The calling of Samuel

Sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany
1 Samuel 3:1-20

It can be tempting to assume that biblical times were entirely different from our own—that God was somehow closer to humankind, widely experienced as a living day-to-day reality. Easier to believe, in other words. How could you doubt or second-guess faith in that biblical landscape in which God was constantly showing up?

And yet listen again to these words from tonight’s reading from 1st Samuel: “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (1 Samuel 3:1) Really? And pay close attention here, for when the word of God does come, it is directed to a child. Not just any child, either, but one born to a woman who had long thought herself unable to become pregnant. In the Hebrew scriptures, whenever an unlikely or impossible child is born something very new is about to happen.

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Let me back us up to the beginning of 1st Samuel, and place this story in its context. The story is set close to the end of the 200-year period between the arrival of the Israelites in the Promised Land and the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel. This was a period in which the people functioned as a tribal league, with no king, no standing army, no Jerusalem, no grand temple. When an army was needed, it was raised up under the leadership of one of the “judges” of the people, but as soon as the crisis ended everyone tucked their weapons away and went back to farming. The Ark of the Covenant—the container that housed the tablets of the law—was kept at Shiloh, housed in a modest religious shrine and tended by the priest Eli.

As 1st Samuel opens, we are introduced to a childless woman named Hannah, and in that world to be childless was to be future-less. Though we are told that she is much loved by her husband, Hannah is inconsolable. On their yearly visit to the shrine at Shiloh, Hannah prays the kind of bargaining prayer so often voiced by people who have all but lost hope. She vows to God that if a child is granted she will give him back into a life of service at the shrine. The priest Eli sees her praying, and though at first he mistakes her emotional desperation for drunkenness, in compassion he joins her in prayer, and offers hopeful words of blessing over her life. Well, one thing leads to another, and once home Hannah and her husband discover that she has indeed conceived.

But wait. The priest Eli, too, has a story involving children. He has two adult sons—Hophni and Phineas—and they’ve inherited the role of priests. But, the text tells us, “the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.” Among their other transgressions, “they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting;” a pretty clear signal that their priesthood was little more than a means to personal gain and privilege.

That is the background to what we heard read tonight. Hannah has indeed offered her son Samuel into service at Shiloh, entrusting him to the care of Eli. Eli is not a young man—his “eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see”—and so you can imagine that the boy Samuel was pretty much indispensible to his priestly ministry in that place. It is night, and the two of them have bedded down in their own rooms. In the dark the boy Samuel hears a voice, calling his name. “Here I am!” the boy calls, and runs to Eli. “Here I am, you called me.” It had probably happened before, with the old man needing help with some late night task or another. “But Eli said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So Samuel went and lay down.”

Well, you heard the story read aloud. The same thing is repeated twice, and because “Samuel did not yet know the Lord,” he just keeps going to Eli’s room. On this third time, Eli realizes that something else is going on here. Go back and lie down, the old priest tells him, and if you hear that voice again answer by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And sure enough, that voice is heard again, and this time Samuel responds, “Your servant is listening.”

To this point, the narrative is quite lovely, isn’t it? It is a kind of charming domestic picture of the old priest helping this young boy to stay still and to listen to the voice of God. It is a calling story, which is why the lectionary lands it on the same Sunday on which we read of Jesus calling Philip and Nathanael to follow him as his disciples. And you know, the lectionary cycle actually gives the option of reading just that opening section of the Samuel story. Just focus on these nice stories of being called to listen, to follow, to be faithful. Lets all sing kumbaya, and go home feeling a bit better about things.

Except that the story of the boy Samuel does continue, and to not read it is a problem. “Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.’” And what is it that has been spoken concerning the house of Eli? It is done. Because Hophni and Phineas are corrupt, and because Eli did nothing to hold them back, this inherited priestly family line is about to be ousted.

This is the word that Samuel hears? In a day when the word of the Lord was rare, this is how God chooses to start speaking? Imagine what was going on in the mind and heart and gut of that little boy when he heard that message. The text tells us that, “Samuel lay there until morning,” and is it any wonder? Wide-eyed and sleepless, staring into the darkness, wondering what he was going to say. “Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli,” the text tells us. No doubt.

But calling Samuel “my son,” Eli insists that the boy tell him all. “What was it that God told you? Do not hide it from me.” And so Samuel screws up his courage and blurts it all out. And then we get a picture of the character of the old priest at his best. Sure, he may have failed to reign in his reprobate sons, but he won’t fail to be a kind of father to Samuel. “It is the Lord,” Eli says, “let him do what seems good to him.” And the two remained together at Shiloh, until the day finally came when Eli died. His death is of a heart attack, though truth be told it was really heart-break over his sons that did it. But that is a story for another day.

You see, though, why we had to read the second part of young Samuel’s story? Otherwise we’d have had a nice story of a boy hearing God’s voice in the night, twinned with a story of Philip and Nathanael being invited to head out on the road to follow the dynamic rabbi Jesus. It is all enthusiasm and certainty… who wouldn’t sign on for that?

Instead we’re invited to face the other side of being called, namely that sometimes the claim God places on us is hard work, calling us into challenging territory. The Lord “will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” as the prophet Ezekiel images it (Ezekiel 36:26), and spiritually speaking that is major surgery. As Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, wrote in the flyleaf of his Bible, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.”

But you know, in the end I’m with Bob Pierce, and with Ezekiel. We really do need to be undone and remade like that, and probably more than just a few times over the course of life. And if like the boy Samuel we end up with sleepless nights of wrestling in the dark with our calling, may there be someone with the gracious wisdom of Eli to meet us in the morning, to encourage us to follow where God is threatening to lead us.

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