The Word of the Lord was Rare in Those Days

Second Sunday After the Epiphany/Lectionary 2
January 18, 2009
1 Samuel 3:1-20

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you, from Jesus Christ, the light and life of the world.  Amen.

The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
So we hear at the outset of our reading from 1 Samuel,
    the popular tale of the call of the great prophet who would in time anoint Saul
        and David as kings of Israel, creating a monarchy and a kingdom
        for a people who had only ever known the LORD as king.
But think about that for a moment . . .
    if these are a people who owed their direction, identity, and existence to the LORD . . .
    the scarcity of the LORD’s word must have been
        a disheartening, disorienting, depressive experience.
The word of the LORD was rare . . . if we keep reading in those first few verses,
    we read that even the vision of the Lord’s prophet, Eli, was dim at best.
In the prior chapter we read that Eli’s sons,
    charged with maintaining the all-important cultic sacrifices,
    were abusing their position and disgracing God . . .
A largely silent LORD . . . a prophet with no vision . . . a corrupt priestly order . . .
    this paints a picture of a dismal time, not much hope.
The word of the LORD was rare in those days.

Good economic news is rare these days.
My father and my brother work together as land developers who,
    in good economic times,
    design and construct neo-traditional communities of Victorian-style homes –
    smaller homes with front porches situated on smaller lots,
    in neighborhoods lined with sidewalks and marked by open spaces for community use,
        perhaps a Main Street with shopping . . .
These types of communities were beginning to really catch on
    in the late 1990 and in the early 2000s . . .
That’s when my brother moved back East from San Francisco and joined my father’s business
    as Vice President.
And even as the economy struggled through a slow-down prior to 9/11,
    business was not terrible. 
My dad and my brother got to work,
    investing time and money in the years-long process of making deals
        with land owners and banks,
    negotiating with local governments to get zoning clearances,
    and otherwise drawing up the blueprints for several dynamic,
        traditional design communities.
But you know the story . . . 9/11, Enron . . . wars, deficits . . .
    market corrections and crashes . . . subprime equity loans . . .
The housing market tanked. 
The Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times . . .
They’re all telling us the same thing – this is the worst housing market,
    the worst economy,
    since the Great Depression.
Nobody is buying houses.
So rather than close deals on thousand-unit mixed-use developments,
    my brother finds himself repeating a lay off speech too many times . . .
    all the while watching once-secure investments dip,
        and once-stead income fluctuate downward.
    My dad and my brother are working harder than ever
        for less return than ever,
        simply to stay afloat.
It’s a story that can be told again and again . . . by people throughout our land,
    in our neighborhoods, indeed, in our pews.
Good economic news is rare these days.
In those days, the word of the LORD was rare.

Good news is rare in Gaza and Israel these days,
    where over 1000 have died in Gaza and where it is increasingly apparent
    that no military solution will stop the crude yet persistent and dangerous rocket fire
        from Gaza into southern Israel.
Good news is rare in Gaza and Israel.
    From the inadequate governing regime in Gaza which, in many respects,
        holds its people hostage as it maintains
        a haughty and hostile posture toward Israel;
    to the limited lines of communication, commerce and opportunity
        available to the people of Gaza owing to factors local, regional, and global;
    to the inability of southern Israelis to feel safe in their homes
        from either rocket fire or suicide bombers . . .
Good news is rare in Gaza and Israel these days . . .
In those days, the word of the LORD was rare.

The word of the LORD was rare.
If these words weren’t written in Holy Scripture,
    taken straight from the pages of 1 Samuel,
    I could easily be accused of blasphemy by some sectors of the church
        for suggesting with these words that God was absent for a bit.
The word of the LORD – prophesies, laws, judgements, theophanies,
    manifestations of the divine will, anything from the LORD! – was rare!
This is something that we don’t entirely understand any longer . . .
In our instant gratification, on-demand world
    we can always get what we want, when we want it.
TV shows and movies are available for download on your mobile phone wherever you are,
    any time of day or night.
Want to self diagnose that odd itch in the middle of the night?
    Who needs to wait for the doctor’s office or the library to open?
    Go online, get the answer . . . now!
But in those days, in a different day, the word of the Lord was rare.
Oh how this riles not only our instant-gratification addiction,
    but moreover it violates our sense of God’s omnipresence,
        of God’s 24/7 accessibility.
We learn in Sunday School that God is always with us,
    that God is always there, like a friend, never absent.
But this story tells us . . . The word of the LORD was rare in those days.
What does this mean? 
What could it be like to live in a time when the word of the LORD was rare?

We can probably learn by analogy from those
    who are struggling and staggering in this economy –
    from my dad and brother, for sure.
But even more, those whose livelihood depended upon the sale
    of suddenly outmoded and unwanted vehicles.
Or more, those who stand in the growing lines at organizations such as the
    Arlington Food Assistance Center, or AFAC as it is commonly called,
    organizations whose budgets are straining as charitable donations decrease
        while need dramatically increases.
Or we can take a lesson from those who suffer in Gaza and Israel,
    unable to attain peace, living in fear of modern warships and crude rockets,
        mutual suspicion tearing at the patchwork fabric that, for better or worse,
        is the eastern Mediterranean . . .
    on both sides of that barrier we can get a sense of what it might be like
        for the word of the LORD to be rare . .
.

The word of the LORD was rare
    for a people who fed on that Word for sustenance and fulfillment.
The word of the LORD was rare.

Yet . . . in verse three we read,
    the lamp of God had not yet gone out.
Amidst this spiritual darkness, the lamp, the light of God had not gone out.
Light in the darkness.
Epiphany is a Christian festival of light, of God’s light, breaking into the darkness.
Historically Epiphany is connected with the arrival of the Magi in the darkness of night,
    guided by a bright-burning star,
    to bring gifts to the infant Jesus.
It is also at the start of Epiphany when the church recalls the Baptism of our Lord,
    as we did last Sunday,
    an occasion marked by the lighting of the Paschal Candle,
        recalling the candles we light at baptisms and baptismal anniversaries.
Two Sundays ago we were reminded that in the incarnation of the Lord
    the Word of God became flesh and lived among us,
    and this Word was the life and light of all peoples.
And so, in this season of light breaking into darkness,
    it is appropriate that we hear of a time when the Word of the LORD was rare,
    when a spiritual darkness covered the land.
Set in this context, read in this season,
    we hear these verses from 1 Samuel with new and deeper meaning:
    The word of the LORD was rare . . . but the lamp of God had not yet gone out.
It was dark, yes, but not pitch black.
It was bleak, yes, but not entirely hopeless.

The LORD remained faithful to his people,
    and called for them a new prophet.
And the word of the Lord was no longer rare, but abundant.
Yet when this word arrived, when it was first delivered to Samuel,
    it was a word that was like fire, to steal a line from the prophet Jeremiah,
    like a controlled fire used by agrarian communities to prepare for a new harvest,
        a new crop, a new yield.
The first word of the Lord, after a period of silence,
    was a word that removed the long-standing prophet from his privileged place
    and set apart a new prophet,
    a prophet whose work and words would dramatically change the course
        of Israel’s history.
That is to say, this Word of the LORD that came to Samuel after a long drought,
    shook things up . . . created a sort of correction to the way things had been done.
When the Word of the Lord returned to God’s people,
    it was not exactly as it had been before;
    instead, it initiates a new era,
        one that would be hopeful for many, troubling for some.
Indeed, verses 11-14, with their words of judgment and punishment for Eli and his house,
    seem disagreeable and harsh . . . but also teach us an important lesson –
    that the journey to new life involves pain, loss, and death.
We understand baptism as a drowning of the old self
    and the rebirth of the new.
In holy communion we come to feast on the body and blood of our Lord
    who sacrificed himself, gave himself up, so that all might have life.
New life comes to us only after death.
And so, in this story from 1 Samuel today,
    we see both the spiritual darkness and the pain, loss, and death . . .
But too in this reading we have reason for hope,
    we have signs of new life.
The lamp of God did not burn out, but the light persisted in the darkness.
The Word of the Lord, which had been rare,
    came upon a new servant, a new prophet,
    who spoke the Lords word and renewed a people cloaked in darkness.

I don’t know what kind of hope might come, what kind of new light might shine,
    or what kind of new Word might be spoken to bring about
    new life in our economy, in Gaza, in Israel.
But I imagine that whatever newness comes to these realities,
    it will be a newness that is not entirely settling or comfortable for everyone involved.
The old ways of doing business, of waging war, of playing the geo-political game will die,
    will be transformed, and will be renewed.
May all who struggle and suffer in these days take comfort in the experience of the people Israel,
    who in the midst of a spiritual darkness
    were sustained by a light . . .
        and renewed by a God who wouldn’t stay silent,
        whose light wouldn’t be extinguished,
        whose work of building up the people of God was not done.
And so too on this day, when we’ll gather for our congregation’s Annual Meeting . . .
As we look at numbers and discuss our past, our present, and our future,
    I believe that we are a congregation sustained by a light of God calling us to new life.
    But, in calling us to new life,
        God invites us – individually, as a congregation, as committees and ministries –
        to die, for it is in death that we find life.

Dear friends . . . the lamp of God did not go out.
    The Word of the Lord did not remain silent.
    The people of Israel were renewed.
So too with us . . . the light of God continues to shine in the darkness,
    the Word of the Lord is not silent but vibrant,
    and the people of God, gathered here and throughout the world, are renewed.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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