Week of July 1: Learning to rely upon the presence of God


Lesson for week of July 1
Scripture: 1 Samuel 7:3-11, 15-17
By Elizabeth LaRocca-Pitts
The prophet Samuel is one of the most important and pivotal figures in Israel’s faith history. Though most are familiar with his miraculous birth to Hannah, most other details of his remarkable life get lost in the murder and mayhem that dominated in the years preceding the era of Israel’s kings. For instance, Samuel is the only person who served God as a priest, and a judge, and a prophet!  Though born into the tribe of Ephraim, he is given as a foster child and apprentice to the Levitical priest Eli who instructed him in the ways of the priesthood. After the shrine at Shiloh was destroyed and Eli’s house died for their sins of corruption, Samuel served the nation as its final judge, until the time at which God instructed him to anoint Saul, and eventually David, to serve Israel as King.  His era was an era of great transition, filled with war and uncertainty, not unlike our own. And his advice to his people would stand any generation in good stead, were they to take his counsel.
In today’s reading we find Samuel right at the beginning of his years as Israel’s judge and war leader, and he begins those years with a vital weapon no longer in his possession. In 1 Samuel 6 we are told that the Ark of the Covenant has removed itself from the care of the army of Israel, where it once served as the banner that led them into battle. When Shiloh fell, it allowed itself to be taken captive, and now rested with a priestly family in the hills outside of Jerusalem where it would remain until the time of King David. Without the ark the army would have doubted its ability to prevail over any enemy, no matter how small, and certainly its ability to defeat their greatest enemy, the Philistines.
In addition to this military disadvantage, Samuel also must deal with the fact that years of pagan practices and unfaithfulness have crept into the religious life of his people. Before he consents to lead them into battle against the Philistines, he instructs them to center their lives and their hearts once again upon God. They must put away all the pagan worship and distractions they have allowed themselves to fall into if they wish God to return and fight on their side again. Once the people vow to return to God with their whole heart, then and only then can they listen and be lead by the spirit of God which speaks through Samuel. The people fasted and Samuel prayed as he made an offering for the fate of the people, and God responded with a mighty thundering voice that threw the enemy into confusion, allowing Israel to triumph.
It would be easy to group this story with all of the other tales of God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf, but if we do this, we lose a great deal of the message of this story for us today which can be found in the experience of Samuel as the nation’s leader. Samuel faced a very uncertain future as a leader in Israel. He was very young and not trained in war. He was thrust into leadership because there were no others found worthy. The mentor he had trusted was dead and the shrine in which he had served had been destroyed. What was there for him to rely upon but the sheer presence of God in his life? He didn’t have enough skills. He didn’t have any experience. But in the end, God’s presence was enough. By speaking the truth to his fellow Israelites, about their need for God and their need to rid their lives of destructive influences, he brought his neighbors to his side as the mighty force they once were before they forgot their duty to the one God. Is this not what faces us today?
We live in a time of great uncertainty. Many of our people have lost their way—forgotten their heritage. When we build one another up, pray for one another, remind one another of the times when we have been focused upon God and have been able to do great things, this is when God lifts us up and throws our enemy into confusion. Maybe we don’t have the leaders we once did. Maybe our shrines, the places where our hearts felt the power of God, are falling into disarray. Maybe the struggles before us—hard financial times, health crises, diminishing community resources—loom like ranks of soldiers on a battlefield. But even in spite of odds like this, Samuel found the strength he needed to encourage his neighbors, rally their collective strength, call them to new commitment, and all he had with which to do this was his own unshakeable conviction that God was still present among them. 
Perhaps the lesson we might take from this reading is that there is always power to be found when we turn our hearts toward God with renewed conviction. When we admit our mistakes and resolve to move forward trusting in God to guide us, when we refuse to concede that the battle is lost simply because we appear outnumbered, then, and only then, can God find room to work within us. If we clear our obstacles of fear and doubt, if we claim our strength in God as well as our failures apart from him, then God can add our poor strength to his own and help us to meet the challenges of a new era. Samuel successfully shepherded Israel out of an era of chaos and discord and into an era of strength and progress filled with the blessings of Israel’s creator. He rose to the challenge of a difficult era, and because he did, Israel prospered. If we will rise to the challenges of our era as well, trusting in God and open to God’s inspiration, a new and golden future may well greet us in God’s good time. 
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth LaRocca-Pitts is senior pastor of St. Marks UMC in Atlanta. To contact her email: beth.larocca-pitts@ngumc.net Lessons in leadership found in David’s last words