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. 2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the 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. 4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and 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.6The 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.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The 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. 9Therefore 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. 10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that 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. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” 15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” 19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord (1 Samuel 3:1-20).
It’s been good to have had a holiday over the last week, but it’s good to be back to work now too; back to the old routine – chipping away at the usual workload Monday to Friday, doing the regular chores, seeing the usual people and worshipping according to our normal, regular, predictable weekly routine. It’s nice and stable. We know where we’re going and where we’ve come from and how we are going to get there!
And there’s nothing wrong with routine in life or in worship. Indeed, routine in worship has always been part of the life of the church, just as it was the fabric of the life of the synagogue in Jesus’ day, just as the temple in Solomon’s day worked according to a strict routine of set prayers and psalms and sacrifices, as even the tabernacle did back in the days of Eli the priest, long before any permanent place of worship had even been thought of – back in the days before there were kings in Israel, in the days of the Judges (Samson, Eli and Samuel).
And so our first reading portrays Eli and his young assistant Samuel, going about their regular ecclesiastic routines. Eli is wearing his old worn cassock and Samuel is wearing his linen ephod (whatever that was). And there are prayers to be said, readings to be read, songs to be sung, and the ‘lamp of God’ has to be kept alight.
A watch was kept over the tabernacle of God, it seems, 24 hours per day. Was that because they were guarding it lest anyone steal the Ark of the Covenant, or was it because they remembered that God had once made a habit of communicating with people who hung about the tabernacle?
If the latter, then we should note what we are told at the opening of today’s passage – that ‘The word of the LORD was rare in those days’, which suggests that most of those keeping watch would have spent long and boring nights, seeing and hearing nothing.
Nothing out of the ordinary ever really happened at church in those days. Nobody was interrupting the services with dynamic visions or prophesies. Nobody was jumping around claiming to have been healed of any terrible infirmity. No one was feeling the call of God upon them to start up missionary work amongst the Philistines. There were no outrageous acts of love or charity that were catching anybody’s attention.
No. Things were just going on as they had always been going on, and that was OK because there were prayers to be said and readings to be read and psalms to be sung, and sacrifices to be made, and the lamp of God had to be lit, and the watch over the tabernacle had to be kept, and then all of a sudden…….. God intrudes.
And God intrudes, in this case, not during a service of worship nor through the reading of the Scriptures, nor through any of the regular ecclesiastical routines that were designed to bring people into the presence of God.
God intrudes instead into Samuel’s bedroom while he is trying to get to sleep, such that young Samuel thinks he hears Eli calling out his name – “Samuel, Samuel”.
And I don’t know about you but I have always loved this story. I remember my dad reading it to me in my youth, where I identified myself with the young boy, and I wondered whether God might speak to me one night in the way he did to Samuel?
I remember lying awake myself as a young lad, listening out for still, small voices. Unfortunately the only voices I would generally hear would be my parents arguing.
Even so, it is hard not to have this depiction capture your imagination, where there you are, going to work and pushing through your daily routine, when all of a sudden God speaks to you and takes hold of your life, and nothing can be the same anymore!
It’s hard to know what Eli had planned for the days ahead. Perhaps he was busy doing the same sorts of things we get busy doing here – setting a budget for the coming year, planning new projects for outreach and ministry. Quite likely he was assuming that the year ahead would be much like the year past, and that things would go on as they had always gone on. But then God intruded, and everything changed!
There are some parallels, of course with today’s Gospel reading (which is probably why these passages were chosen to go together). Philip and Nathaniel are singled out by Jesus for discipleship. We don’t know why He chose them and we don’t know what they were doing when He called them, but we can imagine that they had lives and jobs and families and plans, and then Jesus intruded and blew all that out of the water!
God has a habit of upsetting the best-laid plans of mice and men, as I’m sure we know.
- Abraham had plans for a quiet retirement when God intruded and told him to pack up his belongings and head off in the direction of the Promised Land.
- Jonah certainly had other plans when God called him to go to Nineveh.
- The rich young ruler certainly had plans that didn’t involve ‘selling all his possessions and giving the money to the poor’.
In each case these people seemed happy enough going about business as usual, but God intruded. And sometimes these intrusions are welcome and refreshing, like a shot of fresh air into a stale and suffocating prison-cell, but often such intrusions are very unwelcome, as they threaten to unsettle the familiar routine in which we find security and stability. And the older we get the less, I suspect, we welcome these intrusions.
Even so, here we are at the beginning of a new year, settling back into our familiar routine, heading back to work and back to worship, and settling back down into our familiar circle of friends and work-colleagues, and yet the truth is that we do not know what lies just around the corner, and whether or not God might choose to intrude, and all of a sudden turn everything on its head!
And this, I think, would be a really nice place to start winding up this sermon, following it with a rousing chorus of the old hymn, “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling”, while we each ponder whether or not the Lord might be speaking to us with His still, small voice – calling us by name and presenting us with some new challenge for the year ahead.
I think that this would be a heart-warming and not inappropriate application of this story, except that in my case I just can’t get comfortable with it. And the reason for that is that, in as much as I’ve identified myself with young Samuel since my youth, I think that nowadays I’m looking a lot more like old Eli than I am like his apprentice!
Perhaps this is symptomatic of turning 50? Or perhaps this realisation comes when you realise that you’ve been ministering in a place even longer than Eli ministered at Shiloh, which makes me not just a part of the establishment. I am the establishment!
Eli was growing old at his post, we are told, and I know what that feels like. Eli eyes were growing dim, we are told. It says that somewhere in 1 Samuel chapter 4 but I just can’t quite make out what the verse number is! And Eli had grown fat, we are told (4:18), so perhaps I’m not quite Eli yet, which is a little encouraging.
I note too that Eli had his sons lined up to take over his priestly duties when he retired, and I’m encouraged to say that we haven’t quite set up a system of dynastic succession here yet, so perhaps the similarities aren’t too overwhelming just yet.
Even so, I would like to suggest that a large part of the challenge for us in this story might not just be the challenge to be open to the word of the Lord, but more so the challenge to accept that we might not be the centre of God’s activity any more!
It has to happen at some stage, doesn’t it?
In as much as we might be used to being God’s front-line soldiers, a time will come (and has perhaps already come) when we’ll need to recognise that the word of the Lord that is calling on people to take up some special work is being directed at somebody else!
I had a really special experience just before I went on my holiday where a young man shared his recent spiritual experiences with me after an evening at Fight Club. And this guy told me how God had been speaking to him (in an audible voice at some points) which he said had really been freaking him out!
And this guy was not someone with a history of addiction or psychiatric disorders either, but was until recently a devout atheist who had just finished his doctoral studies and was going on to do some highly specialised scientific work in the area of anthropology.
And this man came to me because he figured that I might have some wisdom to impart to him regarding the instructions that God seemed to be giving him. And all I could say to him was, “Keep listening, brother, for it seems that the Lord has a plan for you here, but I’m pretty sure that it’s a plan that I don’t have anything to do with!”
In as much as we might not like to face it, we are not always the centre of God’s activity!
God has been doing some fantastic things for many years here through the ministry of Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill. I believe it! But have you noticed the magnificent things He has been doing through other churches in our area, and the things He has been doing in our community where the churches have no involvement whatsoever!
God can work through the establishment – I don’t doubt it – but have you noticed how often God seems to work around the establishment and in spite of the establishment!
God can work through us old soldiers – of course He can, just as He called Abraham into action right out of the middle of his retirement, but have you noticed how often He chooses young and seemingly clueless people to be the bearers of His word.
And have you noticed how He who brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly so often speaks to us through struggling people, the disabled, the addicted and those who have more passion than good sense!
Andrew Young was a close associate of Martin Luther King, and an ordained minister. He once shared with a group how delighted he was when his eldest daughter finally became active in her local church. With each deepening level of her involvement he became more pleased, until one day she announced to her parents that she was going to join the ministry of Habitat for Humanity to build homes for the poor of Uganda. This was not too many years after the fall of Idi Amin, and Uganda was still a very violent country. And so her dad tried to talk her out of it!
Young confessed ‘I wanted her to go to church, to find a nice Christian man to marry, to develop a relationship with God and settle down. But, believe me, I didn’t have anything like this in mind. I didn’t intend for her to go so far with it. I mean – Uganda! But he said she felt called. What could I say?’
“Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling”. And yet sometimes that call is neither soft nor tender, and sometimes He’s calling someone else, and sometimes the person He is calling is someone we wish He would leave alone!
The temple can be a dangerous place – not just for us but equally for those we love! Perhaps that’s the ultimate message we should get from this story – a story that has the potential both to warm and to disturb us.
But God knew what He was doing. That’s the backdrop to the Samuel story, and that continues to be the backdrop to our story. And the greatness of both Samuel and old Eli lay in the fact that in the end both of them submitted themselves to God’s will and wisdom. Amen.