Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Unlike some Church people, I have a degree of both time and respect for the eminent scientist (and devout atheist), Professor Richard Dawkins – if only he weren’t quite so strident in his attacks on religion as a destructive force in the world. If he would talk more about religious literalism and fundamentalism as posing serious threats, then I couldn’t agree more. But I feel that he is missing the very important point that religion, for many of us, speaks the language of myth and allegory; it conveys its truths and insights through age-old methods of storytelling and poetry. As long as Dawkins insists that religion has to be regarded in precisely the same way as scientific fact, then I suspect confusion will continue to reign. The God Dawkins seems to be trying to dethrone – the big man in the sky who has supreme control and magical power over all human activity, who can apparently intervene whenever he chooses, but can equally choose to remain detached while humanity is just left to get on with it – is surely not the kind of God that most thinking Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in – is it?
I have had a soft spot for the story of the boy Samuel ever since my Sunday School days, when we used to sing a hymn based on it. It began with the story – and I loved its sense of mystery: ‘Hushed was the evening hymn, the temple courts were dark, the lamp was burning dim before the sacred ark, when suddenly a voice divine rang through the silence of the shrine.’ It then went on in the form of a prayer: ‘O give me Samuel’s ear, the open ear, O Lord, alive and quick to hear each whisper of thy word. O give me Samuel’s heart, a heart that moves at the breathing of thy will. O give me Samuel’s mind, that I may read with childlike eyes truths that are hidden from the wise.’
The story is equally fascinating for the adult reader, once you begin to appreciate its context and explore its potential relevance for today. Did you notice how the passage we heard begins in a very matter-of-fact way by saying, ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread’. The early part of the Hebrew Scriptures, the accounts of the great patriarchal figures of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the rest, are crammed full of the word of the Lord, and of direct divine intervention in the affairs of the Hebrew people. The crucial thing to bear in mind is that the Hebrews had been set apart through their status as God’s chosen people, so all these stories contribute towards what is often called by theologians the ‘salvation history’ of Israel. God, as instigator of the covenant with the people, would naturally be intimately involved and active in this history.
By the time we get to Samuel, though, Israel’s story has moved on and God appears to have gone silent. There were what today we might term ‘issues’ surrounding Eli the priest at the once-famous shrine at Shiloh, and the antics of his sons. It seems they were representative of a society which no longer automatically expected the presence of God in everyday affairs. For example, just before today’s passage, Hannah, eventually to become Samuel’s mother, had been praying fervently at the shrine for the gift of a son. Eli, as the priest in charge, on seeing Hannah’s lips moving, assumes that she must be drunk, which that tells you something about Eli’s general experience in running the shrine. It seems he hasn’t been used to seeing people coming in off the streets to fall on their knees before the Lord. Rather, he has come to expect that the shrine will be used, perhaps, as a shelter from the sun, or a place to sleep off a good party, or a place from which his own sons could continue to run their criminal rackets. Gone is that expectation that people will come to seek the word of the Lord: Israel’s religion and its relationship with the God of the covenant has become tarnished.
Although Eli challenged his sons about their behaviour, they paid scant attention to him. Then, we are told, a certain ‘man of God’ came to old Eli and warned him that God’s judgement would come upon his family, and his sons would die. In their place, God promised to raise up a faithful figure who would restore the integrity of the temple. Samuel turned out to be the prophetic instrument of God’s judgement on Eli’s family and the corruption of religion at Shiloh. It was Samuel who would eventually be a key transitional figure in Israel’s history. He became a prophet, having been consecrated to God by his mother, and called by God in the temple. He ruled Israel at the end of the period of the judges and he also anointed the first two kings – firstly Saul, who was later rejected, because he failed to carry out God’s instructions as conveyed by Samuel, and afterwards David, anointed by Samuel in Bethlehem, whose family line would lead eventually to the birth of Jesus. Who knows whether we are dealing here with solid, reliable, historical fact? And does it matter? Far more important is that this story of Samuel’s call is a crucial part of the ‘salvation history’ of the Jewish people which would, in time, become part of Christian salvation history as well.
So that’s the context, in a nutshell, but what can we make of all this as part of our religious history as Christians in the 21st century?
Coming back to where I started, the story of Samuel makes it clear that even when a society appears to have rejected God, God nonetheless continues to reach out, because of the endless love that is God’s very nature. Although God appeared to have gone silent, and visions had all but dried up, it is God’s call to Samuel which represents God’s continuing concern for his people. Hebrew history was long and bloody; it still is, and it has been joined by much more conflict and bloodshed in the history of Christianity and Islam, and other religions. Samuel represents the art of listening and discerning before acting. The call of God is insistent – three times Samuel heard the voice, but he was tentative and he waited until he understood. And so should all people of religious conviction.
But more than that, as Christians who have just celebrated the birth of the Word made flesh, we are no longer bound solely by Hebrew history. ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ asks Nathanael in today’s Gospel reading. Well, Nazareth may have been a town of little note or status, but the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’ Also, as we read at Christmas, Bethlehem was ‘…not least among the cities of Judah.’ The birth of Jesus, the Christian doctrine of incarnation, has once and for all made the world and our human condition the arena for God’s activity – the world and human lives, not merely the Church. This is not an easy lesson to learn for a Church which, for much of its history, told the world what was what, rather than meeting the world and its people as they actually are. Of course, the Church has a crucial part to play, but these seasons of Christmas and Epiphany – the incarnation and the manifestation of the Word made human – remind us God cannot be confined to religious institutions or tribal interests. So a dose of humility and an acknowledgement that we don’t have all the answers, could be far more constructive than any amount of religious superiority or dogma.
In Israel’s history, Samuel bridged a gap between old and new ways of looking at things. As a prophet, he had to say some things people would find it hard to hear. Now, we need Samuel’s ability to listen, an openness of mind, heart and spirit, and the gift of discernment, to see where we find today’s bridges between the old and the new. If we take incarnation seriously, we can expect, as the Church, to hear words of judgement and prophecy from many surprising places. Who knows, today’s prophets and visionaries might even include – among many others – Professor Richard Dawkins! One thing is for certain, though. Within the Church, and, just as importantly, outside it, one way or another, the word of the Lord is not rare, and neither are visions of how things could be.