1 September 2022
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it (Matthew 13:45-46).
What does it mean to be a saint?
The word may bring to mind particular holy men and women whose faith in God and service to others strike us as exemplary. It may bring to mind no one in particular’ only the general notion of somebody who is, quite literally, “holier-than-thou.”
“To be a saint,” Frederick Buechner writes, “is to be fully human, to enter the Kingdom of God” that Christ describes in the above parable.
We might protest that we’re fully human already. In a sense, we are, but in a sense, we aren’t, and we know this.
We wish we had more courage and self-restraint. We “grasp, strike, and hold tight” to life even though we know we’re made to give and receive it with “hands stretched out.” We’re inclined to see our “broken and suffering world” as a proof against God rather than an invitation to follow after the One who “mends and renews.”
To seek sainthood is to seek the most fully realized version of ourselves, the person God calls us to be. That, finally, is the most lustrous pearl of all.
Help us, O God, on our journey toward sainthood, so that we may come to know you better; and, in doing so, come to know ourselves better as well. Amen.
2 September 2022
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened (Luke 11:9-10).”
Connection is a funny thing. I don’t mean “funny” as in humorous; connection is sometimes humorous, but it’s also sometimes just the opposite.
I mean “funny” as in unpredictable, because you never know how far a connection will go, or what it’ll lead to. Some connections fizzle instantly, like the small talk we try and fail to make while in line at the bank. Some alter the course of our lives forever–for better or worse.
To someone who wants to keep their life as it is, connection is unwise. For the same reason, Frederick Buechner says prayer is unwise, because what is prayer if not a connection with God, a connection which may seem from time to time to have fizzled, but which may yet alter the course of our lives forever?
“The message of the cross is foolishness,” writes the Apostle Paul elsewhere. His words are purposefully provocative, goading us into questioning the wisdom of serene isolation, daring us to be foolish enough to reach out.
Help us, O Lord, to pray, to risk connection with your healing, transforming love. Amen.
3 September 2022
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3-4).”
The above passage of Scripture is one of the most recognizable in the entire Bible, and one of the most fraught. It’s cursed by sentimentality, the residue left by countless greeting cards and innumerable gilded bookmarks.
“Ah, to be a child again,” we grown-ups reflect, before dismissing Jesus’s call to do just that as the work of a poet who knows the secrets of the human heart better than we dare admit, but is unacquainted with the ways of the world.
Frederick Buechner attempts to remove those layers of candy-colored wallpaper and lay the substance of Jesus’s words bare. What, actually, is Jesus asking of us? In the first place, Buechner writes, he’s asking us to consider more carefully why children are the way they are.
When a child asks why grass is green, or where cats go when they die, “they’re not basically interested in getting an answer but in being reassured by us, whom he asks, that we too see that the grass is green and that the cat has died.”
Answers cannot replace the gift of caring companionship. Children know this, and so do we grown-ups, if we only allow ourselves to remember.
Help us, O God, to remember that we are your beloved children, and to embrace you. Amen.
4 September 2022
But a Samaritan while traveling came upon him, and when he saw him he was moved with compassion. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, treating them with oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him (Luke 10:33-34).
The parable of the good Samaritan isn’t a tale about a good person doing the right thing in a world of bad people. It’s the story of a miracle, the miracle of separate lives intertwining for the sake of love.
The priest and the Levite who pass by the half-dead man on the side of the road aren’t especially bad men, Frederick Buechner argues. They’re independent men, men who see the world as a place full of people who all have their own lives to attend to. They likely pitied the half-dead man, but they had no time to stop for him. Their lives were harried enough without considering the needs of another.
The miracle of the good Samaritan wasn’t that the Samaritan was good. The miracle was that he saw the needs of another man and presumed that they were his needs, too. The miracle was that he loved his neighbor as himself.
Deliver us from isolation, O Lord. Lead us into the fellowship of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose name we are bold to ask it. Amen.
5 September 2022
Then [the second criminal] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:42-43).”
“You’re not yourself today.”
The first time somebody said that to me, I didn’t know what they meant. Of course I was myself. Who else would I be? It was only later that I got it. I wasn’t acting the way I usually did. Something was off, and somebody noticed.
We all have these moments from time to time, writes Frederick Buechner, but they’re only the most extreme examples of a feeling that’s nearly always with us: the feeling that we “have no peace inside our skin,” the feeling that, try as we might, we’re not completely ourselves.
It’s a feeling that we’re often inclined to ignore, and why shouldn’t we? All our earnest efforts to shore up some sense of happiness and self-worth seem threatened by the notion that there’s something missing all the same.
And yet, Buechner writes, this feeling isn’t a threat. It’s an invitation. We’re invited to discover who we are in Christ, invited to find that “to be where he is, to go where he goes, to see through eyes and work through hands like his is to feel like ourselves at last.”
Help us, O God, to find ourselves in you, through the gracious leading of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
6 September 2022
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go… (Isaiah 6:8-9).”
From Sherlock Holmes to Batman to the Ghostbusters, so many heroes of fiction are called into action by a summons. Be it a telegram, a phone call, or a signal projected in the night sky, the message is always the same: we need you. No one else will do.
These heroes capture our imagination, in part, because they’ve discovered what we’re all looking for: a way of life that’s uniquely theirs. It brings them satisfaction. It helps others. It’s the place, to cite Frederick Buechner’s most famous quote, where “their great gladness and the world’s great hunger meet.”
Are we all capable of discovering such a place for ourselves, or is the perfect vocation doomed to exist only in fiction? In a sermon on the call of the prophet Isaiah, Buechner argues that true vocation is an ideal worth chasing because, to quote another prophet, we “do not live by bread alone.”
It’s not an exact science, vocation, but if we can only bring ourselves to go–to where we need to be, and to where we’re needed–then we’re on the right track.
Help us, O God, to hear and answer to the call to action that you’ve made to us alone, so that we may experience the joy of knowing more fully who we are. Amen.
7 September 2022
O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples. Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually. Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered (1 Chronicles 16:8, 11-12).
“The past isn’t done, or at least not done with us,” writes Frederick Buechner. This is often an uncomfortable reality, because there’s much in all of our pasts that we’d very much like to have over and done with. There’s so much that we’d rather not remember.
We don’t have to remember, of course. We can distract ourselves in any number of ways. We can keep our memories sedated. But we do so at our own risk. If remembering is a part of life, then denying our memory denies us the chance to fully live.
Remembering can be a frightful thing to do, but Buechner points out that if we take the risk, we’ll discover that along with the pain and regrets, we’ll remember something else: “we have survived.”
We’ve made it this far–perhaps, we feel, against all odds–and with that realization comes something that we can only really have if we’re willing to remember: hope. Hope, Buechner writes, “stands up to its knees in the past and keeps its eye on the future.” It knows that while the past isn’t done, neither are we.
Awaken in us, O Lord, the memories which bring forth hope. Amen.
8 September 2022
At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made…Then he sent forth a dove from him to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground (Genesis 8:6,8).
The story of Noah and the flood is one of the first Bible stories we tell our children. How odd that is. What other children’s tales can you think of in which a cataclysm kills everyone on earth but a holy man, his family, and a collection of animals? I’ll wait.
In a sermon on Noah and his waterlogged adventures, Frederick Buechner suggests that our determination to keep this story confined to picture books is no accident. We do so, he writes, “not because children particularly want to read it, but more because their elders particularly do not want to read it, or at least do not want to read it for what it actually says and so instead make it into a fairy tale which no one has to take seriously.”
So what does the story actually say? For Buechner, it says that doom is all around us, which is what makes the ark such a holy thing. It says that we discover arks of our own–places where people are fool enough to realize that we need each other–we’re in the presence of the one we all need most.
Help us, O God, to keep building arks, so that all might know your love. Amen.
9 September 2022
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible (Hebrews 11:1,3).
When you look around you, what do you see? When you look within yourself, what do you see?
When we dare to look, we hope to see comfort and reassurance, reasons to believe all is basically well.
More often than not, however, we see a truth that we all know deep down: that we are, as Frederick Buechner once put it, “more than half in love with our own destruction.” We see this on fields of battle and in centers of grave need throughout the world, as well as within ourselves when we’re honestly considering the reasons why we do what we do.
Faith, however, is the supposition that there’s more to it than that, that there are things we don’t see–or only rarely see–that are every bit as real. More real, in fact. Faith, Buechner writes, dares us to suppose that “the madness and lostness we see all around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next-to-last truth.”
Help us, O God, to see through the eyes of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who sees us and our world not only as we are, but as we may yet be. Amen.
12 September 2022
So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But [Thomas] said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe (John 20:25).”
What can our eyes tell us?
In some ways, a great deal. Our eyes can tell us that it’s a sunny day outside, or that the spot on the countertop where we thought we left our cell phone is in fact empty. Our eyes can identify a person as somebody we know, and can tell us that they’re sitting next to us on the couch or reading on the back porch or laying in a hospital bed.
Our eyes, Frederick Buechner once preached, can tell us any number of facts, and this is what Thomas the disciple thought he wanted: confirmation of the fact of Jesus’s resurrection.
He got it, but he also got a whole lot more. Thomas was confronted not just with the facts that his eyes could tell him–that Jesus, though dead, was standing before him plainly alive–but with the truth that Jesus meant to give him life as well. The truth, Buechner argues, often defies the scrutiny of our senses because it isn’t ruled by them. The truth simply is, and is the reason that we are.
What can we say in response except “My Lord, and my God?” Amen.
13 September 2022
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe (John 20:29).”
When I chose to use Frederick Buechner’s work as the basis for the last month or so of Facebook devotions, it didn’t feel like a momentous decision. Here, I simply thought, was a theologian I admired. Why not add his insights into the devotional life of this community?
What I didn’t know when I wrote “on a hilltop in Vermont there lives a man named Frederick Buechner…” last month was that by the time those words hit our Facebook feed, Buechner had exchanged that hilltop home in the green mountain state for something far better. He died on August 16th, the day this series started. Bless him, he was 96.
As I looked for a way to wrap up and pay adequate tribute to the man and his work, I came across the sermon we considered together yesterday. Here, I thought, was who Buechner had been–who all of us that follow Christ strive to be–one who had “not seen and yet had come to believe,” whose belief had fortified the belief of others as he dared to give over his life and work to what was true, even when he couldn’t see it.
Rest in peace, Fred. May your soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon you. Amen.
14 September 2022
Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And [Hannah] said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went her way and ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer (1 Samuel 1:17-18).
The God we worship is the God of the underdog.
Don’t believe me? Read any Bible story. From Abraham to Hannah to the boy David to the Prophets to Mary to Jesus, most major players in the Biblical narrative tend to be–at least at their story’s outset–a person who almost nobody would’ve pegged as anything special.
Why is that?
It makes for a good story, certainly. We humans seem hard-wired to delight in tales of unlikely heroes overcoming steep odds and suffocating expectations.
There’s more to it than that, though, as Hannah’s story reveals. She’s a woman who can’t conceive, which makes her persona non grata in the ancient world. There’s nothing she can do about that, so she asks God to do something about it instead.
Underdogs, you see, don’t have the luxury of pretending to be masters of their fate. They know a truth that’s actually true for us all: it’s God’s provision, not the temporary securities that we try to build up around ourselves, that truly matter.
Give us all the mind of the underdog, O God, so that we may ask for your provision, and recognize it when we receive it. Amen.
15 September 2022
Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people (1 Samuel 2:12-14).
I sometimes wonder about explorers who bushwack their way through jungles in search of ancient ruins. It must be difficult to endure oppressive heat and dangerous wildlife knowing full well that even if the remains of great civilizations are out there, they may be so thoroughly buried beneath sediment and vines that they’ll prove impossible to find.
Sometimes I wonder about God’s blessings, too. They’re said to abound, and I beleive they do, and yet they can be so thoroughly buried beneath creation’s woes and human misdeeds that one wonders if they stand a ghost of a chance of being found.
That’s why I take heart and hope from Bible stories like this one. The temple in which Hannah prayed that God would help her is staffed by priests who are only in it for themselves. If it were up to them, nobody who wasn’t a son of Eli would be blessed. Thankfully, it wasn’t up to them, and Hannah bore Samuel, whose prophetic ministry would stand against such abuses. By the grace of God, a ruin was found poking up through the earth and vines.
Give us grace enough, O God, to recognize your blessings amidst all which hides them, so that we may follow in the direction those blessings lead. Amen.
16 September 2022
“If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the Lord, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can make intercession?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father (1 Samuel 2:25).
In today’s devotional passage, an old priest named Eli makes one last attempt to get his sons to straighten up and fly right. They’re priests, too, but they’re the priests we met yesterday, the ones who took delight in serving only themselves.
Eli’s appeal is terrifying in its simplicity. He doesn’t bribe, shame, or threaten them. He doesn’t remind them of their duty to uphold the dignity of the family name or the priestly office. Instead, he names a truth that they all know but have decided to disregard: unlike them, God can’t be bought off. That’s not how God works. God is looking to have real relationships with each and every one of us, not to let us go on doing whatever we like as long as we pay the occasional toll.
As someone has said, God meets us where we are but loves us too much to leave us there. Eli’s sons decided they were fine where they were, so there was nothing their father could do but remind them of the truth.
Help us, O God, to receive your love ever more fully on your terms, knowing that when we do, we become more fully the people you call us to be. Amen.
17 September 2022
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread (1 Samuel 3:1).
“How nice it must’ve been to live in Bible times,” a parishioner once said to me. I asked him what he meant. “Well, there can’t have been any doubt about whether there was a God in those days,” he replied. “God was showing up all the time. It was business as usual. I wish I lived during a time like that.”
I suspect–in fact, I know–he’s not the only person who has thought so, and that’s what makes moments in Scripture like this so important. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Even in Bible times, there were seasons in which people found it difficult to see God at work, in which God felt distant from life as they understood it.
This moment is preamble, of course. God is about to show up in a big way. But let us linger here for a bit longer, and remember that even in Bible times, God showing up meant something. What Samuel and Eli are about to experience isn’t just another day at the office. It’s an encounter with the living God, and such things are never business as usual.
Sustain us, O God, in the seasons when it’s hard to see you at work, and make us ready to receive you when you make yourself known to us. Amen.
18 September 2022
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was (1 Samuel 2-3).
It’s the end of another day for Eli the priest. It’s been a day like any other, and lately that hasn’t been a good thing.
The changes and chances of this life have begun to take their toll on the old man. As he lies down for the night and tries to say his prayers, he can’t help but remember things he’d rather forget.
He remembers his sons, who followed in his footsteps and became priests. How proud he must’ve been, right up until they began using the power of the office to engorge and enrich themselves at others’ expense. He remembers the days when the word of the Lord was heard constantly, and wonders why God can’t be bothered to speak now. He remembers that his eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and sees shadows falling all around.
He pulls the covers closer, longs for the sleepiness that won’t come, and wonders if his attempts to serve the Lord have amounted, finally, to anything.
But the lamp of God hasn’t yet gone out. The story isn’t over. It has just begun.
Keep watch over us, Lord, and guide us by the light of your countenance. Amen.
19 September 2022
The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening (1 Samuel 3:8-9).’”
And just like that, Eli’s day is no longer over. His attempt to sleep has been rudely interrupted by Samuel–Hannah’s boy, who Eli took on some time ago as an apprentice of sorts.
Why Samuel has intruded upon him in this way is unclear at first. The boy insists that Eli called him, but the old man is quite sure that isn’t the case. He hasn’t gone that batty yet.
But Samuel keeps coming back. Three times he bursts in on Eli, eager to answer a call from no one. Still, this “no one” is being awfully insistent for a figment of his apprentice’s imagination. Then Eli gets it: this is God calling; young Samuel just doesn’t realize it.
Thank God for the Elis in each of our lives, the ones with wisdom and patience enough to recognize God calling before we recognize it ourselves. Thank God for the ones who’ll tell us we’re mistaken until they realize that we’re more right than we know.
Help us, O God to listen to the Elis of our lives, and, by your grace, to be an Eli to others. Amen.
20 September 2022
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle (1 Samuel 3:10-11).”
What was the last thing you heard that was so affecting that you remember not only what you heard, but the experience of hearing it?
Most of what we hear, so the old saying goes, is in one ear and out the other. We can only hope enough of it will catch on the way through.
Sometimes, though, we hear something that makes our ears tingle. When we look back on it, we remember everything: where we were, who we were with, what was playing on TV in the other room. Our minds contain a diorama of the moment into which we can reinsert ourselves whenever we’d like.
The Word Samuel heard from the Lord that night in the temple must’ve made his ears tingle, but God’s chief concern is for everyone else’s ears, the ears that’ll be hearing what Samuel–now the prophet Samuel–has to say.
Not everyone will hear, but those who do will forever remember the moment when they heard that God was at work and everything was about to change.
Help us to hear your Word, O God, and to speak it. Amen.
21 September 2022
“On that day [said the Lord,] I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them (1 Samuel 3:12-13).”
Now it’s Samuel’s turn to lie awake. God has spoken an ear-tingling word. God has grown tired of Eli’s sons, who’ve turned worship into a small-time con, and of Eli, who has let it happen. Things don’t look good for the house of Eli, and God–perhaps unfairly–has made Samuel the bearer of the bad news.
It’s good news, too, of course: God is about to put an injustice right, but I doubt that’s much of a comfort to Samuel. We have no reason to suppose that he cares one way or the other about Eli’s sons, but Eli has fed him and housed him and trained him up in the ways of the Lord. Now, Samuel must tell him that he faces certain ruin.
So passes Samuel’s first lesson in being a prophet. For the rest of his days, God will call him to deliver good news that’ll sound like bad news to almost everyone. Let’s see how he does his first time ‘round. Stay tuned.
Help us, O God, to receive and share your good news, even when it forces us to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves and others. Amen.
22 September 2022
Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him (1 Samuel 17-18).”
If Samuel has any hopes of keeping the good and terrible news to himself for a while, they’re quickly dashed by Eli, who rushes up to him demanding answers. What did the Lord say? He begs Samuel to tell him everything.
So Samuel does. He tells Eli all of it: God’s disappointment, God’s impatience, God’s intention to save Israel from the house of Eli by any means necessary.
Eli replies in a way that’s so self-aware one almost can’t stand it. He knows that sometimes he’s resisted evil and sought the good, and sometimes he’s thrown up his hands and made do. His life–like everyone else’s–has been a mixed bag, and he’s not blameless in that. What then can he say except “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him?”
Eli’s self-assessment is wise, but his conclusion isn’t. The man is too weary or jaded or fatalistic to ask anew for God’s saving help. My prayer for myself and each and every one of us this day is that we may never uncouple honesty from hope, for truth–Gospel truth–contains both. Amen.
23 September 2022
As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh (1 Samuel 3:19-21).
How often do we feel that our words, once spoken, have simply fallen to the ground, to be trampled over, unacknowledged, by the feet of passersby? Frustratingly, that most often happens to the words that seem to us to matter most.
How fearful Samuel must’ve been that his words–being as they were the barbed words of prophecy–would never reach their intended recipients but instead fall beneath the dust of ignorance and wilful rejection.
There can be no doubt that many recoiled from his words. And yet, because they were truthful, they wouldn’t be easily dismissed or forgotten, and so Samuel earned Israel’s respect, if not its acclaim.
With that, the stage is set. Eli, his sons, and the age of acquiescence and exploitation they represent, are still with us, but they’re living on borrowed time. The word of the Lord has returned in earnest, with Samuel widely recognized as God’s trustworthy messenger. The course of Israel’s story is about to change forever.
Help us, O God, to be trustworthy speakers and doers of your Word, and to look first not for easy praise, but for true relationships forged in the truth of your transforming love. Amen.
24 September 2022
When the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. […] So the Philistines fought; Israel was defeated, and they fled, everyone to his home (1 Samuel 4:5,7-8, 10).
So begins a new era for the people of Israel. It doesn’t begin happily.
One of their perennial foes, the Philistines, raise yet another army and declare yet another war. Israel isn’t especially concerned. They have God on their side.
The Israelites meet the Philistines in battle, and things quickly turn against them. The Israelites begin to worry. They send for their-ace-in-the-hole: the Ark of the Lord, which had accompanied their miraculous victories in former days. When the Ark arrives, its soldiers give a “mighty shout” like the one their ancestors gave as the walls of Jericho crumbled. They will win the day now, surely.
They don’t. When the Israelites of Joshua’s day brought the Ark into battle, they were doing as God had told them. This time, the Israelites, fighting for their own reasons, took it for granted that God would lend them a hand. For too long, they’ve been treating God like just another tool in the drawer, and it’s coming back to haunt them.
God is on their side, but they aren’t on God’s.
Help us, O God, to more perfectly seek out your will for us, knowing that when we do, we draw nearer to you. Amen.
25 September 2022
“Israel has fled before the Philistines…your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken, and he died (1 Samuel 4:17-18).
It’s the beginning of a new day for Eli the priest. Today, though, is anything but ordinary. His two sons have taken the Ark of the Lord from the temple and rushed it to the front lines of a new battle against the Philistines. Now Eli–and all of Shiloh with him–waits to see what’s become of all three.
When a messenger brings news from the field, Eli demands to hear it, just as he’d demanded to hear what the Lord had said to Samuel in the night all those years ago. He learns that what he’d heard then has now come to pass, and it literally knocks him down. His two sons and the Ark, representing in their way his entire life’s work, are all gone.
Before long, Eli’s gone, too, and with him a generation who–to varying degrees–took the Lord for granted. The future is now uncertain, but in Samuel, we find cause for hope that there’ll be a future, and that God will be found there.
Help us, O God, never to take you for granted, but to respond to your love by loving you ever more completely. Amen.
27 September 2022
Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:3).”
At last, Samuel’s moment has come.
Eli is dead. The armies of Israel have been defeated. The nation has nowhere else to turn but towards that young, fierce, faithful prophet from Shiloh.
As Samuel stands before his people, he’s a man straddling two worlds. In some ways, he’s a product of the old world that has failed Israel: Eli’s protege, and now, it seems, his successor as Judge of the nation.
In other ways, though, he’s a product of the new world: the world shown to him by the God who brought him into this world through a miracle, and who now stands ready to come to Israel’s rescue in a similarly miraculous way.
In this way, we’re all like Samuel. We’ve been born into a world that has left us wanting, and yet we’ve been born for participation in a world that wants for nothing, a world that God would show us, if we’ll only allow God to do so.
Help us, O God, to live as your children, even when we feel that it’s beyond us. Amen.
28 September 2022
And when the Israelites heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines. The Israelites said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, and pray that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” […] The Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were routed before Israel (1 Samuel 7:7-8, 11).
Time for the rematch.
Once again, the Israelites and the Philistines meet on the battlefield, but this time things are different, and I don’t just mean in terms of the outcome.
The first time around, Israel presumed that they’d win. This time around, they don’t. The first time around, they paraded the Ark of God before them like a magic talisman, convinced that they’d receive divine support and assistance as long as they had the right hardware. This time around, they–through Samuel–actually ask God for help, having realized (1) that it’s God’s will that matters, and (2) that the best way to determine God’s will is to communicate with God.
This time, those who asked receive, but the outcome of the battle is secondary to the true victory won that day: a victory over the forces within and without that seek to separate God from God’s people.
Help us, O God, to continually seek out your saving help, so that our thoughts, words, and deeds may more fully reflect your will for us. Amen.
29 September 2022
When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. Yet his sons did not follow in his ways but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice (1 Samuel 8:1, 3).
Actor and film director Orson Welles once said of happy endings: “If you want one, that depends, of course, on where you stop the story.”
If the story told in the book of 1 Samuel had stopped with chapter seven, that would’ve been a very happy ending indeed. The corruption of Israelite worship–represented by Eli and his sons–has been done away with. Israel has rekindled its relationship with God, and the nation’s enemies have been brought to heal. Samuel, the golden boy of miraculous birth, is in charge. What could go wrong?
Plenty, as it turns out. As chapter seven gives way to chapter eight, we find history repeating itself. Samuel, like Eli before him, has given his sons authority that they’ve wantonly abused in turn. Even the golden boy, it seems, can’t stop people from doing what they do.
The messiness of the story told in 1 Samuel can be frustrating, but it’s also a gift, because it more accurately reflects your story and mine, in which happy endings are rare and lessons often go unlearned. Thank God that’s in the Bible, too.
Help us, O God, to invite you into even the messiest parts of our stories, so that we might know you as our constant companion. Amen.
30 September 2022
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations (1 Samuel 8:4-5).”
As the people of Israel see it, they’ve finally started to get wise.
For generations, they’ve been vesting a series of God-appointed Judges with supreme earthly authority over their nation. These judges, on the whole, have done a good job getting Israel out of its worst scrapes, but an awful pattern has emerged: once a given crisis has been handled, even the best judges go to seed, which invariably opens the door to another crisis, and on and on ad infinitum.
The elders of Israel decide that this pattern must be broken, so they come to Samuel with an order of their own devising. Israel, they declare, is tired of being rescued. Its people want to be ruled. They want a king, just like everybody else, and Samuel will give them one.
Is this really the answer, though? Have the elders identified the problem, or is this king business simply a distraction from what’s really the matter? Stay tuned.
We yearn, O God, for stability and certainty. Help us to find those things more in your unchanging, unfailing love, and less in the powers and principalities of our own devising. Amen.