Scripture: 1 Samuel 3:1-18
Previously on Judges and Kings: the Israelites, after wandering in the desert for forty years, have entered and conquered the Promised Land, and have been living in it since then as a loose confederation of twelve tribes without a central leader. Every once in a while the people forget just who it was who brought them out of Egypt, and they do evil things and worship other gods, and they get conquered by another nation for a while, then the people cry out and God raises up a judge, or warrior-leader, to deliver them.
This pattern repeats throughout the book of Judges, only things get worse every time, so by the time we get to the last judge, Samson, he is no longer the heroic deliverer we hope for but rather a strong and powerful man hell-bent on his satisfying his every personal desire and exacting revenge on anyone who gets in his way.
By the time Samson dies, the people of Israel have descended into complete chaos. They are ruled by the Philistines. Law and order is absent. The tribes are at war among themselves. And the cycle we’ve seen throughout Judges has broken down. The people no longer cry out to God to get them out of this mess. It’s as if they don’t even know to anymore. Instead, a chorus begins to echo over and over toward the end of the book, all the way to the very last line: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
What does Israel need? A king. At least according to this author.
And we’ll get there. But not quite yet.
It’s against this backdrop of societal breakdown and anarchy that 1 Samuel begins, and the curtain opens on a woman named Hannah. Like other well-known biblical women before her and after, Hannah is unable to have children.
Every year Hannah, her husband Elkanah, and Elkanah’s smug second wife make a pilgrimage to Shiloh, where God’s tent sanctuary is stationed. Remember this is before we have a Temple, before Jerusalem is even the capital of Israel, so Shiloh is the worship center of Israel. In the sanctuary at Shiloh is the ark of the covenant, the chest that houses the Ten Commandments and represents God’s presence on earth, and tending to worship there are the high priest Eli and his two corrupt sons.
So Hannah and family go to Shiloh, and Hannah prays for God to give her a son. She prays harder than she’s ever prayed in her life. She prays so hard, in fact, that Eli initially thinks she’s drunk. Hannah promises God that if God gives her a son, she will make him a nazirite, that is, someone specially dedicated to God’s service, for his whole life.
God listens, and Hannah has a son, who she names Samuel. And once he’s weaned, she takes him back to Shiloh, and presents him to Eli, and says, “This is the son I prayed for. He’s here to work for you.” And so begins Samuel’s career as assistant to the high priest. And, the story goes, “The boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and the people.”
But remember as you hear this passage from 1 Samuel 3, anarchy and chaos still reign supreme around him. Because Samuel’s story is not just about Samuel himself. It’s about a nation in need of redemption, and the person God is going to use to make that happen.
As they say, the personal is political.
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” It seems like an odd way to begin a story. Has God really dropped off the scene altogether? Is God really silent? Is God no longer on speaking terms with God’s people? Is God just asleep at the wheel?
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” It doesn’t quite seem to jive with our Sunday School image of God, God who is always there for us and with us, the one set of footprints who carried us when we couldn’t walk.
Then again, even if the idea seems theologically suspect, maybe it makes sense in our experience. Have you ever been in a place or time where it seemed like God simply wasn’t speaking?
But remember, by the end of the book of Judges and the beginning of 1 Samuel, God’s people have forgotten how to even cry out to God for help. The lack of communication goes both ways. Maybe God is saving God’s breath. And I suppose it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to think that if the people have forgotten how to talk to God, they’ve also forgotten how to listen. Maybe God isn’t always as silent as we think.
But hear the good news: into this time and place when the word of the Lord is rare, God does speak.
And it’s not to someone who is especially attuned to God’s voice, either. It’s night, and Samuel, now a young man, is on night duty, sleeping next to the ark of the covenant and tending the holy lamp, when he hears a voice. I can only hear this in the voice of my Sunday School teacher Mrs. Allender: “Saaaaaaaamuel, Saaaaaamuel.”
Of course Samuel thinks it must be Eli – who else could it be? – so he gets up and runs to him and says, “Here I am, you called?” And Eli says, “What? No. Go back to bed.”
So Samuel does, but then he hears it again: “Saaaaaamuel, Saaaamuel.” And he runs to Eli and Eli says, “Samuel, do you know what time it is? Go lie down.”
The story tells us that Samuel “did not yet know the Lord,” which is odd if you think about, because he’s grown up serving God, sleeping right next to God’s earthly footstool, but I suppose it’s possible to go through all the motions and do all the right things and not yet know God for yourself, not in a way that instantly lets you recognize God’s voice when it’s calling your name. And I suppose it’s possible, also, that no one really taught him to recognize God’s voice, because the people around him didn’t know how to recognize it either.
There it is again. “Saaaaaamuel, Saaaaaamuel.”
Again Samuel gets up and runs to Eli, and says, “Here I am, you called?” And this time Eli sits up, rubs his eyes, and realizes what’s happening. So he tells Samuel to go back to bed and next time, when he hears the voice, he should say: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Finally, someone is listening.
It strikes me that for a God who apparently hasn’t been speaking much, the voice of God sure is persistent.
And maybe we can take some comfort in that: that even in a time when it seems like God has nothing left to say, God isn’t shutting down. God is just looking for God’s next move, the one that might actually get someone’s attention. And when God finds that opening, God isn’t going to let it go. God is going to stand out in the hall and call your name until you figure it out one way or another.
This is the same God who will get your attention with a burning bush, a smoke-filled Temple, or a surprise pregnancy. It’s the same God who, when nothing else seems to be working, says, “All right, I’m coming down there myself, and I’ll sacrifice everything – maybe then they’ll understand who I am, and what I want from them.”
I think of a story one of my colleagues once told about a young man at her church who thought God might be calling him into ministry. But he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure if it was really God speaking, or if so what exactly God was saying. And my friend told him, “Don’t worry so much. The call of God is not something that is going to be missed.”
Even in times and places when the word of the Lord is rare, God still speaks, until we figure out how to listen.
But here’s the thing.
Remember how I said this is not just a story about Samuel? Up until now, it seems like it could be. It sounds like a personal kind of story, a story about the ways God speaks to us to let us know that God is there even when it seems like God is absent, that God is in fact that single set of footprints carrying us along.
And I don’t for a second want to say that God isn’t like that. God cares about us, and our lives, and our problems, and our pain. This is, after all, the same God who showed up for Hannah, who answered her prayer.
But Samuel’s call isn’t a matter of personal comfort and encouragement. It isn’t a promise that despite what is going on in the world around him, God will be with Samuel. The personal is political, and this call is no less than a political upheaval in the making.
Samuel’s first job is to give Eli a message “that will make the ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” The days of Eli and his corrupt sons and their authority over the holy things of Israel are numbered. “The iniquity of Eli’s house,” God says to Samuel, “shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
Imagine having to tell that to your boss – or worse yet, to the man who raised you.
But Samuel’s job won’t get easier from there. By the end of chapter 3, Samuel will be known throughout Israel as a prophet, the one through whom the word of the Lord is heard. As the story goes on he will be a kingmaker – and a king-breaker. This story of the call of Samuel isn’t just the story of encouragement for a faithful young man in the midst of a faithless people; it’s a story of the redemption of Israel.
I wonder if that’s not exactly the kind of word of the Lord that we’re accustomed to listening for.
I don’t mean that we don’t care. I know that you all are a congregation who cares about what’s going on in the world around us. You read the news and you’ve been to the places that are in it.
I mean that it feels impossible to have any clarity these days when no one even seems to be operating with the same set of facts, when we read the same Bible and come away with vastly different conclusions. I mean that it’s easy to remain in our own echo chambers and assume we know what God is saying. I mean it’s easy to lament that fact and take refuge in a neutral position just to not be controversial. I mean it’s easy to get overwhelmed and compassion-fatigued and simply retreat.
It’s easy to retreat to that idea of God who simply speaks comfort into our own lives.
And again, God does – Scripture is full of people who have prayed to God, yelled at God, harangued God for the things they need; people who presented themselves to Jesus for healing and forgiveness, and God answered; Jesus healed and forgave. It’s just that the story is bigger than that, because our lives are part of a bigger whole, and at the same time God cares about each one of us and our problems and challenges, God is working for the redemption of this whole crazy world, bringing it out of chaos and into love, justice, mercy, reverence, and care for the most vulnerable among us.
And God calls God’s people to be part of that..
I don’t believe that the word of the Lord is rare these days. I believe God has something to say. But I do sometimes have trouble listening – listening through the words of Scripture honestly read, through carving time for silence from all the voices that have something to say, through staying attentive to what is going on in the world around me without letting its anxiety grip me too hard.
Let’s not miss call to be part of a bigger story.
The good news is, God is pretty persistent.
And even when it seems like the word of the Lord is rare, God keeps speaking and God keeps calling. All you have to do is answer.