Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Getting Lost

dark woods getting lost

Texts used – 1 Samuel 3:1-10; Luke 15:1-10

  • About 15 years ago, Universal Studios came out with a fantastic movie called “Bruce Almighty.”[1]
    • Basic storyline:
      • Jim Carey = Bruce, a reporter at a local news station who’s tired of doing the “fluff” pieces → wants more recognition and notoriety that comes with being an anchorman
      • Bruce’s girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston) = tries to get him to stop and smell the roses sometimes – enjoy life and have faith instead of being focused on himself all the time
      • One day, Bruce has pretty much the worst day ever. He’s fired. He gets beat up. His beautiful, vintage sports car gets damaged. He gets in a fight with Grace. His dog refuses to house train. All bad. All the time. Bruce finds himself in the Dark Wood for sure.
        • Read scene descr. from Elnes’ book[2]
  • Friends, we cannot deny that we feel lost like Bruce sometimes.
    • Lost among the distractions of the world around us
    • Lost among our own ambitions and desires
    • Lost among relationships (healthy or otherwise)
    • Lost … just plain lost. And we don’t like feeling lost, especially when we’re in the midst of the Dark Wood. Being lost makes us feel helpless, stressed out, and shatteringly vulnerable. Whether we’re speaking metaphorically or whether we’re literally behind the wheel of our car and unsure of which way to turn, being lost is a profoundly unsettling experience. But we also cannot deny that part of life is getting lost. The road of life is not a straight, easy, simple road. It’s winding and hilly and full of challenging things like blind corners and unexpected detours. → sometimes getting lost is how we figure out that we’re in the Dark Wood in the first place – we think we know exactly where we’re going and how we’re going to get there … until suddenly we look up and realize we have no idea how we got where we are or how to go elsewhere
      • Reminder: Dark Wood = times of challenge and struggle in our lives → spending the summer exploring the many unexpected blessings we can find in the midst of the Dark Wood using Eric Elnes’ book Gifts of the Dark Woods: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers)[3]
        • Talked about how uncertainty leads us to trust
        • Talked about how emptiness reminds us to make space for God
        • Last week: talked about being led by those thunderstruck moments – flashes and reverberations of God in our lives
  • Today, we’re going to be talking about what a gift and a blessing it can be to actually get lost.
    • Elnes holds up both the uncomfortableness and the necessity of getting lost: Our journey through life is never a straight one, even if we are paying attention to our sweet-spot moments. The path zigzags. … We would probably be fine with all these twists and turns, more or less, if someone issued us a printed itinerary. But God seems to have forgotten about the itinerary. Instead, at each point where the journey needs to make a turn, we start to feel increasingly lost. In my own journey, this feeling of being lost prompts me to pay more careful attention to the signals that the Holy Spirit sends me. I pray and meditate longer and with greater attention.[4] → Sometimes, we need to figure out that we have no idea what we’re doing or where we are to discern where God is calling us to go. Taking us out of the ensconced-ness of our comfort zones makes us open our eyes in ways that we never expected … sometimes in ways that we never wanted to have to open them in the first place. But it’s only when our eyes have been unexpectedly opened in this way that we can finally begin to see those flashes of God that lead us along our new path.
  • Situation that Samuel finds himself in in our OT reading
    • Reminder of who Samuel is: Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was desperate for a child → husband had 2 wives and the other wife had children while Hannah didn’t, so she would taunt Hannah mercilessly → Hannah went to the temple to sacrifice and pray → of 1 Sam: She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”[5] → Eli the priest saw Hannah weeping and praying and eventually blessed her and her prayers → Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel → when Samuel is 3 yrs. old, she brings him to live in the temple to fulfill her promise to God – text: For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.[6]
    • And so in our text for today, we find Samuel as a young boy living in the temple and serving Eli, the priest. – text: Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.[7] → “The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.” Into this haziness, into this unknownness, into this Dark Wood of a time and place for the people of Israel, God begins to speak to Samuel. But Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice. Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s call. So he’s a little bit lost.
      • Text: Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.[8]
      • God calls Samuel once → Samuel thinks it’s Eli calling him and runs to his side → Eli tells Samuel to go lie down
      • God calls Samuel again → Samuel again runs to Eli’s side → Eli again tells Samuel to go lie down → I think we can imagine Eli getting a little frustrated at this point. He’s old. He can’t see anymore. He’s basically trying to take an afternoon nap. And this overanxious boy keeps running into his room, waking him up, and asking him what he wants when he never called for the kid in the first place!
      • God calls Samuel a 3rd time → Samuel again runs to Eli’s side → And this time, Eli finally tumbles to what’s going on. – text: Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been. Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”[9] → At first, Samuel is very thoroughly in the dark. He’s lost. He has no idea what’s going on. And in that lostness – in that disorientation – he’s open to suggestion. He thinks he knows what’s happening. He thinks he knows the way. He’s certain that Eli must be calling him because he can’t imagine another option. And yet that other path is there. Even before he’s aware of it, God is literally calling him to that path.
        • Elnes highlights a small but very important detail in Samuel’s story – Eli’s instruction: If he calls you, say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” → Samuel’s response when God’s calls the 3rd time: “Speak. Your servant is listening.” → “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
          • Elnes: Samuel repeats every word but one. He says, “Speak, for your servant is listening,” but leaves out the word Lord. This is classic Hebrew narrative technique indicating that Samuel still had his doubts. Yet despite his doubts about where the intuition was coming from, Samuel’s heart is indeed open, and he is rewarded for continuing to listen.[10]
  • Even when we don’t know it, even when we can’t feel it, even when we don’t even think to expect it, God is with us in the midst of our lostness. → NT passage this morning = all about lostness and the joy of finding
    • Part of a chapter in Luke all about lostness
      • Today’s text = parable of the lost sheep and parable of the lost coin
      • Just after today’s text = parable of the lost son (prodigal son)
    • Telling of these parables is (not surprisingly) precipitated by grumbling and judgment on the part of the Pharisees – text: All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”[11]
      • Addresses an important distinction → You see, one of the reasons that we can sometimes feel like we’re lost is because we don’t feel worthy to be found. We think that this time, we’ve screwed up too big, too hard, too profoundly. We think that whatever it is we’ve done takes us too deeply into those Dark Woods to ever be worth looking for let alone being found. The Pharisees thought that the people gathering around Jesus – those horrible tax collectors and (gulp) sinners!! – were beyond deserving to be found. And yet, through the parables that he tells, Jesus makes two things abundantly clear:
        • 1st = God is so determined to find these lost ones that leaving them lost doesn’t even cross God’s mind – text: Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? … Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it?[12] → Jesus makes it common sense. Of course you would track down the lost sheep. Of course you would hunt for your lost coin. You don’t just leave precious things lost. And neither does God.
        • Leads to 2nd thing Jesus makes clear = these lost ones are indeed precious to God – text: When he finds [the lost sheep], he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.” In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.[13] → In their lostness and in being found, these people are more precious to God than any other. And friends, at one point or another in our lives, we are all “these people.”
          • Elnes: When it comes to finding our place in this world, mistakes don’t matter nearly as much to God as they do to us, provided they’re our own mistakes. We tend to make the most serious mistakes when we’re trying to be someone else.[14]
  • When we are lost, it gives God the opportunity to find us, to sweep us up and remind us that we are treasured, that we were missed, that we are worth seeking. And it gives God the opportunity to direct us once again – to set our feet back on the path, to redirect our gaze, to reorient us and show us the way we should go. But we have to be open to that leading – not only open to the idea of it but open to listening and watching for it.
    • Guidance of God is not always flashy and Hollywood-worthy and obvious – Elnes asks an important question: I wonder how many of us miss the Spirit calling us into great and wonderful work (or offering powerful help in a time of crisis) simply because we expect the signs to be more clear and for God to act with more supernatural bravado?[15] → If we think about last week when we talked about the gift of being thunderstruck, this sort of goes hand-in-hand with that idea. Sometimes, the leadings and direction of the Holy Spirit are those bright, hard-to-miss lightning flashes that illuminate the path in front of us. But sometimes – most times! – God is much more subtle than that. The Holy Spirit nudges and whispers far more often than she shoves and hollers. And it will happen not just once but over and over and over again.
      • Elnes: People who find and live into their calling rarely do so without getting lost first. Yet since there are no straight or clear paths in the Dark Wood of life, they do not cease to get lost after once being found. Rather, those who embrace life in the Dark Wood gradually learn that the regular experience of getting lost is one of the most important gifts we can receive.[16] So friends, let’s get lost. Amen.

[1] “Bruce Almighty,” distr. by Universal Pictures, released May 2003.

[2] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 86-87.

[3] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.

[4] Elnes, 84-85.

[5] 1 Sam 1:10-11 (NRSV).

[6] 1 Sam 1:27-28 (NRSV).

[7] 1 Sam 3:1.

[8] 1 Sam 3:7.

[9] 1 Sam 3:8c-10.

[10] Elnes, 98.

[11] Lk 15:1-2.

[12] Lk 15:4, 8.

[13] Lk 15:5-7.

[14] Elnes, 99.

[15] Elnes, 98.

[16] Elnes, 83-84.