Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-10
From our text this morning, it seems that Samuel and Eli could have benefited from a smart phone that has voice recognition. Or even better, the new iphone from Apple—the one that has Siri, the faceless voice that, according to Apple, not only understands what you say, but is smart enough to know what you mean. After the first time Samuel went to Eli, and Eli said that it wasn’t he who called out to Samuel, Samuel could have asked Siri, “Who’s calling my name and why?” And I am quite sure that Siri would have immediately responded, “It is God.” Yes, it is tempting to give old Eli and young Samuel a hard time for taking three times before they recognized God’s voice. But if we are honest, a more appropriate response from us would be, “It only took them three times to know that it was God.” Especially given that our text tells us that God had not been talking much in those days.
To fully understand what’s going on in I Samuel 3:1-10, it helps to set the context. At the beginning of our text, we are told that the word of God had become rare and visions were few. We are not told why this is so, but if we read back a few chapters we can guess. In the second chapter of Samuel we find that the sons of Eli the priest—who were priests themselves—took advantage of their religious position by forcing worshippers to relinquish part of their sacrificial offerings for the sons’ personal benefit. We also discover that the sons of Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas, had sexual relations with the women who served at the entrance to meeting tent. And we learn how Eli, despite the pleas of the people and the warning of a mysterious man of God, did nothing to discipline his sons or correct the injustices they perpetrated. So when the narrator tells us at the outset of the third chapter that the word of God has become rare, it is not difficult to attribute the rarity of God’s word to the corrupt behavior of Israel’s priestly leaders; to the failings of Eli and his sons. From the outset, it is important to understand that this story is a story of endings. The people despair at the corruption of Eli’s sons and the failure of leadership in a crucial time. God is not pleased and things must change. This is the back narrative to the part of the story we begin with—the call of Samuel.
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Samuel was about 12 years old when he heard a voice calling his name in the Temple. Samuel’s mother was Hannah, who at the beginning of the narrative is barren and childless. Hannah goes to the temple tent to pray to God for a child. Eli, the priest, who is sitting at the foot of the doorpost in the sanctuary at Shiloh, sees her mumbling and thinks she is drunk. Once Eli realizes that she is not drunk, but instead is sincere in her prayers, he blesses her after she promises the child to God. Hannah becomes pregnant, gives birth, and names her child Samuel. After he is weaned, she leaves him in Eli’s care where he learns the role of priestly duty. In the biblical story, Samuel was the last of the Hebrew Judges and the first of the major prophets who began to prophesy inside the land of Israel. We know him best as the prophet who anointed the first two kings of the Kingdom of Israel: Saul and David.
Earlier, I said that that this story of Eli and Samuel is a story of endings. But it is also a story of beginnings. The chapter opens with the absence of God’s word—“the word of God was rare and visions were not widespread”—but it ends with the proclamation of God’s word through Samuel. The story opens with corrupt and discredited religious leadership in place, but closes with a new and vigorous leadership, recognized by all Israel. Walter Brueggemann writes of this text, “There is a chance for newness, and that chance is rooted in Hannah’s piety…in Eli’s yielding, in Samuel’s availability, [and] in God’s resolve to do a new thing.”
So, the question that always confronts us when we read the biblical text, is what relevance does this story have for us today? Bruce Birch, professor of Old Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, warns us of the church’s traditional interpretation of this text. He notes that in the church’s use of this text the focus has almost always been on it as a simple story of God’s call and the way in which we often fail to recognize it. Such interpretation, he says, “becomes a generalized story of God’s calling and the need for discernment so that we do not mistake God’s voice for the human voices of authority that surround us.” While this is a legitimate element of the story, he notes that, “it ignores the fact that God’s call did not come to Samuel—nor does it come to us—in general circumstances. It is not simply another experience on the road to religious maturity. This is not a narrative of Samuel’s general religious awakening. Samuel is called by God in a time of spiritual desolation, religious corruption, political danger, and social upheaval. The word of God is rare; the sons of Eli are corrupt; the Philistines are about to threaten Israel’s survival; the pressures to move toward kingship will soon grow to overwhelming.”
Birch concludes, “If the context for Samuel’s experience is harsh, so too is the message he is told to bring. We sometimes celebrate so-called mountaintop religious experience as ends in themselves, without considering what the God we encounter in religious experience demands of us. Samuel is called to deliver a harsh message of judgment that is necessary if there is to be a hopeful new beginning for Israel in this trying time…The call [the waking up to God] is to a prophetic task…We are urged not only to discern God’s voice but to listen to what it asks of us as well. We are called to become the channel for God’s prophetic word to our own time.”
I would dare say that, in our lifetime, no one knew the depth of this truth more than the man whose life and ministry we remember, honor, and celebrate this weekend. For sure, Martin Luther King knew the demands of speaking God’s prophetic word. He, too, lived in a time of spiritual desolation, religious corruption, political danger, and social upheaval. And yet, like Samuel, he risked delivering a harsh message of judgment that was necessary for there to be a hopeful new beginning. It seems that every generation has such a time; and the question that has relevance for us today is who will be that prophetic voice in our time and for this time? Will it be the church? Will the church have the courage to name its own spiritual desolation and religious corruption for a hopeful word and new beginning? Will it be you? Will it be me? Will we, as people of faith, risk speaking prophetically—sometimes speaking words of harsh judgment on our societal structures—for the sake of God’s justice and truth and equality for all people? Will we set aside our smart phones that are all to eager to hear our questions and tell us what they mean, in exchange for quieting our souls to listen for God’s voice and then do what is required of us—to actually make different choices about how we are living and being in our world? It is, indeed, a challenge for our generation—to put down our gadgets, to quiet the voices that shout intolerance and privilege, to not buy into the popular ideology of the day that offers a quick fix but is devoid of integrity. It is a challenge, for our times, to quiet our soul and spirit so that we might hear when God calls our name. If Samuel, Eli, and Martin Luther King’s lives teach us anything about waking up to God’s voice, it is that hearing our name called and being God’s prophetic voice in our world demands something of us.
In the end, the stories of Samuel and Eli, and of Martin Luther King, remind us that the divine word is often mediated through human words. In our efforts to discern God’s truth, we recognize in this story the profound need for community. Samuel, then Eli, and finally all Israel requires the mediation of others to hear and understand God’s word for their lives. Waking up to God is not an isolated mountaintop experience that we leave behind once we return to our everyday lives. No, waking up to God is about discerning God’s voice, speaking prophetically to the religious and social corruption of our day, and then having the courage to take responsibility for what lies beyond the judgment.
On August 16, 1967, Martin Luther King addressed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The title of his speech was, “Where Do We Go From Here?” a question our text raises today. Listen to his words. “I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will be still rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again with tear-drenched eyes have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future…When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in the universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
The call of Samuel ends with these words, “Now God came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’” Our call continues, if we choose, with these words, “Now God came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Pullen, Pullen!’ And Pullen said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’”
In waking up to God voice, we can always trust that God is present and doing a new thing—that there is a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.
May we hear God calling our name as clearly as Samuel did; even if we, too, need three chances.