This week in worship, as we continue our 66-week journey through the Bible, Pastor Doug shares from 1 Samuel, where Eli and Samuel remind us to be open to hearing from God all the time.
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Is It an Interruption or a Divine Appointment?
One of the fun things for me about our journey through all 66 books of the Bible is reading about some of my favorite people. Many of the characters we encounter in the pages of the Bible, we see only for a moment, or only at one time in their life. Samuel is that rare person we learn about from before he is born, to childhood, mature adulthood to the very end of his life. In the book that bears his name (which reflects his great impact and influence) we learn about his family before he is conceived, about his early childhood and we read about his rise to prominence as a prophet and leader in Israel.
Samuel’s mother, Hannah, follows in the line of formerly barren women who later in life give birth to a child of importance upon whom the favor of God rests. Before Hannah are Sarah (Genesis 17.16-19), Rebekah (Gen. 25.21-26), Rachel (Gen. 29.31;30.22-24), and the mother of Samson (Judges13.2-5).
In the Gospel of Luke, we see this pattern continue with Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1.5-17).
Samuel’s mother Hannah was the second wife of a man named Elkanah. Bigamy was prevalent enough in Old Testament times that we read about it involving several key figures, including Jacob, Samuel, David, and Solomon so keep that in mind when you say you believe in Biblical family values!
Hannah prays fervently for a child and her prayer is answered. Her prayer of thanksgiving in 1 Samuel 2.1-10 is the model for the better-known prayer of Mary in Luke 1.46-55.
It seems like the beautiful stories of the birth and childhood of Samuel were in the mind of Luke as he wrote the first two chapters of his gospel. If you’ve never looked closely at the prayers of the two women to see the similarities, I think you will find it enlightening. Often, we don’t realize how much the New Testament is built upon the foundation of the Hebrew Bible.
Hannah prayed that if God gave her a son that she would give him to the Lord’s service and she is true to her word so after wanting and praying for a child for years she gives up her son so that he will be raised to be a priest serving the Lord and God’s people.
How do you think she felt doing that?
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve ever given away? Why did you do it?
Can you imagine the emotion and poignancy when once a year Hannah would make her little son a robe and bring it when she and her husband came to make their annual sacrifice?
1 Samuel 2:26 says, “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” Luke uses very similar language to describe the growth of John the Baptist and Jesus (see Luke 1.80 and 2:52).
This brings us to 1 Samuel 3:1-10,
“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.
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.
Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!”
Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
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.’”
So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!”
And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
The word of the Lord was rare in Samuel’s day, visions were not widespread.
The people had not heard from the Lord.
In 1 Samuel 3 it’s also the darkest time of the night.
We know this because the lamp of the Lord, a flame that burned pure olive oil in the tent of meeting where the Ark of the Covenant was kept (yes, that ark for you Indiana Jones fans) had not yet gone out. The lamp was tended by the sons of Aaron, the priests, from evening to morning.
In most cases, working third shift usually falls to those with the least seniority. The rookies are the ones who get stuck when the shifts are bid. That’s also the case here, Eli, the old priest, is in his room asleep. Samuel is “ministering before the Lord,” which is a spiritual way of saying it was his responsibility to make sure the lamp didn’t go out during the night.
In many ways, this is a story about interrupted sleep.
It’s a story about an older man who is trying to sleep but keeps having his rest disturbed by a 12-year-old who comes into his room three times in the middle of the night. This is a topic some of you may feel qualified to preach on based on personal experience.
There are perhaps few circumstances in life in which our thoughts fly faster to our lips than when someone wakes us up in the middle of the night, but not many. “I’m hungry.” “That’s why I told you to eat your dinner.” “I’m thirsty…” “I can’t sleep, I’m too hot. I had a bad dream.”
While no one likes being awakened in the middle of the night, we understand these things happen. However, it’s not a pretty sight to wake up a man in the middle of the night to tell him he did something he knows he didn’t do. When Samuel shows up saying, “Here I am, for you called me!” Eli, due to his spiritual maturity or perhaps his drowsy state simply tells Samuel to go back and lie down. Eli probably went back to sleep muttering, “I can’t believe this kid keeps waking me up. I’m not going to be able to function in the morning.”
But Eli is not the only one having someone call him and interrupt his sleep. Samuel is lying down. I don’t know if he was asleep on the job but if he wasn’t he must have been close. Samuel is respectful in his response to the older priest.
Sometimes when we’re young, we can become impatient with those who are older as their physical capacities diminish.
A typical 12-year-old boy might have thought to himself, “The poor old man, not only can’t he see, now he’s losing his hearing. I know I heard something. Just because he’s lived five or six times longer than I have, what does he know?”
So, there are two confused, frustrated people, hearing voices in the night, tired of being interrupted. Most of us don’t like being interrupted when we’re trying to do something. However, if this story teaches us anything, it teaches us that interruptions can be divine appointments.
I went to pray with 101-year-old Muffy Freeman and her family on Wednesday. I was grateful to be able to be there and to share some personal words with her and to pray that the Lord would welcome her to her eternal home, which happened the next morning.
I left Muffy’s to head home and pick up Jill to go to our next commitment which was in North Truro. I was concerned about time and surprised that the traffic in Yarmouth Port was backed up on 6A east bound. When I was able to turn on the road and follow the traffic east bound everyone was pulling around a stalled car blocking the lane.
As I drove by, I noticed it was an older car with a woman older than me in the driver’s seat and she looked forlorn and wasn’t on a cell phone. I pulled over and ran back to her car to ask if she needed help. Her battery had died. I asked if she’d mind if I reached in and put her hazard lights on so people could see more easily that she was stopped. I ran down the street to a service station that was less than 100 yards away and asked if they could help, then I called the Yarmouth Police and told them the situation and asked if they could send a cruiser.
I ran back down to where the woman was, and another man pulled over just before I got there. Together we pushed the car out of the road, so it was no longer in the road, and it was safer. I thanked him and told him I’d wait until the police arrived.
I listened to the woman share some of her story, told her my name and gave her my card. A nice police officer arrived a few minutes later and called a tow truck and I thanked him, and he thanked me, and I went on my way.
It didn’t occur to me at that moment, it was only when I was creating questions for this sermon that I realized I had just had an interruption to my day and plans that I believe God used as a divine appointment so I could be of some help to a woman in need.
Almost anything in our day can be a divine appointment and not just an interruption or an irritation.
One time I attended a pastor’s retreat at the Craigville Conference Center. It was billed as a time to get away from our busy schedules and the activity and noise of church life to spend time quietly listening to God in prayer.
Sixteen of us were gathered in a big room in one of the houses. The leader had just finished some introductory remarks about how we were going to proceed through these quiet hours of contemplation.
From where I sat, I could see out the windows to the end of the porch. Just as we were getting ready to begin praying, two workmen, one with a crowbar and the other carrying a large hammer, arrived on the end of the porch with the clear intent of ripping out an old door frame, and the surrounding shingles.
As they got ready to begin, unseen by everyone else, I walked over to one of the organizers who was seated with his back to the porch and suggested he might want to go talk to these guys who were about to shatter the quiet, contemplative atmosphere literally with a bang.
The noise commenced, startling several folks, but the facilitator went out and returned saying the men were leaving for now, but they would be back at four o’clock. A few comments were made about why, since we were the only group at the Conference Center, this work had to happen today.
Then someone made the comment that it was interesting that we had come to listen to God and God had sent two workmen to begin the symbolic work of ripping out an old entryway and constructing a new one.
Perhaps the Lord was telling us through this interruption to look at our own lives and how we let God in or shut God out. Maybe we needed to be open to God entering our lives and speaking to us in new ways.
That interruption and word was the most insightful part of the whole retreat and I think it’s especially true with everything we continue to experience today.
Interruptions can be divine appointments if we keep our ears and our eyes open to God speaking to us.
When you picture people listening to God, you may imagine being on a retreat or seeking to carve out a few quiet moments to sit and contemplate the ocean, to read, pray, worship, or journal. However, it’s also important to develop your sensitivity to the voice of God calling to you in all the events of your daily routine and life, even and often especially in what you think are interruptions or disturbances.
When you read the Bible, you see that many of the most significant spiritual experiences are interruptions.
Moses is on the job taking care of sheep when he sees a burning bush that is not consumed, and he turns aside, and God speaks to him. Interruption.
Luke tells us shepherds were working, doing their jobs out in the fields when, suddenly, divine interruption.
Saul is on the road to Damascus, he has his own plans when, suddenly divine interruption.
Often God must interrupt you to get your attention.
Eli was an old priest and though his sons were corrupt and lacking in integrity, he was trying to be faithful. Eli knew about prayer and listening to God. He may not have done well raising his sons, but he wasn’t about to mess up this last chance with Samuel.
In his book, Prayer and Praying Men, E.M. Bounds describes Samuel this way,
“Samuel came into this world and was given existence in direct answer to prayer. He was born of a praying mother, whose heart was full of earnest desire for a son. This praying mother put him directly in touch with the minister of the sanctuary and under the influence of the house of prayer. He was in a favorable place to hear God when he spoke to him.”
But young Samuel didn’t know the Lord and the Lord had never spoken to him before, so he is hearing but he doesn’t understand what is happening. Eli doesn’t hear or understand what is going on either.
God however is persistent in trying to communicate with us so when Samuel interrupts Eli the third time saying, “Here I am for you called me.” The sleepy older man finally realizes this is not a child’s dream but a divine encounter.
Have you ever had the experience in your life of having to learn the same lesson over and over until you got it right?
Have you ever prayed for patience and then had one of the worst days having to wait everywhere you went?
Have you ever prayed for God to make you more loving only to find yourself dealing with individuals or circumstances that made you feel more like screaming than loving?
Like Samuel, has God ever had to tell you something more than once to get you to listen? I suspect you have lots of company!
What do you learn from the story of young Samuel for your relationship with God? Interruptions can be divine appointments.
Eli and Samuel remind us to be open to hearing from God all the time. Samuel demonstrates the response God desires from all of us, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
We are all called to be servants of God. Samuel’s attitude was one of submission and willingness to serve. Even though the message he received was a difficult one he did not shrink from sharing it with Eli. He invited God to speak to him, listened, and then acted on what he was told.
God desires to communicate with each one of us.
When we were in Maine with my dad, we went to his favorite Chinese restaurant Panda Garden. At the end of the meal of course you get a fortune cookie which is opened in great anticipation of the keen insight and prophetic knowledge about your life and future that will be revealed. Okay, maybe not. But there is a part of us that wants to hear from God.
Can you be open to hearing God speak to you through the interruptions and disturbances in your life that upset your plans and schedule? Might God speak to you in the night through your dreams? We will see in two weeks that this happened to Solomon. Perhaps God must first get your attention so that God’s word gets through to you. Can you open new entry ways into your heart and life so God may come in?
Samuel responded to the Lord and served faithfully and with integrity for the rest of his life, even though people disappointed him by their lack of faithfulness.
The final scripture from 1 Samuel 12:19-25 reveals Samuel as an older man, heartbroken by the people’s desire for a king instead of following and serving the Lord. Samuel has been the nation’s leader in every sense of the word. Regardless of his faith and integrity, the people had rejected God as their king and longed for a human king like their neighbors. Samuel felt they had rejected him as well.
“All the people said to Samuel, “Pray to the LORD your God for your servants, so that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins the evil of demanding a king for ourselves.” And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless. For the LORD will not cast away his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. Moreover as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. Only fear the LORD, and serve him faithfully with all your heart; for consider what great things he has done for you. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.”
There are at least four significant things we learn from Samuel that are beneficial for us to emulate. Samuel learned that Interruptions can be divine appointments.
Samuel listened to God’s word and obeyed it.
He was a man of prayer who invested his life instructing and teaching others how to live God’s way.
Samuel also served the Lord faithfully, remembering all that the Lord had done for him.
Each of us in our own way can seek to do these things as well as we pursue lives that are marked by integrity and faith.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- Hannah prayed that if God gave her a son that she would give him to the Lord’s service and she did. How do you think she felt doing that? What is the most valuable thing you’ve ever given away? Why did you do it?
- How do you feel when your sleep is interrupted? When has that happened in your life?
- Have you had the experience of an “interruption,” something you didn’t anticipate or plan on that God used to get your attention; perhaps changing your day or being an opportunity to hear from God, to share God’s love in a practical way, or to offer a word of encouragement? What happened?
- Have you ever “heard” the Lord speaking to you? What form did that take – a voice? An inner knowing? The sudden clarity or assurance of a new thought? A dream? Through the Bible or other devotional literature or a sermon or the insight of another believer?
- Why is it important to be open to hearing from God all the time, wherever we are, and not just when we’re participating in worship, reading the Bible, and praying?
- Samuel listened to God’s word and obeyed it. His response to the Lord was one of submission and a willingness to serve with faithfulness and integrity, like his mother. Can you think of a step you can take to incorporate some of these qualities more fully in your life?