Listening to the Children
1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1: 43-51 (Good as New)
This introduction to Samuel’s relationship with God, of which we read a section this morning is noteworthy, at least in part, for two contrasts which are presented to us. One of those contrasts comes from the statement that there were very few messages from the Lord; God seems to have been silent, not engaged. And yet in the books of Samuel, we’re going to be introduced to an absolutely key period in the history of the people of God, when first Saul and then David establish the monarchy; a fundamental shift in how things were organised. The time of the judges was coming to an end; Eli’s sons are reported as being ungodly scoundrels; something has to give. However you wish to interpret ‘messages’, whether direct communication, as recorded in this passage, or perhaps the more spiritual, ever-present companionship of God as recorded by David and the other psalmists, then the opening sections of Samuel note this shift; it was a point at which God was to intervene – in Samuel’s case, God would speak directly.
But I’m want to start this reflection by focussing not on this shift in communication – I’ll come back to that right at the end – but rather on the other contrast implicit in the first stories of Samuel. And that? Well, the contrast in age between ‘the boy’ Samuel and that of his mentor Eli. Eli, we are told is now both very old and almost blind. In contrast, his ward, his apprentice if you prefer, is described as ‘a boy’. As I’m sure you’re aware, the distinction between adulthood and childhood has never been clear cut. A quick look at current ages of majority world-wide would show that the vast majority now think of 18 as being ‘adult’ but there are still countries such as Indonesia where adulthood starts at 15, whereas many African countries, such as Namibia and Zambia, as well as Colorado and Mississippi in the United States, where you are not deemed an adult until you are 21. Just this week, there has been a report published which has suggested that adolescence in the UK now runs from the age of 10 to 24….
The distinction between maturity on the one hand and childish innocence on the other is something we have to be a little wary of, since it is likely – highly likely – that our modern understanding can lead us astray. I’m no expert on the culture and customs of Biblical Times, I get what I can from reading around the edges; Samuel, I think, was most likely pre-pubescent – he was at the very most 12 years of age, I would suggest.
But I do know a little of how our modern understanding – our 20th and 21st Century understanding of childhood came about, and how in our post-industrial world, our particular view on children was formed. You see, it wasn’t so very long ago in human history that humanity, by and large, drew a distinction between childhood and adulthood by one of only two criteria – neither of which was specifically age.
The first criteria, mostly but not exclusively applied to boys, was the distinction between an infant or a child being a drain on family or community resources or, as an adult, being an asset. A boy became a man when he could go out and hunt with the other men. A boy became a man when he could be set to work on the farm. A boy became a man when he was considered strong enough to go to war. In short, boys were an asset, boys were good, boys enabled the family, and the family fortune to grow.
The second criteria, mostly but not exclusively applied to girls, was puberty. For boys, that was a contributing factor in growing and becoming strong – not unimportant. But for girls, it was the signal that they could cease to be a burden to their own family and become an asset to another – how? By marrying and producing yet more sons, of course.
I generalise, but not by much, when I say that it really wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that any of this changed in reality. Things were different depending on class or upbringing, for sure, but by and large, children were first a drain on resources, and then, eventually, an asset. When machines came along, the first instinct of society was actually to lower the age at which that change could be made. Working on the land, a lad would have to have developed some size, some strength, to be useful perhaps. But in a factory, there were jobs that little boys could do, and the strength was delivered now by the machine; ‘industrial education’ to begin with, was all about realising the economic value of a child, however young.
But here’s the thing. It really didn’t take very long for enlightened and educated people to question this, and it’s no surprise to me, and probably isn’t to you either, that it was people of faith who started to question the ethics of industrial child labour. As more children worked in factories, so injury and death of children came to notice. So called ‘industrial education’ quite quickly (in the grand scheme of things) gave way to the first attempts at mass education of children. Sunday Schools were established by the churches so that the factory children had not only somewhere to go on Sunday, their one day off, but had something useful to do.
In the latter part of the 18th Century then, and throughout the 19th, a new notion of ‘child’ slowly emerged, one in which the value of protecting the asset rather than exploiting it came to the fore, even if somewhat romanticised. These were ‘Victorian Values’ alright! Charles Dickens played a big part in this – if you’ve never ever read Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or Great Expectations, you really should, for they were absolutely crucial in changing attitudes towards children.
This perception of childhood persists in many ways, but mostly in the way we acknowledge the dependence of children on adulthood, and I’m sure you can think of many different ways in which this can be manifest, from our own family relationships, to institutional child protection policies, to Children in Need and even my decision to run the London Marathon in April for Save the Children Fund (my first plug – sponsorship form is on the back table!) We’re also learning to extend our duty of care to other vulnerable groups too – and this is to be applauded. Childhood is precious; childhood is when education is most effective; childhood is a time of promise and a time to invest in the future.
“The Lord called out….Samuel answered ‘speak, your servant is listening’”
I wonder though – are we missing something? Let me answer that rhetorical question with a complete change of direction:
On Christmas Eve, we celebrated out nativity services and like other churches big and small, our children and young people take the lead. For us, this year, that lead was a literal one, as Magdi and Suzan led our call to worship.
And then, having been led through a modern nativity story, by our Junior Church, Magdi and Suzan were baptised, by full immersion.
There are two things which I want to reflect on here, and I’ll take the least important of these first, if I may.
The first thing is my own involvement, as a lay person, in the sacrament of Baptism. Different Christian traditions approach the sacramental aspects of our faith in different ways. There is, perhaps, a whole service which could be crafted around the different understandings of these traditions.
If you like, it’s through my ‘Baptist’ affiliations that I first came to lead worship in churches and certainly to preside at a Communion Service. For me, being invited to take part in the baptism of someone – and after Sue Salmon, Magdi and Suzan are only the second time in my life where this has happened – is the most important thing that I have been called to do. In all honesty, I’ve never felt a call to full-time ministry; my vocation has always been education, one way or another. But leading worship, presiding at communion, and now, participation in the baptism are all huge privileges as well as huge responsibilities, ones which I take very seriously.
There was, though a time when I would have thought ‘you can’t do that’ – and ‘can’t’ from both a skills point of view and from the point of view of ‘what is allowed’.
Which leads me to the second point I want to make from Magdi and Suzan’s baptism, and by far the most important one. And that is, the way in which children and young people continue to lead us, to speak the truth of faith to us, to provide an example to us, and to witness to us. Profession of faith remains one, if not the most powerful form of evangelism of the church. And it matters not one jot whether it is as an adult or a young person – the witness is not diluted one tiny bit by the age of those confessing faith. On the contrary, this is fulfillment of prophesy; this is faith in dramatic action.
I mention this because the oldest among you will remember that time – and it did also come from the ‘Victorian Values’ I was mentioning earlier, when an essential part of the preservation of childhood was to disenfranchise the child altogether. Children were meant to be seen, not heard. Children’s worship, their Sunday School would be in the afternoon, so as not to disrupt the adult, proper worship or morning and evening. And heaven forbid that a child should participate in a communion service.
I said right at the start of this sermon that I would return to the issue of the child as messenger – the aspect of the story of Samuel whereby God shifts communication from the old men to the children. There’s Samuel; not long afterwards, there’s David, the shepherd boy and hymn writer; and then there’s God’s ultimate love message, the baby in the feeding trough. For too long we’ve marginalized the children, and I’m really glad that we now live in a time when we are making up for past mistakes.
We read also though the calling of Philip and Nathaniel in John’s Gospel, in which we have a report of a throwaway piece of prejudice rubbed in Nathaniel’s face. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ he asks. Or, as we had this morning, from Good as New ‘Can anything good come from that shi…….. dump?’ A tiny, but informative glimpse of what Galileans thought of Jesus’s home village, and of its people. It’s also a massive warning to us and to our prejudices. Can anything good come from the children? What about the refugees and immigrants who find their homes with us? What about the women? What about the ….. Don’t think you’ve got any prejudices? Just insert in the gap someone who you would prefer not to listen to on a Sunday morning…..
The lesson this morning is that we recognize and respect the Biblical truth in front of us. God calls all sorts. All ages, all nations, those we’ve known all our lives and those we’ve known for only five minutes. God calls us to get to know them better. God calls those with open minds, and calls those with prejudices to think some more.
God calls us. May we learn, like Samuel and Nathaniel alike, like Magdi and Suzan too, to say ‘I’m listening’.