Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-21
This fall we have been making our way through the Old Testament, looking at some of what you might call the Old Testament’s greatest hits, and this morning we jump ahead several generations from Moses. The Israelites have now established themselves in the Promised Land. But after leaders like Moses and Joshua who followed him, leadership and authority and structure has become a little murky.
Israel at this point is not really an organized nation. In fact, as the book of Judges comes to an end, tribal wars threaten to tear the people apart. The people have made it to the Promised Land, but things are far from perfect.
It is in such a time that Samuel comes into the picture. A man named Elkanah has two wives, one of whom is barren. This is a recurring theme – such was the case with Sarah and then with Rachel, and we will find this again in the New Testament with Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.
Elkanah and his family would go to the temple to offer a sacrifice each year. On such a visit, Hannah pleads with God for a child, promising that she will dedicate this child to God. She is in the midst of such yearning, heartfelt prayer, but she is praying silently, yet with her lips moving. Eli the priest observes this and assumes she is drunk. “How long are you going to make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” he asks. Hannah explains what is going on, and Eli tells her that God will grant her petition. God does answer her prayer, and she dedicates the child to God’s service. When he is old enough, Samuel goes to live with the priest Eli and his family in the temple.
This brings us to our text for today. The boy Samuel, living in the temple, hears a voice calling in the night. He hears this voice three times, and each time Samuel gets up to see what the old priest Eli wants.
But Eli has not called him. And even Eli does not understand what is happening right away. But eventually, Eli understands. After the third time, Eli tells Samuel to answer “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel does as Eli instructs, and God speaks to him.
To be real honest, it’s kind of a scary story. As a child, I would hear this story in Sunday School and feel bad for Samuel, this little boy living what sounded like a sad and lonely life in this cold, dark temple. They would have those pictures, some of you remember those Sunday School pictures, of Hannah bringing him a new coat on her yearly visit and Samuel was smiling and looked happy. This didn’t seem quite right to me. Even though it involved a little boy, it wasn’t really that cheery a story for a kid to hear.
As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate it as a great story, because it turns the tables on what we would expect. To whom would God speak – a veteran priest, or a little kid?
Although, when we read the whole story, God was really speaking to both of them, and both needed the other in order to hear God. On his own, Samuel did not comprehend that God was speaking to him. He needed Eli. But the message God had for Samuel was a message of judgment on Eli’s family. His sons were corrupt and blasphemous and made a mockery of the priesthood, and Eli had sat idly by and let it continue – he was complicit in it. God had a message for Eli, but Eli needed Samuel to hear it. Both Eli and Samuel needed the other.
That is often the way it works. We can have a hard time hearing God all by ourselves – we need each other. Young Samuel needed the experience and maturity of Eli, who perceived that God was speaking. But somehow, Eli wasn’t hearing God himself - maybe he wasn’t really listening – and it was the boy Samuel who gave him God’s message.
No matter what our age, we all need some help in hearing and responding to God, and in figuring out whether God is the one speaking to us. This story is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on God’s call on our lives.
Now, to hear those words, “God’s call,” a lot of folks assume that has to do with being called to ministry or being called to be a missionary. Or maybe being called to some grand, difficult task – like Moses being called to lead the people out of Egypt. Sometimes that is the case, but the fact is that God has a call on each of our lives.
What does Jesus say to his disciples? “Come, follow me.” That is a call for everyone. What does Micah say? “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” God has a call for each of us.
God called Samuel not just in the middle of the night, but in the middle of a bleak time, a difficult time. A time of upheaval and uncertainty. A time of political tribalism.
How did the scripture put it? “The word of the Lord was rare. People did what was right in their own eyes.”
The call of God may come in difficult times. Maybe it is a voice calling in the night, but maybe it is anger at the way things are that prods us to do God’s work. I was at the AMOS meeting on Monday night, and heard about the difficulty so many people have in finding decent, affordable housing. There are those for whom advocacy for affordable housing for everyone is a calling.
God can call us in all sorts of ways, and our discomfort and disillusionment and aggravation with the way things are well may be a starting point for a sense of call.
Our call may come suddenly in the night, as it did for Samuel, or it can come through a gradual sense of purpose and direction.
We live in a world where the notion of hearing God’s voice sounds, well, a little crazy. The idea that God might speak to us, whether it is through a voice or a dream or righteous anger or a growing awareness or a deep conviction - however it happens, the idea that God might speak to us is for many people a little bit suspect. And the ability to hear God’s call, to perceive that God is speaking to us, can be just as hard for us as it was for Samuel. Again, that is where Eli comes in. That is where we need one another.
Some of you remember Ross Talbot. I loved Ross. He was a longtime member of our church. He had been chair of the Political Science department at ISU. Ross was a skeptic. He always saw two sides to everything and he wasn’t afraid to ask questions. For years he taught our theology class along with Virgil Lagomarcino, Mary and Martha’s father.
I can remember being here for candidate weekend, when I came here as the prospective pastor. There were a few gatherings with various groups in the church. There was a dinner, I answered questions, and I preached on Sunday morning.
I don’t remember what the conversation had been exactly, but Ross said, and this was in a big all church gathering, “It seems to me that a lot of people talk about the will of God when what they are doing is just taking their own preferences and baptizing them with God’s blessing. And he asked what I thought about that and how do you know it’s God’s will?
Well as I said I came to love Ross but maybe not from that very first interaction. But he was absolutely right on target. How do we know God is calling us? We can ignore God’s call on the one hand, but we call also claim something as God’s call or God’s will when it suits our own purposes. We’ve seen it often enough. It might be a bigtime evangelists who says it is God’s will for folks to contribute so that he can him to have a Lear for his ministry (and in those cases it is almost always a “he.”) But we can be tempted to do the same thing on a much smaller scale, maybe not even realizing tha is what we are doing.
I don’t remember exactly how I responded to Ross, but part of the answer we find in our text this morning. The community can be so important. We can help one another to discern the way God would have us go. And it can be helpful to talk with folks who are maybe not exactly like us. It worked for Eli and Samuel.
Now there is another thing about the call of Samuel that strikes me. You don’t necessarily get it simply with today’s reading, but it comes through in the background, in the lead-in to this morning’s scripture.
When we read about Samuel’s family in the previous chapters, we learn that Samuel was not a Levite. He was from the tribe of Ephraim. This meant that he was not eligible to become a priest. He was not eligible to ever become a priest – that’s just the way the system worked. Yet God chose Samuel. God spoke to Samuel.
Eli’s sons are from the priestly line, and it is their birthright to serve in the Temple. But they have not acted justly. They have used their position for personal gain instead of service to the Lord. They were not concerned about God and God’s people, but only about themselves. So God looked elsewhere.
It turns out that God is bigger than the structures we try to build. And so God did not speak to the “official” or the expected persons, but to a kid from the tribe of Ephraim.
We can try to put limits on whom God may call or how God may work, but God is a lot bigger than our plans and ideas. The scriptures are filled with unlikely choices. Look at Jesus. Jesus does not call priests and prophets, he does not call movers and shakers – he calls fishermen and laborers as his disciples. Some of his best friends and followers are women. Power and position and prestige do not mean so much in God’s world. Everyone, even those seen as outsiders, have a place in God’s kingdom.
Now, there is another thing to take note of. The Israelites had crossed the Red Sea, they had escaped Egypt. But it did not insure a perfect life – life was still hard. And then they crossed the Jordan, into the Promised Land. And still, life was filled with difficulties and conflict. It would be hard to think of a time when Israel did not face significant challenges.
Think about Jesus. Life was not always a bed of roses. Think of the early church. There was persecution and hardship.
It’s not just Biblical times. Let’s face it: life is hard. Doing the right thing is hard. Answering God’s call does not insure that things will be easy. Samuel said, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And God asks Samuel to go to Eli – his mentor, his father in the faith – and tell him that his family is heading for ruin, that his sons have acted blasphemously and he has sat idly by and done nothing.
Not an easy job for a kid. Or for anyone. But the thing is, God doesn’t necessarily call us to things that are easy. Telling truth that is difficult to hear isn’t easy. But then, a lot of the things God calls us to are difficult.
Loving your neighbor isn’t always easy. Caring for the downtrodden isn’t always easy. Working for justice isn’t easy. Bringing hope where there is despair isn’t easy. Sharing good news in a bad news kind of world isn’t easy. We are called to follow Jesus, and let’s face it: following Jesus isn’t easy.
It’s not easy – but it is the way to truly find joy and peace and hope. It isn’t easy – but it is what this world desperately needs. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.