Here’s the bottom line. Even if you’re the heir to a fortune, if you’re still a minor, you have to do as you’re told. You have a guardian looking after you until you grow up. God’s promise works the same way. It doesn’t do you any good until you grow up.
By “grow up” I mean, take responsibility. Make your own decisions. Take action.
Some children I know do this better than some adults I know. (You can probably think of a few instances of this, too!)
The bottom line (and I think Paul is essentially right on this one) is that you can’t truly experience “salvation” (human life in all it’s fullness) so long as others are calling the shots for you.
For some, there really is someone who’s exercising power and control over their lives. (Exercising inappropriate power and control over someone is a classic definition of abuse.) For some, it may be co-dependency of some kind or another. For some, it may be feigned helplessness. For still others, it may be an addiction. We can hide behind an awful lot of things to keep from having to face our fears and act on our own.
In any case, as with addiction, recognition is the first step to overcoming it.
Who (or what) is your “guardian”? Are you happy with this guardianship arrangement? Or is it time to grow up?
Then God said, “Animals!” And all kinds of animals – wild animals, tame animals, huge animals, and microscopic insects – began to wander all over the earth.
God saw how good they were. So then, God said, “Humans, like us! Who will be responsible for the fish, birds, animals, and insects!”
In this way God made humans to be like God. Male and female were made like God.
God blessed them and said, “Procreate. Fill the earth. Take charge of things. Be responsible for the fish, birds, and animals.” God said, “You can eat any kind of plant you want. And any of the animals can eat any of the plants.”
So that’s how it was. God saw that everything was really awesome. And so continued evening and morning. Day 6.
This first version of the creation story pictures humans as “like God.” Lots of people have speculated about what this means. Some suggest that it refers to the human capacity for creation, or imagination. I like those suggestions. This is the most verbose God has been in the entire six day process, though, and God mentions nothing about creativity or imagination. Instead, God’s words define humans in two distinct ways:
Initiative. The human likeness to God involves the capacity to be in charge. Humans are Godlike because they initiate. Initiation may involve creativity, of course, but it goes beyond creativity. It’s the difference between imagining something, even designing something, and starting something. It could be something that’s been started before. Some processes need to be started over and over again. Without someone with the capacity to start them, without initiative, nothing happens. To be godlike is to start things.
Responsibility. The human likeness to God also involves being responsible. It means taking a personal ownership and stake in what’s happening, and to bear the consequences of the actions one initiates. It means having the capacity to respond, to change course, to intervene, to take corrective action. Implicit in this is the understanding that creation is going to need some tweaking as things go along. It may be completely begun, but it’s only just getting started. It’s going to require course-corrections.
Initiative and responsibility frame the beginning and end of the creation. Start things, and take ownership of the results of what you started. Be godlike. It’s really awesome.
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.
God’s relief has shown up, rescuing everyone, coaching us to give up godlessness and temporal concerns so that while we’re waiting for the wondrous hope of God and Jesus’ return we may live moderate, ethical, and religious lives. Jesus gave himself to us to rescue us from our propensity for evil, and to create a community dedicated to doing pure good.
The irony of this passage is that it’s about making sure everyone fits into the temporal expectations that Christians lead moderate, ethical, and religious lives. Which is the very thing Jesus came to call into question.
Jesus himself was never so concerned with purity as the Pharisees and the Pharisaical folks who co-opted the Jesus movement a couple generations later (and still claim to speak for Christians in much of the press).
Still, the community is not so far gone by the time Titus was written to have lost the collective memory that it was founded on the principle of doing good and renouncing what’s not.
But the relief Jesus showed up coaching his community to enact wasn’t according to any commonly accepted ethical convention. Nor was it moderate. Nor was it necessarily religious. You don’t get crucified for being a moderate and keeping your head down. In fact, moderates are very seldom even remembered. It’s the radicals and the reactionaries who end up in the news and on the crosses.
Incarnation, if you’re reading this just before Christmas, is as much about our living as it is about Jesus’ having lived. God’s relief has shown up. But, as it turns out, this time around that relief is you and me.