This morning I want to explore some words. It's a wonderful story of a young man who's hearing the call of God, and it comes to us from 1 Samuel, chapter 3, verses 1 to 10. And I'm going to ask you just to read along, to listen and hear what God speaks to us this morning.
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
In 1963 there was a 21-year-old college student and he went to Washington DC to visit with some friends and he had a little bit of free time. So he drove up to the Capitol building and he parked right in front of it. In those days you could still go and do that. So he thought this would be a good time to go and see what the place looked like. And it turned out it was a rare Saturday session of the Senate and they had just finished and the young man found himself at the doors of the Senate chamber and he didn't see any no entry signs. So he just walked in and the room was nearly deserted, he started walking around among the Senator's desks.
Now, he probably should have gotten a clue at that point, but he took in the atmosphere and he didn't realize this was an area closed to the general public. But something led him up onto the platform to sit down in the presiding officer's seat and moments later he had a hand that landed on his shoulder and he said what are you doing here?
The officer realized pretty quickly this was just kind of a college student who had just kind of wandered into the wrong place and meant no harm. So he let him off with a warning.
You may ask now who was that college student? And it turns out that college student was Joe Biden, and he told his story when he was about to move up to become Vice President after 36 years of service in the Senate. It's a pretty remarkable story, and for a couple of reasons.
For one, that he entered into that chamber, and that's not likely to happen nowadays. There's all these security things to keep that from happening. But it's also remarkable for another reason when he walked into that chamber he was an unknown, he was a nobody and nobody would have predicted that he was going to spend 36 years in the Senate and eventually become the Vice President and sit in that very chair and then eventually be elected President.
You never know what a young person may become.
And when we look at our scripture today, we see Samuel, this boy. Samuel is that same kind of person. When we encounter him in the scriptures he was a nobody, but it wouldn't always be that way. Samuel was one of the most revered leaders of ancient Israel. He was the last of the judges, one of those God inspired figures who ruled the nation as a spiritual and a political leader.
But he was also considered the first of the prophets, a visionary who told the truth of God to kings who were sometimes reluctant to hear it. And Samuel himself was a maker of kings. He anointed Israel's first two kings, Saul and David. But before he was all that, Samuel was just a boy. He was just a young boy performing little tasks, menial tasks, as the apprentice to Eli, who was the high priest, and that's what he was doing as we enter into this story today.
Now, Samuel, you might ask how did he get into this place? It wasn't by accident. He had a mother who was very involved in his life and she had prayed and prayed to God that he would be entering into the Lord's service. And when Samuel was born, his mother, Hannah, made a vow that he would go and that he would serve God. And so when he got to be 12 years old, they took him down to the sanctuary at Shiloh and enrolled him in the service of the high priest.
Now if you wonder what he might have been doing, it might have been something like what a in a Catholic church, it might have been like an altar boy might have done, or maybe something like akin to what an acolyte might do in church.
But it says in the scripture that God's word was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread. So that's the author's way of telling us that things are not going well among Israel's leadership. Things were not the way they were supposed to be. So we all think of times when things were like glory days, and this is a time afterward there was. They were finding themselves in a time of serious decline and the prophet and the priest Eli is a big reason for that. He's found himself where he's just kind of going through the motions and he's lost touch.
And you can see it if you read in chapter one of 1 Samuel, when Hannah is in the tent of meeting and she's praying for God to give her a son, and she's praying silently but her lips are moving and Eli is sitting nearby and he notices it and he assumes the worst. He said how long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.
That's not a very nice thing to say, is it? He is so out of touch that he doesn't recognize a true prayer when he sees it. And of course, Hannah is not drunk at all and she must be a very strong woman because she speaks back to him. She's not shy about speaking up for herself. She says no, my Lord, I'm not drunk. I'm a woman deeply troubled. I've not drunk wine or strong drink, but I've been pouring out my soul before the Lord. And after hearing Hannah's defense, he doesn't exactly apologize but he says go in peace. May the Lord answer your prayer.
Now, Eli, you've heard if somebody works at something for a long time, they go through something called burnout. And maybe Eli was there.
But if you think he was bad, if you read through 1 Samuel, his sons, Hophni and Phineas, are really troubled. They followed their father into the family business, you might say, of being a priest. But they hardly take it seriously. And if you read chapter 2, it tells their story that when a worshiper brought in the animal to be sacrificed to God and the beast had been slaughtered and the meat was cooking, they would stick their fork into it and take the meat before the liturgy, before everything had been done.
And in ancient Israel, you know we might not understand that today, the priests they were allowed after everything was done to take that. But to do it ahead of time was really out of good form.
Even more seriously, it was said that these two sons that they would lay with the women who were at the entrance to the tent of meeting. So everything that they did was out of [order with] what God would desire. They weren't taking it seriously. And you might wonder how can you blame Eli for all that? I think he takes some.
But we have to kind of look at the society that they were in. It was a patriarchal society. Family relationships were everything. And the Lord of God, our God, he called people into his service not as just individuals but as family units. So Eli's bloodline, you might say Eli's family, has just grown out of touch and they're needing to find a new faithful leader. The Lord is looking for a new faithful leader and it just so happens that God is already looking for that leader of changing the guard. And this boy, Samuel, is waiting in the wings, ready to take over that leadership from Eli. He just doesn't know it yet.
So here is the scripture that maybe you're familiar with that God starts talking to Samuel and the only problem is that he doesn't have the experience to know what he's hearing.
He hears that voice calling in the night and he assumes it must be Eli and he goes and he wakes up, the old man saying here I am. What do you need? You know you called me. It wasn't me. He said Eli, go to sleep. And it happens a second time, with much the same results. And the third time that Samuel intrudes on his sleep, Eli realizes there's more going on than a young boy's dreams. He said pay attention, pay attention. And the next time this happens, here's what you do: Sit up straight and say speak, for your servant is listening.
So it turns out that, in spite of how far he might have gone off the path, Eli hasn't completely forgotten what it's like to receive a word from God. So the next time Samuel hears that voice he said speak, lord, for your servant is listening.
And it goes on to say in the next verses that he's going to tell him more than just his name. He's going to deliver a message of difficulty. It's going to be a difficult message for Eli and for his sons. He said I'm about to punish his house forever for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God and he did not restrain them. Now imagine what it would have been like to be Samuel and to receive that word. This young boy. And it's his very first word, his first vision, and it's a curse.
It's the forever curse on this old man who had been so kind to him. And it's no wonder that when Eli asks him what the word was, Samuel has been afraid to share it. But Eli says don't be afraid, just tell me, because he already knows what the message is. He knows deep down how he has failed as God's representative.
Now Samuel still doesn't want to do it. If you've ever been in that place where somebody tells you you need to do this, but you still don't want to do it. But Eli receives that news. He doesn't punish Samuel because he knows it's not his fault. This is a message from God, and he's just what God is speaking to him.
As we hear this story and this word this morning, most of the time we have our focus on Samuel and how the Lord reaches out to him, but if you look back further into that text, you'll see this story is also a lot about this fallen priest, Eli, deeply flawed, yet profoundly wise, and the last act of faithfulness that he can give is to help train this young boy, Samuel, in discerning God's voice.
Eli, when we read this and even what we've spoken today, he gets a lot of bad spoken about him. He may have become ineffectual, but his heart is in the right place.
He practices a skill that we need today, that we need to invest in our next generations, the generations that are here and the generations that are coming after us.
Eli is an example of those of us who have lived for a while and we've had our failures and we've had our regrets, and we know we're far from perfect, but we haven't given up yet. We have a message that God has a message and a gift for the next generation. Even when we fail and even when we strive and we might not get it right. One thing that God gives us is the ability to see the real thing. When we see it. When we see that real thing, the presence of God in someone's life, maybe in the life of someone younger than us.
God calls us, even in spite of our failings, to fill the role of being a mentor.
There's an old phrase that used to be said, and maybe your parents said to you, but it was said do as I say, not as I do. That's kind of a notorious thing and we would say they're being hypocritical when they say something like that. Maybe some people's parents were smokers, they'd say one thing you can never do is smoke. It'll kill you. They said that while they had a cigarette in their hand.
You know, 'do as I say, not as I do.’ You know it surely would have been better if they would have quit smoking themselves and they could lead by example. But, as we know, you know when you start smoking that nicotine, besides being a cancer-causing agent, is powerfully addictive and while it's possible to quit, it's very, very hard.
And even if there's a parent who's been able to say you know, do as I say, not as I do, at least when they're speaking the words, you know, saying that at least it's better than saying nothing at all.
And that's the position Eli's in. He's talking to this boy, Samuel, and surely it would have been better if he himself could have saved himself from burnout to receive messages from God. But he didn't. And when he sees the signs of God's presence in this boy Samuel, at least he doesn't go down the road that his sons took and reject God altogether.
Eli says, in essence, he says, do as I say, not as I do or I have done. And Samuel gets the message.
You know, as we think about this, how do we apply this to our lives? We think about, you know, we had in our prayer time today. We know we pray for our church and we pray for the church in general around the world, wherever it is. And we as the church are going through a changed time and it's harder, especially for those of us who were older, who came to, who grew up in a time when church was it was the expected thing you did to go to church every, just about every Sunday, you know.
But you know we've seen cultural changes and it's not as much the norm as it used to be, you know, and maybe we need to look at ourselves and just examine. You know how am I going to look at our world that is around us. How are we going to look at the church and how are we going to continue to share God's Word?
And it was easy to cast blame on this person or that person or this group or that group and say you know, they're the, those are the “bad” folks. But casting blame, as we know, doesn't do us any good.
It's far more important to do what Eli did to begin to invest where you see God at work. We don't lead, God leads. So go where you see God's activity, get to work and then get out of the way.
There was a story by a writer by the name of Wendell Berry, and this this book was called Jayber Crow. It's a story of a young boy who grew up in Kentucky in the early part of the 20th century and he begins life with a lot of disadvantages, and one of them was that he was growing up in an orphanage and in that institution he hears what he believes to be a call from God, and here's how he tells his story.
He said this possibility of being called began to keep me awake at night. I'd heard no voice, but probably because I was starting to respond at about that time to the distant calling of girls, I could not shake the notion that I was being called by something that I knew nothing about. I knew the story of the boy Samuel, how he was called in the night by a voice speaking his name, and I could imagine ever so clearly that I could almost hear it a voice calling out of the darkness Jay Crow. And then I heard and I thought that maybe that voice they called and I had not quite heard it. And one night I got out of the bed and I went to the window and the sky over the window, the treetops, was full of stars. Whispering so as not to awaken my roommate, I said Speak, lord, for your servant Heareth. And then, so help me, I heard the silence that stretched all the way from the ground underneath my window to the farthest stars, and the hair stood up on my head and a shiver came into me that did not pass away for a long time.
You know, many times when we hear stories from the Bible that include that audible voice of God, we imagine that that's the way that it always is and that maybe we've done, something’s wrong because we've never heard that with our own ears, and there may be some people that continue to hear God's voice in just that way. But it's far more likely that God speaks to us, maybe through a faint shiver that emerges out of the silence as Wendell Berry describes it.
Samuel's call isn't flashy, it's not grand. A boy dreaming in the night is nothing out of the ordinary. It was just something that was so indistinct he needed some help in understanding it. It takes three times to get it right. When Jewish people told this story, they told it over many generations and likely what stood out to them was how softly and gently God was speaking.
It's a subtle, not spectacular, communication from God. It's kind of like when we're in a crowded room. If somebody starts whispering, what's I mean? That's no big deal, you can't really hear it. But if you're in a room full of silence and someone begins to whisper, it's kind of like they're shouting. It's good for us to find that place in the silence, to set us out of time for reflection, for contemplation, for worship.
Yet even when we know that sometimes we're afraid of the silence.
And when we hear we may be like Samuel that we need somebody else to help sort it out. That's who Eli was for Samuel. He was, in a sense, his spiritual director who leads him into this uncharted territory, this new life of the Spirit, kind of pointing out the landmarks along the way. They were Eli's gift to Samuel and it's a precious gift. And it's a reminder to us how important it is to pursue our journey together, in community and in the company of others, because sometimes we can't trust ourselves and we can't trust our own interpreting.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we have our own subjectivities, we have our own stubbornness, we have our own sin which can get in the way and it can block us from understanding what God wants to do. And we need an Eli in our life.
Now there will be some who'll say that God no longer speaks to us, who insist that signs and visions are even rarer today than they were in Eli's time, in Samuel's time, that they're just part of a long past, long ago. But we believe, as the church, that the Holy Spirit is still alive and active in us, that God is still speaking to us and if we can make a time to find that silence and we can find people who can help us, help us to hear and help us to know what God is saying along the way. We too may hear His voice Now.
It may not be an audible voice, it may just be an inclination, but it doesn't make it any less real. We need to hear God's gentle voice, and there may be times when we don't hear it and we have to think about times in the past when God has spoken to us, but we claim the name of Jesus Christ is the one who calls us out, just as he did the disciples of the old days.
And God speaks to us, not out of anger or out of a desire to punish us, but he speaks to us out of love. He speaks to us as his children. We just have to have ears to hear this voice. That's beautiful and life-changing. So may we have ears to hear, may we seek out those who can walk with us along the path, those who might have a little more experience, and may we be able to say Speak, lord, for your servant hears. May we receive that word from God today.
Let us pray, most gracious God. We thank you, Lord, for speaking to us, for not giving up on us, Lord, that even when we feel broken, even when we feel like we've maybe used up, that you can still use us, and, Lord, we pray that. Lord, as you use us, Lord, help us to guide those who will come after us, Lord, that they may hear your voice and that they may serve you faithfully. And, Lord, we pray that in Jesus' name, amen.