(1 Samuel 3:1-10)
In 1963, a 21-year-old college student drove to Washington, D.C., to visit some friends. He had a little free time, so he drove over to look at the Capitol Building. He noticed a lot of people coming out of the Capitol, so he figured this would be a good time to go in and see what the place looked like. He parked his car right outside — which you could do back then — and walked in.
It turned out that a rare Saturday session of the Senate had just finished. The young man found himself at the doors leading into the Senate chamber. Not seeing any “no entry” signs, he just walked in.
The room was nearly deserted. He started walking around amongst the senators’ desks, taking in the atmosphere of the place. He didn’t realize he’d blundered into an area closed to the general public.
Something led him to step up onto the platform and sit down in the presiding officer’s seat. Moments later, he felt a firm hand on his shoulder. It was a Capitol Police officer. “WHAT do you think you’re doing?” the officer asked.
But then the officer realized this was just an awestruck college kid who meant no harm, so he let him off with a warning.
Are you wondering who that college kid was? It was Joe Biden. This is a story he told in a speech to his fellow senators, on his last day in that body after 36 years of service. He was moving up to become vice president.
It’s a remarkable story for a couple of reasons. For one thing, an accidental entry into the Senate chamber is not likely to happen again. Evolving security protocols ensure that room is locked down tighter than ever.
But the story is remarkable for another reason. When 21-year-old Joe Biden paid his visit to the Senate chamber, he was a nobody. Who could have predicted that the wide-eyed college kid would not only spend 36 years as a U.S. senator, but would go on to sit in that very presiding officer’s chair as vice president? And after that, be elected president?
You never know what a young person may become when they grow up.
The boy Samuel was such a person. When we first encounter him in the Scriptures, he too, was a nobody.
It wouldn’t always be that way. Samuel became one of the most revered leaders of ancient Israel. He was the last of the judges, those God-inspired figures who ruled the nation as both spiritual and political leaders. He was also considered to be the first of the prophets, courageous visionaries who spoke truth to power and brought the Lord’s message to kings who were sometimes reluctant to hear it.
Samuel was himself a maker of kings. He personally anointed Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David. But before he was all that, Samuel was just a boy, performing menial tasks as an apprentice to Eli, the high priest. That’s what he was doing at the beginning of today’s story.
Samuel didn’t end up there by accident. He got there because his mother, Hannah, had prayed and prayed to the Lord that she might have a son. When Samuel was finally born, Hannah made a vow that her boy would enter the Lord’s service. And so, when Samuel reached the proper age — probably about 12 — his mother brought him down to the sanctuary of the Lord at Shiloh and enrolled him in the service of the high priest. Samuel’s duties were probably like those of a Roman Catholic altar boy.
The Scripture tells us, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1). That’s the author’s way of letting us know things aren’t going all that well among Israel’s religious leadership. It’s a time of serious decline.
The high priest, Eli, is a big reason for that decline. He’s out of touch. He’s just going through the motions. You can see it in chapter 1, when Hannah is in the tent of meeting, praying that God might give her a son. She’s praying silently, but her lips are moving. Eli’s sitting nearby. He notices this and assumes the worst. “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine!”
What a nasty thing to say! Eli is so far gone that he no longer recognizes true prayer when he sees it.
Of course, Hannah isn’t drunk at all — and she must be a pretty feisty woman, not shy about speaking up for herself. “No, my Lord,” she answers, “I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.”
After hearing Hannah’s defense, Eli doesn’t exactly apologize. But at least he says, “Go in peace. And may the Lord answer your prayer.”
Eli may be a burnout case, but it’s his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who are really bad news. Both have followed their old man into the family business of priesthood, but they hardly take their vocation seriously. Chapter 2 tells their sordid story. Whenever a worshiper came in with an animal to sacrifice to the Lord, and the beast had been slaughtered and the meat was cooking, Hophni and Phinehas would stick a fork into it and make off with their portion before the liturgy was even done! It was understood, in ancient Israel, that the priests could eat the sacrificial meat after the ceremony was over, but to make off with it ahead of time was considered very bad form.
Far more seriously, Chapter 2 tells how Hophni and Phinehas would “lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” Today we’d call that “sexual misconduct.”
Now it may seem unfair to saddle poor old, ineffectual Eli with the blame for his sons’ corruption, but remember what sort of society this is. In patriarchal Israel, family relationships are everything. The Lord of the Hebrew Scriptures calls people not so much as individuals, but as entire family units. If Eli’s bloodline has grown so degenerate as this, the Lord will look elsewhere, outside his family, to find a faithful new leader.
The Lord, as it happens, has already begun this process of changing the guard. The boy Samuel is waiting in the wings, ready to take over spiritual leadership from Eli. He just doesn’t know it yet.
In today’s passage, the Lord starts speaking to Samuel. The only problem is that Samuel doesn’t have the experience yet to know who it is. He hears that voice calling in the night and naturally assumes it must be Eli. So, Samuel goes and wakes up the old man, saying, “Here I am, you called me.”
“It wasn’t me,” says Eli. “Go back to sleep.”
This happens a second time with much the same result.
The third time Samuel intrudes on his sleep, Eli realizes there’s more going on than a young boy’s vivid dreams. Eli says, “Pay attention, now. The next time this happens, here’s what you do: Sit up straight and say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Turns out, Eli hasn’t forgotten completely what it’s like to receive a word from the Lord.
The next time the Lord speaks, Samuel is ready and responds, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
This time, the Lord says more than just Samuel’s name. God delivers a message of woe for Eli and his sons. “I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.”
Can you imagine how that must have sounded to young Samuel? It’s his very first vision, and it’s a curse — a forever curse directed at the old man who has been so kind to him. It’s no wonder that, when Eli asks him what he has heard, Samuel’s afraid to share it.
Eli persists. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. “Just tell me.” Eli already knows what the message is. He knows, deep down, how thoroughly he failed to live as God’s representative.
Samuel has no stomach for it, but he delivers the Lord’s message anyway. Eli accepts the news philosophically. He doesn’t punish Samuel. What would be the point? The boy’s just the messenger. The judgment comes from God.
Most of the time you hear this story preached or taught, the accent is all on young Samuel and how the Lord reaches out to him, the chosen one. But if you look further back in the text — as we’ve just done — you come to see how the story is at least as much about Eli, the fallen priest. Eli is a deeply flawed man, but he’s also profoundly wise. His last act of faithfulness before his dimly burning wick sputters out is to train the young boy, Samuel, in the art of spiritual discernment.
Eli gets a lot of bad press — for some very good reasons — but he really does deserve a break. He may be ineffectual, but his heart is in the right place. Eli practices a skill many of today’s church leaders seem to have in short supply: next-generation thinking.
Eli is an exemplar for all of us who have lived a while and accumulated our share of failures and regrets. We know we’re far from perfect. But we haven’t given up yet. We still have a gift to impart to the next generation.
In the wake of all our striving and failing to make the spiritual mark, we’ve gained one superpower: the ability to recognize the real thing when we see it. When we see the real thing — the presence of God — in the life of someone younger, we’re well-situated to fill the role of mentor.
Some of us may have a memory of a certain phrase our parents used to utter. That phrase — which has become notorious — is “Do as I say, not as I do.” Some of us, for example, may have memories of parents who were smokers saying to us, “One thing you should never do is smoke. It can kill you.” But they said that to us with a cigarette in their hand! It’s a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Sure, it would be far better if parents who say this would quit smoking themselves so they could lead by example. But nicotine, besides causing cancer, is a powerfully addictive drug. Once a person is addicted, it’s possible to quit — and many have — but it’s very, very hard. If a parent who hasn’t been able to quit smoking says those infamous words, “Do as I say, not as I do,” isn’t that better than saying nothing at all?
That’s the position old Eli is in, with respect to the boy Samuel. It would have been better if Eli had been able to save himself from burnout so he could continue to receive messages from the Lord. But he didn’t. When he sees the sure signs of God’s presence in Samuel’s life, at least he doesn’t go down the road of his two sons, who by all accounts seem to reject God altogether. Eli says to Samuel, “Do as I say, not as I do.” And Samuel gets the message.
We’re living through change-times in the church today. And it’s hard. Many of us who are older came to awareness in times when going to church didn’t seem unusual at all. More than that, going to church was, for a great many Americans, the expected thing to do. But those of us in that age range have seen with dismay, over the course of many years, that conventional wisdom turned on its head. Now, for a great many of our neighbors — particularly those of younger generations — being active in a church community has become the exception rather than the rule.
Maybe that’s the fault of those of us who are older, for not setting a better example. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just a sea-change in our culture we all must adapt to. Casting blame does no one any good. Far more important is to do as Eli did. Practice that next-generation thinking to recognize God’s activity wherever it may be happening and then get out of the way.
The novelist Wendell Berry has a book called Jayber Crow. It’s the story of a young man who grows up in the backcountry of Kentucky in the early years of the 20th century. Jayber begins life with many disadvantages — not the least of which is that he soon ends up living in an orphanage. It is there, in that bleak and austere institution, that he comes to receive what he believes to be a call from God. Here’s how the title character tells his own story:
“This possibility of being called began to keep me awake of a night. I had 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. I could imagine, so clearly that I could almost hear it, a voice calling out of the darkness: ‘J. Crow.’ And then I thought maybe the voice had called, and that I had almost but not quite heard it. One night I got out of bed and went to the window. The sky over the treetops was full of stars. Whispering so as not to waken my roommate, I said, ‘Speak, Lord, for thy 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.”
Lots of times, when we read stories in the Bible that include the audible voice of God, we imagine that’s the way it always is, and despair that we’ve never heard such a wonder with our own ears. There may be some people who hear God speaking in just that way, but surely, it’s not the norm. It’s far more likely for the Lord to speak to us through the sort of faint shiver that emerges out of the silence, as Wendell Berry describes it.
Samuel’s call in the Bible is neither flashy nor grand. A boy dreaming at night hears something out of the ordinary, something so indistinct he needs somebody else to help him understand what it is. It takes him three tries before he finally gets it right. When the Jewish people told and retold this story across the generations, time out of mind, what likely stood out for them was how softly and gently God was speaking. It’s a story more subtle than spectacular.
Have you ever been in a completely silent room, and heard someone whispering? Most of the time, in the places we inhabit — places suffused with background noise — a whisper between two people is close to confidential communication. Yet, transport those same two individuals to a silent room and their whispering may just as well be a shout. In the same way, for us to truly hear what God is saying, we do well to find a place of silence, reflection, contemplation, and worship. Sometimes — not even in the church — do we allow ourselves to fully trust the silence.
Another thing you may need to do is find someone else to help you sort it all out. That’s the sort of role Eli plays for young Samuel. He is, in a certain sense, Samuel’s spiritual director. Eli’s the guide who leads the boy through the uncharted territory of the spirit, pointing out the landmarks and teaching him to find his own way next time. The instructions the old man gives are Eli’s gift, and a precious gift it is!
That’s one very good reason why it’s important for us to pursue our spiritual journey in community and the company of others. We can’t always be trusted to do our own interpreting. Our subjectivity, our stubbornness – our sin – can so easily get in the way. It can block us from understanding what God wants us to hear. Sometimes we need an Eli in our lives.
There are some who claim God no longer speaks — who insist that signs and visions are even rarer today than they were in Samuel’s time, that they belong to some half-forgotten era long past. But don’t believe it. Our Christian faith tells us we’re living in the era of the Holy Spirit. God is still speaking, and if we can make a place of silence for ourselves and find spiritual companions along the way, then we, too, may hear that voice. It’s likely to be more of a slowly growing inclination than an audible command, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
Sometimes we hear that gentle voice. Other times we may not and must content ourselves with memories of past times when we’ve heard it. Whatever the case, as Christians, we claim to belong to the company of those Jesus Christ has called out, as he called out the disciples of old.
Our Lord speaks with the voice of love. It’s a voice we feel as much as we hear, and it’s wondrous, beautiful and life changing. So, speak Lord, for your servant hears!