Wiarton Willie's prediction of 6 more weeks of winter this past Tuesday may not be exactly 'welcome' (if you go by that sort of thing); many of us would be happy if we didn't get any more snow than we already have. As the sign in front of Sparling's Propane put it - "Thanks for nothing, Willie!"

Yet while the coldest, darkest season may not be over tomorrow, still the lengthening days do give hope of spring's return.

Economically the 'big chill' that began with the collapse of the subprime mortgage market is not likely to thaw anytime soon, either. The news carries more announcements of layoffs: Hobart in Owen Sound, and Listowel Technology; the unemployment rate jumped in December from 6.6 to 7.2% in Canada, and from 7.2 to 8% in Ontario. Yet still there is hope for an eventual turnaround, as government leaders prepare to start injecting capital into infrastructure projects.

In our own personal lives, it can also seem dark at times: we may be struggling with some roadblock that seems hopeless, an ongoing physical condition, or a temptation that is proving difficult to overcome. The police crackdown on people accessing and producing child porn reminds us it's not just those in Thailand or big cities that yield to such wickedness.

Tuesday Yvonne and I attended an event for pastors and spouses put on by Focus on the Family in Waterloo. The theme, 'Saving Pastor Ryan', emphasized that pastors are engaged in a conflict by virtue of merely serving Christ. Sometimes the casualties are those in our own families who pay the price when we don't manage our time well. Niagara Falls pastor John Garner, our speaker for the morning, said it was when he saw the pain and resentment in his wife's eyes, and heard it in her voice, that he realized he himself was the architect of the 'house of pain' his family was in. Not long after that he took 3 months off, working with a Christian doctor and counsellor to address his 'need to be needed' stemming partly from his roots as an adopted child. That was the beginning of a big change in his life. His wife later remarked that he could write a book entitled, I Grew Up at 50.

Sometimes it seems darkest just before the dawn. Last Sunday we saw how Israel about 1100 BC was at one of its lowest points as a nation: religiously they were corrupt, as idolatry was being embraced; the 12 tribes were politically fragile; and the focus of their nation, the sanctuary at Shiloh, was destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant captured by pagans. Could it get any worse?

Yet even as the nation was paying for the wickedness and corruption of its leaders, God was already preparing a new leader, a prophet, who would come on the scene and make a huge difference. Samuel proved absolutely pivotal in heading the nation towards its 'Golden Age' under David and Solomon within a century.

A key thing about Samuel's ministry is that he realized the importance of hearing from God, heeding His word, letting the Lord communicate to us and shape our wills according to His will. Before Samuel started his ministry, we see how low the spiritual state of the nation was summarized in 3:1: "in those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions." Not much communication happening; Eli's sons had their own physical pleasure in mind more than pleasing God. In a couple of weeks we'll hopefully look more in detail at young Samuel's first interaction with the Lord: after both he and old Eli had gone to bed, the Lord came calling. It took Eli a few repetitions to 'twig' that this might be God speaking. He told the boy Samuel to reply, "Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening." (3:9) And God shared some startling news with the lad. So, in this formative experience, Samuel encountered God as One who speaks when we're willing to listen. The Lord isn't deaf or speechless like carved idols, but alive, eager to connect and convey His mind/vision/will to us.

As Samuel became familiar with God's word, the Lord established Samuel's word. Hear the emphasis on 'word' in 3:19-4:1: "The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. And Samuel's word came to all Israel." Quite a contrast to years earlier, when "in those days the word of the Lord was rare."

While other leaders (so-called 'judges') had guided the tribes previously to military deliverance from their enemies, Samuel is the first 'judge' to take his 'show on the road' so to speak, systematically holding court and teaching people throughout the country. 7:16-17 says, "From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places. But he always went back to Ramah, where his home was, and there he also judged Israel..." So there were at least 4 locations in his circuit, where he would disseminate God's truth about how to live - whether as part of resolving disputes in court, or plain 'teaching'. We can infer the teaching role from 12:23 where he says in NRSV (echoed literally and in the King James version), " far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; and I will instruct you in the good and the right way." (1Sa 12:23 NRSV) BBE has "go on teaching", NLT "continue to teach". So Samuel, sometimes referred to as last of the judges and first of the prophets, is very deliberate about hearing and relaying God's word: teaching the people systematically what's right and wrong. Establishing the reference points for culture to find its way on a godly map.

A quick aside here: excitement is building among many in our community about a possible new bigger regional school that will offer kids better facilities, more specialized teachers, and more advanced technology than our current aging smaller schools. But let's remember that technology and 'newness' are not necessarily one bit better spiritually. It's been said in the meetings that about half the students attending the Catholic high school are from non-Catholic families; for many of these parents, a big factor is the values and discipline not the newness or technology. A big school may offer some advantages, but it can't save. Neither as a parent can you rely on Catholic or even 'Christian' schools to impart real religion to your kids. That's got to come from home, it can't be 'delegated'. As Samuel influenced his 'domain' of Israel, God looks to parents to bring their children up in His 'pedagogy', instruction, mind-leading (Ephesians 6:4). They're YOUR 'domain'; what's your 'circuit'? (Prayer at table, at bedtime, Bible story-books, suppertime devotionals - there are some starters!)

Beside his regular teaching and judging ministry, Samuel played a key role at a crucial time when Israel switched from a loose tribal confederacy to a central government led by a king. In 8:5 the people ask him to appoint a king to lead them "such as all the other nations have". Samuel prayed about it; the Lord said to listen to them, not to take it as a personal rejection, for it was God (who'd led them out of Egypt up til now) they were rejecting. Samuel conceded to their wishes, but warned them with a long speech about the costs of kingship and the demands that would be made on them. He anoints Saul as their first king; but look closely in 10:25 how he sets bounds on kingship, framing it with accountability to God's word: "Samuel explained to the people the regulations of the kingship. He wrote them down on a scroll and deposited it before the LORD..." Hmmm...even kings are subject to regulations! This doesn't sound like other oriental despots who enjoyed absolute power and authority, their every wish a command. The King had to obey God just like all the rest. This is explicit in 12:14, "If you fear the LORD and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the LORD your God-- good!"

The first king, Saul, even offers an example of the follow-through on this logic: when a king disobeys God, he loses his right to be king. In chapter 13 Saul doesn't wait for Samuel to come and offer a sacrifice as Samuel directed; instead Saul becomes impatient, goes ahead, and offers it himself. Samuel arrives and rebukes him (13:13f): ""You acted foolishly," Samuel said. "You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD's command." Kingship was conditional on submitting oneself to God's word, being 'after His own heart' - making what God wants, your desire, too.

Again, in chapter 15 Saul fails to carry out fully a mission executing God's vengeance on the Amalekites. Note Samuel's rebuke in 23,26: "Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has rejected you as king."

That's two times he's been told: did Saul get the point? Is there a third time? Even after Samuel dies, the truth persists. In chapter 28 Saul in desperation consults a medium to conjure up Samuel. He needn't have bothered. Samuel's message about Saul's upcoming defeat and death is (28:18), "Because you did not obey the Lord...the Lord has done this to you today." Kingship, in the Biblical view, is conditional upon governing in harmony with God's principles. Samuel drives this home exactly at the time the office of king is instituted. Samuel is a powerful 'maker' of kings - even anointing Saul's successor, David - but he uses this role to point even the nation's leaders in the direction of honouring God as Lord of lords.

God helped Samuel have insight how to set up government at a critical time in the nation's history. We are so blessed to live in an electoral democracy - not a feudal state with an emperor or warlords calling the shots, nor a dictatorship swayed by cartels. This is precious, but not easily brought about. Samuel's principles were reflected in the works of Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish Presbyterian minister in the 1600s who wrote a book Lex, Rex ("The Law is King") disputing absolute monarchy. His book was burned and he was convicted of high treason (however he had already died by this point, about age 61). But his writings laid the foundation for other constitutional theorists such as Hobbes and Locke. The Bible shows the right to govern ought to be based on godly principle and divine standards, rather than sheer power.

But before becoming a king-maker, in his younger years Samuel played a singularly important role as judge and prophet - calling the nation back to its spiritual roots, and releasing God's help to cope with invaders. At the beginning of chapter 7 we read (v2), "It was a long time, twenty years in all, that the ark remained at Kiriath Jearim, and all the people of Israel mourned and sought after the LORD." They realized they were being disciplined for their idolatry. Two decades of defeat and oppression by the Philistines. Then Samuel called them to return to God by ridding themselves of their Baals and Ashtoreths - foreign idols - and God would deliver them from the Philistines. In v5 he called them to assemble at Mizpah where he'd intercede with God for them. There, they conducted a unique ceremony - drawing water and pouring it out before the Lord (v6); the NIV Study Bible comments, "It appears to symbolize the pouring out of one's heart in repentance and humility before the Lord." Meanwhile Samuel is interceding for them, "crying out" to the Lord for the people (7:5, 8f). They fast and confess their sins. It's a time of real repentance and somber revival.

Meanwhile the Philistines caught wind of the assembly and came to attack them. Things looked grim - the Philistines were technologically superior, harbouring the secrets of iron-making to themselves, so they were the ones with the swords and the chariots. But just as the enemy is drawing near, preparing to attack, Samuel perfoms a simple ceremony - offering a lamb as a whole burnt offering. "He cried out to the Lord on Israel's behalf, and the Lord answered him."

What happened next began to turn the tide for the Israelites for decades. 7:10: "...that day the LORD thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites." Scholars conjecture how thunder and heavy rain might have undone battle strategy based on horses and chariots, but the upshot was (v13), "So the Philistines were subdued and did not invade Israelite territory again. Throughout Samuel's lifetime, the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines." To mark the significant victory, Samuel takes a stone and sets it up as a marker - perhaps a warning barrier to potential invaders. He names it Ebenezer, 'stone of help', saying, "Thus far has the Lord helped us." Through repentance, prayer, and simple obedient ritual, Samuel led a broken-down, poured-out nation to victory. Not by military might but through reliance on God's help. Perhaps Samuel's victory would encourage a young shepherd boy who not many years hence would shun armour and kill a giant with a slingshot after saying, "All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves..." (1Sam 17:47)

Samuel truly was a powerful leader in Israel, who impacted the nation very much. Even in his farewell speech he called on the Lord to underline the importance of Samuel's words. 1Sam 12:16-18: "'Now then [Samuel says], stand still and see this great thing the LORD is about to do before your eyes! Is it not wheat harvest now? I will call upon the LORD to send thunder and rain. And you will realize what an evil thing you did in the eyes of the LORD when you asked for a king.' Then Samuel called upon the LORD, and that same day the LORD sent thunder and rain. So all the people stood in awe of the LORD and of Samuel." He called on God, and the Lord heard him; Samuel's very name means 'heard of God'. The Lord hears us when we cry out to Him for help.

The New Testament also talks of God's help for those who repent and look to Him. When Jesus raised the dead son of a widow, people exclaimed, "God has come to help His people!" (Lk 7:16) Paul on trial could state, "I have had God's help to this very day." (Ac 26:22) He could write to the church at Rome, "The Spirit helps us in our weakness" - interceding for us with groans understood by the heart of our Heavenly Father.

Jesus told His disciples He was going away so another could come to remain with them - the Holy Spirit; but He used a special Greek word 'paraclete', "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." (Joh 14:26) "When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me." (Joh 15:26) The word "Counselor" translates Paraclete, "one called alongside to help". God urges us to let Him be our Ebenezer, our Helper. The author of the letter to the Hebrews says, "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Heb 4:16)

On a particularly rough airplane flight, a lady became very airsick. Her shoulders drooped, and her head slumped forward--she was totally wiped out. The stewardess came by to help her. "Come, come now," she said, "buck up and get control of yourself. Sit up and take courage." She put her arm under the lady's arm and helped her sit upright in her seat, gave her gum to chew, and then went to get her some water. With the help of the stewardess, the lady finished the trip in far better condition than she began it in.

That's like the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He comes alongside to help us when we are in hopeless defeat. He admonishes us, encourages us, and restores hope and faith in our lives. Let's pray.