what Jesus alludes to when he tells Nathaniel…
'Before Philip came to call you, I saw you under the fig tree.' That what our Psalm is saying too

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For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. My frame wasn’t hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth
your eyes saw my unformed body. [pause]

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Whenever a group of religious leaders arise…
claiming to mediate between the people and God
corruption and the abuse of power… seem bound to follow.

When it does…in Israel’s history… and in our own
God hears the cry of the people
steps those in power…and speaks directly
into the hearts of the powerless and the vulnerable. Calling from among their number… a light to shine in the darkness.
As it turns out…God calls the young Samuel…
to warn and admonish the corrupt and shady priests
and to do this the boy has to overcome…
his very real and understandable fear of authority.

Much later…when the Ark and the Lamp are carried off and the light extinguished in the Tabernacle…
those without discernment are so invested…
in the symbols of God’s power…they actually believe… ‘God’s Glory had departed from Israel.’

Blinded by their own darkness…they lose sight of the presence of God… tuned into their own clatter…
they become deaf to God’s voice.

It’s a pattern which repeats over and over again
to this present day…in the throne rooms of corporate kings
in the halls of government and within the walls of churches.

What unlikely peoplewho may not even know God …might be called today by God …to warn those in power with a prophetic word… to rebuke and implore them…
to stop what they’re doing… to wake up their ideas…
and return to God’s way of peace and wellbeing for all people

Would you be blind and deaf to their words because of their age or their status or their race or their gender…
or would you recognise the word of God on their lips?

Or maybe you are that unlikely person…
maybe you think you’re too young or too old or not theologically trained
or maybe you think you’re
for God to call by name...
unfit to shine a light in the darkness.

I pray you’ll let God decide that.

And when you that doubt God might speak to you…
I hope you’ll remember Samuel was only twelve and had no knowledge of God or God’s word. Yet the biblical witness assures us... though Samuel was powerless and vulnerable…

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Yahweh was with him and allowed not a single word God told him to fall to the ground.

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Every day abused exploited people in our world…
our community even in the church cry out to God…
for hope and for light.
Prophets are called to speak light into this darkness.

Were God to speak your name and give you a message
of rebuke for abusers and hope for the broken…
my prayer is that you will be listening...and that you will risk what you can …to go where God sends you and speak what God calls you to speak.

My prayer is that you will answer as Samuel did…

speak Lord for your servant is listening

[i] Lev 24:3