1 Samuel 1
How do you respond to the word “ordinary?” Does the idea of “ordinary” excite you? Probably not!
Just in case anyone is interested, this unexciting word “ordinary” comes from the Latin, suggesting something regular, something according to order. In the Catholic mass, the “ordinary” is the section of the liturgy that is fixed, unvarying, the same every Sunday. The adjective “ordinary” means customary, usual, normal, even unexceptional. Are we excited about “ordinary” yet?
Did you know that in the traditional church year, the Sunday after Pentecost begins what is sometimes called “ORDINARY TIME?”
“Ordinary time” is thus the time after the fire has fallen and tongues have ceased, after the church’s birthday party is over, after the series of festivals in the church year have been completed. And “Ordinary Time” continues till we begin these festivals again with the beginning of Advent in late November or early December.
Ordinary time is what one person calls “nonfestive time.” And isn’t it significant that this “ordinary time,” this “nonfestive time” takes up about half a year of Sundays. But doesn’t that sound about right to us? As someone has put it, “life is so daily.”
And this dailiness of life can seem so mundane, so routine, so non-spectacular. We may pine for Christmas and Easter and Pentecost.
BUT WHAT IS GOD UP TO DURING “ORDINARY TIME?”
Is Jesus at work in us and in the church during “ordinary time?”
Is it only through exciting times and festive seasons that we see God at work? Writes Richard Foster in his wonderful book on prayer: “The discovery of God lies in the daily and the ordinary, not in the spectacular and the heroic. If we cannot find God in the routines of home and shop, then we will not find Him at all.” (Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, p.171)
There’s a wonderful Old Testament story about what God was about during what seemed like terribly ordinary, non-festive times. This story comes during the era of the Judges, a time in Bible history that was neither good nor noble. Ordinariness turned into badness all too often during the period of the Judges.
But here’s this man from the hill country of Ephraim. His name is Elkanah, son of Tohu, son of Zuph. We’re only three verses into the story when we hear that: “Year after year, this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh.” (1 Samuel 1:3) “YEAR AFTER YEAR . . .” This was the regular routine. Elkanah and his two wives, Peninah and Hannah, went to Shiloh, where the tabernacle, the portable worship center was located. There, Eli and his sons offered sacrifice to the Lord on behalf of God’s people. Now, this annual journey to Shiloh was designed as a kind of festival occasion. It should have been special. And it WAS special for Elkanah and for at least one of his two wives. At the time of this annual journey, Elkanah would give special gifts to his wife Peninah and to her sons and daughters. And Elkanah would give gifts also to Hannah, even some special gift. The story says “because he loved her and because the Lord had closed her womb.” (1 Samuel 1:5)
In the ancient world, infertility was about the worst thing that could happen in a woman’s life. Elkanah’s other wife, would needle and taunt Hannah about not having conceived and born children. When Hannah wept and would not eat, Elkanah tried to comfort her. But, like many of us men, Elkanah wasn’t very successful in comforting Hannah. Elkanah was logical, rational, and he wanted to fix Hannah’s sadness. It doesn’t take Dr. Phil to tell us this method of operation doesn’t work very well!
Says the story, “This went on year after year.” This sad scenario wasn’t just played out once. It was the way things were. Her infertility was the routine of Hannah’s life. Having her infertility thrown in her face was the routine of Hannah’s life. It was all “ordinary time,” for Hannah.
Does that sound like anything we experience? Sometimes it feels like we’re in ‘ordinary time’ while other folks are celebrating and in festive time. That makes our ‘ordinary time’ particularly hard to bear. Isn’t it hard to deal with the festivities of the Christmas season when our own life is not festive? Isn’t it hard to celebrate the birth of someone else’s baby when you have not been able to have a child? Isn’t hard for some of us to celebrate the successes of others when your own life is so ordinary, so humdrum?
But one year, says the story, the family of Elkanah finished their annual festival meal at Shiloh. This time, Hannah couldn’t take any more of the festivities. She got up from the family meal and went into the sanctuary, the worship center, and there poured out her heart to God. “In bitterness of soul, Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord . . . And she made a vow, ‘O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life . . .”‘
This was very serious praying, so serious that the old high priest seated nearby thought maybe she was drunk. Eli chided the distraught woman for having had too much to drink. “Ah no!” responded Hannah. “I am a deeply troubled woman . . . I was pouring out my soul to the Lord – I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
And Pastor Eli responded to Hannah: “Go in peace and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
Ordinary time was over for Hannah! She conceived and gave birth to a son. She named this little boy “Shamuel,” God has heard. And Hannah praised God in a wonderful prayer similar in sound to the great prayer of Mary, mother of Jesus.
“My heart rejoices in the Lord . . .” Hannah sang. Read it in 1 Samuel 2.
Hannah, once infertile, over time had three more sons and two more daughters. For maybe three years, Hannah did not go on the annual trip to Shiloh, but stayed home and cared for little Samuel. But when the little boy was weaned, Hannah made good on her promise to God. Taking little Samuel to Shiloh, Hannah and Elkanah offered sacrifice and left Samuel under the care and guidance of high priest Eli.
In Hannah’s ordinary time, a time of year-after-year sadness, God WAS at work. God was at work, but not on Hannah’s timetable. Nor did God remove Hannah’s suffering and trial for several years. Nevertheless, in ordinary time, God was bringing good things to birth.
God IS at work in ‘ordinary time’ whether we see what God is doing or not. God IS at work even in the ‘ordinary time’ of our sadness and grief. God is at work in the stuff we’d rather not go through. And out of that difficulty and suffering there can be a birth of something new and vital, even extraordinary.
She began as an ordinary sister in a Calcutta, India convent. But in the midst of her ordinary life, she had an extraordinary dream. She shared her heart’s ambition with her superior. “Well, how much money do you have?” asked the Mother Superior. “I have two pennies!” replied Sister Teresa. “Oh, you cannot start an orphanage with just two pennies,” said Mother Superior. “No, but with two pennies God and I can start an orphanage,” replied the nun, whom we have come to know as Mother Teresa. She and God did start an orphanage and a ministry that has spanned the world! In ordinary time, in the lives of ordinary people, God brings good things to birth.
In the Samuel story, years pass. Samuel continues to serve at the tabernacle. The little boy grows gaining favor with God and with other people. But again, this is a very “ordinary’ time in the life of God’s people. Nothing at all special is happening. In fact, according to 1 Samuel 3:1: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” This was ‘ordinary time.’
So had God gone on vacation or ceased to be active in human affairs? Had God ceased to communicate with men and women?
You remember the story. It was probably just before dawn in the sanctuary of God. The old priest, Eli, was sound asleep. Samuel, Eli’s helper, this young priest-in-training heard something. He heard a voice calling his name. “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel ran to Eli’s bedside. “I heard you call. Here I am.” “I didn’t call you. Go back to bed,” said the old priest. But Samuel heard the voice again. Again the boy went to Eli with the same result. When it happened the third time, it dawned on Eli that God must be calling young Samuel. This time, Eli instructed Samuel that if the voice came again, he should say: “Speak, God. I’m your servant, ready to listen.” When Samuel did just that, God gave him the first of many messages for God’s people.
IN ORDINARY TIME, GOD WAS COMMUNICATING HIS WORD.
In one of the traditional church year lectionaries, a passage sometimes assigned for the Sunday after the Christmas season is over, or for the Sunday after Pentecost is 1 Samuel 3. After the festivals are over and the parties are finished, even in ‘ordinary time’ God still communicates His Word. Even in ordinary time, when visions were rare, God was calling Samuel to speak for Him. Even in ordinary time, even in the hour before the dawn when Eli and others were asleep, God was communicating His Word to Samuel. The key question was: “Would this messenger recognize God speaking and listen?”
Does God speak in ‘ordinary time?’ Oh yes, God does! But we may have to listen a little harder in a time when visions are rare. In ‘ordinary time’ God often speaks in ways that seem so ordinary. Samuel mistook the voice of God for the old priest’s voice But it was really God speaking.
Remember when Elijah, the prophet, was listening for the Word of the Lord? A huge wind swept over the mountain where the prophet stood. Surely, God would speak through wind. But no! Then an earthquake rolled across the mountain. Surely God would speak in the earthquake. But no! There was a fire, which furiously blazed around Elijah. Was God in the fire? No! Finally, after all the sound and fury, there was a “gentle whisper.” After turbulence and noise, God spoke to the listening prophet in a whisper.
God may speak in ways we don’t recognize as God. When things are ordinary, as they are a good bit of the time, we need to listen harder for God’s Word to us. We may need to listen harder for God’s Word through what seems nothing more than some ordinary voice we’ve heard so often. Richard Foster’s book on prayer has a chapter titled, “Praying the Ordinary.” Foster suggests that we both hear God speak and speak back to God through our work. “The artist, the novelist, the surgeon, the plumber, the secretary, the lawyer, the homemaker, the farmer, the teacher – all are praying by offering their work up to God.” (p.172) Foster quotes Catholic saint Ignatius Loyola: “Everything that one turns in the direction of God is prayer.”
When things are ‘ordinary,’ as they are a good bit of the time, we also need to keep listening to God’s Word in Scripture. For it is there that God often speaks to us if we will listen. Someone told me recently of continuing to have a regular quiet time with God even though he is going through a significant depression. Though he feels nothing, he is being faithful.
In ‘ordinary time’ we need to pray Samuel’s prayer again and again: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
What God says to us in His Word may not be to our liking. Do you think Samuel wanted to hear words of judgment against his mentor Eli? But Samuel listened and Samuel passed the Word on to Eli. Even in ordinary time God communicates His Word.
Some of us may have gotten the idea from well-meaning preachers and devotional writers that following Jesus is one great thrill, one nonstop rollercoaster ride of excitement. But we’re finding that it’s not that way at all. Maybe we’re wondering if there’s something wrong with us.
Some of us may be experiencing what one saint of the church called “the dark night of the soul.” This is a time in which we have no feelings of excitement about our spiritual life. And, according to John of the Cross, this 16th century saint, this is not a bad thing. Writes John of the Cross, “the ‘dark night’ is when . . . persons lose all the pleasure that they once experienced in their devotional life. This happens because God wants to purify them and move them on to great heights.”
So what do we need in order to walk effectively through these dark nights, through these ‘ordinary times’ of life? I suggest that we, like Hannah, need PATIENT HOPE that is willing to wait for what God is bringing to birth in us. We need patient hope that is willing to wait for God’s time and God’s timing. We need patient hope that is willing to wait for God’s answers to our fervent prayer.
Like young Samuel, we also need FAITHFUL LISTENING for the voice of God. We need to be faithful listeners to the Word even during the mundane and unexciting, everyday times of life. For even then God speaks if we listen for His voice.
Patient hope and faithful listening are not thrilling virtues, but necessary ones, necessary virtues if we are to continue to journey toward God and journey with Jesus during ordinary time – which, may well be a lot of the time.
Richard Foster offers this prayer: “Almighty, most holy, most high God, thank you for paying attention to small things. Thank you for valuing the insignificant. Thank you for being interested in the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Thank you for caring about me.” (p. 178)
H. Mark Abbott is pastor of First Free Methodist Church in Franklin, TN.