First Sunday after Christmas 12/27

from the book
Preaching and Reading the Old Testament Lessons:
With an Eye to the New

Elizabeth Achtemeier

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There are times in the life of the world or of a nation when one individual changes the whole course of history. Perhaps we might say that such a change occurred when the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. Certainly we could agree that Martin Luther introduced an entirely new era when his actions initiated the Protestant reformation. And we might say that Mahatma Gandhi began the fall of the British Empire, or that Gorbachev began the dissolution of Soviet communism. Great sea changes in world history cluster around some individual.

The same is no less true in the biblical history. When Moses gave up his life as a common shepherd and went back to Egypt to demand that Pharaoh Rameses II let the enslaved Hebrews go, a new nation was born. When Elijah the prophet rose up in the tenth century B.C., to begin a prophetic revolution against Canaanite idolatry, a whole royal dynasty was toppled. And when Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem and died on a cross and was raised, time was split forever into B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno Domini), the year of our Lord.

In that biblical history, however, was also another figure — that of Samuel, of whose boyhood we heard in our text. Samuel’s mother had been barren and desperately wanted a son, and she vowed to the Lord that if the Lord would give her a son, she would dedicate the child to God’s service in the sanctuary. So we find the boy Samuel “ministering before the Lord,” says verse 18 in our text, helping the aged priest Eli with his duties at Israel’s central sanctuary of Shiloh.

We must not think that Samuel’s parents had abandoned him. Every year when his mother Hannah and his father Elkanah made a pilgrimage to Shiloh to worship the Lord, Hannah took along a new robe that she had made to give to the growing boy. Always Samuel was in her thoughts, as she stitched and embroidered that special robe. And every year she lovingly garbed her son anew.

But Samuel is a special child, dedicated to God from the beginning, growing up in the sanctuary of God, serving in the worship of the Lord, learning the traditions of Israel’s faith from his childhood on. Indeed, the figure of Samuel marks a turning point in Israel’s history.

After their settlement in Canaan, Israel had formed a loose confederation of twelve tribes, centered around a central sanctuary that was located first at Shechem and then Gilgal and finally Shiloh. At that central sanctuary was the ark of the covenant, which was thought of as the base of the throne of the invisible God, who was enthroned above it. Thus, God was present in the midst of his people, and every year, the Israelites assembled at Shiloh to worship the Lord and to renew their covenant with him. Eli and his sons served as Levitical priests at the sanctuary, while the leadership of the tribes was in the hands of those whom we call Judges.

As we read the story of Samuel, however, it becomes clear that Eli is aged and inept, while his priestly sons are corrupt. And so as he is wont to do, God raises up a new figure to serve not only as priest but also as judge and prophet for Israel. God raises up Samuel, and Samuel is the transition figure between the time of the tribal federation in Israel and the beginning of the monarchy under Saul.

In our text, Samuel is already clothed with the priestly ephod. And as his story progresses he becomes the prophet who mediates the word of the Lord to Israel, as well as the leader who acts as judge over the people. Samuel combines in his person the offices of priest, prophet, and judge. It is no wonder therefore that the words said of Samuel in verse 26 are also the words used to describe the boy Jesus in Luke 2:52. Samuel grows in stature and in favor with God and with the people, just as Jesus grows, who is to become the final Prophet, Priest, and King over all. Samuel is understood as a forerunner, as a foreshadowing of our Lord, as a decisive figure in the history of God’s chosen people. God works through centuries to fulfill his plan of salvation.

Samuel grew in stature, which simply means he grew taller, as every child grows taller. We sometimes get the impression that characters in the Bible are not real people. But Samuel was a real human boy, as Jesus was a real human boy. They both grew in height, and Samuel’s mother had to keep making a new robe for him every year. As we know all too well, children have a way of growing out of their clothes.

But Samuel also grew in favor with the Lord, as is said also of Jesus, and I wonder if that is a word, not only about Samuel and Jesus, but also about us. Do you, year by year, grow in favor with the Lord?

There is a doctrine in the Christian Church that our age has almost forgotten. It is called the doctrine of sanctification, and what it signifies is our continual growth in goodness and obedience and trust in God. The scriptures tell us that the Christian life is never a static state of being. It is a growth, a progress toward maturity in Christ. We are to grow up into mature manhood or womanhood, says the letter to the Ephesians, up into the measure of the fullness of the stature of Christ. In other words, every day and every year, we are to become more like Jesus. In fact, the Apostle Paul tells us that is what God is trying to do in our lives. By the work of the Spirit, Paul tells the Corinthians, God is changing us into the likeness of Christ, from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18).

We rarely think about that. In our society, who wants to be good anymore? We have all sorts of goals. We want to be successful or slim or self-assertive or rich or beautiful, but good? Do you want to be good? Do you want to be a woman of God or a man of God? Is that the image that you want other people to have of you? Do you want to be known for your love of your neighbors and for your love of God?

Yes, deep down inside of us, we all want that. We all want to be like Jesus. We sing, “Lord, I want to be like Jesus, in’a my heart, in’a my heart.” And from our text, we could add, “Lord, I want to be like Samuel.” But that takes work, doesn’t it? It takes what we call Christian discipline. Growing up into the measure of the fullness of the stature of Christ, or even of Samuel, is not a matter of just floating down the stream of grace. No. It’s a matter of daily and consistent prayer, a matter of careful study of the scripture, a matter of regular worship and of willful practice and service in our everyday lives. Growing up into Christian maturity is a matter of getting out of bed every morning and praying, “Lord, enable me by your Spirit to do your will this day and to grow in knowledge and love of you,” and then bending mind and heart and strength and will to walk the Christian way.

Samuel grew in favor with the Lord. May we follow his example.

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