Today we begin a new segment of our journey through the Narrative Lectionary. The overall theme is “Called by God, Blessed to Serve,” and the first segment focused on ways in which God provides blessings through a number of Old Testament stories. Today we begin a new segment, “Called By God,” in which we will look at the way God was at work calling four individuals to service in Old Testament times. We begin with the story of Samuel.
Much has happened since last week’s story of God providing manna in the wilderness for the Hebrews on the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. They made it to the Promised Land after forty years of wandering, they crossed over the Jordan and with God’s help won very surprising victories to take possession of the land. Territory was divided out for members of the twelve tribes, or families, to live in. There was no centralized government during this period. When a threat to their existence arose, God would call forth a leader, who came to be called Judges, to unite the tribes and handle the crisis. Some of the judges were Gideon and Samson and Deborah. This period lasted almost two hundred years and came to an end during the lifetime of Samuel. Samuel is a critical, transitional Old Testament figure who serves as priest, prophet, and judge, and consecrates the first two kings of Israel.
But for today’s story we go back to the time of Samuel’s childhood. You probably remember that Samuel’s mother was Hannah. Hannah was childless when she went one year on an annual religious pilgrimage to the temple in Shiloh. Childlessness was a great tragedy in those days, so at the temple Hannah prayed, begging and pleading with God to give her a child, and promising to return the child to God if she had one. She was so animated that the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk and asked her to settle down. She explained herself and he blessed her.
As did God, with a child. And as soon as Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him to the temple and handed him to Eli. She did not do so grudgingly or try to back out of her promise to God. Each year she would make a little robe for Samuel and take it to him on her annual pilgrimage. She went on to have three other sons and two daughters, but what an act of faith it was for her to leave behind her only child – a much waited for and prayed for child – at such an early age.
Then there is Eli the priest, who we soon learn is an old man whose eyesight is failing and whose two sons have grown up to be scoundrels who are abusing their positions as priests. We hear nothing about his wife, which would be unusual in the Bible if she was still living. What must have gone through his mind when Hannah brought this little boy and turned him over to his care? Having failed to raise his own sons to be honest and faithful people, was he now supposed to start over and try again with someone else’s son?
But Eli took Samuel in and began training him to do tasks that needed to be done in the temple. Eli seems to have come to regard him as a blessing. When Hannah and her husband would come to the temple each year he would bless them and pray that the Lord would repay them for the gift of this child to the Lord. The odd couple of the old priest and the little boy in his robe made an impression on people who visited. The account says, “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.”
One day a man came to Eli with a message from God that because of the wickedness of his sons the priesthood was going to be taken away from his family and a new, faithful priest would be raised up by God. Eli’s reaction is not noted.
Then came that important night when God began to speak to Samuel. According to Jewish tradition, Samuel was 12 years old at the time, the same age Jesus was when he talked with the leaders in the Jerusalem temple. There are lots of parallels between the stories of Hannah and Mary, and Samuel and Jesus. One of them is this reminder not to sell short the importance and contributions of children.
On this particular night, Samuel was lying down in the place where he slept in the temple when he heard a voice say, ‘Samuel!’ There was only one voice he expected to hear at night in the temple, and I’m sure he heard it often. Eli was an old man, his eyesight was failing, if he needed to get up at night he needed help and Samuel was that help. So Samuel went immediately to where Eli was sleeping and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli said, “No, I didn’t call you; go back and lie down.”
The same scene was re-enacted two more times before it struck Eli what was happening. Samuel was indeed hearing a voice, but it was the voice of God. The idea that God would speak to a 12 year old rather than to him had not crossed his mind. To his credit, rather than being spiteful and hoping God would give up, he helped Samuel know how to respond so that he could hear what God wanted to tell him. He told him to go back and lie down, and when the voice called again he should say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears.”
When God called again, Samuel responded as Eli had told him to do. Thus begins Samuel’s life long intimate relationship with and service to God. God gave Samuel a blistering prophecy about Eli and his family. 12 year old Samuel lay there the rest of the night wondering about what he was to do with this message in the morning with his friend and mentor Eli. He got up in the morning and started about his routine tasks in the temple, when he heard his name called again. This time it was indeed Eli. Eli didn’t beat around the bush. “What was it that he told you?” he asked Samuel. “You’d better not leave out a single thing!” So Samuel told him the bad news, every word of it.
To his credit, Eli did not rant and rave about how unfair God was after all the years he had spent serving him. He didn’t go start shouting at his sons, nor did he take out his anger and frustration on the messenger, Samuel. He simply said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” Eli could have been really bitter. He had, after all, taken in this boy when that somewhat crazy lady left him on his doorstep, and had cared for him and taught him and mentored him every step of the way. Why should God now cast him aside in favor of this boy he had trained so well to be a faithful servant?
The story gives us both bad and good examples to learn from. It serves as a poignant reminder about the importance of listening, and of being clear who we are to listen to and answer to in an ultimate sense. The sons of Eli were much too busy abusing their authority and listening to their own greeds and lusts to have time or inclination to listen to God. Eli knew how to listen to God, but I expect that for quite some time he has primarily been listening to parishioners complain about his crooked sons, and listening to backtalk from his sons, to have the time and energy and faith to listen to God.
Samuel was not born into privilege. He was that boy whose momma left him at the temple. He had learned how to listen to and obey and serve Eli, and he did so willingly and without hesitation. But God, with Eli’s help, took steps to help Samuel learn who was really in charge at that temple, and who he ultimately answered to. Interestingly enough, Samuel learned that he answered to God by being shown that his mentor Eli and his family answered to God. From that point on, Samuel knew how to listen for God and listen to God, and he was one of Israel’s great prophets. The mantle passed that night from Eli to Samuel.
God calls all ages and all sizes, all colors and nationalities and genders, to be disciples and to be leaders. When God had an important message which needed to be delivered by a messenger with integrity, faith, and pure motives, he turned to a 12 year old boy. Maybe our best parallel today would be a child who lives at Thornwell Children’s Home. God does not mind taking risks, and God greatly values children and youth. Jesus spoke with authority in the temple at the age of 12. When people wanted to keep children away from him later in life he emphasized that he wanted the children around. He said the kingdom of heaven belongs to such, and he said that anyone who wants to enter the kingdom must become like a child. Next Sunday our children will be leading us in worship, so you will want to be here and paying attention.
God is also not limited to using those who are currently serving as religious leaders. God can do a totally new thing. This was true when he rejected Eli’s sons as the future religious leaders in Shiloh. It happened again late in Samuel’s own life, when he made his sons judges over Israel. Like Eli’s sons, though, Samuel’s sons were not honest – they took bribes and perverted justice and looked for personal gain. It was true again when God rejected the first king of Israel, Saul, and had Samuel go to anoint David as the new king while Saul was still alive. Discontinuity is a common theme in the Bible. Expect the unexpected.
This was true in the New Testament as well when Jesus came and called disciples from outside the religious leadership of his day. Fishermen, tax collectors, a skeptic like Nathanael who was just sitting under a fig tree. In our age when many religious and political leaders seem to resemble the sons of Eli, we should be listening very carefully for God’s new word from unconventional sources.
Most of us have many voices to listen to in life. Let us live with the expectation that God may have a word for us, if we create spaces in our lives where we can be open to hearing that word. Let us also seek the humility which will make us open to the fact that God may speak to others whom we do not expect, regardless of their age and their size. Speak to us, Lord, and help us to be listening.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey Central Presbyterian, Anderson
October 15, 2017