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.