1 Samuel 3
A former student, Rev. Dr. Carol Jablonski, sent me a link to this sermon she preached a few weeks ago at St. Andrew's Church, College Park, Maryland.
1 Samuel 3:1-20
The calling of Samuel is one of the most memorable call stories in the Old Testament. It stands out from the call stories of other prophets because it’s not clear to Samuel that the voice he is hearing in the middle of the night is the voice of God.
Samuel thinks Eli is calling. Eli, the priest of the temple, is there with Samuel. The two of them are sleeping in the temple, where Eli is a priest and Samuel an acolyte.
Eli belonged to an ancient family of priests that could be traced all the way back to the time of the great exodus. God told Moses to tell the people of Israel, the people who had escaped the evil of slavery and crossed through the Red Sea, that they were special to God. God had chosen and called them, and set them apart to be a holy people. God wanted them to become a nation, a kingdom of priests—and be a sign to the Gentiles—a sign of God’s power to save. (Exodus 19:3-6)
But God’s people were afraid--afraid of getting too near to God. They didn’t want to be too overwhelmed by God. And so God made Moses and Aaron his priests, and concentrated the priesthood on their descendants.
By Eli’s time, many centuries later, the priesthood was very narrowly understood and poorly practiced. And that’s the way it was with Eli. In our reading today, we hear that Eli’s vision has grown dim. Much is failing Eli besides his eyesight. His sons are saying wicked things against God, and Eli can’t constrain them. His inner sight had also grown dim.
Our reading begins with the sad declaration that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days: visions were not widespread.” The people Eli serves have not heard God’s word. Even Samuel, the acolyte who serves in the temple, “does not know God. The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.”
One night, Samuel does hear God’s word, only he doesn’t know that. He thinks it is Eli who is calling his name. “Samuel, Samuel.” It’s the same form of address that God uses every time he wants to get someone’s attention in the Bible. “Moses, Moses.” “Samuel, Samuel.” When you hear your name repeated like that, you don’t need to check to see who is calling. But Samuel doesn’t know any of this yet. He thinks Eli is calling him, and so he gets up to see what the older man needs.
The third time Samuel hears the LORD call him, Eli tells him to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And when God calls Samuel a fourth time, that’s exactly what Samuel does.
There is something very satisfying about Samuel’s response to God’s call.
At first Samuel doesn’t know who is calling him, and then he does.
Eli is nearly blind, but he is able to see that it is God who keeps waking Samuel up.
Despite being a flawed priest and failed father, Eli is still able to help a young person in his charge do the right thing.
But there is also something disconcerting about the story that is sometimes left out of the lectionary. And that’s what God tells Samuel. God tells Samuel that he has news that will make the ears of anyone who hears it tingle. God tells Samuel that something new is about to happen. It’s so new, God says, that it’ll make your ears tingle.
What kind of news makes our ears tingle? Think for a moment about the last time you heard something that made your ears tingle. I know that for me, it’s when I hear news that changes everything I know and care about.
Sometimes the news is good news, like when I was 19 and my older sister told me she was getting married. I was happy for her, but I knew that nothing was ever going to be the same in our family. There is also sad news, the news we hear when someone we know has been in a car accident, has been given a poor prognosis, or has died. And some of the news we hear that can make our ears tingle is about things that happen in our school or workplace, our community, or our nation. When our ears tingle, it’s not always easy to stay cool, calm, and collected.
That’s what makes Eli’s response to what Samuel tells him so interesting. God tells Samuel that God is going to put an end to the corruption and wickedness of Eli’s house, and that nothing could be done to stop it. Eli says, “It is the LORD, let him do what seems good to him.” Eli continues to have a role in the Book of Samuel. He continues to be linked with the failure of the old religious system.
And so in that larger story, the calling of Samuel signals the passing of the torch between a religious system that isn’t working and a new one that will take its place. It’s a hinge story between a complicated past (that isn’t quite over) and a future that will be different from anything God’s people have experienced before.
The story of Samuel’s calling has special resonance for us during the Epiphany season. During Epiphany, we remember that Christ came not just for us, but for the world. And the reason that news makes our ears tingle, especially in these days, is that the old religious order, the way we have experienced the church, is changing. There are many reasons for that. Some of them are demographic. Some of them are cultural and ideological. Some of them are theological. And some of them are economic. The fact that we are facing financial challenges, not only here at St. Andrew’s, but throughout the church, means that we have to listen all the more carefully to what God is saying to us.
The new thing that God is doing with us will take time to discern and to process. In the coming months and years, we are going to need to keep saying, “speak Lord, we are listening,” and be willing to listen to one another as each of us is given a word to share. And we should be especially alert to what our children and youth, and all our members, new and old, who are young in the faith, have to say to us.
Like Samuel, you may have been given a word that makes your elders uncomfortable. You may be given a word that makes you uncomfortable sharing it. But we need to hear and ponder what you have to say.
And all of us need to pray that God will give us the grace to listen as Eli did, with respect and love for one another, trusting God’s power to bring about this new thing in the church and in us.
This day, it is good for us to remember that we belong to God. We are God’s own people, called and chosen, and set apart. Because Christ has come to us, and lives in us and among us, we do not have to live in fear. God has come near. God is with us even now. Even as we listen for God to open our hearts and minds to God’s call for us, let us remember that we share in Christ’s own priesthood. We belong to the priesthood of believers. Now let us pray for the grace to follow Christ’s example, and show the world the saving power of our God.