God’s Call – It Isn’t What We Think

God’s Call – It Isn’t What We Think

As schools from the elementary through the graduate level are wrapping up their academic year, I thought I would begin this morning with a “true or false” quiz. So here goes:

True or false? Those who believe in and follow God are guaranteed to have financially prosperous lives and to be spared all suffering, heartache, and pain?

I hope it’s obvious to all who are here that the answer to this question is a resounding “false”! All of us should easily dismiss the lies and false promises provided by the so-called prosperity “gospel” which is really no Gospel, is no good news at all, but instead takes advantage of a desire on the part of some for a life of ease, assuming that this is something God somehow owes us. But what if the question I asked were this:

True or false? “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”

Is this true or false? And what if, further, you were asked to illustrate this caption, how would you do so? What picture would you choose? In other words, what would this wonderful plan evidencing God’s love look like? For doesn’t the truth or falsity of this statement depend upon how we define our terms? For that God is love is undeniable. As we learned when we were considering highlights from John’s first epistle,[1] this is a truth that is disclosed and confirmed throughout Scripture. As John testifies, “[Beloved], let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”[2] So there’s no question about the first half of the statement. But what about the second half? Does God have a “wonderful plan” for our lives? And what do we mean by “wonderful plan”? For if we define “wonderful plan” by saying that God will give us everything we think will make us happy, then we’re back to a version of the prosperity gospel.

The reason I’m asking this second “true or false” question is because though it may be easy for many of us to recognize the falsity of the first question that assumes a life of ease for those who know and love God, I do think that there’s a part of us that feels that if we do know the LORD, then we should be spared maybe not all but at least some of the suffering that is our lot as humans. After all, if we’ve given our lives over to loving and serving God, shouldn’t there be some compensation in terms of ease of life given all that we are giving up for God? I’ll return to this later but for the time being I’ll simply state that there is compensation for knowing and following Christ but it may be different than we think. And as I’ve mentioned before, as to the second question regarding God’s loving us and having a wonderful plan for us, a colleague once passed along to me an illustration with this caption placed beneath it. And the illustration was one of faithful Christians about to be martyred as they were being thrown to the lions in the Roman coliseum. Not exactly the “wonderful plan” most of us would choose, is it?

Well, this morning we’re going to begin a series highlighting various parts of 1st and 2nd Samuel that touch upon not only Samuel’s life but also those of Saul and David. Now back in January I preached a sermon on the first ten verses of 1 Samuel 3[3] and this morning we’re going to consider verses 10–21. If you’ll recall, the first ten verses record the LORD literally calling Samuel on three different occasions. Though Samuel had been serving Eli, the priest, at that time “Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”[4] And as the chapter opened we further learned that in the days in which “[t]he boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli….the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” But all of that was about to change. The reason I began this morning with a “true or false” quiz is because I want us to consider what our expectations of God and of our life as believers are in order that we might realize that there is often a disjuncture between what we think life should be and what Scripture teaches. For we often think that God is here to serve us whereas Scripture teaches that we have been created to know, love, and obey the God who made us in his image, who made us for himself, and we’re to follow him, come what may. And this truth is especially evident even in the first moments recorded in our passage after Samuel’s call from God.

After following Eli’s instructions and responding to the LORD’s calling by saying, “Speak, for your servant is listening” as recorded in verse 10, starting in verse 11 we learn the first sobering words the LORD said to Samuel. As we had read for us earlier, the LORD told Samuel:

See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.”

Think about it. This is the first task we have recorded for Samuel to execute following his call. Whereas we might tend to think of a call from God as something noble and exciting and exalted, the first thing Samuel was called to share was the LORD’s displeasure with the man under whom he had been serving. This was an awful lot to ask of “the boy Samuel”[5] who was probably around twelve years old or perhaps a little older.[6] Samuel was told by God to tell Eli not only about his displeasure with him but also about the destruction and judgment that would subsequently fall upon his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. This was a tall order for one who was called at such a young age.

Now the first mention we have of Eli’s sons occurs in verse 3 of the opening chapter. There we read how “Year after year [Elkanah, Samuel’s father] went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord.” But in chapter two we’re provided with information about their character—or, more accurately, about their lack of character. We’re told there that “Eli’s sons were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord.”[7] Specifically, they were taking advantage of the sacrifices others were offering to God, threatening to take these by force.[8] Therefore, “This sin of the young men was very great in the Lord’s sight, for they were treating the Lord’s offering with contempt.”[9] So though they were priests of God, they were priests who didn’t know God but instead were acting in ways that were contemptuous to the LORD in whose name they had been called to serve.

Further, in addition to abusing the sacrificial system, Eli’s sons were sleeping “with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” And further Eli, their father, knew about their wicked behavior for he had “heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel.”[10] And though Eli did speak to and even warned his sons about the consequences of such behavior, his sons didn’t listen to him.[11] But rather than insist that they behave according to their call, Eli did nothing further about their abominable actions.

Now though the word of the LORD was rare in those days, “a man of God came to Eli” and reminded him of his own call as priest reaching back to his “ancestor’s family when they were in Egypt under Pharaoh”[12] when the LORD chose his ancestor “out of all the tribes of Israel to be [his] priest, to go up to [his] altar, to burn incense, and to wear an ephod in [his] presence.”[13] So this man of God reminded Eli of the important role God’s priests had been called to carry out reaching back to the time of Moses. By this man Eli was directly confronted by the LORD who asked him, “Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?”[14] So it was that by this unnamed man of God the LORD pronounced judgment upon Eli and his family, eventually removing the priesthood from him,[15] and prophesying the following:

31 The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age, 32 and you will see distress in my dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, no one in your family line will ever reach old age. 33 Every one of you that I do not cut off from serving at my altar I will spare only to destroy your sight and sap your strength, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life. 34 And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you—they will both die on the same day.[16]

This back story is important because though at the time of his call Samuel may not have known that the LORD had pronounced judgment upon Eli and his sons, Eli himself had been told very specifically by God what would take place and why.

But, again, I think we often have an almost esoteric sense of what the LORD calling someone looks like in practice. Can you imagine being Samuel—a pre-teen or young teen—and having the first thing the LORD calls you to is to confirm that judgment will indeed come down upon the house of the man you had been serving under? For this is precisely what happened to Samuel. I’ll read again what the LORD told Samuel as summarized in verses 11–14,

See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.”

Though blaspheming God and abusing his people is serious for any person, this is especially serious when the person—or people, as in this instance—perpetrating the abuse are those who have been called to serve God as his ministers. This isn’t because some people are more important than others or that some vocations are more important than others for if even eating and drinking can be done to the glory of God,[17] then anything we do can and should be done for his glory. But abuses of this magnitude are especially serious when the people involved serve in certain vocations because given their vocation, those to whom they minister may be especially vulnerable and trusting of them—so we expect more not only priests and ministers but also of therapists and counselors and doctors and coaches and social workers and police officers and teachers to name but a few.

And when those who have been charged specifically with the care of God’s people abuse that privilege in the way in which Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas did, then wrath and outrage, whether of the LORD or of others, is certainly an appropriate response. Appropriate, too, is the judgment that falls upon Eli, father of Hophni and Phinehas, for his attempts to stop his sons were too half-hearted. Being a priest of the LORD himself, Eli should have known better than to simply rebuke his sons. He should have taken stronger steps to actually remove his sons from the priesthood that their abuse of God’s people might cease. And for not doing so, he, too, became the recipient of God’s wrath. For at the end of the day, God’s wrath is a good thing. God’s wrath is his holiness, his love for his creation, his making things right put into action. God’s wrath and the subsequent judgment upon Eli and his sons were the means by which he did away with a particular evil and abuse among Israel, his chosen nation. And because Eli had condoned the sin of his sons rather than confronting and restraining it, no sacrifice or offering would atone be permitted to atone for such evil and abuse.

As to Samuel, we can only imagine what he made of this initial revelation, this initial communication from the LORD. But in verse 15 we’re provided a glimpse as we’re told how afterwards “Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord” being “afraid to tell Eli the vision.” And of course he was afraid! He was but a child and the LORD had come to him during a time when his word and visions were rare among with his people and had told him to bring a message of severe judgment upon Eli under whom he had been serving and for whom he probably felt some level of affection and loyalty. Again, who wouldn’t be afraid?

Now Eli, having correctly deduced earlier that it was the LORD who had been calling out to Samuel, now desired to know what it was the LORD had said to him. As we read starting in verse 16 Eli called Samuel, his son, and Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And having had the earlier encounter with the man of God, Eli no doubt suspected some of the content of what the LORD had said to Samuel and he wanted to make sure Samuel didn’t hold anything back. So he asked, “What was it he said to you?…Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.” So Samuel complied and “told him everything, hiding nothing from him.” After hearing Samuel’s report, Eli responded by accepting his fate according to what Samuel had passed along from God, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.” Eli, a man who had served as God’s priest for his entire life, knew that submitting to God’s will was his only recourse.

So by way of the LORD’s literally calling Samuel, the word of the LORD had now returned to Israel through him. As we read in verse 19, “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground.” That none of Samuel’s words fell to the ground is another way of saying that he was a true prophet, that all that the LORD had him prophesy did indeed come to pass. This is the case wherever God’s Word is proclaimed truly. As later echoed by Isaiah the prophet through whom the LORD similarly spoke, “10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”[18] So by means of the LORD calling Samuel as his prophet, all of Israel from Dan to Beersheba—which is a way of identifying the limits of Israel to the north and south respectively—was once again refreshed as it acknowledged and embraced Samuel as the LORD’s mouthpiece and spokesman.

And in the very next chapter in 1 Samuel we learn that the judgment against Eli and his family that the LORD had announced to Samuel was indeed carried out. After Israel lost a battle against their ever-present enemies, the Philistines, we’re told, “The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.”[19] Eli, who was ninety-eight at this time, heard about what had happened from a man from the tribe of Benjamin. And “[w]hen he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and he was heavy. He had led Israel forty years.”[20] And with this, the judgment upon Eli and his sons was completed.

So would you like to be called by the LORD as Samuel was called? Would you like to have to tell someone under whom you had been serving that judgment would come upon him and his sons? This isn’t quite in sync with our romantic view of what comprises a call, is it? Now fortunately for us we no longer live in a time when God needs to call any prophets for we are living after God’s words to his people have been recorded for us in the Old Testament and have been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. So we now have his Word in both the Old and New Testament that we might know his will and follow in his ways. Not only that but we are living in a time after which Christ has come and begun to establish his Kingdom reign by means of his Holy Spirit whom he has sent us, his Church and Holy Temple. So there is no longer a need for God to call prophets because in his Son, he sent us the ultimate Prophet—and Priest—and King, Messiah Jesus, Jesus the Christ. And when Jesus ascended to heaven, he sent his Holy Spirit by whom we have been sealed as a deposit and guarantee that we belong to God[21] and who now dwells in and among us[22] as God once filled his earthly temple;

And by his Spirit’s indwelling, we are united not only to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but also to one another. For together we are children of our heavenly Father and sisters and brothers to each other now and forever.

So what does all of this mean in regard to our earlier question?

True or false? “Does God love us and have a wonderful plan for our lives?” Again, viewed in the light of God’s communication to us in Scripture and in his Son, the answer is “yes” though with the qualification that the “wonderful plan” is to be found solely in his Son. For if I were asked to illustrate this truth with a caption, rather than portray Christian martyrs being thrown to the lions, I think I might go with a triptych, or three-fold panels that were connect to one another in line:

In the first I would portray the eternal Christ who entered the world in the person of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist and acknowledged as God’s Son and the promised Messiah by the Father and Holy Spirit;

in the second I would portray the God-man Jesus Christ hanging on the cross;

and in the third I would portray Pentecost, the fulfillment of Christ’s Incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension who now continues his ministry on earth by sending his Holy Spirit to indwell his Church, his living Temple, his people.

For the ultimate compensation for following Christ is that we are all called—we are called to know and love him not only now but forever, no matter what the circumstances. Though our earthly lives can often be a struggle and no one is spared the suffering and evil that resulted on earth due to the Fall, we can nonetheless know the eternal love and sustenance of our gracious LORD and through each other in the midst of those struggles. And so I’ll close with what followed John’s statement about God being love, namely:

9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.[23]

Let us pray.

[1] See sermon preached on April 29, 2018, Love—A Proof of God’s Existence, 1 John 4:7–21.

[2] 1 John 4:7–8.

[3] See Sermon preached on January 14, 2018, Seeing Dimly, Hearing Clearly, 1 Samuel 3:1–10.

[4] 1 Samuel 3:7.

[5] 1 Samuel 1:1.

[6] NIV Study Bible note on 1 Samuel 3:1: “The Jewish historian Josephus places is age at 12 years; he may have been older.”

[7] 1 Samuel 2:12.

[8] 1 Samuel 2:13–16: 13 Now it was the practice of the priests that, whenever any of the people offered a sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand while the meat was being boiled 14 and would plunge the fork into the pan or kettle or caldron or pot. Whatever the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh. 15 But even before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the person who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.” 16 If the person said to him, “Let the fat be burned first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.”

[9] 1 Samuel 2:17.

[10] 1 Samuel 2:22.

[11] 1 Samuel 2:23–25: 23 So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. 24 No, my sons; the report I hear spreading among the Lord’s people is not good. 25 If one person sins against another, God may mediate for the offender; but if anyone sins against the Lord, who will intercede for them?” His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death.

[12] 1 Samuel 2:27.

[13] 1 Samuel 2:28.

[14] 1 Samuel 2:29.

[15] 1 Samuel 2:30: Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: “I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.” But now the Lord declares: “Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.”

[16] 1 Samuel 2:31–34.

[17] 1 Corinthians 10:31: So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

[18] Isaiah 55:10–11.

[19] 1 Samuel 4:11.

[20] 1 Samuel 4:18.

[21] Ephesians 1:13–14: 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.; 2 Corinthians 5:5: Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

[22] 2 Timothy 1:14: Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.; I Corinthians 6:19–20: 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

[23] 1 John 4:9–12.

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