DEVOTION: The Secret of Marriage (1 Samuel 1:1-28)
Now in Old Testament times, we might be tempted to think that women had to conform to the expectations of the former. Nevertheless, a woman’s role was not always that clear cut. Indeed, even in the very male-orientated society of the Old Testament, an element of flexibility was sometimes practiced. And this couldn’t, perhaps, be made clearer than in the story of Hannah and Elkanah.
Because in Hannah’s relationship with her husband, there was a certain amount of give and take. They both considered the needs and feelings of each other. Hannah may have felt the external pressures of producing a baby boy for her husband, but Elkanah had no such expectation. On the contrary he was perfectly content with Hannah the way she was. Despite that, Hannah succumbed to the pressures of her culture and age. And that wasn’t helped by the taunts of her rival Peninnah.
But when Samuel was born, something else happened. Now at the time it might have been considered normal for the father to make decisions about the child’s upbringing—particularly if the child was a boy. But that didn’t happen here either. Indeed, before Samuel was even conceived, Hannah decided the future of the boy. A decision to which Elkanah willingly agreed. So, in this case, once Samuel had been weaned, they both took Samuel to Shiloh and gave him to Eli, to be trained for work in the Tabernacle.
Now, of course, what this passage illustrates is that marriage is not just about two people—a husband and a wife—even with all the give and take. Rather it is about three people—a husband, a wife and God. Indeed, it suggests that for a marriage to truly work, not only do the two partners have to care and consider one another, but God needs to be part of that relationship too.
The story of Hannah and Elkanah, then, is a story of two people totally committed to one another—they are equal partners in a loving relationship. They also have God at the centre. And that is a very different, and much more positive and uplifting view of expectations, relationships and marriage, that is often viewed today.
Posted: 13th April 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Ordinary, But Committed, People (1 Samuel 3:1-10 & John 1:43-51)
1. Organizations in General
In most organizations you can belong to in our society, there are people from all sorts of different backgrounds. And people with all different levels of commitment.
At one extreme there are the ardent followers. Those who live, breathe, and are prepared to die for their cause. Where nothing is too great to be asked.
And at the other extreme there are the supporters on the fringe. People who have a nodding acquaintance with whatever the goals of the organization may be. They may get involved sometimes, and in some ways—but only occasionally, as it suits.
In the middle, however, are the rest. People who may agree with the ideals of the group, and even go out of their way to support the ideals of the organization. But there are limits to which even they will get involved.
And of course, like everything, there are organizations, which seem to be blossoming, and there are others, which seem to be struggling for their very survival.
2. The Church in Particular
And one of the organizations which fits that description very nicely is the church itself. Because like most organizations in life the church is made up of a number of people—all at different stages of belief and commitment.
There are some who are strong in the church, who seem to be involved in anything and everything, who have different talents and abilities—particularly regarding ministry—and they put their talents to good use.
On the other hand, there are also those who live on the fringes—who only have a passing attachment, who only have a peripheral involvement—which doesn’t involve ministry at all.
And of course there are also those in between.
And just like other organizations, there are some churches that seem to be blossoming. Where God appears to be blessing them, and there is the very nice problem of ever-increasing numbers and how to fit everyone in. And, on the other hand, there are other churches which seem to be struggling for their very survival.
With all this in mind therefore, there are two questions which come to mind. The first is: ‘What kind of people does God call to his church?’ And the second is: ‘How can we make sure our church is one of the ones that blossoms and not fades?
B. THREE CAMEOS
Well, today, I’d like to answer both of these questions by drawing on the three cameos from Samuel and John.
1. The Calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-10)
And the first cameo is from the Old Testament, and is of a boy called Samuel. Now Samuel was only a baby when his mother presented him to God, and dedicated him to grow up and live in God’s service (1 Sam 1:21-28). But about the age of twelve, he served in the shrine under the guidance of man named Eli (1). And he used to sleep in the sanctuary as part of his duties (3), to make sure the lamp burned all night and didn’t go out, to keep watch over the ark of the covenant in which the ten commandments had been placed, and to be there to receive any divine instructions that should come.
However, whether he was good at his job or not, is a debatable point. Because what we also know is that Samuel was a boy who simply went through the motions. He didn’t have any strongly held beliefs himself (7). He simply carried out the tasks that his master Eli told him to do. Tasks that Eli, because of his poor eyesight, was no longer able to perform (2).
And when this particular incident occurred, Samuel had never heard God call him before. And he couldn’t remember the last time that anyone working in the sanctuary, or anywhere else come to that, had heard God calling them either (1). So when it was nearly morning (3) and Samuel heard his name being called out (4), he did what any other twelve-year-old boy—under the guidance of Eli—would do. He went to Eli to find out what his master wanted (5). Only to find that Eli hadn’t called him at all.
Now at that stage it wasn’t time to get up. So Eli told him to return to bed—and he did so. Only to have the whole situation repeat itself, twice more (6 & 8). And after the third time, it wasn’t Samuel—who was supposed to be listening out for the voice of God—who twigged to what was going on, but Eli, the man of God (8). And he told Samuel that it was God calling him. And that the next time he heard his name being called, he should answer God. And he gave him the appropriate words to say (9).
And that is precisely what happened (10). (And of course, as the story goes, Samuel became one of the great prophets of the Old Testament.)
It’s a nice little story. However, what was special about Samuel? Absolutely nothing. He was in the sanctuary, not because he longed to be there, but because his mother had presented him to God. Indeed until God’s call, Samuel was just going through the motions regarding the rituals themselves. Because he didn’t know God at all.
2. Philip (John 1:43-44)
The second cameo is from the New Testament, and it is of a man called Philip. Now we don’t know much about Philip. But we do know that when Philip and Jesus first met, it was not on the instigation of Philip. Rather it was Jesus who, we’re told, was determined to go to Galilee, with the specific purpose of seeking out Philip for himself (43).
Now we’re not given any reason why Jesus did this, or given any explanation of how Jesus knew Philip. It may have been that Philip was a follower of John the Baptist. However that is mere speculation. But what we do know is that after this first meeting, every time Philip is mentioned in John’s gospel, Philip seems to be well and truly out of his depth.
In the feeding of the five thousand Philip’s only contribution was a comment regarding the costs of feeding so many people. ‘Two hundred denarii worth of loaves—the wages of a labourer for eight months—would not be for each to get a little!’ (John 6:7). When the Greeks came to see Jesus, it was Philip who had to consult with Andrew before the men were finally brought to see Jesus (John 12:20-22). And at the last supper, it was Philip who requested Jesus show them the Father: ‘Lord, show us the Father. That will be sufficient for us.’ (John 14:8).
Philip’s claim to fame, may have been that he was counted as one of the twelve closest disciples of Jesus. Nevertheless, he was probably of limited ability. He lacked initiative. And therefore, like Samuel had nothing much going for him either.
3. Nathaniel (John 1:45-51)
And the third cameo is that of Philip’s friend, Nathaniel.
Now unlike the other two stories, Nathanael’s story doesn’t begin with God or Jesus coming to him. But rather an excited Philip, who rushed to him to tell him he’d found the Messiah—Jesus of Nazareth (45).
Now Nathanael, at first, was sceptical: Nazareth! How could anyone important come from there? (46). There was nothing special about the place. And with some hometown rivalry at the back of his mind, he may well have considered that Cana was a much better place for someone important to come from. However, Philip—who as we’ve just discovered was not a resourceful man—didn’t try to convince his friend by argument. But simply invited his friend to come see for himself.
And as Nathanael approached, he overheard Jesus talking about him (47). And, to Jesus’s description of Nathaniel—as a straightforward person, someone who didn’t try to trick people, but someone who called a spade a spade—Nathanael responded with both surprise and agreement (48). How could Jesus know him? They’d never met before.
Then Jesus told Nathanael something that only Nathanael and God could have possibly known about him. But it was enough to convince Nathanael of who Jesus was (49). With the response that Nathanael immediately saluted Jesus, in a manner implying Jesus’s divinity. An expression which bore a commitment to Jesus that was far from superficial. And which led to Jesus effectively saying ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’ (50-51).
Nathanael, then, before his call: straight forward in his dealings. And again nothing to indicate any special talents or abilities that might come in useful.
Samuel, Philip and Nathanael, therefore, make three interesting cameos. Of course, from the romantic side of Christianity, we may see them as very special people. However, at the point of God’s call, there is nothing to indicate that any of them had anything special to uphold them as great people. Or anything that would make them stand out from the crowd at all.
So, with that in mind, let’s get back to our original questions: ‘What kind of people does God call to his church?’ And ‘How can we make sure our church is a church that blossoms and not fades?’
1. He Calls Ordinary People
Well, I’m going to suggest to you, firstly, that the kind of people that God calls are just ordinary people. People like you and me.
Samuel, working as a boy in the sanctuary. did not have any special talents of which we are aware. Rather he was there because of the faith of his mother. Indeed, Samuel didn’t know God at all but was only going through the motions. That was until he heard God’s voice calling.
Philip, a man with little or no initiative—and probably of limited ability—was a man who even after his call struggled with his faith. He was well out of his depth.
And Nathanael, well he wasn’t eloquent with words either. He was a plain speaker, but one who would call a spade a spade.
And these three cameos are perhaps examples of the most ordinary men you could possibly find. And yet they were still called by God to be his servants.
Now I don’t want anyone to get a complex this morning about being ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’. But the examples of Samuel, Philip, and Nathanael do show that not only did God call them, but that he was perfectly aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and history. And he still wanted them and called them to follow him.
So, what kind of people does call? Well, ordinary people. Indeed, people who may not appear to have any special talents at all.
So when it comes to us—whether God calls out our name in the early hours of the morning, or he goes out of his way to seek us in some other way, or he sends a friend to come and see us to point the way—we shouldn’t be asking ourselves questions about our position in life or our lack of talents and abilities. We shouldn’t be talking about whether we are good enough or what we have to offer. If God calls us, that’s enough. All we need to do is to respond to that call, regardless of how we see ourselves. Because, like it or not, we are the people that God wants to follow him.
2. For The Church To Grow
And the second question, ‘How can we make sure that our church grows?’
Well, what we should do is to look at those three men again. But this time not concentrate on how they began, but on how they ended. Because they didn’t stay people on the fringe of God’s church, or even accept membership to a limited degree. No! Indeed! They all became ardent followers of God. And they all committed their lives to God and his church, lock, stock, and barrel.
And this is where the church is not like any other organization. Because unlike other organisations, in the church, there should be no difference in the levels of commitment at all. Because as far as God is concerned, regarding faith, no matter where our starting point may be, we should all have the same goal. And that is a level of obedience and trust, which involves a total commitment to God. And by necessity that involves a commitment to the exercising of our own personal ministries within the church as well.
Because despite their poor starts, Samuel, Philip, and Nathanael all ended up with very strong faith. They all ended up taking their faith very seriously indeed. As a consequence, God was able to use them in the building up of his church.
Samuel having responded to the call of God, became one of the great prophets of Old Testament time. Philip, having responded to the initiative of Jesus, became one of the twelve disciples. And Nathanael, well we’re not sure whether he was one of the twelve or not. But the implication is that he would have been one of Jesus’s closest followers, nonetheless.
And if we can all respond with commitments like that. Our church—which is really God’s church, not ours—can’t help but grow.
In our society, then, there are many organizations that we can belong to, where there are people from different backgrounds, and where there are people who have all different levels of commitment. And some of those organisations are thriving and blossoming, while others are struggling for their very survival. And the church, unfortunately, is no different. But, you know, that shouldn’t be.
Looking back on some of the characters of the bible can make some interesting reading. Many, if not most, began their lives as ordinary people. They began with apparently nothing to set them apart as being anyone special. But what made them special was that each responded to God and allowed God to work in their lives.
And that is the key not only to the kind of people God calls. But to what is required of the church so that it blossoms and not fades.
Because the church may be made up of people from many different backgrounds. But despite that, the commitment required of each of us—without exception—should be nothing less than total.
There is no room in God’s church for different levels of commitment. Indeed, we’re all expected to exercise our ministries—ministries designed to build up God’s church. And if we do that, we too will find ourselves in the midst of one of God’s thriving churches too.
Posted: 22nd July 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Call for a King (1 Samuel 8:1-22)
Today, a glimpse of what it means to have a monarchy, but from an Old Testament perspective:
Because, for a thousand years—since the time of Abraham—the people had lived and done well under God’s guidance. They hadn’t needed an earthly king. Indeed, God was their king, and from time to time he had appointed leaders to guide them. Unfortunately, bit by bit they became dissatisfied with God’s way of doing things. They wanted someone they could see and touch. They wanted continuity. And they wanted a system where they knew who would come next. And so they looked around at the surrounding nations, with their monarchies, and demanded a similar model for themselves.
Of course God, quite rightly, took this as a rejection of himself. Nevertheless, he relented to the wants and desires of his people. But before he did so, he gave them a warning; he told them the price of having a king.
And that was, that they would need to fight in the king’s army. That their sons would be appointed to the king’s chariots teams. That people would be needed for ceremonial and other occasions—including runners to go out in front of the king’s own chariot. That royal lands would be needed for cultivation—and that meant fields, vineyards, and olive orchards would be confiscated and turned over to royal officials. That people would be needed to maintain the royal lands, including men to plough the ground, harvest the crops, and maintain the king’s flocks. That people would be needed to manufacture weapons of war and equipment for the king’s chariots. That there would be a need to conscript women as perfumers (concubines), cooks, and bakers. That they would have to pay taxes. Indeed, ten percent of all grain and other produce, and ten percent of all flocks would need to be given to the king’s officials. And, furthermore, that the king would need to conscript male and female slaves, and take the best cattle and donkeys for use on his many building projects or other works. And all this would be in addition to their existing obligations regarding their religious commitments to God.
And just to put that into perspective, the demands of having a king during the time of King Solomon included having an estimated forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen. And that was what was needed for the king’s army alone.
However, despite the huge price, the people still wanted to go ahead. They wanted a king. So about 1,050 BC Saul was anointed the first king of Israel. And it must be said, he made a real hash of it.
He got carried away with his own power; he thought he was God. Indeed, he stopped talking to God; he left God out of his decision-making processes. He even usurped God’s authority by doing things that God had appointed others to do. As a result not only did Saul die in battle, but his son and heir died in battle too. And it wasn’t Saul’s son, Jonathon, who inherited the throne, but someone completely different.
Now the request of the Israelites to have a king is a pretty sad story. It’s a story of a nation who were not satisfied with trusting in God and the leaders that he sent them from time to time. Instead, they wanted a king—someone like them. Someone they could see and touch, and where there would be continuity from one king to another. Yet in doing so, they rejected God. And, not surprisingly, their first king rejected God too.
Beginning with the feeling of dissatisfaction in the way God did things, they lost God on the way. And so, their first experiment with a monarchy ended in disaster. But that’s not surprising really, because that’s what happens when people try to replace God.
As a consequence, this story should serve as a warning for us too. Because despite the fact that times have changed, in Australia we live in a society that has achieved something of which the Israelites had dreamed—a human monarch and a stable government.
Despite that, the costs of having that kind of structure hasn’t really changed. They’ve just been updated over the centuries. Nevertheless, the trap is such a structure—the danger—remains the same. After all, where is God in our system of government? Where is the need to trust in God for our daily needs? Where is the need to rely on God for leadership, and guidance? And where is God in our lives, when our leaders lead us astray?
Surely the whole point of the story, in the book of Samuel, is that the setting up of any human institution will inevitably lead to God being pushed aside and displaced. And that’s a real problem. Because we need God, and we need to trust in him for our help and salvation. Indeed, we need to keep in mind, at all times, that it is God in whom we should put our trust. And that is the lesson we should learn from the Old Testament, lest we too fall into the same trap of rejecting and replacing God too.
Posted 23rd March 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis