Monday, December 6, 2010


Good Morning Bethel Chapel -- the last time that I had the privilege to be up here, the message was from the life of Hannah. This morning, the message will be on the life of Samuel…

The lesson from Hannah’s life came first. As you might remember, Hannah experienced something powerful and wonderful. She had her prayer answered. She prayed for a baby boy, and God gave her that baby, and she named him Samuel. I pray that you, too, will learn this lesson: and because of answered prayer in your life, you will be able to say with Hannah “my heart rejoices in the LORD – he guards the steps of his faithful servants.” Hannah’s story taught us a lesson on how to have our prayers answered – how God listens to us. But with Samuel, we learn a more advanced lesson: how to listen to God!

Now when I was in Sunday School, I only learned three stories about Samuel: one that happened when Samuel was very young, and the other two that happened when Samuel was very old. And you might think that there must be many stories about Samuel in between, but funny thing: the Bible doesn’t give us very much in between at all! For the most part, the Bible tells us about Samuel when he was very young and tells us about Samuel when he was very old, and it is as if what he did in between isn’t nearly as important. That’s a good lesson right there? Sometimes we think that what happens when we are kids doesn’t matter that much. Sometimes we think that what happens when we are old doesn’t matter that much. But the story of Samuel teaches just the opposite: we can never be too old or too young for God to use us in important ways.

But this morning I’m going to start at the end and go backwards – starting with a lesson from Samuel when he was old. And this is a lesson that we can only learn from someone who has spent his entire life in close communication with God. At the time that this story takes place, Samuel had served his Lord and the people of Israel all his life. He was what the Bible calls a judge, and he guided God’s people as best he could – even God thought that Samuel did a great job. How do we know that? Well, many years later when God was talking to the prophet Jeremiah, God would mention Samuel and Moses as two of His most influential servants in history.

In any case, when Samuel was old and thought he deserved to be treated with respect, something happened that made Samuel “displeased.” That’s the word the Bible uses. It is a very good and proper word. But I think that it is a polite way to say that Samuel was “seriously perturbed.” Have you ever been seriously perturbed? Maybe when your sister borrowed your clothes, or when a friend broke your iPod or spilled ink on your books? How about something even more emotional… have you ever had a friend let you down? Well, that’s more like what Samuel felt. You see, the elders of the people came to him and they asked him… to give them a king.

A king? Yes, a king. Now I’d imagine that Samuel was thinking something like this: “Hold on. Why would you people want a king… now? The people of Israel have been led by a judge – that is, someone God raised up to lead them – for two hundred and fifty years. And now – when I’m in charge – you want a king. I guess I’m not good enough for you.”

You might be able to sense why Samuel was “displeased.” The Bible says that Samuel was so displeased that he immediately prayed about it. Really, that’s what it says: “Samuel was displeased, so he prayed to the LORD.” Good advice. Prayer puts perturbation in perspective. “Samuel was displeased, so he prayed to the LORD.” And because Samuel had been in such good practice talking to God all of his life, when Samuel prayed, he heard God talking back to him. And this is what God said to Samuel: “it is not that the people have rejected you by asking for a king; instead, they have rejected me.” In other words “Don’t take it personally. Let me worry about it.”

And this, my friends, is a lesson that we need to learn, too. Whenever you are displeased, whenever you are “seriously perturbed,” God will be talking to you, too. At least He will be trying to get through to you – it is really super hard to listen to God when we are upset, isn’t it? And God will be trying to say to you: “Don’t take it personally. Let me worry about it.”

After all, that’s the lesson for us in Philippians chapter 4: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” There is nothing that takes away joy like stress, and God wants us to learn to live joyfully – stress-free! And the way He does this is very much like the way a parent looks after a young child.

I can still recall many years ago hearing one of the mothers in this church say to her child, “do I look like a garbage can to you?” I laughed. And if you are a parent, perhaps this happened to you, too: given a wrapped candy, your child would finish the candy and then they would come to you with the wrapper, expecting you to take it – and to look after it. In sweetness and innocence, a young child, when faced with a difficulty, simply takes that difficulty to her parent and leaves it there, and walks away, and never gives it another thought.

But it is that same beautiful child-like faith that we can bring to God at any time. If something troubles us; if we are anxious; if we are hurting, or annoyed – God is there willing to take our garbage. Just as he tells Samuel, he tells us: “Don’t take this personally; let me handle it.” Now that doesn’t mean that life is easy. Of course not. But it does mean that we can count on God to help us bear our burden, and we can trust in Him to look after the part that hurts the most – the emotional part.

When I was growing up, I can remember almost every time that my father was angry. One of those times, I was not about to ask any questions, but… I put two and two together and realized that my Dad was angry because someone at our church had been telling lies about my Mom. And my Dad was in “fix it” mode – he wanted to set the record straight, and he wanted everyone concerned to know the truth. But there was one thing that kept him from action: my Mom didn’t seem to be that troubled about the situation. My Dad couldn’t understand this – her reputation was under attack! And my Mom, as they used to say, had plenty of fire in her belly. But then my Mom explained: “those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” Anyone who knows me will know that the lie isn’t true. And there isn’t anything that you can say to someone who wants to believe lies. Besides, my Mom said – God is big enough to handle it for me. And indeed He was.

I’m so glad that Samuel’s story is in the Bible. Because most of us aren’t able to have nearly as close a relationship with God as Samuel had. With the rest of us, the message that we get from God might not be altogether clear. But thanks to Samuel, we can’t miss it: no matter what happens in your life, no matter how natural it is to take things personally, no matter what the struggle is, God wants to help you bear it – “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, … present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, …will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Now if there was ever a lesson worth learning that might be it! …but even better than learning the lesson second-hand from someone like Samuel would be to learn to listen to God directly. But guess what? That’s precisely the other lesson from the life of Samuel. The first lesson from the life of Samuel (we’re going backwards, if you remember) – and one that’s important for us all to learn – is how to go about listening to God.

E: Are you serious?
D: Excuse me?
E: I said, are you serious?

Hold on…

D: Hi Edgar
E: Hi there – oh! Hi folks, nice to see you again.
D: Sorry – you asked…
E: I asked if you were serious.
D: Of course I’m serious. Don’t I look serious to you?
E: (pause) No comment.
D: But what do you mean by the question?
E: Well, your story is from the Bible.
D: It often is.
E: And of course God talks to people in the Bible.
D: What’s your point?
E: God talked to Moses, and Abraham, and Elijah…
D: Yes?
E: But God doesn’t really talk to people today, does He?
D: What makes you think that things are so much different today?
E: Well, we do have cars and airplanes and computers today…
D: But none of those things change what it is to be human.
E: …I wouldn’t know.
D: Well, we think the same, behave the same; we have the same struggles, and the same fears, and the same ambitions, and the same hopes and the same dreams that people had thousands of years ago.
E: I’m just saying that God talked to people a lot more in the Bible.
D: Well, it’s funny you should say that.
E: Oh?
D: Yes, because in the Bible story today, the Bible says just the opposite.
E: It does?
D: Sure: 1 Samuel 3:1 says, “In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.”
E: Huh – well, well, back then, everyone trusted in God.
D: Not so much.
E: But they had to – they were in the Bible.
D: Not at all. The Bible says that they didn’t really trust God to look after them.
E: Really?
D: That’s right – they were hedging their bets and investing in other things that promised to make them happy and take care of them.
E: I guess that’s kinda like it is today, too.
D: Yeah – they used to call this idolatry, and it is every bit as common today as it was in Samuel’s time.
E: Idolatry? Are you serious?
D: Very serious. Some people trust in their career; some trust in their money. Others trust in their skills, or their friends, or their brains, or their families.
E: But those are all good things!
D: Sure, but if you jump and expect those things to catch you, they might very well let you down.
E: Huh.
D: Things really haven’t changed a whole lot.
E: Hold on. You said that Samuel was a judge. At least you have to admit that the judges in the Bible were all super good.
D: I wish. The judge just before Samuel had terrible problems.
E: Oh?
D: Yes – his name was Eli, and his sons were a disaster – they took advantage of their position as priests and were terribly corrupt.
E: Oh my!
D: You’ll just have to listen to the rest of the story! Would you mind?
E: No – it’s fine – I can listen down there.

Well, if you haven’t got the picture yet, when Samuel was young, the entire nation of Israel was in bad shape – perhaps in some of the same ways that nations are in trouble today: God’s Word seemed to be rare; God’s people didn’t seem to care; and God’s leaders weren’t perfect by any means. God’s people needed help in a big way. And God, in His great love, provided that help – but God being Who He is, He provided that help in a way that nobody would ever expect. I love this. If you had brought together all of the wisest people of the day, and asked them “What should God do to fix His people’s problems?” not a single one of them would have imagined what God actually did. God seems to love surprises. God loves to use the weak things of the world to confound the strong. And the things that world thinks are foolish to confound the wise. Instead of sending a mighty warrior to lead God’s people to victory, God instead decided to speak to a very young boy – a boy named Samuel.

When Samuel was very young, probably around the age of three, his Mom and Dad took him to the tabernacle and gave him as a gift to God. Now that doesn’t happen very often, does it? Samuel’s parents were – I don’t really know the right word, exactly – “special”? They might have paid for his food and his clothing, but the priest at the time, who we already mentioned – Eli – looked after Samuel and taught him all about God.

But there was one slight problem with God’s plan to talk to this young boy: the boy in question didn’t know how to handle God’s Word! No surprise, really: very few young people – hey, very few old people for that matter – know how to handle God’s Word correctly. That’s why the Bible says being able to handle the word of truth requires work! The King James Version even uses the word “study” to describe this necessity. And so it was that Samuel heard God’s voice but didn’t really think that it was God speaking to him at all. Of course you know what this means: it means that God may very well be talking to us far, far, far more than we are able to appreciate.

It happened early one evening – after Samuel had gone to bed, but before he had fallen asleep. God called Samuel. And Samuel jumped up and ran to Eli, and said “Here I am – you called me?” But it wasn’t Eli who called Samuel at all. So when Samuel came to him, I bet Eli was puzzled. “I did not call,” Eli said, “Go back and lie down.” Now the first time it happened, I bet Eli thought that it might have been a dream. In fact, after being told it wasn’t Eli who called, maybe even Samuel thought it could have been a dream. But it happened again! “Samuel,” God called. And Samuel got up again and ran to Eli. “Here I am – you called?” Now if Eli was puzzled before, just imagine the look on his face this time. “No… I did not call; go back and lie down,” he said. Now I want you to imagine this. Samuel is losing sleep because someone is calling him. Eli is losing sleep because Samuel is thinking that he is calling him. If it had only happened once, the guess that it was just a dream is believable. Twice, not so much. But when it happened the third time, well, you can be sure that Samuel was trying to make sure that he heard what he thought he heard, because he didn’t want to bother Eli for nothing.

Now before we proceed with Samuel, I’d like to talk about you for a few minutes. There may very well be times that God is speaking to you but you think that it is really someone else. God can actually sound like your Mom. God can sound like your Dad. God can even sound like your Sunday School teacher. And the first-most important lesson from the life of Samuel is that you need to be willing to listen to those people in your life if you are going to be able to listen to God at all!

Teenagers – this is particularly important for you. I know how much pressure you are under not to listen – not to listen to what your parents say to you; and not to listen to what anyone in any authority says to you. Peer pressure, cultural pressure, hormonal pressure. I know it all. But get this – if you aren’t willing to listen to your parents, you may never connect with God. “Hold on,” you might say, “they are old… they are out of touch… they have problems…” Eli was old; Eli was out of touch; Eli had plenty of problems. If Samuel wasn’t willing to listen to Eli, he never would have been able to connect with God.

The Bible says “How can you say that you love God if you don’t love your brother? If you can’t love your brother – how can you claim to love God?” Well in this case what is true of affection is also true of communication. “How can you say you listen to God if you don’t listen to your brother? Or sister? Or parents? Or husband? If you can’t listen to your brother, whom you can see – how can you listen to God, whom you cannot see?” Remember the parable? God in judgment tells his servants, “Whenever you looked after the least of these brothers of mine, you looked after me.” The lesson from Samuel’s life is an extension of this. Whenever you are willing to listen to the least of these brothers of His, you are practicing listening to God, too.

So sure enough: God called Samuel a third time. “Samuel” and Samuel got up again, went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me?” And the third time, Eli finally realized what was going on: Eli realized that God was talking to Samuel, and so Eli told Samuel to go back to bed, and if he was called again, to say, “Speak, Lord; your servant is listening.” And that’s exactly what Samuel did, beginning a lifetime of talking to and listening to God.

Now in Sunday School, the story stops there. They don’t tell you what God told Samuel. Because it isn’t very nice. You see, God wanted to tell Samuel that God was going to judge Eli and Eli’s family! Seriously. God was going to punish Eli’s family because Eli’s sons were so evil. But take a moment and think about that: Samuel would never have known that God was talking to him unless he had had respect for an old man who was about to be judged harshly by God. Isn’t that amazing? Eli was under God’s judgment. Eli had failed. Eli’s sons were a disaster. But in spite of all that, if Samuel didn’t have respect for Eli, Samuel never would have been able to connect with God.

Dear friends, learning to listen to God is the lesson of a lifetime, and not just the lesson of a half-hour. But I hope that the story of Samuel has given you at least two hints to help us all to learn that important lesson. Number one: you gotta be willing to listen to others. Number two: don’t let stress come and block your ears from the word of God – you don’t need to take so much personally. God wants to handle it for you.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Good Morning. I’m so glad that today I get to share one of my all-time favorite stories from the Bible. Now while I bet most of you know this story from Sunday School, I’m going to fill in some pieces that aren’t usually mentioned in Sunday School, ok? The message this morning is about a parent. What’s more, this parent has a very special place in all of history (not just the Bible). Really! In fact, you should learn about this person in history at school – except that our school administrators don’t seem to want to give the Bible that much credit.

Now I want you to guess who this person is. The first hint is simply that our subject is the author of the song of praise that Bethany read a minute ago. [The second hint is that this parent’s child also has a special place in history. This child is the first - or perhaps second - child in history whose words are ever recorded.] That’s right, [the child is Samuel, and] this morning I will be telling the story of [his mother, whose name was] Hannah.

[Now I just told you part of what Samuel’s place in history is.] But what is Hannah’s special place in history? Well, the poem that was read for us earlier is Hannah's prayer. Hannah is the first woman in history whose composition is recorded. Now in spite of what some people will like to tell you, the Bible is really very respectful and generous to women. And it is not only in the New Testament, where Jesus empowers women and Paul writes that there is now no difference between men and women in Christ. It is in the Old Testament, too. Even before Hannah’s poem is recorded for us – giving a woman a voice in the Bible long, long before women had any power or voice in other cultures – there is a woman’s story even earlier in the Bible, isn’t there? Of course, I mean the book of Ruth. But even before that, the stories of Rahab and Deborah and Hagar and Miriam are given important places in scripture. In fact, the status of women in the Bible is literally thousands of years ahead of the rest of the world. If you don’t believe me, look it up: it is difficult to find examples of women’s writing apart from the Bible that are less than three thousand years after these words of Hannah were recorded.

But before we talk about Hannah I need to tell you something about the time that Hannah lived in. It was a little different back then than it is today. You knew that already. I'm just reminding you. But one of the big ways that things were different is that back then babies were really, really important. Now I know that today there are some people who think that babies are important – they are all my friends.  But back then pretty much everybody knew that babies were important. And Hannah herself thought that babies were really, really important. The trouble was that Hannah couldn't seem to have a baby. Now she was married. And she and her husband did love each other. But no babies were happening. And this broke Hannah's heart.

But there is something else that I need to tell you about how things were back then. As you probably know, today there are about the same number of boys as there are girls, and the same numbers of men as there are women. At least that's true in Canada and North America. But back then it wasn't true at all. You see, every year back then most of the men would go to war. They would be fighting battles with other men from other nations. Many of them would die. So there were many fewer men than they were women. And so, if a woman wanted to be married – and almost every woman wanted to be married because, as you recall, everyone knew that babies were really, really important – have I said that too many times? – if a woman wanted to be married, she might have to share a husband with another wife. I bet you can imagine that that wasn't always a lot of fun.

Anyway, poor Hannah: not only was she unable to have a baby, but her husband had another wife who already had a number of children. And that other wife was always teasing Hannah for the fact that she had babies while Hannah did not. Why are people mean like that? Remember, if somebody else is mean to you, it doesn't help matters at all if you decide to be mean yourself.

Now, during most of the year, Hannah could keep busy and mostly avoid that other woman’s taunts. But every year Hannah, her husband, and her husband's other wife with all her children went to Shiloh where God's tabernacle was set up and where everyone in Israel was supposed to come and make sacrifices. Of course, on those trips, the whole family was basically forced to hang out together. And those were the worst times. The year our story begins, poor Hannah has just had to suffer through a particularly nasty bout of teasing. And the Bible says that she went to the tabernacle and prayed. First Samuel, chapter one, verse ten: “In bitterness of soul, Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord.”

Let’s stop here for a second: “Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord” – now I’ve already told you that we can learn a lesson about prayer from Hannah, didn’t I? After all, the whole reason that Hannah’s story is in the Bible in the first place is that her prayer was special. That is, God answered her prayer. So if we look closely at her prayer, we might find a lesson on how to have our prayers answered by God, right?

But the funny thing about Hannah’s prayer is that it is one of those prayers that the “experts” say we shouldn’t pray! Poor Hannah is so beside herself with grief that she comes to God with a deal: “If you, O God, give me what I want, then I’ll do something for you.” I gotta tell you: we are in no place to make bargains with God. It is a big mistake to imagine that God is a way to get whatever it is that we want. That's just wrong. God is worthy of greater respect than that! And if we don’t come to God with respect, then how can we expect to receive answers to our prayers?

But go figure: even though Hannah prayed in a way that we aren’t supposed to pray God answered her prayer anyway. I really love that. It means that God doesn’t operate according to any formula. God is big enough to take us just as we are, and to take our prayers just as they are – “doing it wrong” or not. And He loves us. He loves us enough to listen to those prayers – especially when our hearts are breaking. This is the God that we serve, dear friends. He doesn’t ask us to behave before we belong. He doesn’t ask us to climb up to His standard before He is willing to listen to us. It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.

Of course, God’s children will be known for resembling their Father. We, too, must be willing to overlook lapses in spiritual protocol. According to the Gospel of John, there is only one thing critical to the church – that we love one another. We remain in Jesus when we love one another. We experience the fellowship of unity when we love one another. We provide the most compelling and attractive offer of grace to the world when we love one another – accepting without exception.

But back to Hannah: here’s how the Bible continues: “And [Hannah] made a vow, saying, ‘oh Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, … I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.’”

Now please notice what Hannah does. Hannah looks for a win-win situation. She isn’t just looking for what she wants. Instead, she wants to be able to do something for God. I think that that is a good principle: when we stand before God, we need to understand that we have no rights at all! As we were taught a few weeks ago, it is really God Who owns our money; it is God really owns our time; God owns our bodies; God owns our brains. As the Bible says, “It is God who has made us, and we belong to Him” and “Every good gift is from our Father above.” That’s just the way it is. That’s the reality. If we have any other attitude when we come to God, we shouldn’t expect Him to take us seriously.

So Hannah searches her heart to find something that she thinks God might want from her. And you know what she finds? She decides that since her heart is going to be broken anyway, she would accept the second most heartbreaking thing in the world in order to avoid the most heartbreaking thing in the world. Hannah is not just using God. Hannah’s deal with God involves a huge sacrifice. You see, if never having children is the worst possible thing in the world, then the second worst thing in the world would be to have to give up your only child. But that’s exactly what Hannah offers to God: “I’m willing to give the child back to you,” she says, “as long as you are willing to give me a child.”

Now God didn’t just answer Hannah’s prayer outright. It is clear from the Bible that God wanted to answer Hannah’s prayer, but before He did, He put Hannah to a test. Now if you’ve ever been to school, chances are that you know something about tests. But if all you know about tests is from school, then you probably don’t like them very much. I find it amazing when an eleven-year old boy is troubled about being given a test at school – when the same boy, being given a test in a video game, gets all excited! Of course, in video games they aren’t called “tests” – they’re called “puzzles”. But they really are just tests, of course. At school, or in a video game, the test is to see if your brain is in the right place. With God, we’re tested to see if our hearts are in the right place.

And you know? A lot of the Bible is better explained – hey, a lot of life is better explained – when we realize that God is continually testing his children. It happens all the time! What does the Bible say? “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12,13)” or “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face [tests] of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops [you to perfection]. (James 1)” The good news about the kind of tests that God gives us is that God knows how we are made, and knows what we can handle, and never sets us up for failure.

And so God put Hannah to a test. And the name of her test was Eli. Eli was the priest and judge in Israel at the time.

S: Did you sss-ay “Eli”
D: Hello?
S: I sss-aid – did you sss-ay “Eli”?
D: Oh! Hello. Well yes I did.
S: Well! Let me talk to you then…
D: You said you wanted to talk to me?
S: Ye-sss.
D: About Eli?
S: Ye-sss. I’ve heard sss-ome nassss-ty things about Eli.
D: Well, this is church – we don’t gossip in church.
S: It isssn’t gosssip… exsssactly.
D: Hmm.
S: And it isss all true!
D: Gossip can be true and still be gossip.
S: Aren’t you conssserned about eeee-vil in the church?
D: Of course I am!
S: Well then you should be conssserned about Eli’s sssons!
D: Oh yes, Eli’s sons – the Bible says that they were very wicked.
S: Sssseee? If it’sss in there, then it isssn’t gosssip.
D: Ok… We know that Eli’s sons were bad characters.
S: But they were also supposed to be priestsss!
D: What’s your point?
S: Well, if there is a lot of corruption among the priests, then how can we trust anything at all that they ssssay?
D: But there is corruption everywhere! Everywhere that there are people… or snakes.
S: No need to get nassssty.
D: But seriously. In all of history, there has never been power without corruption. Does that mean we shouldn’t have any more government?
S: well…
D: And in all of history, there has never been money without corruption. Does that mean we shouldn’t have any more buying and selling?
S: I was jussst sssayin’.
D: You’ve said enough.

Goodness! That snake was making some pretty vile insinuations, wasn’t he? And the worst part? Everything that the snake said was true! Eli’s sons were wicked. They took advantage of their position as priests and they even stole from those coming to the tabernacle. Now I’m sure that these things were common knowledge at the time. No doubt even Hannah was aware that Eli was not a very good father. But that’s exactly why God used Eli to test Hannah.

As you remember, Hannah had promised to give back to God the son that she was praying God would give to her. And as we discover later in the story, that means taking the child Samuel, when he was very young indeed, and asking Eli to take care of him! That’s right! This same priest who had done such a horrible job raising his own sons would be the one responsible for parenting Hannah’s precious son into adulthood. And if that didn’t occur to Hannah the first time she prayed her prayer, it almost certainly would have crossed her mind when Eli came up to speak to her.

You see, Eli insulted Hannah. Can you imagine? Hannah comes to the tabernacle to pour out her heart to God and to beg Him for mercy. She’s in terrible sorrow. And then this old, corrupt, failure-of-a-parent, who is supposed to be representing God, comes up and, mistaking her sobs for something else, very rudely says to her, “How dare you come here drunk?”

Now if this story were being told by Hollywood, Hannah would have been totally angry. And if there were another tabernacle down the street, I’m sure that Hannah would have been tempted to leave Eli’s and never set foot in it again. Unfortunately, we are both too much influenced by Hollywood and there is too much opportunity for us to sit in judgment on the church. If we are ever offended by someone representing God, we are often far too quick to become angry, and far too quick to decide that the church down the street is a better “fit” for us – or perhaps to give up on church altogether. I wonder how many prayers remain unanswered because our pride makes us unable to pass the tests that God has for us.

I’m glad, though, that Hannah passed her test. I’m glad that her story is recorded in scripture as a lesson for us. In spite of Eli’s evil sons. In spite of his poor parenting. In spite of his insensitivity to her heartache. In spite of his insult. Hannah treats Eli with respect. Respect, incidentally, that he likely didn’t deserve. But no matter. Hannah responds with respect and with dignity. “Oh no sir! I haven’t been drinking – instead, I was pouring out my heart to the Lord,” she replies. From her position of weakness and suffering, Hannah brings dignity and respect to the one in a position of power.

And that was the test. Throughout scripture, we learn that God is slow to anger and abounding in love. In the book of James, we are told that we, too, should be slow to anger. Hannah’s test was to prove that her heart was in sync with God’s – she was placed in a situation where it would have been all too easy for her to become angry, but she didn’t. I pray that we, too, can do the same.

Psalm 37:4 says “delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” And Hannah’s heart was so in tune with God that He granted her heart’s desire. She was soon able to have a baby. A boy. She named him Samuel. When he was old enough for solid food, she brought him to the tabernacle and committed him to God, asking Eli to look after him. But that isn’t the end of her story. The Bible says that she was able to have not just one, but five more children after that. As for Samuel, in spite of being looked after by Eli, the parent-fail, the Bible says that Samuel grew in favor with God and with all the people. But his story will have to wait for another Sunday.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


This morning, I’m going to tell you one of my very favorite stories from the Bible. This story is about a man named Zach. Did you know there was someone in the Bible named Zach? Now Zach wasn’t like any of you. You guys have plenty of friends, and even those people who aren’t your friends want to be your friends. Not only did Zach not have any friends. But nobody wanted to be Zach’s friend at all.

You see, Zach was well…vertically challenged. That means he was short. Much shorter than most people. And I bet when he was growing up, the kids at school teased him for being short. If fact, I bet he got pushed around quite a bit. There are some people out there who will push you around or give you trouble just because they can get away with it. And I bet Zach was a bully magnet. All the bullies in the neighborhood took turns picking on Zaccheus. Oops -- yes, that was his real name: Zaccheus. But we'll just call him Zach. It's easier isn't it?

But it is even worse than that. You see, Zach was a tax collector. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever heard your Mom or Dad talk about taxes, but they are not one of the nice things in life. I remember when I was little. Every year, my Dad would lock himself into a room to do our income tax. Nobody was allowed to go into the room. And when my Dad came out for dinner, he always looked so tired and sad. That’s what taxes can be like, and taxes have been around for a lo-o-o-o-ong time. The big difference is that now, the government uses shops and banks to collect taxes, and they make us send our own taxes in every year. Not too long ago, governments hired tax collectors to collect taxes. But as you can imagine, if everybody hates taxes, then not too many people would want to be friendly with tax collectors.

So Zach was short, and he was a tax-collector. That would have been bad enough. But it is even worse than that. You see, when Jesus lived, the government was the Roman Empire. The Roman army had come and taken over the land. The Jewish people wanted to get rid of the Romans in the worst way. So when one of their own kind became a tax collector, not only was he associating himself with taxes, but he was associating himself with the enemy. People thought that Zach was a traitor.

So Zach was short, and he was a tax-collector, and everyone thought he was a traitor. That would have been bad enough. But it is even worse than that. You see, the only reason that anyone would ever want to be a tax collector back then was that it was a good way to become rich. Not only did the government pay the tax collectors well; the tax collectors soon learned that most people did not really know how much money they had to pay! So the tax collectors started to ask for more money than they were supposed to. And they gave the government what they wanted and put the rest of the money in their pocket. So not only was Zach thought to be a traitor, he was thought to be a thief as well.

So nobody wanted to hang around with Zach. Nobody wanted to be Zach’s friend. Maybe you know of someone like that at school. Maybe you can think of someone who is not very popular at all. I bet Zach felt a little like those people feel, and of course that means he was very sad. So even though Zach was very rich, he felt very, very lonely. Even though everything looked good and smart and healthy on the outside, Zach knew that he was sick on the inside. He wanted to have friends, he wanted to be a friend. Sure, there were people who pretended to be his friend, but they would always end up stealing from Zach, and they were never seen again. Zach didn’t want false friends – he didn’t want people who just pretended to be friends to take advantage of him – he wanted someone who would be a real friend.

And then one day…one day he heard that there was this guy. He didn’t really know what to think about this guy. Some people were saying that he healed people, that he said things that not only made you think, but also reached down and touched your heart. Of course, this guy that everyone was talking about was Jesus. He heard that Jesus could look into people’s hearts and see the hidden things inside. And he heard that Jesus was kind to those who were willing to have their hearts changed. Now Zach knew that nobody would believe him, but he really wanted to have his heart changed, too. He knew that he hadn’t been good, but he didn’t think that he was strong enough to change on his own. Zach wondered whether Jesus might be willing to help him, too. He sure was curious about him, anyway, and he decided he wanted to see Jesus. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to meet Jesus, but He wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

Then Zach heard rumors that Jesus was coming to town, so he came up with a plan. Right near the gate of the town that Jesus was certain to come through, there was a big old fig tree. Has anyone every seen a fig tree before? Well, a fig tree is a great place to hide. Really big leaves, really close together. But a fig tree, especially a sycamore-fig tree, is also a great place to climb. With the branches coming almost down to the ground even the shortest of people could climb up. So Zach decided he would climb up the fig tree near the gate coming into town, and when Jesus arrived, he would be able to get a good look at him. And besides, it was a great place to hide. Nobody would ever have to know that he was there, and he would sneak down when everyone was gone. But even the best plans don't always work out quite right, and it didn’t quite work out the way way Zach intended.

Zach made his way up into the tree all right. That part worked out. And he was sure that nobody he knew saw him climb up there. And Jesus came into town all right. He even came to the right gate, there beside the tree. And there was a crowd of people wanting to see Jesus, and some of them were being healed there in front of Zach’s eyes. A woman brought her son who couldn’t walk. After Jesus touched the boy’s legs, he could throw away the crutches. An old man came who couldn’t see. Jesus touched his eyes, and gave him his sight back. It was even more wonderful than anything that Zach had ever expected. But then the most frightening and terrible thing happened. Jesus suddenly asked the crowd around the gate to be quiet. Zach ducked back a little behind the big fig leaves and held his breath…and then Jesus calls out…

“Zach! Zacchaeus”

Jesus isn’t even looking in the same direction as the tree, so Zach just figures there must be some other person with that name. As if! Then Jesus slowly turns around, looks up into the tree and smiles. There is no question about it. He is looking right at Zach!

“Zaccheus! Come down out of that tree. I’m coming to your house for lunch.”

Whoa. How crazy is that. Zach’s heart must have been beating a million beats a minute. What would he do? What could he do? Of course, he came down right away. And now, instead of Zach’s turn to be shocked and surprised, it was the entire crowd’s turn to be shocked and surprised. Jesus was going to go to the house of a thief and a traitor. Back then you never ever went to somebody’s house unless they were “acceptable” – and tax collectors were NOT acceptable. No doubt people were quick to point out Jesus’ “mistake”. But he insisted that this was NOT a mistake. Jesus really, really was going to Zaccheus’ house for lunch!

Now, we do not know what Jesus and Zach talked about at lunch, but they did become friends. And after Jesus left, Zach’s heart was totally changed. After meeting Jesus, people usually change what they consider important. Before meeting Jesus, Zach thought money was important. Now, he didn’t mind giving it away. Before meeting Jesus, Zach was worried about what people thought about him. Now, it didn’t matter much at all – he knew that only what God thought about him was important. Before meeting Jesus, Zach would do anything for a friend – even a fake friend. But after meeting Jesus, the best friend in the world, nobody wants fake friends anymore. Now that doesn’t mean that Zach was mean to those people. It just means that Zach didn’t have to do wrong things just to make those fake friends happy. Meeting Jesus made Zach change his whole outlook on life.

Everyone had thought that Zaccheus was not good enough to be Jesus’ friend.
Even Zaccheus didn’t think that he was good enough to be Jesus’ friend.
Jesus surprised everyone – including Zaccheus – by wanting to be his friend anyway.

Everybody knew that Zaccheus had done all kinds of bad things.
Even Zaccheus knew that he had done some bad things.
Jesus wanted to be Zaccheus’ friend anyway.

Everyone thought Zaccheus would have to become good before Jesus would want to talk to him.
Zaccheus also thought that he would have to become good before Jesus would want to talk to him.
Jesus surprised everyone by wanting to become Zaccheus friend, and letting Zaccheus become good when he was ready to.

And Jesus wants to be your friend, too. Maybe you are hiding from Jesus. Just like Zach did. You see this crowd, and many of them are Jesus' friends, and you might even see changed and healed hearts. But maybe you're hiding inside your own mind, not wanting to be seen, not really participating with the rest of the crowd. But maybe, just maybe, Jesus is calling your name, asking you to come out from your hiding, wanting to talk to you and become your friend. Don’t put it off. Don’t imagine that he is talking to someone else. Jesus wants to be your friend today. He'll be the best friend that you'll ever have.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Connections… (the parable of the Tenants)

Matt 21:33 There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
35"The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said.
38"But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' 39So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
40"Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"
41"He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time."
43"[Yes!] Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.

The first thing about this parable that we need to notice is the fact that it is serious. Really serious. When people come to a “wretched end” at the end of one of Jesus’ parables, it means that it is really important to pay attention. It means that Jesus is telling someone that their very soul is in deadly peril. In Luke chapter 20, Luke records the same parable, and there Jesus listeners respond with shock: “may this never be!” they say. This is the appropriate reaction, of course: may this parable never be a description of what happens in my life. May it never be a description of what happens in your life! So let’s take it as a warning – just as Jesus meant it to be.

Now as serious and as important as this parable is, would you believe that this parable is mostly ignored in most churches today? Can anyone remember hearing a sermon on this parable before? Not too many. Hmm. So how did people turn this parable into something that folks imagine is not profitable for our reproof or correction. Very simple: the excuse people use to think that we don’t need to pay personal attention to this parable is to say that the parable is for somebody else.

Now I’m going to ask you to use your imagination. I want you to imagine that you are ten years old. Not a stretch for some – a little more work for others. And I want you to imagine that you have a little brother named Jeff. You are in your room, playing together and having a great time. But while you are playing, your father discovers that your brother is in deep trouble. He found one of your toys taken to pieces and thrown in the garbage, and he is smart enough to know that it probably wasn’t you that did such a thing. So he calls out “Jeff! Come here at once.” Now you and your brother Jeff both hear your father. You hear the tone of his voice. You know that it is important. You know that it is serious. But because you are playing hard, neither one of you heard who it was that he was calling. So you both do the smart thing – you jump up and come running to your Dad. So that’s the scene, and here is the question: will your Dad be angry at you for coming when he really only called your brother Jeff? No. Of course not. Taking instructions personally is never a crime. At worst, it is only a misunderstanding.

But let’s change the scene a little bit. This time, you’re up in your room playing with your brother Jeff but your Dad discovers that you are in trouble this time. Last week, he had asked the two of you if you knew why the cat was suddenly purple, and you both said “I don’t know.” And today, he found some paper towel in your school bag with nail polish all over it. So he wants to talk to you not only about the cat, but also about being honest. And he calls out your name, and then says “Come here at once.” Now once again, you and Jeff both hear your father. You hear his tone of voice. You know that it is important. And because you are playing hard, neither one of you heard who is was that your Dad was calling. But this time, you decide to use it as an excuse. You aren’t sure that you were being called, and you are having so much fun playing, you decide to ignore the call. That’s the scene, and here’s the question: will your Dad be angry at you for ignoring his call? Yes. Of course! And since you are already in trouble over the purple cat, ignoring your father’s call is precisely the thing that you really ought not to do.

But I’d like to suggest that this is exactly the reason that we need to pay particular attention to this parable this morning. We’ve already established that it is serious. Now if it wasn’t intended to be taken personally, God will forgive us if we take it that way. But if it was intended to be taken personally, it will only add to the charges against us if we choose to ignore it!

So with that in mind, I will certainly agree that we do have reason to think that the parable of the tenants has at least one interpretation that really is “for somebody else” – we’ll call it the “historical” interpretation, and it is pretty simple: the people of Israel (that’s the “somebody else”) abused God’s prophets and they eventually killed God’s Son. And so God removed the Kingdom of God from them. That’s it. But just because there is a historical interpretation doesn’t mean that there can’t be a personal interpretation as well. Jesus is really smart. He can certainly tell parables that have two correct interpretations at the same time: one for “somebody else”… and one for us, too.

Since we have had some practice imagining that you have a brother named Jeff, I’d like you to imagine another scene. You’re going to Granby Zoo and your Dad is driving. You are sitting behind your Dad, and Jeff is beside you, behind your Mom. Now you and Jeff are playing, and because it is more fun, you slip out of your seat-belts. After a bit, your Dad turns and sees that Jeff isn’t wearing a seat-belt. He can’t see you since you are sitting right behind him. Your Dad says sternly, “Jeff, put on your seat-belt!” …and you say “yeah, Jeff” at exactly the second that your Mom turns and notices that you aren’t wearing your seat-belt either. Will she be happy with you? No chance! It doesn’t matter that your Dad’s instructions were originally directed at your brother, and it doesn’t matter that your brother deserved his reprimand. It was a big mistake for you to pretend that the instruction wasn’t for you, too.

Well, the same is true for the parable. We know that there is an historical interpretation. But that shouldn’t be our excuse to ignore the personal interpretation. All of Jesus parables were told in order to touch his listeners’ hearts – not just to teach them history lessons. In fact, there is a big hint in the text this morning that Jesus intended his listeners to take this parable personally, isn’t there? Verse 43: “I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” – Jesus himself was applying it personally to those who heard the parable the first time.

Now in order to understand the parable of the tenants personally, it is necessary to connect two themes that show up in many of Jesus’ teachings. Now as everyone knows, good connections are very important. Brilliant people are brilliant because of the connections that they are able to make between ideas. Successful businessmen are successful because of the connections they are able to make between the market and people.

So let’s make two connections from the Bible in order to help us interpret the parable of the tenants. The first connection is with the theme of fruit-bearing and harvesting. I bet almost all of us at one point or other have gone apple-picking. We’ve seen first-hand the business of fruit harvesting. It is a lot of work. And farmers who work hard expect to get something back for their labor, don’t they? One can well imagine what a farmer thinks about a tree that is taking up good land, being pruned and watered and fertilized and fussed over, and yet doesn’t give apples.

But Jesus tells us that our lives are just like fruit trees, and that we, too, are expected to give some return of fruit to God! And in John 15, Matthew 3 and Matthew 7, we are told that “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” – hey! That’s serious business, too, isn’t it?

In Luke 13:6, Jesus told another parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' 8" 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. 9If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'” Our time on earth is limited, my friends. We must use the time we have to bear as much fruit as we can. But God in his mercy is very patient, and often gives us second chances.

Now in the parable of the tenants, the landlord is also expecting fruit from his vineyard, of course. And the tenants who withhold that fruit are very much like the fig tree that doesn’t yield any. The theme of fruit-bearing – which, incidentally, is a personal theme not an historic theme – is very much present in our parable this morning.

But what kind of fruit is God expecting from us? Well, it isn’t a big stretch from Jesus’ theme of fruit-bearing to a very famous verse about fruit. I expect most of you know it: Galatians 5:22,23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” These are the things that God is expecting to be developed in our lives – and, of course, they only makes sense in the context of how we interact with others, don’t they?

Well, we’re going to come back to these things in a few minutes. But I’d like you to stop for a second this morning, and think about how much of a harvest of Love you could deliver to our Heavenly Landlord. Or Joy. Or Peace. Or Patience. Or Kindness. Or Goodness. Or Faithfulness. Or Gentleness. Or Self-Control. According to the Jesus’ words (not mine!), your membership in the Kingdom of God depends on it.

But before we return to that important theme, I’d like us to make a second connection – a connection to another theme that shows up in Jesus teaching – that is, we don’t get to choose who God’s representatives to us are; God does! This is really important – especially in this day and age when we get to choose almost everything… we choose the church we go to; the books we read; the shows we watch; we get to choose our friends; and we get to choose the music we listen to. But heads up: we do NOT get to choose who represents God to us. God does. We might not even like it! It doesn’t matter. If we don’t like it, that isn’t God’s problem – it is ours! The most famous lesson to this effect is found in Matthew chapter 25 (please listen carefully):
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. [wow! Serious stuff!]42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
Please notice that everyone in this parable is surprised at who God considers to be his representatives! Not one of the people in the parable makes the connection between how he treats others and how he treats the King. Not even the good ones! But Jesus is saying that when God looks for kindness from us He looks for it to be shown to the “least”. We don’t get to choose. God does. And he might very well choose people who are annoying. He might very well choose people who are smelly, or rude, or insensitive, or difficult, or any manner of things. But in the very moment that we interact with those smelly or rude or insensitive people, our choices determine our destiny. Remember what Jesus said? “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. ....But love your enemies [and] do good to them. [Luke 6:32,35]”

Now if God looks for a harvest of kindness in our behavior toward his weak and human and difficult representatives (which the parable we just read certainly teaches), it also make sense that He is looking for a harvest of love, and joy, and peace and patience, and gentleness and self-control in exactly the same way.

In fact, we could well imagine that every last person we come in contact with throughout our lives is one of God’s representatives. Truly! What’s more, God’s servants include even more than that! God can even use circumstances as his servants. Do you know that this (the Bible) is one of God’s servants? There might be things in the Bible that some people make fun of. There might be things in the Bible that are difficult to understand. But God is looking for a harvest of Faithfulness and Goodness, and he has given us the Bible for that purpose, among others. What about your parents? They might not understand you. They might be on your case far too much. They might cramp your style. It doesn’t matter. God is looking for a harvest of Patience and Kindness, and he has given us parents for that very purpose.

When that guy pushes you in the hall? That’s God sending His servant to you for a harvest of Self-control. When your teacher blames you for something someone else did? That’s God sending His servant to you for a harvest of Peace. When you come home to an enormous mess in the kitchen? Faithfulness. When your neighbor doesn’t clean up the mess his dog left on your lawn? Patience and Kindness. When someone cuts you off on the highway? Self-Control. When you are mocked because of your faith? Goodness and Faithfulness. When that child runs into you in the basement and spills your coffee? Gentleness. When your sister calls you stupid? Love.

And Jesus makes it clear in the parable this morning that our very salvation depends upon our harvest of fruit. “Hold on,” you might say. “I was paying attention in Sunday School, and they told me that we aren’t saved by our actions -- we are only saved because Jesus died for us.” Very good. Your Sunday School teacher was correct. But notice just how Jesus connects exactly these two things in our parable this morning.

The tenants’ abuse of the landlord’s servants is strongly connected to their abuse of the landlord’s son, isn’t it? The tenants who will not provide a harvest to the landlord’s servants are the very tenants who are held responsible for killing the landlord’s son.
Yes: our salvation depends on how we receive Jesus. For there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved! But how can we receive Jesus if we don’t pay attention to Jesus’ own words? And Jesus teaches quite clearly that those unwilling or unable to deliver God’s harvest of love, joy and peace to his lesser servants are exactly the same people who reject him. May this never be in my life! May it never be in yours!

Remember what the Bible says in 1 John 4:20,21: “If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21And [God] has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

So in this coming week, remember: We are the tenants in Jesus’ parable, and God’s servants are all around us. Most won’t even know that God is using them! And you won’t even like some of them – they might even be down-right irritating! But that doesn’t matter! God is asking you for a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control just the same! And if you truly accept Jesus, you will certainly offer a portion of that precious harvest to the representatives of your Lord.