Please indulge a proud father:
Jonathan’s book ‘Eye Can Write’ has been published. It has been a long time in the making, over a year, and the launch event yesterday at Waterstones was a wonderful celebration with friends and family.
Please indulge a proud father:
Jonathan’s book ‘Eye Can Write’ has been published. It has been a long time in the making, over a year, and the launch event yesterday at Waterstones was a wonderful celebration with friends and family.
About a year ago, I decided that I was going to take daily walk. Whenever I could, whatever the weather – within reason, I would go for a twenty minute march. It’s been good for me – helps concentration, often I meet people. What’s been a really lovely bonus is seeing the changes in the natural world.
One day it is all bare twigs, the next catkins are in flower. The bullocks in the field are lively when they are first let out, but as they grow they settle down. A few days of dry weather and the little stream becomes cracked mud. Over the year I’ve observed a rhythm to the seasons, a pattern of growth and change, variation held within stability.
The same is true of our own lives. We live within time, and to exist in time means change. There is a natural fluctuation, a rhythm. Sometimes the reasons are obvious – weight goes up when you eat more cake. Sometimes the reasons are less clear – moods go and up and down without necessarily having an obvious cause.
This happens in our spiritual lives too. As we continue our sermon series on prayer, this week we look at the joys and the sorrows, the agony and the ecstasy that comes in following God and particularly in our prayer lives. Do you know what I’m saying? Do you get that variation too – the fact that some days prayer is easy and I want to spend time with God, but other days a Facebook feed or an old magazine is all it takes because I half want to be distracted? One week we’re keen to find God’s will for our lives, another week following him feels like a burden.
That rhythm is natural. What goes up also comes down. And vice versa. So after a great spiritual event, like an ordination, it’s inevitable there will a period of just getting on with it. But those more challenging times are very important. Those are the times when God teaches us self-discipline. We learn to follow Him, not like a dog which gets a treat every time it performs, but as free individuals who know what’s right.
So it you make a great step forward in your faith and then run into a difficult period, don’t despair. It’s not a sign that your faith is weakening – far from it, this is designed to help you grow. Keep praying, keep living for God. However don’t acquiesce to the change and accept it as the new norm. Don’t lose your ambition. For it won’t last forever. And when you emerge from the desert, you’ll be stronger.
Few people knew this better than St Paul. He had been through immense challenges, and also some incredible high points. If anyone had met with triumph and disaster, it was Paul, and he describes it in the reading we heard from 2 Corinthians 12 v2-10.
It’s not immediately obvious what’s going on. It seems that the people in the church at Corinth had an issue with Paul: they felt he wasn’t particularly impressive, not the charismatic leader they wanted. The Corinthians knew of ‘super-apostles’, people who’d had interesting spiritual experiences – and talked about them. So in this passage Paul is pushed to defend himself. He doesn’t want to, he seems quite diffident about it. He starts talking about ‘another person’ who’s had a remarkable spiritual odyssey – but it becomes clear this man is actually Paul himself.
He says he was ‘caught up’. In other words, a spiritual experience is a gift. Whenever we have a particular insight or moment with God, a sense of his presence, it is a grace from him. Not something earnt. Techniques of prayer can help open us up to the way God wants to meet us – but nothing forces him to act. Prayer is not an ABC checklist that always leads to a particular result – it’s a relationship. Remember that.
In verse 2 Paul talks about the third heaven – traditionally there were believed to be seven levels. And in v.3 he’s not sure whether he went ‘in the body’ or not. In other words, it can be hard to describe a spiritual experience. Is it a vision? A dream? Are you physically there? This difficulty can actually be a sign of what is genuine.
Whatever it was, Paul saw and heard things that ‘he is not permitted to say.’ We don’t know why, but Paul is not allowed to go into any detail about what he’s heard or seen. This is important. Real spirituality is like this: humble, consistent, doesn’t show off. There were many alternative spiritualities around in Paul’s time, just as there are today. Gnosticism, Mysticism, Kabbala, the Occult. Their practitioners went into great detail about what they thought they had seen. They tried to draw people in with the promise that you too can share in this secret knowledge.
Fake spirituality makes much of revealing secrets, of boasting about special experiences, giving techniques to the initiates. But Paul says true spirituality is rooted in Christ. If we’re given an experience of God, it’s there to encourage us. To build faith in him. Not to be an end in itself.
Spiritual experiences help give substance to our hope. They inspire us, encourage us, as we put our faith in Jesus. But the point is: our faith is in Jesus. The experience points to Christ, it is not an end in itself. So be wary of any spirituality which seeks after experiences for their own sake. Don’t be always chasing the latest high.
For faith is meant to make us love God and serve others. And sometimes faith is strongest when we are most challenged. Paul ends by saying that it is not the visions and ecstasy that he boasts of. Rather, he boasts of his weakness. For it’s through his weakness that the power of Christ is shown to be strong.
The English phrase ‘thorn in the flesh’ comes from this passage. We don’t know what it was Paul suffered from – an illness? A temptation? Three times he pleaded with Lord to take it away, but the Lord replied ‘My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.’ It is the grit in the oyster that produces the pearl. So in v.10, Paul is ‘content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’ In other words, it’s the challenges that reveal and strengthen faith, as much as, if not more than the high points.
We can see this in the gospel reading too. The disciples did amazing things. They healed people and preached to crowds, but Jesus anticipated that they would be rejected, because he was. When Jesus returned to the village where he was brought up, the response was not pride at the local lad made good, it was ‘Who does he think he is?’
That’s why Jesus could do no miracles there. It wasn’t that his power was limited, it’s that people had closed themselves off to him. Don’t believe those who say ‘You’re not healed because you haven’t got enough faith’. That’s wrong. Jesus can work wherever there is any faith – even a tiny amount. Remember the man who said ‘I believe, help me in my unbelief.’ If we’re willing to work with God, he can work with us, no matter how small our faith. But those people had closed themselves off, they refused to accept him.
Even today it’s hard to establish your own identity if people think they already know who you are. But it’s crucial that those who are growing in faith are given the space to develop, the freedom to try things out, the liberty to succeed or fail in a supportive environment.
Looking out for one another is key. For as we’ve heard in the Christian life there are great joys. Closeness to God, blessing, times when what we do is effective. Yet there are also times where, despite faithfully following God’s will, we experience challenge, opposition, spiritual dryness even apparent failure.
We’ve thought about the reasons for this. The natural ebb and flow of our energy. External forces beyond our control. Our openness to God. But sometimes the reasons are not obvious – and maybe those times of challenge strengthen our faith through perseverance and learning to trust God when we can’t see the way ahead.
So in those times we should be aware of what’s going on, take care of one another, make the challenges a subject of our prayers, and also rejoice in what God is able to do with us.
For God is with us in the triumphs and the disaster. God is in the agony and the ecstasy. One day the set-backs will fade, never to return. And we will be in his presence for ever.
Giving a name is a task fraught with difficulties. For instance a baby’s name should be something the parents like – but have you thought about what happens when you shorten it? Christopher becomes Chris, which is ok, but some parents don’t like their Albert being called Bertie. Does the first name complement the surname? It’s always worth doing an internet search to make sure you’re not about to lumber your offspring with the same name as an American psychopath.
And if you’re naming a building, you might want to honour a famous benefactor – but what if society’s view of that person changes? More on the Colston Hall later.
Finally, does the name have a meaning? Is it one that you intend? In Biblical times children were often named after their father, as we hear in verse 59 of today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel. Surely he will be Zechariah? But the little boy’s mother wants to name him John. This is a shortened form of Johanan, which means God is gracious.
Perhaps that’s because this particular baby had been long awaited. However, there’s more going on here. Naming this boy John is an act of repentance, it is a sign that Zechariah is obeying God and doing what he was told. Repentance means turning back to God and doing his will.
Zechariah was a priest, and his number had come up. In those days there were so many priests that their duties were assigned by a lottery. Statistically, a priest had a once in a lifetime chance to serve in the temple. Zechariah’s big day arrives, he goes in and promptly sees an angel who tells him that, despite great age, he and his wife will have a son and they are to name him John. Perhaps years of disappointment have sapped Zechariah’s faith, because his response is to ask ‘How can I know that this will happen?’ For his lack of belief, he is condemned to be struck dumb until the day those things occur.
So when in verse 62 Zechariah asks for his communication aid, and writes on his tablet ‘His name is John’, his tongue is freed and he is able to speak! Through this practical action of naming the child, Zechariah commits himself to God’s will, and demonstrates that he has repented of not believing the angel. He acknowledges that his words and actions were wrong, he asks God’s forgiveness and wants to change. That’s what we mean by repentance.
As we continue our sermon series on prayer, thinking about repentance is really important because it opens the door to God in our prayer lives. Becoming aware of what we have done wrong, saying sorry, turning around, resolving to do better by God’s help is a really important part of prayer. That process of repentance is cleansing for the soul, and it’s a necessary preparation for the rest of our prayers to be really effective.
For it’s no good asking God to rain down blessings upon us, if we’re hiding from him under a great big umbrella! So often the way that God answers our prayers, showers good things onto us, is through our obedience. Which means that if we continue doing the wrong thing, persist in sin, it’s like digging up the seed we so carefully planted. Or our lives are so full of baggage we’re like a stream sweeping along so much dead wood and plastic bags that it can’t flow properly anymore.
Do you know what really annoys me? Really gets me going? It’s when someone asks me for help, to show them the solution to a problem, and then promptly ignores it! I’d rather not be asked in the first place than waste my time telling and showing, and then being disregarded. Yet I know I do that to God all the time. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us more self-knowledge, better insight into what we do, honest realism before God. We can’t hide anything from God – but the amazing thing is: however far gone we are, if we are open and honest with him, he accepts our confession and forgives us. Because Jesus died for us, took our sin on himself on the cross, repentance becomes for us the path to life. Properly understand, repentance is good and healthy.
In the story Zechariah acts and he speaks. He writes John’s name on a tablet, and then he praises God. It is important for us to do both of these things. It is good for us to confess our sins, like we do in general terms in church, and privately, more specifically, to God in personal prayer. It’s right that when we have confessed our sins, we then make an effort, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to live differently in future.
Either one of these is incomplete without the other. Words without actions are hollow. There is a real spiritual danger here: because the more times we say sorry for something but don’t change our behaviour, the weaker the effect of that confession becomes and the harder it is for us to be genuinely transformed. Words without action become an unhealthy turning over of the past, a dwelling upon things, or a superficial ‘sorry!’ on your way to doing the same thing again.
Perhaps it’s less obvious how actions without words are also incomplete. If the school bully changes and stops thumping the other children then everyone heaves a sigh of relief. But if that person has never said sorry, then they’ve never really acknowledged the harm their actions have done. Nor have they opened the way to forgiveness and face-to-face reconciliation. Often we’re satisfied when someone’s actions have changed, but words open the way to a deeper healing.
It’s this deeper healing that we see in the ministry of John the Baptist. Our reading from Acts summarises, in verses 24 and 25, what John did. He preached a baptism of repentance for all the people of Israel, preparing the way for Jesus. He turned people’s hearts back to God so that Jesus would receive a ready welcome. And then in verse 26, we find that this message of salvation has been sent to us.
So how does that happen? The good news that we can change if we admit our need of God affects us at different levels. Individuals, the church, the nation.
Like Zechariah the priest, the Church sometimes needs to repent. Pointing to Christ on earth it needs to hold to the highest standards. That’s why there’s been a review of the Church of England’s approach to child protection. Doing DBS checks and safeguarding training takes up a lot of time – but it is part of the church’s response to historic failures. It shows that there is corporate repentance for what has happened in the past, and demonstrates a resolve that such things will not be allowed to happen again.
There is also the question of the nation. Can a country say sorry for the things its ancestors did wrong? Recently a pardon was issued for the wartime codebreaker Alan Turing, which was very right and proper.
But words are easily said. Action is more difficult. And action is untargeted if we don’t think deeply. So for instance, we need to ask why the 18th century Bristol merchant Edward Colston was widely seen in his time as a good chap, a generous benefactor and philanthropist?
Why did someone who appeared to be a Christian just not see that there was a problem in having business interests which included the slave trade? How did he possibly think that was ok? How did he justify it? Did it even occur to him that it needed to be justified?
Until we ask those questions and engage with the history then we learn nothing. All we get good at is judging others by our own standards. The mistakes of the past will not shed light on our own times, or help us to discover our own hypocrisies and failings. Do we know what shares our pension funds own? How is it possible to buy a suit and shoes for £80?
Words which express regret are fine, but ‘what do we do?’ is a more difficult question. Is compensation appropriate to those directly affected by an injustice? Or to their descendants? What are we doing about racial equality and other forms of inclusion today? What about those who cannot speak for themselves because disability means they have no voice, or who cannot speak because they’ve not yet been born?
Repentance as a nation is complex, yet sometimes a whole society does realise it has taken a wrong turn. Sometimes nations do recalibrate, change their priorities and act. When we look back through history we see that national repentance often follows a change in the church, which itself follows on from repentance in the lives of individuals.
John the Baptist spoke directly to individuals in ways which were relevant to them. ‘Tax collectors, don’t take more than you’re entitled to. Soldiers, don’t use force to take stuff from the population. Rich people, share with the poor’.
He called everyone to repentance. Individuals, the religious establishment, the nation. How effective was it? Several times in the New Testament we read that the real sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes, responded to John’s message. They knew they were doing wrong. They didn’t need anyone to point it out. They could see the good news, love and mercy in the message of Jesus and John.
But the religious professionals, the Pharisees and scribes didn’t. They thought they were doing ok. Their problems were less obvious but no less real: greed, self-righteousness, double standards. The challenge for churchgoing Christians today is obvious – religious commitment brings its own temptations. May we never be proud of our religious credentials. God forbid that we are proud of being Christians.
God can speak to each one of us. He can shine his gentle light into our hearts, showing us the places where we can change. If we ask him to, God will send the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and help us understand ourselves. He will give us self-knowledge and the desire to be transformed. Like taking out a rotten tooth, the process may not be comfortable, but you’ll be better off when it’s done! And if we encounter resistance within ourselves, then make that the subject of your prayers. For repentance is a gift from God, a way to life, and a core principle of prayer.
‘We’re looking for someone to manage a team’. A common phrase in a job advert. Yet apparently, if that word manage was replaced with the word ‘develop’ then more women would be likely to apply. Someone has done some research on the phrases in ads and how people from different backgrounds read them. It’s quite fascinating. For instance the word ‘stakeholder’ apparently serves as a signal to people of colour that their contribution will not be valued.
The researches don’t seek to explain why this is. They don’t give a verdict on whether it’s right or wrong. They’re just interested in the way we react to what we see and hear, and the assumptions we make.
I suppose if recruiters want to reach the widest range of talent they will take these findings seriously. It made me wonder, what do we look for in other people? What kinds of unconscious bias might I have? What assumptions do we make? I heard of a church which had spring clean days – where the men came and strimmed the churchyard and the women polished the brass. In one of my churches there was a man who was brilliant at arranging flowers – but he always did it secretly!
In today’s reading from the Old Testament both Samuel and Jesse know what they’re looking for. They know what a king should be like. So does God – but he’s judging not by the outward appearance but by the heart. Humans tend to judge one another on the basis of personal characteristics – even today leaders tend to be at least 6 foot tall– or by qualifications. But God looks at the inner life –at integrity and faithfulness to him.
My apple trees are now entering the June drop. All over the lawn are immature apples, small but apparently perfectly formed. It seems such a waste – but maybe the tree has cast them off because, unknown to us, a bug lurks hidden inside. People are the same – we can be outwardly attractive and competent, but inwardly some secret or flaw is hidden.
The reading from last week described how the people of Israel entered the Promised Land. As the prophet Samuel grew old, the people asked for a king, and despite God’s warnings about what the king would do, they insisted on appointing a monarch. Saul was chosen, but it hadn’t worked out. The young man had struggled to break free from Samuel’s shadow and when he did act on his own initiative, he disobeyed God.
So as v.35 says, the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel, and Samuel grieved over Saul. But in v.1 the Lord says to Samuel: ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? Fill your own and set out – I have provided for myself a new king’. When Samuel is trapped by regrets and paralysed by turning over the past, God gives him something to do. God creates a new beginning. God moves on. He will not dwell forever on the past, but starts forming the future.
Of course, God is kind to those who grieve. Our gracious loving God holds us in bereavement and other forms of loss. Jesus understands what we are going through when a life event has knocked us for six, and he is patient with us in our trials. I’ve known that in my own life, and I’ve also known times when God has gently nudged me forward: ‘How long will you miss that place? Or how long will you be sad about what might have been when there can still be joy ahead of you?’ Maybe he asks us: ‘How long will you keep beating yourself up about that sin? Do you not believe you have been forgiven? How long will you mourn over that wrong decision? Surely God still has a purpose for you?’
What’s done is done. God can remodel our future, he heals, restores. God gives hope and even joy – part of that may be that sometimes we need to let go of turning over the past.
So Samuel has to go and anoint a new king. But as he points out in v.2, this won’t be popular with Saul. The Lord comes up with a ruse: Samuel’s excuse for travelling to Bethlehem will be to offer a sacrifice. Take a heifer with you, and call the whole town.
The other day I was trying to help a child negotiate a tricky social situation. ‘My friend has given me a book,’ he said ‘but I’ve got the same one already. What can I write to him? I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading it because I already have!’ So we thought about things he could say that were still true and also complimentary: ‘It’s a really good book. Or: Thank you for your thoughtful gift.’ We don’t have to resort to so-called white lies, there are often other ways around.
It’s a sign of the regard in which Samuel is held that the town elders come to meet him trembling. According to the custom at the time, they have to go and prepare themselves, probably by ritual washing, for the sacrifice, and then Jesse presents his various sons to Samuel, whose initial reaction in v.6 is ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands before the Lord’. This guy is big, strong and tall. He has presence. He’s an obvious leader. He is the firstborn – surely he is the King?’
But no. God says: ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, for I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance but the Lord looks on the heart.’ Interesting that the Lord has rejected him. Seems strong – but perhaps the point had to be made: contrary to society’s expectations at the time the Lord had not chosen the eldest for this particular role.
Later on in the story of Goliath Eliab reveals his true colours. When David turns up to help, Eliab is rude and dismissive. It seems his impressive appearance conceals an arrogant and resentful spirit.
One by one Jesse’s various sons pass before Samuel until it appears no-one is left. Actually young David remains, who is so unimportant that no-one bothered to invite him along. He is called in from the sheepfolds, and in a ceremony which is echoed in our own Coronation, Samuel anoints David with oil as Israel’s next king. Interestingly while that was being read it occurred to me that the implication is also that David hasn’t been purified like all the others were – it reminded me of the time when Jesus is teaching about the Sabbath and uses David as an example of one who cut to the heart of the law rather than legalistically obeying the letter. David ate the bread of the Presence which it was lawful for priest only to eat. Is this a similar incident – something to think about.
So what is the message here for us? Is the moral of this story that God rejects the obviously qualified in favour of the weak? Are we more use to God if we don’t know what we’re doing? Are unreadiness, unsuitability, lack of training and amateurish incompetence virtues?
Of course not. V.12 tells us that David is ‘Ruddy, had beautiful eyes and was handsome’. Physically he is just as impressive as his brothers. He is not weak or incompetent – already has killed bears and lions, and he will become a great warrior. The potential is there – and that incidentally is part of the meaning of the gospel reading, the seed of the Kingdom is not amazing because it is small. Rather it is amazing because of what it will become.
The point of the story is ‘Do not be deceived by looking just at the outside. Look at the heart too.’ In our Group we benefit from the services of an administrator, and what I think is great about Lorraine is that she’s not just good at admin. She sees it as a ministry, as a form of service to enable the churches to run well. It’s her gift that she can offer to people and help them at important times of their lives. It’s that attitude of the heart that makes a difference.
It’s those values that we need to cherish. Attitudes that are revealed by people’s actions, their throwaway words, their approach to others. We can ask for the Holy Spirit to cast light on ourselves too. Where is my heart? Where is yours?
Is this person honest? One who won’t lie to protect themselves or the organisation. Do they have integrity with deeds matching their words? Are they prone to gossip or can they keep a confidence? Wisdom is revealed in being listening and discerning. So many competent people seem to think you get results by trampling on others – but life is not a zero-sum game and you have to work with others, so do they show love? Are they responsible for their own decisions? Is humility shown, not like Uriah Heep, but a realistic view of oneself and one’s talents?
Above all, do they have a dependence on God? That was where David excelled. Despite all his talents, he knew that he ultimately depended on God, that nothing he could do would truly last unless it was done in the power of the Holy Spirit.
That’s what we see in the New Testament, where the transformational power of God is so strong that St Paul can write, in 1 Corinthians 1:27 ‘God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong’. Often God can do most with those who are most conscious of their failings. Where the capable trust in their own ability, the humble trust in God and so through his power end up achieving more.
The key is the heart. We spend so long improving our skills – which is great – but let’s work on our thoughts, words and attitudes too! We like to follow impressive leaders, and maybe they are good, but don’t miss the people of talent because their faces don’t fit. Our inner lives are not fixed – God can change us. We are not like the apple which, once it has a bug in it, is spoilt. No, the Holy Spirit gives us self-knowledge so that we can turn to God and receive his power to change. So let us pray that we may become the kind of people, outer and inner, that Christ seeks.
How do you pass things down the generations? Yesterday we enjoyed a great fete – lots of people having fun. What made it notable is that a younger generation were organising. The people in their 60s and 70s handed over to those in their 40s – and it’s going well.
Doesn’t always though. A certain media empire wrestles with the question: Is it better to keep it in the family? At times the White House doesn’t seem keen to bring in expertise from outside.
Countless businesses have struggled with the same question. And it’s a tricky one. Maybe there just isn’t anyone who wants to take on the family farm. Or perhaps the younger generation are keen – but they want to do it their way, with their ideas, not the way grandpa did it. What might just work for a business isn’t best for a nation. Our reading today from 1st Samuel 8 considers, how will a good ruler be chosen?
Don’t do what Samuel did. His big mistake came before our reading, in v.1-3. He appointed his sons as judges, but they became corrupt. A familiar story from the lives of many leaders. What’s particularly strange though, is that Samuel started his career when his predecessor Eli made exactly the same mistake. As we heard last week, Eli the priest had sons who were corrupt so God sent a message to Samuel telling Eli that their conduct would not be tolerated any longer. So you might expect Samuel to have learnt – yet it seems he has no more control over his sons than Eli did.
Three times in today’s reading the word listen is used. It’s a passage all about listening and obedience. But this isn’t the listening of a well-trained sheepdog which follows its master’s whistle exactly. This is about people who don’t listen to God. Alarmingly, it’s also about a God who allows us a scary amount of freedom. As we continue our sermon series on prayer this is a salutary reminder that we worship a God who listens to us. He is a God who believes in our freedom, who might even allow us what we want, even if it’s not the best thing for us.
So it starts with Samuel, who had heard the message to Eli. He had seen what happened to Eli’s sons, and yet he failed to learn the lesson himself. He chose his successors from his own family.
The principle goes wider. It can be tempting for managers to promote people who agree with them, or who make them feel good – but flatterers are fickle and yes-men rarely have leadership qualities themselves. Some leaders choose lieutenants by repaying those who are owed a favour or do it on the basis of dead men’s shoes. Neither of those approaches leads to the best stewardship, nor to public service.
Those of us who act as leaders should choose our colleagues not for our own convenience, but remember that we have a wider responsibility.
In this light v.4-5 might seem reasonable. The people state the facts, somewhat baldly. ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways – appoint for us then a king to govern us like other nations.’ Clearly they cherish and admire Samuel even if their tact is lacking. But Samuel takes it personally, in v.6, Samuel was displeased.
How easy it is to take opposition to heart! How easy to confuse the role with the person. To imagine that if your idea is opposed that people don’t like you. Or to go off in a huff. But sometimes role and person must be separate.
For instance, the first women priests had a lot of opposition. Some said it was easier to cope when they realised that the opposition wasn’t directed at them as people – it was what they represented. Interestingly, in many cases once congregations had got used to the person they were also able to accept the role. It’s very important for everyone in whatever situation to be able to keep the distinction between person and role, so that it doesn’t get too personal.
Sometimes it’s God who’s actually being rejected. Just as it was for Samuel. In v.7b ‘The Lord said they have not rejected you, they have rejected me from being king over them’. Again, there’s a failure to listen. The Biblical book of Deuteronomy is clear: God is their king. That’s why early Israel didn’t have monarchs – they were ruled by God who made his will known through prophets and judges like Samuel. Asking for a king was actually a profound rejection of the Lord.
So isn’t it all the more surprising that God seems to give in? What does he say in v7: ‘Listen to their request!’ Might he not have refused? There is a frightening responsibility here – God gives us what we ask for. Sometimes I hear people talking about their past and saying that such a thing must have been God’s will because he allowed them to do it. Implying that if God hadn’t wanted it, it wouldn’t have happened.
That’s not the way God works. Our heavenly Father gives us free will. He gives us the opportunity to choose, for better or for worse. And it wouldn’t be a free choice if the consequences weren’t truly open.
Therefore Samuel had to explain to the people what a king would do. The grass seems greener on the other side. Sometimes people need to know what the alternative actually involves. They have to be brought back to the real world. Occasionally we might look at an unhappy present and imagine a future ideal. Dreaming like that isn’t harmful – it can inspire us – provided that we face that fact that choices have to be made between real-life situations. And perfection is rarely possible. Maybe next time you meet someone complaining about something, it might be worth asking them: ‘what’s your solution?’
And that’s what the prophet does in verses 10-17. He tells what the king will do. The king will take the best for himself. He will take a whopping 10% for his people. Shows how much things have changed, that in those days an oppressive rate of tax was 10%! But then again, it was only for the armed forces and the king. No welfare state back then!
Yet the people do not listen. ‘No but we are determined to have a king over us. There are two reasons: We want to be like other nations. Not an informal coalition of tribes, relying on the worship of one God. Not living radically as a witness to the Gentiles. We want to grow. We want identity. Boundaries. Power. More land. Empire. We want a king.
Israel was meant to change the world. Instead they ended up being changed by it. Rather than listen to God and share that good news with the world, they listened to the world and asked God that they might be the same. The same challenge faces Christians today. Will we be witnesses? Or will we be conformed? Are we light in the world, pointing the way to Christ? Or do we seek to be like the other nations, taking our values from the world? What do we really value, and why?
And then their second reason ‘so that our king may govern us and go about before us and fight out battles.’ Perhaps we can sympathise with this. They did face real threats of invasion. Rule by God must have seemed a bit of a gamble. Is God really there? Does it make a difference in battle? And if God chooses the leaders by giving them his Spirit, well who will he send? Will they be up to it? At least with a king you know where you stand. You can see him!
It’s about trust, isn’t it? Following God is step into the unknown, a leap of faith. Faced by an alternative radical lifestyle, and the seeming uncertainty of God as King, the people opted for the allure of the nation state and the security of a human king. The irony was, they were less secure. For no human king would be up to the challenges the nation of Israel would face. Many were tried and found wanting. Only those who depended on God made the grade. Only he could ultimately save.
So God says again ‘Listen to them’. They are set in their way so he will allow them what they want. Yet the amazing thing about the way this story turns out is that God did not give up on them. Yes, the kings of Israel often did do exactly what Samuel had said. But there were also kings who ruled wisely: David, Hezekiah, Josiah. Maybe the institution was flawed from the start, but God in his grace was able to use the monarchy for good. It’s a reminder to us that, even when we mess up, God does not give up on us. He can take our mistakes and turn them round. If there’s anything in your life that you wished never happened, a mistake you made, bring it to God, see what he can do.
For God can even turn our mistakes into blessings. The change God brings is so great that even our errors and sins can be transformed and become something good. Look at the beginning and end of the Bible.
The Bible begins with two naked people in a garden. When they do wrong they cover their shame with clothes. Their descendants try and build a city which reaches to the skies, but their pride is punished when God divides their languages so they cannot understand one another.
What then would we expect at the end of the Bible? All being put right, a return to the golden age, of nakedness in a garden?
The Bible ends with a great multitude, from every tribe and language, clad in white robes as a glorious city descends from heaven. God has not put the clock back. He has taken human sin, and its consequences and totally transformed everything. The path we have taken cannot be untrodden, instead it is planted with flowers.
That’s exactly what God does with the idea of having a King. It becomes a model for Jesus. The one who would lead and serve perfectly. The one who now reigns with God.
Jesus was sent to be a King. Jesus too was rejected, the people did not want him as their Lord. We heard that in the gospel reading. And so they crucified him. Yet God turned that rejection into redemption. Jesus’ death in our place, on account of our sins, opened the way for all humanity to return to God. His love really is that awesome.
And so, to conclude. Our readings today challenge us – to whom do we listen? Do we listen to God and try to share that sensitively with the world around? Or do we take our values from the world around and hope that God won’t mind? Do we take responsibility for our decisions – for that responsibility is given by God and respected by him.
Recognising that we all make mistakes, can we see the hand of God in redeeming them? Will we allow God to transform our lives, not by putting the clock back, but by taking the hand we have dealt ourselves, and with it creating something beautiful and wonderful?
I wonder how many people have heard the voice of God? Have you ever heard God speak to you? There’s a well known song that we sing quite a lot, which goes ‘I the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry, who will bring my word to them, whom shall I send?’ And the chorus goes: ‘Here I am Lord, is it I Lord, I have heard you calling in the night.’
So I wonder how common an experience like Samuel’s is? Of God calling in the night? Prayer and listening to God is a very personal thing, it takes different forms. For me, it tends to come more as a sense of being nudged. An inner feeling that I ought to do something, or my thoughts are directed towards a particular person when I pray, or an idea pops into my mind and it feels right – maybe sometimes even words might form but not as an audible voice.
Each one of us relates to God in a different way. At the Thrive course the other day small groups had come up with ideas about what they were going to do in their churches, and then the other groups prayed for them. It was striking how many people had pictures – images which came into their mind and felt like visual messages from God. Others had words – like a Biblical text that imprints itself forcefully at that moment.
Therefore as we begin our sermon series on prayer, which will take us all through June and July, it’s really important right at the start to say that prayer is personal. Prayer is your relationship with God. Just as each of our relationships with friends and family is unique – so is our relationship with God. And that’s ok. God deals with each of us in our own way – yet there is lots of wisdom from the experiences of others and in the Bible from which we can learn.
So don’t worry if you haven’t heard the literal voice of God. Don’t become puffed up if you do all the time! We’re just different. God being God, he can always surprise us.
For instance, in the story about Samuel that we heard this morning from 1 Sam 3, Samuel doesn’t actually seem to have been praying. It doesn’t give the impression that he’s trying to seek God, rather the Word of the Lord comes to him as he’s drifting off to sleep. That is part of the mystery of prayer: we can do all we can to make time to pray, we can put a lot of effort into seeking God, but sometimes for whatever reason he seems quiet. And then at other times, when you’re not even trying, it’s like God is hammering down the door!
God is free. God is sovereign. Prayer is not a way of manipulating God. It’s not a kind of magic – do this, sit there, say the right words, ‘In Jesus name’ at the end, and there you are! No, prayer is not about techniques but about relationship, coming before a God who is free to respond. Of course, discipline in prayer and openness to God are good things – that’s why Jesus prayed regularly. That’s why Samuel is in the temple. It’s good to have a daily time of prayer – because it puts us in a place where we are focussing on God and are likely to be much more open to anything he has to say to us. But we must never see prayer as a magical thing – we must remember that God is in charge!
In this account, God decides that he will speak to the young boy. There’s an experienced priest next door, the High Priest in fact, but when God has spoken to him before Eli hasn’t listened. In Chapter 2 we learn that Eli’s sons are also priests, but they are corrupt. Eli knows this, but beyond a few mild words hasn’t done anything to stop them. So God spoke to Eli through a prophet, yet it seems Eli did nothing.
God therefore brings a message to the child, and God can speak through children today. Children are incredibly good at seeing through hypocrisy, at cutting through the rubbish adults spout. Children have a profound sense of right and wrong, and haven’t yet learnt to be cynical about what can’t be done. So is there space on a PCC for children? Or other ways we can ask their views? They have their own relationship with God, and if we don’t listen to children we are missing out.
Samuel though doesn’t immediately realise it’s God. In v.4 he runs to Eli, and says ‘Here I am, you called me!’ ‘No I didn’t, go back to bed’. I think any parent can sympathise with Eli, especially when it happens again and the old priest presumably thinks this is the latest game to avoid bedtime. ‘Look, you’ve got your water, we’ve adjusted the blanket, you’ve been to the loo twice, go to bed.’ Eventually though Eli realises. God is calling the boy.
Occasionally I get invited to go into school for a ‘Grill the Vicar’ session. The children can ask any kind of question. One they particularly like is about discernment. How do you know it’s God speaking to you, and not yourself? How do you know it’s not the Devil putting ideas into your mind – they love that idea! So I say, if the thoughts are unkind, selfish, against God’s word then they’re not from God. If the thoughts seem like they’re good, then give them a try. It might be from God, it might be from your own mind, but as you put them into practice and get better at listening, you’ll learn to distinguish the two.
Also, you could talk to someone. Do you share your experiences of prayer? We have people who advise us in all sorts of areas of life. There’s a coach for sports, the Pilates teacher to keep you supple, small business advisors and mentors, management consultants and tax advisors, even life coaches. So why not talk to someone about your prayer life? Something that important is worth getting input on.
Do you have someone you can pray with? Who will listen to what you think God might be saying? Who can help you reflect on your prayer life? A housegroup or Bible study might help with this. The Cursillo movement is very intentional, very focussed on accountability. I know some people have prayer partners and meet say once a month to pray. If you want to reflect on spiritual matters and broaden your experience and styles of prayer then a spiritual director would be brilliant. Don’t just leave this area of life to chance, put some effort into development.
Eli tells Samuel what to do. Samuel goes back. When God calls again, Samuel answers ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening’. Lovely isn’t it? Very often the reading ends there. But it’s not the end of the story. If we stop here, we miss out a really important message, which tells us that it’s all very well to listen, great to get a word from God, but what do we do with it?
For the message to Eli is a word of judgement in v.13 ‘for the iniquity he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God and he did not restrain them’. Eli had been warned, but he had not obeyed. And now when this message comes, Eli’s response in v.18 sounds like a shrug of the shoulders: ‘He is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.’
Yet many other times in the Old Testament a message like that is received with grief and repentance. Ahab went about in sackcloth and ashes, and the judgement was averted. The city of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah and was not destroyed. God longs that people should hear his word and change. The messages of judgement are road signs warning of rock falls, they are there to avert disaster. Although I’ve never worked out what you’re supposed to do about the rock fall sign! I mean, if rocks are falling what action can you take? Is it best to drive slowly so you can see the rocks coming and reverse out of their way? Or limit your exposure to danger by driving fast?
Listening to God implies action. As we listen to God and obey we get better at hearing his voice, but it seems that for Eli a word from the Lord is a message to be heard and passively received.
Perhaps that is why Eli was unable to hear the voice of God in the first place. Chapter 3 is full of symbolism: listen again to v.2: ‘Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room. The lamp of the Lord had not yet gone out – Samuel was lying down in the temple.’
It would be easy to fall into caricature. To tell the familiar story of the institution which has become corrupt, the old man tired and spiritually numb being replaced by the charismatic young prophet. But it is more complex than that.
It was the temple institution and Eli’s care which had nurtured the young Samuel and given him the space in which he learnt about God and then heard God’s voice. On the other hand, as we will hear next week, the charismatic prophet was not immune to failure. When Samuel was old he made exactly the same mistake that Eli did: he tried to pass on power to his sons but he too failed to prevent them from becoming corrupt.
I think that makes the point that prayer, staying close to God is not something we ever master. We never sign it off, complete the course, get the certificate so you don’t have to try anymore. Or stop learning.
Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been trying to get a contractor in to remodel a small part of the kitchen and install a cooker. Should be a simple job but the Diocese want to see his certificates – so all the subcontractors have had to dig out from the depths of their filing cabinets various certificates, mainly from the late ‘80s. It seems that once you’re qualified to fit an electric hood, you’re qualified for ever. Like a driving license, unless you make a mistake and have to retrain you’re basically good for life.
But prayer isn’t like that. It’s a relationship, with an infinite God. We are always learning, growing. There is a direction of travel which is hopefully towards God but as we see in Eli and Samuel can at times be away from God. So to keep growing, to keep thriving, wouldn’t it be good to be accountable to one another? For something this important, doesn’t it make sense to seek and give support?
Is there anyone you can talk to about prayer? Who is there who can ask you ‘How’s your faith going?’ If the answer to those questions is ‘No-one’ then who start looking. Look for someone with whom you can be honest. Look for someone who can be a prayer friend. Ask God himself: who Lord would you send? I want to be blessing to someone, and I need someone to be a blessing to me.
I have a new definition of middle age. I think middle age begins when the experiences of your childhood are totally incomprehensible to children of that age today. So for instance I was trying to explain to my daughters that we didn’t have mobile phones and the internet in the 1980s, or for much of the 90s for that matter. If I wanted to look something up I had to walk to the library
So how did you make phone calls Daddy? Well we had a big handset with a hole near your mouth and another one near your ear. It had curly wire coming out of it, which went into what we called the telephone. There weren’t buttons on the phone but a kind of circular thing.
So did you have to put all that in your pocket to make a phone call Daddy? No – you couldn’t carry it. It was wired into the wall. You couldn’t sort the washing out or lay the table or watch telly while you made a phone call – you stood in the hallway. And the kids give me this look…and I start telling them how good dinosaur burgers tasted.
We get so used to the status quo that we forget what life was like beforehand. We take for granted the good things, the situation that we enjoy, and struggle to imagine how life might be different.
That can be an issue when we approach the New Testament. With the benefit of hindsight we are not like the early apostles – we know that Judas will betray Jesus. The story is familiar: Jesus dies, but it’s ok because we know he will rise again. We live in a culture which is formed by Christianity – yes culture may not acknowledge those Christian roots but they are there nonetheless. It’s hard for us to grasp just how radical it was to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ which means that Caesar is not. Or to believe in one God rather than many.
Perhaps it is also hard to imagine life before the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today is Pentecost when we remember the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out on all the disciples.
This event doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Later in Peter’s speech he explains the background. Jesus had risen from the dead on that first Easter. Then he appeared to his disciples. The Thursday before last we remembered Ascension Day when he returned to be with God – but he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the gift he had promised.
So the disciples waited. And while they waited they prayed. In fact, verse 14 of Chapter 1 of the book of Acts tells us that they were ‘constantly devoted to prayer’. They spent the 9 days from Ascension to Pentecost in prayer. That’s why when the Archbishops wanted to call the church to a special season of prayer, they chose the past 9 days. That’s why on the 11th and 12th May we organised 24 hours of prayer in our churches. That’s why we had a day of prayer for children’s ministry on Tuesday last week. And it’s why we’re giving out these booklets to anyone who wants them as aids to prayer.
It’s not too late to begin. Having a focussed time of prayer together is great, and we draw encouragement and strength from one another. But we can pray anytime, anywhere. Prayer is so important that next week I’ll be starting a sermon series on that subject. From now until the school holidays we’ll be just scratching the surface of the huge riches of Biblical material on prayer. There is so much to learn about prayer, and I’m really looking forward to exploring it. Please do come.
When we pray, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. We become aware of what God is doing around us and within us. For the Holy Spirit dwells in every Christian. But it seems it wasn’t always like that. The picture we get in the Old Testament is that particular people received the Holy Spirit for particular tasks. So Saul and Samson were filled with the Spirit’s strength. The prophets spoke with words inspired by the Spirit. In the book of Numbers, when Moses was struggling to cope with work, God gave the Spirit to 70 helpers to share the load.
In other words, the Holy Spirit was given at particular times and particular places. Bit like the old days of dial-up internet! When you used to have to log on to the computer every day and spend an hour catching up on emails because you couldn’t get them anywhere else.
But now, when Peter speaks, it’s like the Holy Spirit is on broadband wifi! Everywhere, at all times, for everyone. Look at v.17 – he quotes from the prophet Joel: ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, young men see visions and old men dream dreams.’ Young and old, male and female, even the slaves from the lowest parts of society will be filled with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not for a selected few, but for everyone.
Therefore do not think the children aren’t proper Christians until they’re confirmed – they have the Spirit. Don’t let anyone think they’re past it, that experiences of God are for the young – we can all have the Spirit. Just the other day someone was somewhat taken aback when God gave her two very clear messages. The gifts of the Spirit, like prophesy, are not just for professional Christians, but for everyone. So let’s expect God to meet us, let’s expect him to speak and guide.
For it is when we are open and listening, expecting God that we can be sensitive to the breath of the Spirit. Going back to the wifi analogy, you do have to be logged on! That’s where Peter’s speech is going. What we had today is just the introduction. He finishes by explaining that everyone can receive the Spirit. In v.38: ‘Repent and be baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ If you haven’t done that, think about it now. And perhaps now is the time to ask: Spirit, come into my life.
This is not to say that the Holy Spirit can’t be found anywhere else. The book of Genesis describes the Spirit hovering over the waters of creation – God’s spirit is active in the world. The Spirit can draw those who don’t know Christ closer to him.
Many people today describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. There is a huge interest in spiritual matters – people use mindfulness and meditation to be aware of what’s going on around them and become aware of their own spirit within. We have our spiritual self – we are body, mind and spirit – and some people are more aware of the spiritual side of life than others. Giving time to developing your own spirituality is quite popular – and depending on what the object of that spirituality is and how it is developed it can be healthy or rather less so.
It’s important that Christians are able to engage with this interest positively and listen to what people are searching for. Don’t dismiss it out of hand. For in looking within and finding their own spirit people can also discover an openness to the Holy Spirit, who comes as a gift from God. The Holy Spirit is of course not the same as our own spirit. Our spirit, like every aspect of humanity, is both beautiful, made in the image of God, and flawed, fallen, in need of healing. So spirituality which is not grounded in God will only get us so far. To reach our destiny, our union with God, we need the Holy Spirit.
St Peter says: Turn to Christ, ask for forgiveness, be baptised – and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. After that, we must keep on living in the Holy Spirit. For the struggles and challenges of life can wear us down – from time to time we need to reboot. Do you ever get that with a mobile phone? Sometimes it stops working and you just need to restart it.
Someone once asked John Stott how he managed to follow Christ so faithfully. He replied ‘I make sure I get 8 hours sleep’. If we’re struggling spiritually, if we’re too tired to pray, sometimes the answer is quite prosaic! I also think it’s good to start each day with a prayer that I will be filled with the Holy Spirit – that’s a kind of recharge. And you have to make sure the signal stays strong – give that time to being close to Jesus through worship, prayer and encouraging one another.
For the spiritual life is not about self-fulfilment. (And this is perhaps where Christian spirituality differs from much contemporary spiritual writing. In Christianity we are fulfilled, we find life in all its fullness, by following Jesus’ way: the sacrificial, self-giving way of the cross)
It’s very clear that the Holy Spirit directs us outwards. Think about when the Spirit was given – there was a sound from heaven – which tells us the Spirit is other, comes as a gift. The divided tongues of one flame tell us that there is one Spirit, bringing all people together, yet individually relating to each person. St Paul describes how the Spirit gives each one particular gifts for the common good. The fire speaks of the warmth and comfort and power of the Spirit, which sends us out to love, serve and speak in God’s world.
In this sermon I’ve been returning to an analogy with wifi and the internet. While there are similarities with the Spirit’s work, there are also significant contrasts. Wifi is a thing – but the Holy Spirit is a person. God reaching out to us. The internet is a tool – what you do with it can be good or bad – but the Holy Spirit leads, guides and transforms us to be more like Christ. In other words, the Holy Spirit gives us a personal experience of God – he is God within us. Isn’t that just an amazing thing? So easy to say, so profound. God within us.
When we do not know the way the Holy Spirit guides us. The Holy Spirit gives us joy in the most unexpected times. The Holy Spirit sustains us in weakness, gives hope in challenge. He fills his church with power and conviction. He transforms the world around and reconfigures society. Let us pray that we, and God’s church, may be filled with the Holy Spirit:
‘Lord we thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit. We pray that he may fill us today.’