Just a couple of mornings ago my daughter Sarah Grace looked at me at the breakfast table and said, “Daddy, yesterday was a hard day, and today is going to be a hard day too.” Unfortunately for those in our house, it turns out she’s a little bit of a prophet, and couldn’t have been more right! Life is hard.
This past week we announced that we’re officially offering counseling at Christ Church provided by our Therapist-in-Residence Ethan Richardson. As Ethan put it in his written announcement, “no matter who you are, life is hard”. No matter who you are, you will or you already have experienced a time when life has felt a little darker than you would have liked, when it feels like your life or your world is a bit of a mess, when hope and joy are difficult to come by. And yet, what we see in our reading from First Samuel, and throughout all of scripture, is God speaking to us in the midst of our troubles and giving us his word of grace, like a loving father assuring us that he will take care of us, no matter what.
This reading today is a powerful one. It comes from a time in Israel’s history that was pretty messy. It was a time of transition between the trying days of the Judges and Israel eventually finding itself a king. And today we see the calling of the young prophet Samuel, who was left by his mother Hannah at the Tabernacle to be raised by the priests. Samuel became a sort of acolyte to the rather ineffectual old priest Eli, and we see the two of them sleeping while they’re meant to be keeping watch of tabernacle one night. The verse that sets the whole scene and first caught my eye this week is the very first verse where it says “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” And yet, this is followed by the message that despite this time of difficulty and what feels like spiritual dryness, despite all of that, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” God was still with them, speaking into that darkness and speaking a word of grace, unexpectedly calling the young and inexperienced Samuel to service at a dark and unexpected time. God doesn’t proclaim that Samuel has somehow earned this call, or that he himself is the light in the darkness, instead God’s call to Samuel is itself a word of grace. His call is, as I said a moment ago, the call of a father to a son, saying loudly and faithfully, “I am here with you, no matter what.”
There is a pretty incredible documentary about Tiger Woods that just came out this week on HBO. Only the first half of it has been released, but so far it’s mainly focused on the relationship between Tiger Woods and his father Earl. The opening scene of the movie shows Earl addressing a crowd at a college award banquet for Tiger in 1996. With Tiger sitting next to his father, looking exhausted and sad for someone receiving an award. Earl says this:
“Please forgive me, but sometimes, I get very emotional when I talk about my son. My heart fills with so much joy when I realize that this young man is going to help so many people. He will transcend this game and bring to this world a humanitarianism which has never been known before. The world will be a better place to live in by virtue of his existence and his presence. This is my treasure. Please accept it and use it wisely.”
The weight of these words and this life and this documentary are powerfully conveyed to you right out of the gates, because while you’re hearing Earl Woods’ voice giving this speech about Tiger the film rolls out videos of Tiger playing as a child, and as a younger man. And then as Earl’s words about and to his son, his words of power and pride and sadly idolatry, words that no one on earth could possibly ever live up to, as they reach their climax, the image you’re seeing is footage from a police station, and Tiger Woods stepping into place for his mugshot.
Tiger says himself, later on, that those were just words of a father full of pride and love for his son. And in some masterstroke the documentary eventually leads you to a place of having compassion for Earl himself, as well as Tiger. But as is the case with all of our words of power and pride, they always turn into idolatry, they always lead to a fall and they always end up making life even harder than it already is. Thankfully these are not God’s words to us. When God speaks to us, God knows that he is the one true shepherd and that we are simply his sheep—which is powerful news to those of us who have a tendency to get lost.
I have three older brothers, and so by the time I began playing team sports in elementary school my parents already knew what they and my coaches had to work with considering our gene pool—I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete, they didn’t need to worry about that. So when I started playing lacrosse my parents didn’t stress out too much or impress upon me that this would be my identity and future. And they communicated this to me by taking me to play-it-again Sports and buying me a pair of hockey gloves instead of lacrosse gloves, and an antique looking helmet with a 1980’s sticker on the side listing the local contact number for poison control.
This caused a different sort of pain in my life, but that was because some of the kids I played with had a little too much fun pointing out that the lacrosse stick my mother purchased for me was in fact a women’s lacrosse stick, not a men’s lacrosse stick…
God speaks to us all just the same, whether you’re Tiger Woods or someone trying to play lacrosse with hockey gloves. Or even Samuel himself, who you may have noticed wasn’t even able to follow the instructions of Eli to answer the call of God correctly. Instead of answering, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening,” Samuel leaves out a key word and says, “Speak, your servant is listening.” God speaks to men and women and children who have gotten things right and gotten things very wrong. God speaks to those of us in high and low places of power, to the joyous and to the defeated, to the honored and to the dishonorable, the sinner and the saint. God speaks to all of us ultimately as the misguided and broken people that we are, to people who at some point in time have had trouble sleeping because of what they’ve done, or perhaps because of what’s been done to them. God speaks to you and me, and His voice is the powerful voice of mercy. God speaks words of comfort into whatever mess or celebration we find ourselves in.
And the loudest word that God has given us, the word that is ultimately and eternally true, the word that cannot be twisted or spun and used to place us over against another group or another person or another enemy, this word came and comes to us in the form of Jesus—the Word made flesh.
The word of God that cried out from the manger, having come into this difficult and hardened world to walk alongside us. The word of God that cried out from the cross, as He took the weight of sin and death for all of us upon His shoulders. The word of God that cried out from the grave on Easter morning, shouting Hallelujah, I am with you and you are with me, therefore fear and death and darkness no longer have their hold on you. The word of God calls out to all of us and it delivers to us the very real and very true gift of grace and hope and love. Life is hard, but God is faithful, His word is true, and His mercy is everlasting.