There are a few stories in the Hebrew Scriptures which have captured the spiritual imagination of Christian people in a quite a different way from the other stories in what is our Old Testament, stories which, as often as not, provide particular phrases which shape our personal devotion.
There is Moses at the burning bush: take off your shoes for you stand on holy ground.
There is Elijah on the mountain side: speak through the earthquake, wind and fire [perhaps a slight misrepresentation of the thrust of the story], oh still small voice of calm.
There is Isaiah’s vision of God (we were reading this at our services again a week ago): behold this has touched your lips and your sin is taken away; here I am, send me.
But there is a huge danger in simply locating these stories in this personal devotion. The temptation to wallow in them as a nice spiritual experience can be deeply challenged by reading the next few verses in each case.
Why was God appearing to Moses at all? What message did Elijah’s encounter with God give him? Where was Isaiah being sent? As soon as the questions are asked, it is obvious that standing reverently in inspiring silence ready to make an act of personal dedication isn’t the end goal at all.
Moses, in self imposed exile having undertaken what today might even be called an act of terrorism, is told to go back to the dictator from whose reach he has fled and become the instrument to liberate a whole enslaved people.
Elijah, a member of a tiny hunted remnant of those opposing another oppressive regime, is told to create a resistance cell before his own time runs out.
Isaiah, being commissioned as a prophet, has the picture of an utterly desolate land opened up in front of him.
So, last Sunday, the church gave us two options to develop our spiritual imagination when reading 1 Samuel 3.
We could read as far as verse 10, get a spiritual fix when remembering the boy Samuel being helped to discern God calling and responding ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’ - and sing the chorus ‘Is it I Lord? - I heard you calling in the night’ several times over.
Or we could read on a further nine verses and be challenged by the message God has for Samuel – something so strong that it was to ‘make the ears of those who hear of it tingle’.
Years earlier, Eli the priest had reproved a distressed woman who had come to his temple apparently drunk; she was to be Samuel’s mother.
Now, he turns a blind eye (almost literally – he is much older and we are told his eyesight is going) to the corruption of his own sons who exploited those who came to sacrifice at the temple.
The message to Samuel is to confront Eli, perhaps his own supervisor and mentor, with God’s judgement and punishment.
And perhaps the purpose of reading on these nine verses is not just to notice yet again the rigour and challenge.
It is also to notice the uncomfortable similarities with what the Church of England (and I) can be like: we can very easily be more concerned about trivial external morality (such as suitable decorum at worship) than fundamental internal morality (such as collusion with injustices endemic among those like us).
This week another diocese has published another report about another safeguarding failure, and again the core cause of the failure appears to be church leadership setting aside concerns about an individual close to them and liked by them. Like Eli.
And a strange thing is that Eli is not wicked. Reproving Samuel’s mother and ignoring the exploitation perpetrated by his own sons is, of course, a fatal part of the story.
But he is also the experienced priest without whose guidance Samuel would not have recognised God’s voice being spoken. He is the one (we see if we read as far as verse 18) who appears to recognises God’s justice when finally confronted his own failings.
Perhaps we should stand reverently in inspiring silence ready to make an act of personal dedication. And expect and heed the call to confront the oppressors and colluders.
And then hold both our own compromised and flawed efforts and our partial spiritual insights before God’s fire and judgement.
My attention was drawn last week to the face, almost a green man, in the decoration around the south door at St Michaels’, Haworth.