When God meets people, bold change comes next. The bible is full of stories like these. Each story of suddenly catching fire has a before and an after, not always told or noticed and perhaps less exciting. It’s about how the kindling was prepared to receive the spark. And about what the fire is meant to fuel: letting the fire empower us to become fully alive for the life of the world.
Consider my own story, which you’ve maybe heard. On a cold winter night, I was walking home from bible study. It had been months of anguish and anger, feeling not good enough and alone, with seeming silence from God. When suddenly, it went through me like lightning. God didn’t demand that I be perfect before God accepted me, but God accepted me already and was walking with me even on this cold winter night, on a journey of growth and transformation.
This tells of the moment of ignition. Before this, many places, people, and habits prepared me for it. They prepared the ground, so to speak, so the seed of love would sprout so dramatically.
For example, Sunday was not enough for me. I needed daily devotional practices. Reading the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—over and over. Then the whole New Testament, and again. And with this, a way of prayer I later learned to call “contemplation.” Prayer that was as much listening to God and being with God, as talking to God.
Reading and prayer twice a day for some 400 days was a constant drip-drip-drip of water softening my rock-hard heart to God’s love. Without this daily practice, I might still be waiting for lightning to strike.
And once it did, it challenged me to act. It was energy for a purpose. This was really a gift of freedom, but it felt scary and often painful. To stop living a life that was not my own, trying to fulfill my dad’s unfulfilled dreams. And to start following my own heart and God’s urgings within it. That was a change that took a lot of guts too. Time and guts.
How can we open ourselves to God’s voice and prepare to receive the spark? Where do the guts come from to act on what we hear and let the fire fuel us?
Consider Samuel. The word of the Lord came to Samuel when he was a child. You might remember. It happens at night. Samuel hears a voice calling him. Thinking it’s the priest Eli, his mentor, he goes to him. But Eli says, “No, wasn’t me. Go to sleep.” It happens a second time, and Eli says again, “No. Go to sleep!” It happens a third time, and Eli finally wakes up to what’s really going on. “Go back to bed,” he says. “The next time you hear the voice, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Samuel obeys, and at last, on the fourth try, the conversation between Samuel and the Lord begins.
God says: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” Tingling ears because of shocking news. God will shake up the church and take the whole people in a new direction. They don’t know it, but the way they are going is a dead end. God will make a new way.
And it got personal and risky and hard: God invites the child Samuel to tell his mentor and father-figure Eli God’s message: “You’re fired. Your house is corrupt. Your sons lie about who I am. You ignored my warnings. Pack your bags. I’m moving on.” This message took guts for Samuel to repeat...the second miracle, after Samuel hearing God’s voice.
But what I really want us to notice is where Samuel’s openness to hear and guts to act came from. That place was where Samuel slept: “Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.”
This is highly symbolic advice for us and not to be taken literally. Don’t sleep in Zion’s sanctuary or fill your bedroom at home with religious artifacts! Instead, pay attention to where the Holy has made a home in your life and in this world. Then make your home there with the Holy. Sleep with it. Rise with it. Return to it throughout the day. Keep yourself close to it. Live with the presence of God.
I’m not talking about religious fanaticism or some kind of rote duty. I’m talking about your living soul finding a home in this life in the living God.
Eli made his own home and lived separate from the living God. He, his sons, and Israel as a whole paid the price. Samuel’s soul rested in God. So even as a child, Samuel heard God’s voice, found God’s courage, and became God’s own leader to restore creation.
If we’re not preparing the kindling, do we really want the fire? If the fire goes out and we’re tempted to blame or despair, are we sure it wasn’t our own refusal to act that doused the flames?
These are wake up questions, not shaming or guilting questions. Wake up to the loving, living Presence of God. Wake up and trust that—no matter who you are and what you have or haven’t done in the past, or what others have or haven’t done to you—there is a light and a fire within you that will never go out, because it is Christ within you, and Christ is not dead but alive!
Why not become completely fire?
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith