The books of Samuel are the beginning of a time of great transition in the life of Israel.  Most crucially it is a time of transition from Judges to a King.  We remember the Judges like Deborah and Samson.  These Judges arose as charismatic, divinely appointed leaders that rise up in response to trouble in the life of the Israelites, which is normally caused by their turning away from God. Yet, we see in the books of Samuel that God’s people are no longer satisfied with the Judges.[1]  The people want a king.  They want to be like the other nations (1Sam. 8).  Even though this leads us into some of the great figures of the Old Testament, such as David and Solomon, it is clear that the author is mistrustful of the monarchy.  After all, if the Israelites have God, why do they need a king?  Further, it is always a sign of trouble when God’s people seek to be like the other nations.  God’s people are called to be distinct, to live differently.  When we start wanting to fit in with everything around us, problems and idolatry are not far away.

In addition to a transition in leadership from Judges to Kings, there is also a priestly transition.  It is the transition of the lineage of Eli to the lineage of Samuel.  Eli’s family has squandered their role as God’s priests because his sons are as corrupt as can be.  They would come by while people were offering sacrifices, and they would thrust their fork into the container, and pull out as much as they could.  It wasn’t that they weren’t supposed to have any at all.  It was customary for them to receive a portion of the sacrifice, they were abusing their power and responsibility.  Even worse, they would take advantage of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.  In our era, where we see pastors regularly abusing their power and position, we can identify with the deep violations committed by Eli’s family.

Eli tries to reason with them, but they don’t care.  Not long after this, a “man of God” delivers the bad news to the Eli.  Even though God chose Eli’s family to be God’s priests, now as God looks at the abuses of Eli’s his sons, the sentence is that Eli’s sons will both die on the same day, and the rest of Eli’s family will die by the sword.  God promises to raise up a new “faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in [God’s] heart and [God’s] mind.” (1 Sam. 2.12-36).  This faithful priest will be Samuel.

Our Old Testament lesson today is that familiar story of Samuel’s call.  It is one we know well.  Because God granted her a son in Samuel, Hannah has turned over Samuel to be trained by Eli.  God calls out to Samuel in the night, “Samuel!” which literally means, “God has heard.”  Samuel mistakes God’s call for Eli.  Eli tells Samuel it wasn’t him and sends Samuel back to bed.  It happens again.  Then Samuel turns up again.  The third time, Eli, this priest who has lived a life of service to God, full of experience, though his eyesight is dimming, perceives that it may be God calling out to Samuel.  He tells Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  When Samuel does this, God reveals to Samuel what will happen to Eli’s lineage.  I love that the author describes Samuel lying there until morning.  I don’t imagine it is easy to sleep after hearing such a Word?  And imagine what Samuel must have felt when Eli wants to know what God has said. Yet, Samuel trusts Eli, and Eli knows what his sons have done, and Eli knows and is known by God well.  Eli still trusts in God, even though Samuel has bad news for him.

This story of Samuel has a lot to teach us.  Yes, it is a story about calling.  Yet, the character of this story about calling is different than the ones we usually hear.  Samuel isn’t like Isaiah being caught up in a blazing flash of heavenly worship and given a specific charge.  Isaiah’s call is unmistakable.  Samuel, on the other hand, doesn’t even recognize that God is even speaking to him at first.  He thinks it is Eli.  In fact, it takes the suggestion of Eli, with Eli’s “knowledge of the Lord, and his experience of the revelation of God’s word” to alert Samuel that the voice he hears is God’s.[2]  The young Samuel needs the experience of the one who has gone before him to help him see that he is being called.

The other thing that is striking about Samuel’s call story is that it is not instantaneous like many of the ones we hear.   There is no blazing bush calling out to Samuel here.  Instead, Samuel’s call emerges over time.  Samuel is in Eli’s care, and Eli helps him to grow, to learn the ways of God, and to learn how to serve God. He grows up in the Lord.  Even after the call, Samuel’s trajectory doesn’t change a great deal.  Instead, he continues to grow in the role to which God has called him as one of the last judges over Israel, bringing God’s word to the people.  All of this comes with Eli’s guidance and support.  Eli is incredible here.  How many of us would keep going when we heard that bad news from Samuel?  We spend our whole lives as a priest of God, and suddenly we hear that it is all going to be taken away?  Not only that, but it isn’t because of anything we did.  Rather it comes as a result of what our children have done?  Yet Eli remains in his role of priest.  Just as importantly, Eli remains in his role as Samuel’s mentor.  He assists Samuel in hearing God’s call, and when Samuel hears God call, Eli helps him live into the role to which God is calling him.

What we see in the relationship of Eli and Samuel is a model of who we are called to be as a community of baptized persons.  We noted last week the promises that we make when someone is baptized.  We promise to embody a community of love and forgiveness with the guidance and support of the Holy Spirit.  We promise to pray for one another that we might be found faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  In essence, we are promising to be a community where older priests help younger disciples pay attention to and hear God’s call in their lives.  We are promising to be a community where younger disciples find themselves apprenticed to older priests, so that as they grow up, they will be able to rely on the knowledge and experience of God of the older priests.

Why priests?  As I pointed out last week and at other times, baptism is the ordination of all Christians into the priesthood of all believers.  We are all called. We are all holy priests. Though we as priests may not share Eli’s curse, it is true is that none of us will always be here.  It is true that one day our lineage will run out.  The lineage that God creates comes not through flesh, but through water and the Spirit.  There will be a new generation that God will call to be priests when we are God.  The older priests are called to be Elis for the Samuels among us.  The older folks are responsible for helping take care of, guide, and mentor the younger ones among us.  I’m not going to tell you who the older priests and younger disciples are because at one time or another, all of us have, still do, and will fall into both categories.  We’ve all been younger disciples, and we’ve all been older priests.  God calls each and every one of us to be older priests to those younger disciples no matter our age.  It points to God’s call on all of us as younger disciples to rely on the wisdom of those who have come before us.

In a time of radical change, where the Word of the Lord is rare, the older priests must be willing to mentor those who will maintain the faith and traditions of the Church.  To do this doesn’t mean that older folks hold on to the church and give to the young when they are finished with it.  It means that we are called to look for, to listen for, and to help younger folks to recognize when God might be calling out to them.  It is our responsibility to be present with disciples who are younger than us to help them hear God’s voice.  They might not know it is God.  It might sound like just a friend.  Or it might sound like just a teacher.  Surprisingly, it might even sound like just a parent!  But it could be God.

If Samuel’s story tells us anything, it is that younger disciples might not recognize God’s voice.  It might take an older priest asking the question, “What if that deep passion you feel, that deep inclination towards this or that vocation…what if that is what God wants for you?  What if in your baptism, God’s grace is drawing you towards this?”  A younger disciple might not realize that what is going on deep in their heart and keeping them up at night is God’s voice until they have that holy conversation with an older priest.

When it comes down to it, how do we know when it is God, and when we might just be talking to ourselves?[3]  We hear lots of pastors, politicians, and other people suggesting that God is telling them things.  That God is speaking directly to them?  How do we know when it is God and how do we know when it is just us trying to make God want what we want?  How do we know? Some of us lamented this difficultly during the youth lectionary bible study.  One youth wanted to know why there aren’t burning bushes anymore.  Yet the reality is that Samuel and Eli shows us that God still speaks, but we need ears to hear.  We need older priests who have heard God longer to help our younger disciples to perceive when it is God and when it isn’t.

The younger disciples in turn will also find themselves sharing their visions and dreams with us.

We need each other.  We need the community of the baptized to help us realize when it is God talking and when we are just talking to ourselves.  It takes the faithful, experienced, Elis of the church being willing to take the time to listen to the stories, the desires, and experiences of the Samuels among us.  That might mean you are a senior adult, and you are called to be an Eli to a youth.  It might mean you are a youth and you are called to be an Eli to child.  And though I have broken it down by ages, there may even be times when younger persons are called to be priests to older persons.  After all, once Samuel perceives that it is God, he shares that Word with Eli. The fact is, each of us are Elis called to help Samuels hear God’s voice, so that as they mature and develop they might connect their deepest to desires to the needs of the world, the needs that God is calling them to meet.

We are, as Peter says, “ a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2.9).  We are called to show that goodness to our younger disciples, so that all of us might able to show God’s light to a world full of darkness.  And to be clear, this need not just be a male model.  We see it throughout the Scriptures the same mentoring relationships developing between holy women as well.  Consider that the bridge between Judges and 1 Samuel is Ruth, who bound herself to Naomi in a holy friendship.  You can even argue that we see in Ruth and Naomi and Eli and Samuel a holy adoption, created by bonds God created, not the bonds of flesh.  We know our own holy adoption because God adopts us in baptism, and we adopt one another.  We become God’s children, and we adopt one another.

This is an incredible responsibility.  Yet, it is also an unimaginable gift.  And when we open ourselves up to that responsibility God is able now, just as God was able in Samuel’s time, to do something that will make “the ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (1 Sam. 3.10).

Are your ears tingling yet?

The Title for this Sermon came from a comment from Richard Boyce in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008)  p. 247.


[1] Richard Boyce, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008)  p. 243.

[2] Boyce, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 245.

[3] Unvirtuous Abbey, “Do You Hear what I Hear?” on The Hardest Question, Online:  http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/epiphany2ot-2/, cited January 14, 2012.

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