The way I imagine it, the story ends with Eli sitting at a table. The steam is rising from his untouched cup of tea. Sunlight is spilling in through the window. Off in the distance, a donkey is braying, but Eli can’t hear it. He has just gotten the worst news. Everything he’s been worried about was just confirmed. The old man rests his elbows on the table, he lets his head drop into his hands, and Eli weeps. There’s nothing anyone can say…
If you have ever gotten the worst news, if your whole world has come crashing down around you, then you have been where Eli is.
When this happens, when the unsmiling doctor comes into the room, or the judge pronounces the verdict, or the officer shows up at your door, when you’ve just lost everything, something else that often happens is we find ourselves thrown into a theological conundrum. Which is absolutely the last thing anybody needs!
We might hear ourselves ask: Why is God doing this? If God is really God, why aren’t they intervening to stop this?
And if you happen to ask those questions out loud, chances are, kindhearted people will start pouring on the answers. You know the ones. They’ll tell you: Everything happens for a reason. Surely God has a plan. Of course, you’ll miss him, but he’s in a better place now. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.
See, we just want to ply on the platitudes to make you feel better. And it’s not quite right. It’s trying, but it’s not quite in tune. It’s Ah-Bless-Your-Heart sweet, but it’s not quite true.
As human people, we need a coherent story. This longing is imprinted in the deep place of our soul. As much as we need water, people need a sense-making narrative. We just do, and that’s not wrong. The problem is, when the worst news breaks, and the suffering doesn’t make sense, and we have to come up with a story, there’s a tendency to demand that God please play the villain.
It is common for God to get assigned one of two parts. The first one is the Holy Spirit going AWOL. She was supposed to show up, but she didn’t come, now her negligence is to blame.
The second type of villain imagines God as some kind of official agent imposing a sentence upon us that we must have done something to deserve. So look, it’s not God’s fault. He’s just doing his job. He has no choice but to inflict suffering upon us.
You have heard these stories about God.
It could be that we have told these stories about God.
And I get why we do that, it makes sense. I’m also pretty sure: There are better stories about God. I’m absolutely sure: God loves you entirely. Your life brings gladness to God’s own heart! When the LORD looks at you, their face breaks into smiles. The Holy Spirit is not out to get us; Jesus does not want our suffering. That is not the plan! The truth of God is love. That’s the first thing.
The next thing is this: When we go along with the stories that make God the villain, what we’re doing is participating in a scheme of misdirection. Our eyes are fixed on the stage. The LORD is about to enter stage left. We’re all ready. We’re all watching. While we’re expecting God to appear right here, nobody noticed the Holy Spirit just ran the room and lifted all of our wallets!
And I’m totally kidding about the pickpocketing— but not about the misdirection. We’re so ready to see God go missing. We’re so ready to see God charge in guns blazing. We’re watching for that when we’ve gotten the worst news and the world is crashing. And look out, behind you! What if we’re missing what God is really doing?
In the scripture Gail just read, the second half is brutal, the first half is disarmingly delightful.
Now in those days, the word of the LORD was rare. Eli was an old priest. Every day, he made the offerings and said the prayers. Every day, there was no sign of God. Until one night…
Eli’s young apprentice, Samuel, was sleeping in the room that housed the Ark of God. That’s when he heard a voice calling his name. Immediately, Samuel raced into the room where Eli was and woke him up: What do you need? Why did you call me? And Eli told him: I didn’t call you. Now that’s a sensible misunderstanding. Could’ve happened to anybody! The thing is, it happens to these two three times which gives the whole story a Who’s On First? kind of energy.
Suddenly something prickled in Eli’s conscience and he knew. Look out, behind you! He tells Samuel: That’s the Holy Spirit who’s calling you.
Now the Bible doesn’t tell us how Eli knew this was God, but you have to wonder. What if this is the same impulse that made Eli realize Samuel’s mama was telling him the truth, all those years ago, back when he thought she was drunk and really she was praying for a baby… Where does this impulse come from?— because I have a guess, and I think you might too.
Now when Samuel goes back to his room, the story takes a turn. The LORD our God is matter-of-fact in informing Samuel that it’s too late. He’s about to destroy Eli’s house forever.
What happened was that Eli’s sons had been abusing their priestly office. They exploited those who were vulnerable and blasphemed against the LORD. And even though Eli had warned them, even though he tried to get them to repent, he was unsuccessful. Now God is done waiting. She’s going to obliterate Eli’s lineage forevermore just as she promised. No chance for repenting. No mercy. Eli did not stop the evil, so that’s it. Thus saith the LORD.
As you can imagine, Samuel can’t really go back to sleep. The next morning, Eli pours himself a cup of tea and Hey! Tell me everything that the LORD said! And Samuel is afraid… Couldn’t he just lie? Couldn’t he just tell Eli there’s been some mistake, because maybe there has been?
Here Eli is looking at Samuel with love in his eyes, so Samuel sits down. He tells Eli everything, and Eli goes silent. Eli knew this was coming; it’s not that he’s shocked by what Samuel is telling him. It’s much worse! It’s that now he’s certain.
The steam is rising from Eli’s untouched cup of tea. Sunlight is spilling in through the window. Off in the distance, a donkey is braying, but Eli can’t hear it. He’s bent over weeping, and there’s nothing anyone can say. Of course, that doesn’t stop Samuel, bless his heart. He says to Eli: “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.” And he might as well have said: Everything happens for a reason. Surely God has a plan.
But here’s what I’m wondering… When the cheap platitudes are left ringing in the air and no words can stop Eli from weeping, what if Samuel gets up and goes and sits down beside Eli? What if he stays with Eli all morning, getting him a cloth to wipe the snot off his face, pouring him a new cup of tea…
What if it occurs to Eli that the only thing worse than hearing this news would be having to hear it alone… So thank God for Samuel!
The way the story goes, the first thing God does is fail to show up — these were the days when the word of the LORD was rare. The next thing God does is swoop onto the scene to tell Samuel that they’re about to ruin Eli’s life and reign down suffering forever.
It’s no wonder we hear this and fix our eyes on that part of the stage. We’re expecting God to go missing or impose judgement, but look out, behind you! Something prickled in Eli’s conscience and he knew it was the voice of the LORD speaking to Samuel. Could be something made Samuel get up and sit down beside Eli and wipe away his tears. And where did he learn that?
And all I’m saying is, what if that’s where God is?
If I’m onto something here, we’re going to need to learn some new stories, because we know this much: There’s grace in the sunlight, and grace in the donkey bray, and grace in the hot cup of tea. There’s God in the hospice nurse who packs up the things, and God in the church member who calls at exactly the right moment, and God in the thank you note, and God in the puppy who knows when you’re sick and won’t leave your side.
When the question arises: Why is God doing this? Why is God letting this happen? We don’t have to say: Everything happens for a reason. We don’t have to say: When God closes a door, she opens a window. Instead, we have a different question: Where is God right now? Because look out, behind you!
If you have ever lived through the worst day, if you have ever sat where Eli is sitting and it’s your weeping that won’t relent, then you know. The air in the room changes, the time on the clock doesn’t make any sense. All around there’s a pulsing of angels, there’s a voice whispering Hold on… Just hold on. This is the Holy Spirit: He brought a casserole to put in your freezer, and he’s come to sit down beside you all the way until the sorrow breaks.
Behold. This is the LORD our God. Amen.