December 27th, 2015
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Samuel was a servant of the Lord for his whole life, and that means that he suffered. He endured three heartbreaks, the first right at his birth, because Hannah, his mother, dedicated him to the Lord’s service. She kept him until he was weaned, and then she took Samuel and a bull to the temple and slaughtered the bull and thered dedicated Samuel, her first child. She left him at the temple and went home. And so Samuel grew up seeing his mother but once a year, when she came brought a gift, an ephod, a garment for priests. It sounds cute, but think of what went through her mind when she made it—how fast had her son grown over this year? Eli’s sons were known to be thieves and robbers and extorters. She wasn’t leaving him in the hands of good people; she was betting that God would raise him despite his surroundings. Would he still be a good boy? Would he recognize them? Would he really miss them at all? He could never know how much she missed him and loved him. And yet, year after year, she came with a little ephod for her little son, and year after year, she said goodbye.
As Samuel grew, the Lord made him the judge of all of Israel. In those days, Israel did not have a king, because the Lord God was king over Israel. Samuel’s second heartbreak came over time, as he wrestled with the people of Israel and watched as his sons turned out the same as Eli’s sons. The Bible says “they did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.” Here was a father, who probably tried to be as good of a father as he could, barely knowing his own father, having only Eli as an example, and also trying to govern an unruly nation. Perhaps Samuel tried too hard, or didn’t know what to do. It is not surprising that his sons became extorters and crooks as Eli’s sons had been. But imagine how that must have felt for a man who grew observing the faithlessness of Israel, the faithlessness of his mentor’s children, to see now the faithlessness of his own children.
And so, the people of Israel gathered together and gave Samuel his third heartbreak. “You are old and your sons are corrupt; give us a king to govern us,” they said. Now this was not only an affront to Samuel, who but much worse: it was an affront to God, who promised to be Israel’s king. So God says to Samuel, “Listen, these people have not rejected you; they have rejected me, as they have done for generations.” And God tells Samuel to go ahead and anoint a king, but to first tell them the truth about human kings: they will take all the best food, ride all the best horses, take the prettiest daughters, and seize the best vineyards and farms and give them to his courtiers. The country will serve the king, rather than the country serving itself, as God had intended at its founding. There will be less freedom, not more; and still the people said, “Give us a king!” And so they got Saul, and when he didn’t work out they got David. And then, Samuel died, the last judge of Israel. He dedicated his life to the Lord, and strove for the right, and when he died, everyone mourned him, although they didn’t always listen to him. But you could say his life was a failure; he was Israel’s last judge, he anointed a failed king, and his sons were no good.
It was a sad life, I think. But Samuel did not lose faith in God—he couldn’t, because God kept talking to him and encouraging him. But you might be pardoned if you think that Samuel should have given up on God. God’s choice of Saul turned out very poorly, and you might think that God could have been a better king for Israel in the first place. But Samuel knew that it wasn’t God who was faithless, but the people. And still God committed to Israel, still God fought for Israel, still God loved Israel. And so did Samuel. God was faithful to his people, and because God was faithful, so was Samuel.
We see Jesus growing mighty quickly—Christmas isn’t even over and he’s already twelve years old. And, like Samuel, he’s in the temple. Of course, he’s already debating the teachers. And his parents ask him, “Why on earth are you here?” and he says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The Temple was a sign of the endurance of Israel, despite all it had undergone, the breaking of the kingdom, the exile to Babylon, the return, the invasions of the Greeks and Romans, a sign that God was still faithful to Israel. And we have that brief little sentence about Mary at the end: His mother treasured all these things in her heart. It is meant to recollect a prophecy from Simeon, who greeted her 12 years before at this same temple, to welcome the Messiah, but also to tell her, “A sword will pierce your own heart, too.” There will be heartbreak for Mary, and heartbreak for Jesus at his crucifixion, but there they will also see the best sign of God’s faithfulness—that God takes the sins of the world on himself. God remains so faithful that even the rejection of the world cannot separate God from his people. And thus, the sign of God’s faithfulness moves from a temple to a resurrected and faithful Son, and from a resurrected and faithful Son to a church.
And that’s us. We are the sign of God’s continued faithfulness. By God’s grace we are gathered here; as Samuel did for Israel, we can raise our Ebenezers and say, by God’s grace we have come this far. But we need a little help. Paul writes this beautiful ethical instruction to the Colossians—clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience—but he doesn’t do it to complement them. Rather, it’s an instruction, implying that they need to get better. And he says, which is something we don’t always try to hear: “Bear with one another, forgive each other, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything in perfect harmony.” In other words, hearts will break. If you are part of this community, you will find that it is not a perfect place. We are humans, and we do not always listen to our maker. The ways we devise to thwart God can seem for more than the ways we follow God. But still God is faithful—God gives us Christ, Paul says, to rule our hearts, for Christ’s word to dwell in us. And for this we will sing and give thanks.
In this way, God has even given us what we asked for in the time of Samuel. God has given us the king we always wanted. And yet God also gave us the very thing we hoped we would avoid—God gave us himself as king. The fullness of God in Christ is our ruler and our king, and he rules us in love, and binds up our broken hearts. So God’s faithfulness fills our heartbreak and binds up the unconnected strands of our lives into a whole story, in which the sins and pitfalls and temptations we all know become tales of forgiveness and life and the glorious surprise of God’s grace. And for these stories to be told and lived, God has gathered us into a community, a church, where we suffer together, forgive one another, bear one another’s burdens, and continue on in love. There is a reason you find Jesus and Samuel and Paul and all the prophets and apostles at church—the Word is here, that speaks truth to our lives, and dwells among us and richly strengthens us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
The Reverend John Flack