All your evil and wrong that you did, all the going along with the crowd, all your going whichever way the wind blows, all your disregard for what is right – it had killed you. Living lives doing whatever we pleased, we were, like everyone else, in a rat race we couldn’t win.
But God is merciful. Because God loved us so much, in spite of everything we’d done to screw ourselves up, gave us a second chance to live. You’ve been undeservedly rescued. Along with Jesus, God has given you a higher calling – indeed a heavenly calling – so even future generations will look back and see proof of God’s goodness by the difference Jesus made in our lives. Make no mistake: you didn’t deserve this second chance. You didn’t make this happen, so don’t brag about it. It’s God’s gift to you. All of us are created by God, just as Jesus was, to do something good. That’s what God intends our way of life to be.
You’ve got one shot, but if you’ve ever realized that you had a second chance you didn’t deserve, then you know what this passage is about.
Some folks realize they’ve been given a second chance after recovery from a catastrophic illness. For others, it might be a new career, an unexpected opportunity for reconciliation with family or a loved one. You know who you are.
What you may not realize, though, is that every opportunity is a second chance. You may have a “dead end” job, but that dead end job is your platform to do something great. Even if you’re flipping burgers right now. It’s not about the burgers. It’s about your attitude. You can just flip burgers, or you can make showing up for life your art. You can just wait tables, or you can make service an art. You can just answer the phone, or you can connect people. You get the idea. You may be at “rock bottom,” but Jesus liked to say that rock is a pretty solid platform to build on.
If you read the last paragraph and said, “Yes, but ____ (insert the reason it doesn’t apply to you here),” you missed it.
I am God. I brought you out of Egypt and set you free. Therefore:
Don’t worship any other gods.
Don’t make images of other gods, in whatever form, from anything you may see in the sky or on earth or in the sea. Don’t bow to them or worship them. The dire consequences of doing so will last three or four generations, but do as I say and the benefits will last thousands of years.
Don’t use my name as a curse, or I’ll curse you.
Take one day off in seven. Work for six days, and then take a day off. But one day off per week is sacrosanct. And don’t make anyone else – I don’t care if they’re family, employees, or even the illegal aliens you hired under the table – don’t make anyone else work incessantly either. I got all my work done in six days, you ought to be able to take a day off, too.
Respect your parents if you want to live near home.
Don’t screw around on your spouse.
Don’t tell lies about your neighbors.
Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses.
When the people saw the thunder and lightning, and heard the trumpets and saw the mountain erupting, they were afraid and backed away. They told Moses, “You tell us what God says. We’d rather God didn’t talk to us.”
Moses said, “Don’t be afraid. God just wants to see if you’re going to chicken out, or if you’ll keep your end of the freedom bargain.”
In all the zeal for mounting these in public spaces, what’s often overlooked is that these are not ethical imperatives. These are the enumerated terms of a specific contract. They are the people’s end of a deal, in which the quid-pro-quo on God’s end has already been delivered. God has set them free from Egypt. Now, this is their obligation to God. That’s why it starts with, “Don’t worship any other gods.” That’s why Moses says what he does about chickening out or keeping their end of the deal.
Truth be told, freedom is a fearful thing. It’s much easier when someone (even if it’s a nasty Egyptian boss) is telling you what to do and when to do it. Slavery, grunt work, as unpleasant and back-breaking as it is, doesn’t require any imagination or risk. You do what you’re told, and you get what you expect.
Freedom, on the other hand, always requires responsibility. In the case of the Israelites in the wilderness it was the responsibility to build a vibrant, meaningful, inter-generational community with God at the center of it’s life. These commandments reflect that priority.
Your responsibility, your calling, may be different. But if you’re free then your freedom comes with responsibility to do something great – and that something is exactly the thing you’re most afraid of succeeding at. The particular terms of your freedom contract may differ from those enumerated here. But whatever they are, they come with the fear and force of God behind them. In the presence of that fear you can say, like the Israelites did, “I’d rather not hear that,” and ask someone else to handle it for you. You can always chicken out and go back to being a grunt for someone else.
But God (along with the rest of us) is hoping that in spite of your fear you’ll, keep your end of the freedom bargain, and do something that changes the world.
Then, when John was arrested, Jesus returned to Galilee where he started working toward the goal. “It starts now,” he said. “The goal is close. Turn your life around! It’s going to be awesome.”
As Jesus went along the Galilean seashore, he saw brothers Simon and Andy, fishermen, casting nets in the sea. He said to them, “Follow me and I’ll show you how to capture people’s hearts. Without hesitating, they followed him. A little further on he saw Jim and John Zebedee in their boat fixing nets. As soon as he saw them, he called them, too. And they left their father and their hired help and followed him.
Not even Jesus can go it alone. World-changing work requires community. Even “building community” requires community. Whether you’re a church, a company, a school, service club, a family, or a not-for-profit whatever agency – the first thing you need (even before you need money!) is community engagement.
Back in 2008, Kevin Kelly (founding editor of Wired Magazine) wrote that a successful enterprise needs 1000 true fans. That’s a much larger endeavor than the vast majority of churches. So really, the number is probably much less than that. Jesus settled on 12.
12 is doable for most people. Start, like Jesus, with just four. You’ll get there. It’s not really about the number, it’s about the quality of the relationship, and the shared mission in which you’re engaged. 12 people (or just 4) who are highly engaged in capturing people’s hearts can go a long way. So, then again, if you’re really in the business of capturing people’s hearts, whose to say 1000 fans is out of reach? In a conversation last year with Mark Behan about a church looking to “re-brand” itself he said, “Your greatest asset is the people who are already sitting in your pews.” They are your true fans. If they don’t engage, no one will, but if a small company of the committed are willing to leave everything to follow their calling, you can do just about anything.
Every endeavor that sets out to change the world, or even a little rural village in upstate New York, or on the Kansas prairies, or a forgotten neighborhood in East LA, or an affluent suburb of Austin starts with three or four people, maybe 12, who have a vision and are ready to leave everything they have to make it happen.
Is that you?
[Bonus: Think about your community’s “fan base.” It may be larger than you think. What about all those fans who are on the inactive roles, and the non-resident fans? What about the people who come just for special occasions? Weddings and funerals? People who turn up at the chicken and biscuit dinner? Chances are, they’re not going to be your Peters and Jameses. But many of them may be leaving the doors of their hearts open to being (re)captured. Even the ones who are a pain in the butt are still engaged, and in an age when attention is at a premium, you’ve got theirs. I’m not saying you should change your “business model” for them. You shouldn’t. But you’re missing an opportunity if you’re pretending they’re not there.]
Young Sam tended to God under Eli’s instruction. God rarely spoke back then. And people lacked vision. Eli, too, was nearly blind. One day, as Eli was sleeping in his room and Sam was lying down in God’s temple next to God’s covenant box, God called to Sam, “Sam!”
“Right here,” Sam said. And he ran to Eli’s room, saying, “I’m right here. You called me.”
“I didn’t call you,” said Eli. “Go lie down.” So Sam did.
God called Sam again, “Sam!” And again Sam got up and went to Eli, saying, “I’m right here. You called me.”
“I didn’t call you,” said Eli. “Go lie down.”
This had never happened to Sam before, this hearing God speak. So when God called a third time, “Sam!” he got up and went to Eli and said, “I’m right here. You called me.”
Then Eli realized that it was God calling the kid. So Eli said, “Go lie down again, Sam. And if the voice calls you again, say, ‘Speak, God. I’m listening.'” So Sam went back again to lie down.
Then God called yet again, “Sam!” And Sam said, “Speak, God. I’m listening.”
So God told Sam, “Look at this! I’m going to do something in Israel that will get a huge buzz going. I’m about to do everything I said about Eli and his house. Every last word will come true. I’ve told him that I would strip his family from power. He knew his sons were screwing up, cursing God, and he didn’t stop them. Nothing, not even the most extravagant sacrifice, will suffice to undo what they have done. Ever.”
Sam didn’t move from there until morning. He opened the temple doors. And he was afraid to tell Eli what he’d seen. But Eli called him and said, “Sam, my son.”
Sam said, “Yes?”
Eli said, “What did God say? Don’t keep it from me. If you keep any of it from me, God will do it to you as well.”
So Sam told him everything. Every detail. And when he was finished, Eli said, “It really was God. What God said, God will do.”
So Sam grew up, and as God spoke to him, so he spoke. So everyone from north to south knew that Sam was God’s reliable truth-teller.
As it turns out, it’s not that the divine voice is silent, or that the divine vision is absent. As it turns out, the disconnect is a combination of blindness and cowardice.
Eli’s blindness keeps him from seeing the visions he needs to lead, and his cowardice leaves him unable to do what he knows is right. As a result, an entire generation has come to ruin.
Samuel’s calling presents a moment of truth. First, will he hear? And then, having heard, will he be overcome by fear and fail to speak? It’s a moment that every individual will face at one time or another, and maybe more than once. (Probably more than once.) The elder generation can only provide a bit of guidance.
It’s not that we can’t hear the divine calling. Chances are we’ve heard it. It’s what keeps us up at night, or interrupts our train of thought during the day. The question is whether we’ll answer. And the answer is to be willing go beyond merely hearing to enter into a deep listening and understanding. Even when what we’re given to understand is something we’d really rather not know about. Because knowledge implies responsibility.
And responsibility is the second issue. Eli knew and yet failed to act. We may be sympathetic to Eli’s plight. Having to confront members of one’s own family with their wrongdoing is one of the most difficult things anyone has to do. But sympathy doesn’t absolve Eli of responsibility. Samuel faces the same difficulty: telling his mentor and guardian the truth must feel like biting the hand that feeds him. But his choice is to act on his knowledge, to tell the truth.
The next time something’s keeping you up at night, take Eli’s advice, and listen. But don’t stop there. The next morning, even if you’re afraid, follow through. Even today, there’s not really any shortage of divine voice and vision.