FRESH WORDS

What do we do when old rhythms become old, tired, and destructive?

There’s a story from the earliest pages of the Bible and the earliest years of the nation of Israel about a priest, his sons, and his young apprentice. At the time, there was no king. As a result, the religious leaders weren’t just in charge of worship for individual congregations like we might think today. They were also seen as cultural and political leaders. When they said and did things, their words and actions carried the weight of the state, the weight of the cultural expectations, and the weight of God.

Now perhaps this arrangement works out alright if those in charge are people of integrity. But that’s not the case in Israel. The priest Levi is old and decrepit, while his sons are running around stealing food from the Lord’s sacrifice and sleeping around with women coming to the temple.

1 Samuel 3.1-21:

1 Now the boy Samuel continued serving the Lord under Eli’s supervision. Word from the Lord was rare in those days; revelatory visions were infrequent.

2 Eli’s eyes had begun to fail, so that he was unable to see well. At that time he was lying down in his place, 3 and the lamp of God had not yet been extinguished. Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord as well; the ark of God was also there. 4 The Lord called to Samuel, and he replied, “Here I am!” 5 Then he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli said, “I didn’t call you. Go back and lie down.” So he went back and lay down. 6 The Lord again called, “Samuel!” So Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli said, “I didn’t call you, my son. Go back and lie down.”

7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord; the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 Then the Lord called Samuel a third time. So he got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me!” Eli then realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go back and lie down. When he calls you, say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” So Samuel went back and lay down in his place.

10 Then the Lord came and stood nearby, calling as he had previously done, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel replied, “Speak, for your servant is listening!” 11 The Lord said to Samuel, “Look! I am about to do something in Israel; when anyone hears about it, both of his ears will tingle. 12 On that day I will carry out against Eli everything that I spoke about his house—from start to finish! 13 You should tell him that I am about to judge his house forever because of the sin that he knew about. For his sons were cursing God, and he did not rebuke them. 14 Therefore I swore an oath to the house of Eli, ‘The sin of the house of Eli can never be forgiven by sacrifice or by grain offering.’”

15 So Samuel lay down until morning. Then he opened the doors of the Lord’s house. But Samuel was afraid to tell Eli about the vision. 16 However, Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son!” He replied, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What message did he speak to you? Don’t conceal it from me. God will judge you severely if you conceal from me anything that he said to you!”

18 So Samuel told him everything. He did not hold back anything from him. Eli said, “The Lord will do what he pleases.” 19 Samuel continued to grow, and the Lord was with him. None of his prophecies fell to the ground unfulfilled. 20 All Israel from Dan to Beer Sheba realized that Samuel was confirmed as a prophet of the Lord. 21 Then the Lord again appeared in Shiloh, for it was in Shiloh that the Lord had revealed himself to Samuel through the word of the Lord.

 

The scene we see unfolding is one of stark dichotomy.

On the one hand we have Eli — a priest who’s been at this for decades — and his sons who stealing the sacrifices and sleeping around. And this all at a time when they haven’t heard from God in years.

But then we have Samuel, Eli’s young assistant who hears God speaking FRESH WORDS to him. His age, his pedigree, the political landscape, and even the religious status quo stand in judgment of Samuel.

God doesn’t speak. God doesn’t speak *those* things. And God certainly doesn’t speak to *you*.

Even so, Samuel responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening. In doing so, Samuel decides to remain TRUE. His commitment is not to Eli nor his sons nor to the bastardized religion they’ve been promoting. His commitment is to God and the Fresh Words being spoken to him. Fresh Words that are going to bring about big changes.

Ears will tingle at these Fresh Words. Though upsetting to many, some will recognize them as TRUE and right and beautiful.

 

Fast forward about 2500 years. The place is Wittenberg, Germany. The date is October 31, 1517. 500 years ago this month, a German monk named Martin Luther made a new claim to Fresh Words from God. What Luther witnessed was also some of the worst of religion. People with political and religious authority abusing their power, showing no regard for the law, taking advantage of the marginalized, and maintaining that they alone have the keys to fixing what’s wrong with the world.

Luther was an up and comer who probably could have profited off the status quo, but instead he saw a vision for something beautiful that could grow from the hole left by bad religion. 

The grace of God could abound.

The commoner could read the scriptures.

The church could look different.

Ears will tingle at these Fresh Words. Though upsetting to many, some will recognize them as TRUE and right and beautiful.

 

Someone with political and religious authority abusing their power, showing no regard for the law, taking advantage of the marginalized, and maintaining that they alone have the keys to fixing what’s wrong with the world.

This is completely unique in history to Samuel and Luther, right?

Of course not. The temptation, the political and cultural and religious pressure will always be to maintain the status quo.

To continue in the same old rhythms no matter how tired they become.

To feed into the same old systems no matter how destructive they’ve been revealed to be.

To rely exclusively on old words.

 

A few years ago I was at a pastors conference where a nationally recognized megachurch pastor was making an argument for creating a predictable — and thus quality — church environment. Here’s the analogy he drew: You know who makes the best burger the world? McDonald’s. Why? Because you can go to any McDonald’s in the world to order a Big Mac and it will taste exactly the same.

Nevermind the inhumane sources from which they get their food.

Nevermind the pink slime they create from the meat that ultimately goes into the burgers.

Nevermind the general unhealthiness of the thing.

Nevermind the treatment of their employees.

Clearly the measure of quality is mere predictability.

To which I would say, who cares about predictability if the thing that is predictable is unethical, unhealthy, and just overall unappealing.

 

Once we see how the sausage is made, why on earth would we keep consuming it?

Samuel saw how the sausage was made, was open to fresh words from God, and made the changes necessary to remain TRUE to God.

Martin Luther saw how the sausage was made, was open to fresh words from God, and made the changes necessary to remain TRUE to God.

But more often than not over the last 500 years, the Western Church has been not only satisfied but happy to defend a new status quo. We’ve so heavily relied on the church and its leaders of the 1500s that we’ve made their words, their theology, and their form of church so sacrosanct that it’s hard to imagine following Jesus apart from them. But the world has changed. And our knowledge of ourselves has changed. And even many of our understandings of God have changed, or at least needed to adapt.

And so we’re faced with a choice.

We can continue performing that which was handed down to us — because it was handed down to us this way. Because it’s what we know. Because it’s predictable.

Or we can take up the cause of Samuel and Luther and so many others and let bad religion die — in order that something more beautiful might grow up in its place.

 

You can take a wild guess about what I think we as individuals and we as a church ought to be doing. And thus we’re here today.

 

What we find both in the Bible and in Christian history is a God progressively revealing himself, just as we progressively come to understand ourselves and our world.

This is a revolutionary thing. And yet it ought to be an incredibly normal thing for people who claim to follow someone who, rose again, and claims to bring new life to the entire cosmos.

This is precisely what the gospel — the good news of Jesus and his kingdom — ought to look like.

To be TRUE is to respond with new ways of being faithful in the places and times in which we find themselves.

To be TRUE is to maintain integrity to the way of Jesus, not the status quo.

To be TRUE is to be open to Fresh Words.

 

This is of course nothing like a McDonald’s burger. The type of people and the type of church that listens to Fresh Words is often neither popular nor predictable. Waiting for something beautiful to grow up within us in the place of bad religion takes time. And it feels more like a journey than a destination.

But if you’ve seen how the sausage gets made and there’s no going back, if you’ve heard Fresh Words, if your ears tingle when you hear them, you can know that you’re not alone. Know that your questions, your doubts, your anxiety, your awkwardness, your anger, your sadness, your frustration — they make you normal, not strange.

 

Black essayist James Baldwin was raised Pentecostal but left the church because of many of the concerns we already mentioned. And yet, he appears to be a man of deep faith in what could be — if people were open to a journey.

“I am saying a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.”

That’s precisely the reason we are here. To make space for people to explore the radical way of Jesus is everyday life. And we want those people to seriously come as they are.

Thank you for being open to the journey. And I look forward to many more people joining us, not knowing where we’ll end up but trusting that God is with us and that we’re with one another.