PRAYER: Holy and loving God, throughout all time, you have turned to us and called us to turn toward you. And yet, we keep turning away. We thank you for your patience – a patience we certainly must be wearing thin… and yet, you still call out to us; you still desire relationship with us. Thank you, O God. Thank you. Strengthen your people gathered here that we may respond in faith to your calling. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.
Before we talk about Samuel, there are a handful of other people involved in this story that are key to us understanding what we are to pull from this story. If we merely focus on Samuel alone without looking at those other people around him, we might miss a lot of the context that is present.
In the first two chapters of 1 Samuel, we read about Samuel’s mother Hannah who desperately wanted to have a child. She had been unable to conceive for a very long time while her husband’s other wife (and we can talk about misogyny and the subjugation of women another time, I’m sure!) kept popping out kids one after the other. Hannah was actually being mocked by the other wife, and she was desperately sad. So, she went into the temple and she prayed, pouring her heart out to God, promising to dedicate whatever child she had, preferably a boy (again, misogyny) to God.
As it happened, Eli, who was a temple priest, was sitting in the temple watching Hannah pray. And after a conversation with her in which he initially accused her of being drunk, he came to recognize her sincerity, and he joined her in praying for her to have a son.
At the end of the first chapter / beginning of the second, Hannah finally gives birth to Samuel. True to her word, she dedicates Samuel to God and – as soon as he is able – Samuel is delivered to Eli at the temple to be taught and mentored, and to serve God. In the beginning of chapter 2, Hannah delivers a beautiful prayer that I would encourage you to go read at some point this week.
And then there was Eli himself. At this point in the story, Eli was a shadow of his former self. The Eli we encounter in chapter 1 was intuitive and focused. He was a leader to be admired and trusted. Hannah had entrusted her son Samuel to Eli… and in the beginning, everything was fine. Samuel was learning from Eli and doing the work that his mother had envisioned for him. But as Eli began to decline, so too did his activity in the temple. I think it’s safe to say that Samuel stopped being a temple apprentice and became more of a nursemaid for Eli. It wouldn’t surprise me if Samuel was feeling a little isolated here. He’d been thrown into this situation and at first, he was on track to serve God, but now it’s just a dull routine.
For me, one of the most frustrating phrases in the English language is “The way we’ve always done it”. I’m sure we’ve never used that phrase in the church… I started a new job in the early 2000s and inherited a function that was antiquated and slow. It took a whole day to produce one single report. I asked the person who was training me why we produced the report in this way and that was their response: we do it this way because it’s the way we’ve always done it. It lacks any sense of imagination; and it condemns us to a perpetual dullness in which progress itself is rare.
So when we read in the first verse of today’s reading, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” we can perhaps understand how things had gotten that way. The leadership of Eli had been in decline, his sons, who we read about in chapter 2, were a bitter disappointment to him, and I can imagine that there was a pretty heavy lethargy that had settled in over the temple. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
Samuel’s days were filled with the thousand little details that Eli could no longer perform to keep the rituals ready for the people of God, who were like sheep without a shepherd because “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Eli had dim eyes both literally and figuratively. He was losing his sight, but more importantly, he was losing his vision. In his encounter in chapter 1 with Hannah, he had a clear understanding and vision for Samuel. But now, he had no clear vision for the future; he had lost his purpose. Things were indeed bleak.
Eli and the leadership of the temple seem to have lost the point of what it means to be the Temple. It kind of makes you wonder what people would have turned to when they didn’t have access to the voice of God. What sorts of authority did people call on? What sorts of diversions did they obsess over? And if the Word of God was rare in those days, what voices did they listen to? To fill the empty nights and cover up the loneliness of living, what sounds did they ache for?
Living a directionless life is draining as well as pointless. It messes with your sense of self-worth as well as emptying you of ambition and hope. So, what are we left with these days, when “the word of the Lord is rare”? Are we just supposed to generate our own direction? Are we left to our own devices? Are we then to listen to voices of our own making. Are we to go looking for the voice of God on Facebook or Instagram?
The story of Samuel hearing God’s calling always makes me chuckle. The first two times that Samuel comes into Eli’s chamber, it sounds a bit like a skit you might see on Monty Python. But like I said, Eli was losing his vision. He hadn’t totally lost it yet. There was a glimmer, and he at last recognized it. He told Samuel how to respond the next time he heard the voice calling him. The word of the Lord was rare, but the lamp of God had not entirely gone out. There was still hope, and there was still light. And standing in front of that light, was Samuel.
But here’s the thing I want you to recognize about Samuel: Samuel’s mother prayed for him and dedicated him to God. Hannah led Samuel into Eli’s path. Eli taught him, trained him, guided him. When God’s call happened on that night, Samuel did not recognize it on his own. He needed Eli to guide him, to point him in the right direction.
Samuel was not living in a vacuum. Samuel was not an island unto himself that heard the voice of God and responded accordingly. He was part of a community that guided him and taught him and brought him to the realization of God’s calling in his life. The faith and vision of his mother, and the guidance of Eli formed Samuel and brought him into community with God.
Even in a time and place in which there was an ineffective religious leader and the faith establishment had lost its way, God was still speaking. God’s grace is still present and faith leaders are still being formed. Even in the days in which the word of the Lord is rare, a new generation will still hear the call of God in their lives. A lamp of hope is still shining through, and that sounds like good news…
It sounds like good news because God is still speaking today. God is still speaking to us, and God is still calling us to be disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Today. It can be very easy for us to convince ourselves that God is silent. It would even be convenient for us to imagine that God’s attention has been drawn elsewhere. But here, today, right now, God is speaking to us in this church. We can listen for God’s voice together. Together, we don’t have to struggle and question whether or not God is speaking. But we also don’t have to wonder IF God is speaking; God IS Speaking!
Like Samuel, we benefit from the knowledge and experiences of God that are shared with us. We also may have these moments in which we are left unsure of what we have heard or experienced. One of the strengths of the United Methodist church, in my experience at least, is the sprit of affirmation that exists within the body of Christ. When I decided to answer my call to ministry, I wasn’t just told to go be fitted for a robe and to get in the pulpit. I had to go before my church’s SPR Committee; I had to go before the District Committee on Ministry; I had to be affirmed. That affirmation is what Samuel received from Eli, which is an important thing for us to recognize because Eli affirmed Samuel even when the outlook for Eli was probably not what he himself had hoped.
We are not traveling through this life-journey alone. We journey along with others who, at times, help us as Eli helped Samuel. And there are times when we support and guide others as Eli did for Samuel. Eli and Samuel are demonstrating for us a community of support, one that builds up, one that helps us build our own personal faith so that we may build up one another’s communal faith.
Our faith journeys are never solo endeavors. Our faith journeys are never about one person. When we listen to the God who is still speaking, we find that we are drawn together into a community that supports one another, that builds one another up, that mourns with one another when needed, that stands in solidarity with one another.
The second half of our reading – as we follow Samuel’s calling and response to God – is a lesson for us about trusting in God. God, who is still speaking, is calling upon us as a community to listen together, for when we do, we will hear the cry of the hungry. Together, we hear the wailing of the broken hearted. Together, we identify the needs of others and can answer that calling. Speak Lord, for your servant is listening. If the word of the Lord is rare, it is not because God is not speaking; the word of the Lord cannot be rare if we listen together, as one community, focused on how we serve God and one another, and our community. Focused on how we share God’s unstoppable love outward beyond these four walls.
The church is best when it is collaborative. God’s voice is present when we as the church listen together. Among us right now, I believe God is planting a vision for how we can strive together to be the church of the 21st century. God’s voice is not rare if we listen… together. I want us all – each one of us – to commit our prayer lives to listen for how God is speaking to us… together, that we can transform our community, that we allow God – that we be present for God, to prayerfully do the work that is being laid out before us. Together.
To God be the glory.