In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What do you want to be when you grow up? I don’t remember the exact age I was when I first heard that question — and as far as I know my daughter hasn’t heard it yet. (Though she might after service.) What do you want to be when you grow up? A firefighter. A ballerina. A nuclear physicist. That was mine — turns out I’m bad at math. You could hear almost any answer to that question.
Except for one.
“I don’t want to. I want to remain a child.”
No one says that. We’re all trained from the earliest age to think ahead, to plan for the future, to make it our goal to become independent, self-sufficient, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens of our modern world. That’s what life is all about: growing up, getting a job, buying a house — or at least a couch. To say otherwise is a non-starter, a cop-out, a fantasy. After all, Peter Pan doesn’t look so good when the dishwasher breaks or the rent comes due.
And yet there’s a certain wistfulness about that desire — to remain a child or, really, to remain childlike — that dances through each of our hearts from time to time. We catch ourselves thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just sit like my one-year-old son does and gaze out the window, cooing with delight, content with nothing more than a cool stone floor and a wooden spoon. Wouldn’t it be nice to be still in such a way, to be quiet, to be unaware of all the trials and tragedies that are going on in the world? Too bad life isn’t like that, we think, and then shake our heads and sigh and turn back to what a friend of mine recently described as “the daily grind.”
That doesn’t sound so good, does it? Life these days can feel like that though, like we are pressed between bad news and bad news. Tumultuous times are upon us, and the months ahead don’t look like they’re going to be much different. Which begs the question: How will we meet them?
Like a child.
When the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli, the word of the LORD was rare. It was the time of the Judges — a period in Israel’s history marked by some serious growing pains. The Israelites had come up out of the desert from 40 years of wandering. They had entered the Promised Land. And yet the promised rest did not come; not because God couldn’t give it to them, but because the Israelites didn’t want it. Looking around at their neighbors, the Israelites began mimicking them. They worshiped pagan gods. They followed foreign ideals. To quote a phrase that is repeated many times in the OT book describing this period: “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
Everyone did what was right in their own eyes, so you can imagine what society was like. The rich oppressed the poor, the poor stole to survive, and the enemies of the people of God sounded their trumpets and sharpened their swords for battle. And yet, even amidst the darkness, the lamp of God had not gone out, and the bright lights of righteous men and women and girls and boys continued to burn. We meet one of those people today, asleep beside the Ark of the Covenant. He is a child, and he does not yet know the LORD.
Still, the LORD speaks to him.
“Samuel, Samuel!” he says. And the boy thinks his master is calling. Samuel gets up and runs to his side. “Here I am, for you called me,” Samuel says. But Eli sends him back to bed. The same exchange happens again. And again. Three times the LORD speaks. Three times Samuel runs to his master. Until Eli finally understands. “The LORD is calling you,” he says. “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’”
Samuel does just that. He lays down. He closes his eyes. He waits. And just as his breathing slows and his mind begins to drift, the Word of the Lord appears and stands beside him, calling his name. And Samuel says: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
For all Eli’s faults — which were many — there is great wisdom in the counsel he gave. What other statement could convey the disposition one must adopt in the presence of Almighty God? “Speak, for your servant is listening.” There are no demands in those words, no preconceived notions of who or what God is or can be. There is just openness and trust and humility. Whatever message the LORD bears, whatever word he has to say, the servant listens, ready to do whatever his master commands.
In our world of constant noise and incessant stimulation, how often do we find ourselves in such a posture? How often do we pause and look around and listen for the Word of the Lord? How often do we slow down long enough to behold the glory that is all around us? We don’t — though that’s not for lack of trying or because we don’t want to. Now more than ever before we are engaged with forces that are designed to diminish our ability to behold, to gaze, to listen. We are presented with an image of happiness, one that is beautiful and tantalizing but ultimately empty, unable to touch the hunger at the center of our being.
It can’t be said enough that there is a God-shaped hole in each of our lives, a restlessness in our hearts that will continue unsatisfied until we realize that only the One God of Israel, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, can fill it. Can fill us.
And he will. He does. Think of the stories we’ve heard today, of the stories we’ve heard at so many other times — of Moses and Samuel and Jonah and St. Peter and St. Paul: God’s presence and power doesn’t rely on us. God works. God speaks. God acts, even when our eyesight is dim and our hearing is poor and our hearts are hard.
That behavior that doesn’t even surprise him. As the psalmist said, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways. Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it altogether. You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me." How wonderful! And it is. For what does he conclude after that admission? David says: I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
What a miracle! God knows us, knows the fears that keep us up at night, the petty insults we let slide, the secret lusts we all cherish. He knows us, and still he loves us.
Each one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. Each one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made and learning to be like Him. This is what God is doing, guiding us, guarding us, so that we might grow into the full stature he intends for us. Only God knows what each of us will be when we grow up: His child.
This is a gift and a grace that human words will forever fail to describe, though we can and should keep trying. Each one of us is known by God and loved by God, and we will come to know God and love God in our own way, learning to walk with him much like a child does — with a lot of falling down and crying and then getting back up. This is the work of our life, the growing up we have to do, traveling the way everlasting with the One who has promised to dwell with us, who chose us and called us, even when we were asleep in the Temple or sitting under the fig tree. Even when we did not yet know the Lord. He is with us, never tiring of our frailty but rejoicing, rejoicing every time we take a step on our own.
In every moment and every day, may we continue to take those steps, looking again and again for God, our benevolent Father, who would teach us how to walk and how to speak and how to act so that his glory might shine and his lamp might burn in our lives and in the world AMEN.