Second Sunday After the Epiphany:
Summary of the Text
The farther you go…the harder it is to return. The world has many edges and it’s easy to fall off.”
Anderson Cooper, Dispatches From The Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival
For most of us, when we speak of “hearing God’s call” or obeying God’s call,” we mean it in a figurative way. We pray, spend time in discernment with a community, and ultimately experience God “calling” us in a particular direction. The events that unfold in 1 Samuel 3 on the other hand, are quite different. Samuel “hears” (Hebrew: Shema) a voice, what he would most definitely perceive as a literal voice, vocal cords and all. The voice is not his master Eli’s, as he first supposes, but God Himself. Why does God choose to reveal himself to Samuel? As we will see, the stakes are high. The temple at Shiloh has been desecrated by Eli’s children, who would have been the presumed heirs of Eli’s priesthood. Ultimately, this text is about both the call of Samuel, who will become the next high priest of Israel, as well as the transition away from the house of Eli.
The story of the text is one that many of us have been familiar with since childhood. Samuel, the young child apprentice to the high priest Eli, is lying down in the temple and hears a voice. “Here I am” Samuel responds, assuming the voice comes from his master(Eli). As the Old Testament scholar Bill T. Arnold notes “The single Hebrew word translated “Here I am” (hinneni, 3:4) can be a common greeting, but it is often a more subtle indication that a servant hears and obeys. It is especially significant when someone hears and obeys the divine call (Gen. 22:1, 11; Ex. 3:4; Isa. 6:8).” (New International Version Application Commentary)
Eli informs the young boy that he didn’t call him, and urges him to go back to sleep. Samuel hears a voice calling his name again and he goes to his master, assuming he (Eli) has something for him to do, but again, Eli says it wasn’t him, and urges him to go back to sleep.
The third time Eli finally realizes what is happening. Samuel is not delusional, he is hearing a voice, only it isn’t the voice of a human but God Himself. Eli encourages Samuel to return to his rest, but if he hears a voice, that he ought to respond by saying “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’
Samuel returns and once again hears God’s voice, and this time he responds as Eli instructed him. God responds by saying “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.” What exactly does that mean? Once again, Bill Arnold provides clarification, “In the Old Testament, ears “tingle” when people receive news of approaching punishment (2 Kings 21:12; Jer. 19:3)”.
The passage also served to demonstrate the authority of Samuel. The text tells us that Samuel is one who will oversee the priestly duties that once belonged to the house of Eli. And yet, as the text tells us in verse 7, “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD:” What does the author mean exactly by such a statement? Does it mean that the young man was not a believer in Yahweh? Most likely not. Commentators generally believe it refers to the fact that Samuel had not yet had a direct revelation of God.
This connects to one of the larger themes in this passage, that is the general lack of God’s presence in those days. In fact, this section of text begins by saying “ In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions” (v.1)
Why was the word of the Lord rare? The text doesn’t explicitly say, though perhaps the behavior of Eli’s sons holds a clue. The profanation of the temple by the high priest’s own family may keep God from revealing Himself to His people. Though perhaps we are making inferences from the text. Nevertheless, this theme of sight, of hearing (which in Hebrew is the same word for obedience (Shema)) is one that figures throughout the passage. The text tells us that Eli was losing his sight just as Samuel is receiving a vision from the LORD. Thus, the theophany Samuel experiences is meant to demonstrate the transition mentioned above.
Indeed, the news is both a judgment on the house of Eli (not, it should be noted, because of anything Eli has done himself, but rather for his inability to restrain the evil acts of his children.)
Eli’s children had abused the temple offering system (See 1 Samuel 2) at Shiloh, and would not repent, even after being confronted by Eli himself. Is there any warning here for those who speak on God’s behalf today? On those whose responsibility it is to shepherd God’s people? Perhaps Jesus’ warning about false teaching in Luke 14 is a fair comparison. There he warns those who teach about God that “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Indeed, we all are called to a high task who choose to teach and preach the gospel.
As we close out this summary, a note on the character of Eli is warranted. As the quote at the beginning of this guide notes, when you are in leadership, there are perils on all sides. How often do we see public leaders in ministry who “build up the church,” only to find they have neglected their families, often to devastating results. All leaders have blindspots, and this text can serve as a reminder to us that sometimes it is not even our behavior that can lead to the loss of a legacy. Having people who can speak into our lives, who can notice where we are deficient is surely a need rather than a want if we desire to finish the race set before us. Too many disgraced pastors and their families have fallen victim to their own weaknesses, when simply having someone to hold them to account may have prevented the trail of wreckage they leave behind. Now on the other hand, there are a number of positive qualities that ought to be attributed to Eli and his ministry.
As many commentators have noted, Eli himself never committed any significant transgressions against God or God’s temple. And when his time of leadership and power was coming to an end, he did not resist in the same way Saul resisted David’s rise to power. Instead he simply asked Samuel to tell him what he had heard from the LORD. And when Samuel had relayed the message of judgment on Eli’s house, Eli responded with a message of faithfulness that only someone with a deep relationship with God would be able to in such a situation: “He is the LORD, let him do what is good in his eyes.”
There is no shooting of the messenger, as might be expected in such an extreme situation. Perhaps there is a bit of resignation in such a statement, nevertheless, Eli was willing to both give up his power and accept God’s punishment. There is more to life than life itself, and Eli seemed to understand this in a way few leaders ever do. Eli has never been added to the rarefied air of other Old Testament heroes, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, perhaps because he was unable to restrain his children, described as “scoundrels” in at least one Bible translation. But he also was unwilling to hold on to power when he easily could have. That is the mark of character, and might we argue, a character that had been built over a lifetime of service to God.
Our task is to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God’s active presence in their lives. Hence, the question that must guide all organizing activity in a parish is not how to keep people busy, but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence.
Henri Nouwen, In The Way of the Heart
Listen for the Flutes
We must tune our ears to hear God’s voice. It’s like the child who was told by his father during a symphony orchestra concert, “Listen for the flutes in this song. Don’t they sound beautiful?” The child, unable distinguish the flutes, looks up at his father with a puzzled look, “What flutes, father?”
The child first needs to learn what flutes sound like on their own, separate from the whole orchestra, before he is able to hear them in a symphony. So it is with us as children of God. Unless we take the time to hear his voice in the quiet moments of life, we will not be able to hear him the symphony sounds of life.
Stephen Macchia, Becoming a Healthy Church, Baker Books, 1999, p.63.
Hearing a Cricket in Times Square
Dana Visneskie tells the story of a Native American and his friend who were in downtown New York City, walking near Times Square in Manhattan. It was during the noon lunch hour and the streets were filled with people. Cars were honking their horns, taxicabs were squealing around corners, sirens were wailing, and the sounds of the city were almost deafening.
Suddenly, the Native American said, “I hear a cricket.”
His friend said, “What? You must be crazy. You couldn’t possibly hear a cricket in all of this noise!”
“No, I’m sure of it,” the Native American said. “I heard a cricket.”
“That’s crazy,” said the friend.
The Native American listened carefully for a moment, and then walked across the street to a big cement planter where some shrubs were growing. He looked into the bushes, beneath the branches, and sure enough, he located a small cricket. His friend was utterly amazed. “That’s incredible,” said his friend. “You must have super-human ears!”
“No,” said the Native American. “My ears are no different from yours. It all depends on what you’re listening for.”
“But that can’t be!” said the friend. “I could never hear a cricket in this noise.”
“Yes, it’s true,” came the reply. “It depends on what is really important to you. Here, let me show you.”
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a few coins, and discreetly dropped them on the sidewalk. And then, with the noise of the crowded street still blaring in their ears, they noticed every head within twenty feet turn and look to see if the money that tinkled on the pavement was theirs.
“See what I mean?” asked the Native American. “It all depends on what’s important to you.
Additional Sermon Resources
Call to Worship
You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
Prayer of Confession
Lord, you have in fact searched us and known us. You know when we rest and when we rise, when we go out and come home. You know our inmost thoughts. And yet even so Lord, even so we turn our backs to you. We hide our face from your goodness, believing we will be better off on our own than surrendering our wills to yours. At times Lord, we are stiff-necked people, stubborn to our own health, often choosing death over life. And yet, you still choose to love us. You choose to show us grace no matter how many times we turn our backs to you. Please forgive us according to your own true nature, as the gracious loving God-for-us.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Assurance of Pardon
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
(May) the Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.