Sermon 39




Be Like Samuel

1 Samuel 3:10

January 18, 2009


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today, in 1 Samuel 3, we have God calling out to Samuel. When Samuel hears God, he thinks it’s Eli, the priest speaking instead. Now we could probe into the mechanics of this mix up. But let us instead dwell on the message God sends to Samuel.


Samuel’s Confusion

You remember how it goes. God calls out to Samuel and he goes to Eli to ask him what he wants. It’s evening and Eli sends Samuel back to bed – telling him that he must have been hearing things. We’re told that such encounters were rare those days (1 Samuel 3:1) and also that Samuel was too young to have been trained in discerning God’s word (1 Samuel 3:7). This happens three times before Eli, the priest and Samuel’s mentor in the temple at Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:24-28), figures it out and tells Samuel to answer God if he hears the voice again. Samuels obeys Eli and utters his famous line when he hears God’s voice – now for the fourth time: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).

We could say that Samuel had trouble figuring this out because God’s voice was indistinguishable from Eli’s – that it didn’t stand out “from the rubble of ordinary experience” as it should have [N. Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse (1995) p. 276]. We could delve into that problem if we wished – trying to span the great gulf between God and his creatures (Hosea 11:9; Psalm 115:3-8; Romans 1:25). But let us resist that temptation and instead focus on what it was that God so badly wanted Samuel to know that he pressed him four times to make sure it got through. Let’s go where the natural weight of this episode rests, rather than dwelling inordinately on the way God chose to deliver his message to little Samuel.


Bad News for Eli

Many close the book on little Samuel too soon. They settle for his famous line and leave it at that. But what was it that God actually wanted to tell Samuel when he finally got his attention? In 1 Samuel 3:14 we hear God say to him:


I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.


Now that’s pretty bad news. It means Eli has no hope. It means he is cut off forever because of his wickedness and that of his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas (1 Samuel 2:22-25, 34). Later we learn that Zadok will replace Eli as the new priest in the temple at Shiloh (2 Samuel 8:17; 15:24). So Eli is finished.

       Now you might think that little boy Samuel would have balked at such a gloomy message from God. You might think he would have thought he had gotten it wrong – or that it was too severe to deliver to his mentor, Eli, and that he should just forget about it. But no. He instead goes full steam ahead and drops the ton of bricks on his revered teacher. For an untrained, naïve little boy, his chutzpah is shocking. There’s a lot of nerve in that little kid!


God’s Absurd Word

But not with us. We instead suffer from “a spirit of timidity” (2 Timothy 1:7) that blocks us from being like Samuel. Upon hearing such devasting words from our Lord, we are more like the first followers of Jesus Christ who said: “This is a hard saying, who can stand to listen to it?” (John 6:60).

       Some 450 years ago in Germany, Martin Luther addressed this same problem. He explained it this way (Luther’s Works 16:183):


It is... the nature of the Word of God to place before us all things beyond our grasp, things impossible,... so that we might cast all things aside and believe in God.... Thus by Scripture we are led to believe things that are absurd, impossible, and contrary to our reason. For this is the work of God to humble the proud.


So God is not haphazard and reckless with his ungainly, offensive words. No, he has a plan. He foists impossible teachings upon us so that our pride might be dealt a death blow. And he does that to set us free from the bondage to ourselves and our sin (John 8:34-36; Galatians 5:1; Romans 6:20-22). This attack on our pride, then, is actually a gracious gift from on high (James 1:17).

       God’s words, therefore, had trouble getting through to Samuel because they were so demanding and offensive (Matthew 11:6; John 6:61; 2 Peter 3:16). This was the central problem – not the ontological or acoustical one regarding the indistinguishableness of the two voices. Samuel never says this was the problem, but it seems likely due to what we know about God’s word being a two edged sword and a pounding hammer (Hebrews 4:12; Jeremiah 23:29). God’s reason, then, for these attacks on our reason and pride is simply to humble us – not to confound or puzzle us.


Attacking Cafeteria Christians

And it seems in our time that we still need this humiliation from the Lord. In a recent study on what Christians in America believe (Jane Lampman, “Most U. S. Christians Define Own Theology,” The Christian Science Monitor, January 14, 2009), we learn that


nearly half of those interviewed do not believe in the existence of Satan, one-third believe Jesus sinned while on earth, and two-thirds say they don’t have a responsibility to share their faith with others.... A majority of Christians [even say] that people of other religions can find salvation and eternal life [apart from belief in Christ].


This report calls such free wheeling Christians, “cafeteria Christians,” for they “pick and choose” from Christian beliefs what they like – and discard what they don’t like (2 Timothy 4:3). Findings like these have been around for years (see Kenneth L. Woodward, “Pick-and-Choose Christianity,” Newsweek, September 19, 1983) – but these new ones confirm that our pride continues to get the better of us and still needs to be attacked by God’s word.

            Just think how we say that a tithe or 10% of our income is too much to give to the church – and so the Bible must be wrong about that (contra Deuteronomy 14:22; Matthew 23:23). Or that we should forgive people before they apologize – regardless of what the Bible has to say about that (Luke 17:3). Or that salvation can only be found through faith in Christ (Romans 3:22-28; Acts 4:12; John 14:6). On that, many we know – and even we at times ourselves – balk at such words. This is because we would rather interpret the Bible to make it fit our favored opinions, than fall down before the word – trembling in its holy presence (Isaiah 66:2).


My Grandma Lien

But against all of this free wheeling reading of the Bible stands 2 Peter 1:20 which tells us not to interpret it! Many in the church today – especially the very educated and prosperous – say this is a bunch of hogwash. They say that’s impossible. They say every approach to the Bible must necessarily be an interpretation of it – even the most sanctimonious ones. But against that common sense conviction, the Bible digs in and says: Not here! You may be free to interpret Shakespeare’s great play Macbeth (1606) – to see if Lady Macbeth dominates her husband or how crucial the scene with the three witches is (see Shakespeare’s Macbeth, ed. Robert S. Moila, NY: Norton, 2004). Or you may interpret J. D. Salinger’s modern classic, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) – about that rebellious Holden Caulfield to see if we should emulate him or not (see Readings on the Catcher and the Rye, ed. Steven Engel, San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 1998). But none of this applies to the Bible – because it’s the one holy book on earth, and therefore it must not be interpreted or tampered with (2 Corinthians 4:2; LW 23:229-230). It’s off limits - not to "traffic" with (LW 17:214).

            When I was in the seminary (1971-1975) – ostensibly learning how to become a Lutheran pastor – I was taught the 16 steps on how best to interpret the Bible in order to find out what the Bible – and its many verses or pericopes – really means. These steps included literary, textual, grammatical and historical criticism of the Bible. If we didn’t follow those steps carefully, we were told we couldn’t find out what the Bible means for today. That all seemed wrong to me – given that the Bible tells us not to mess with it, but simply hear it and do what it says (Luke 11:28) – with no interpretative element inserted between the hearing and doing.

            One day in class (and ten years later at a pastoral conference) I asked my professor (a PhD from Harvard) about my Grandma Lien. She was a simple Christian, raised on a farm in western Montana, with only an 8th grade education, who died of cancer at 86. I was there when she was dying – and heard her prayers to Jesus, her Savior. Now my question was if she actually went to hell because she never followed those 16 steps to discover the real Biblical Jesus. Had she been following a false Christ all her life? The professor asked me if she had been baptized and believed in Jesus. I said yes. Well, he said, she probably went to heaven then. If that was so, I then asked why we were learning these 16 interpretative steps if my grandma didn’t need them to get into heaven. He said because the class was required. But that wasn't an answer, I said. He then said back that he didn’t have any other reasons to give.

            This story shows that these fancy interpretations of the Bible are built on sand. If their promoters aren’t willing to say that those ignorant, unsophisticated Christians of simple faith are headed to hell, then they cut their legs off from under them. And since that’s so, then their method isn't worth a plug nickel! For the abiding word from our Savior is that we are to hear what he has to say and do it (Luke 11:28) – and that's it. So with Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) we should say – “pereat the commentators,” or let the interpreters perish (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, ed. Howard & Edna Hong, 1:211). And what that will then mean for us is that we'll have to die to die ourselves – to our interpreting selves (Romans 6:6; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Galatians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:24).


Turning the Tables

But that’s easier said than done. Even when we know we shouldn’t tamper with God’s holy word, we do it any way. We are helplessly interpreters – or so it seems. Therefore we will need help from outside of ourselves if we are going to be saved, for we surely cannot do it. And that we find in 1 Corinthians 6:20 where it says we have been “bought with a price” (1 Peter 1:18-19; 2 Peter 2:1).

            This is just what we need. For in this Bible verse the tables are turned on us - and for our good. Now the emphasis is no longer on us trying to be more and more faithful by interpreting the holy Bible less and less. Now the stress is on God pulling us closer to himself. Now we hear what God is doing for us rather than what we need to do for him. That switch is the Gospel – and it's our hope. For relying on ourselves is a clear disaster (Romans 7:24).

            But how does God buy us back – how does he turn the tables on us? 1 Corinthians 5:7 says he does that by being the “paschal lamb” who was sacrificed for our sins. But what is a paschal lamb? Exodus 12:13 tells us that the paschal lamb was the first Passover lamb whose blood was smeared on the Israelite’s front doors after being killed for that purpose. This was to mark the Israelite homes so that God’s angels of death (Psalm 78:49) would not kill the Israelite children when marauding over Egypt to kill their children, but pass over them instead. Hence the Passover. This was the last of the ten plagues designed to make the hardened Pharaoh (Exodus 9:7, 12, 34) let the enslaved Israelites escape from Egypt and flee into the promised land of Israel (Joshua 1:3).

            Just so Jesus marks us by his blood so that God’s wrath passes over us (Romans 5:9) – and doesn’t damn us to hell forever (John 3:36). This makes Jesus our Savior – he saves us from the wrath of God. He saves us from our sins that rightly draws the fire and thunder of God’s wrath upon us. He saves us by taking that wrath upon himself instead. He is stricken, smitten by God and afflicted (Isaiah 51:4-5, 10-11). The punishment that God had in store for us is unleashed on Jesus. “By his wounds we are healed” (1 Peter 2:24; Matthew 8:17; Acts 8:32-35). This is our salvation. Without Jesus we are only subject to God’s wrath (1 John 5:12). So Christ Jesus is the answer to Eli’s lament: “If a man sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” (1 Samuel 2:25). Well, the answer is Christ Jesus can, for by his bloody sacrifice he defends us by interceding for us before God in heaven (1 John 2:1-2, 4:10).

            So in his beloved Large Catechism (1529) Luther exclaims that Christ has “snatched us poor lost sinners from the jaws of hell,... and restored us to the Father’s favor.” And he does this by his suffering and death, making “satisfaction for me” and paying “what I owed” [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 414]. Through Christ God becomes our loving heavenly Father – no longer showing us the flashing teeth of his wrathful indignation which he instead stores up for those who do not love him (Romans 2:5; John 5:29; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-11). So Luther says of the unsurpassed worth of this saving sacrifice:


Christ alone... takes away the sin of the world... by his blood,... [and] God laid on him the iniquities of us all.... This must be believed.... Nothing in it can be given up or compromised.... We must be quite certain and have no doubts about it (BC, p. 292).


And doubts there are. For from the beginning there have been enemies of the cross of Jesus Christ from within the very church of Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:18). Christians have imagined that God’s way of saving us is too bloody and cruel (see my “Preaching Against the Cross,” Lutheran Partners, September/October 2003). So don’t be naïve. Know your enemy – even within the church (BC, p. 169). And take Luther’s words to heart.


Playing Catch Up

Does that then settle it? Is our salvation complete and secure? No, for we still have to play catch up. Or in St. Paul’s far more eloquent words, we need to “make our own” the one who already has made us his own (Philippians 3:12). We need to make Christ our own precisely because he has already made us his own by dying for us. But if we do not make him our own by loving him (John 14:21-24), learning his word and going where it leads us, then we will have drifted away from this great salvation (Hebrews 2:1-3).

            So if we have failed to hear the word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28), let us confess our sins to God for Jesus’ sake. And God who is “faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). You can count on that!

            So push ahead – even if you’re not perfect. Be like Samuel. After God repeated himself four times to Samuel, Samuel didn’t apologize all over the place – wailing with grief over his failure to answer the Lord the first time. No, he instead, like St. Paul, forgot what was in the past and strained forward, pressing on “for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14). So let us do the same. That’s how we’ll play catch up with our great salvation. For we know that this grace, this calling, this sacrifice is to be received by faith (Romans 3:25; Ephesians 2:8). Let us then press on and love Christ our Savior with an undying love – thereby entrusting our lives to his safe keeping (Ephesians 6:24).


Receiving Christ’s Body

And you who have heard Christ’s word this day and believe in it, come to the altar, bow down before the Master, and eat of the bread and drink from the cup of this holy sacrament, the Lord’s Supper. Do that knowing that it fills you with the life of his own spirit (John 6:53). And don’t doubt that you need this extra shot of his love. Don’t doubt that his word can only abide in you through this mystery, this miracle, this Sacrament of the Altar. Come and receive Christ himself in, with and under (BC, p. 575) the bread and the wine. Know that in this sacrament he is truly, physically present to you that you may be assured that your sins are forgiven. All sins may be forgiven – even the worst imaginable horrors. The only unforgivable sin is not wanting to be forgiven or impenitence (Matthew 12:32; LW 33:35). So receive him with confidence.


Shunning Fornication

And when we leave this place, do good works in Jesus’ name – knowing that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Let our good work this day be that offensive one in 1 Corinthians 6:13, 18:


The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.... [So] shun fornication!


Fornication is having sex before marriage. This is an offensive word because our hunger for coitus or genital sexual contact, is nearly insatiable. But that is only for one man and one woman in marriage. This is a tough row to hoe, since from the beginning the marriage bed has been regularly “defiled” (Hebrews 13:4). And this even applies to the married because we are required to teach it and pass it on to our children and society at large – unpopular though it may be. If you don’t think fornication is rampant in our society, then read about teenage oral sex in Paul Ruditis’ book, Rainbow Party (2005) and various adult illegalities in Plachey and Ridgeway’s book, Red Light: Inside the Sex Industry (1996).

But if you’re a fornicator, do not despair or leave the church in a huff. Know instead that Christians are experts at failure – in that we know God will forgive us for Jesus’ sake when we confess our sins. So have confidence in your battle against fornication. Pray to God to help you prevail against the desires of the flesh (Romans 13:14). If you cave in, seeks forgiveness from God. Know that he who works for your spiritual purity – also works for your bodily purity (1 Corinthians 6:19). And know that he does that by having you be like Samuel – and listen to his word. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes and revised on 1-18-2012)