Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 18, 2015

1 Samuel 3:1-20 Commentary

Comments and Observations

Over the last quarter-century, audio, visual, and computer technology has advanced more rapidly than our ability to prevent these gizmos from taking over the minds of our youth (and of some of us not-so-young too!!).  Not so long ago, parents who wanted to monitor what their kids saw or listened to had a somewhat easier time of it.  The TV only got three channels and there were no DVD or Blu-Ray players around.  If the kids were going to listen to music, it would have to be whatever came out of the Hi-Fi in the living room, and so mom or dad could listen in easy enough.  Dirty pictures were limited to dirty magazines, and kids did not have ready access to such things.

I need not point out how much has changed.  Cable TV, the Internet, I-Pods, I-Pads, wireless access to the web, streaming movies from Netflix, and the like allow kids to be exposed to far more than was possible before.  As a general rule, we do not want children to hear things they are too immature to handle.

But what if the heavy-duty message in question comes to a child directly from God himself?  

Over the years we have tended to view I Samuel 3 as a charming, Sunday school-like tale filled with some humor, told with good narrative style that builds up suspense, and conveying the bottom line that sometimes God works through children.  Many children’s sermons on this passage (including probably some of mine) end by saying, “So you see, boys and girls, God can talk to you, too.  Will you listen for God just like Samuel did?”

What we forget is that the message Samuel heard clearly frightened him.  God himself told the lad that this message would tingle the ears of everyone who heard it.  But it was Samuel’s ears that were to tingle first!  If even adults would get the willies hearing what God had to say, you can imagine how this child felt.  The next morning Eli practically had to threaten Samuel just to get the boy to cough up the truth.  Maybe part of Samuel’s hesitation stemmed from the fact that he knew Eli would not like the message very much.  But I suspect another reason was that Samuel was afraid Eli would wash his mouth out with soap!

Why did God make a young boy the messenger for something so grim?  That question becomes even more poignant when you realize that Eli had already heard this message.  If you look at the very end of I Samuel 2, you see that someone who is called “a man of God” had recently come to Eli and delivered to him a harsh word of judgment from Yahweh.  For too long Eli had allowed his two sons to turn the house of God into a brothel.  Hophni and Phineas were dreadful lowlifes who mugged some of the people who came to worship God even as they raped others.  Sometimes they stole the people’s offerings and other times they forced themselves on some of the lovelier young women who came to worship.

But Eli, for all his good points, also bore a striking resemblance to Milquetoast.  Even as his sons carried on like some drunken sailors at Mardi Gras, the most their father could manage was to stand on the sidelines wringing his hands, shaking his head, and mumbling ineffectively, “Boys, stop. Please. Don’t do that!”

Eli was eminently easy to ignore.

In a way, Hophni and Phineas embodied everything that was wrong with Israel during the time of the judges.  People were just generally running wild and running amok, doing what was right in their own eyes.  Long ago Yahweh had given them a blueprint for living.  Now people kept sketching their own plans for life, making up the rules as they went along.

So as bad as Hophni and Phineas were, many of their compatriots were no better.  To put it mildly, this was not what God had had in mind when he led the people out of Egypt and settled them in the Promised Land.  If things did not turn around, Israel would become as thoroughly pagan and secular as Babylon, Egypt, or any other nation you could name.  Samuel the man, and also the two biblical books that bear his name, represent the new thing God was about to do in order to bring about precisely the turn-around that Israel needed.

And it begins with the return of God’s Word.  Samuel in this third chapter did not tell Eli anything new.  But because it clearly was a Word from God, Eli took it seriously.  We are not told in chapter 2 how Eli reacted to the prophecy of the stranger.  Did he chalk this stranger up as a crackpot not to be taken seriously?  Did he take it with a grain of salt?  Or did he believe this man’s prophecy that Eli’s sons would both die on the same day and that, as a result, Eli’s family line was finished in terms of the priesthood?  We don’t know.  What we do know is that when Samuel delivers the bad news, Eli believes it as God’s Word and seems to resign himself to the fate that awaited him and his family.

Eli received God’s Word from Samuel and he took it seriously, difficult a Word though it was.  Precisely that attitude would turn Israel around eventually.  Because in this chapter it is clearly the case that the divine Word occupies center stage.  As this new corner is turned by Israel, it will be the Word that creates the change.

Just look at how this concept of the divine Word weaves through this chapter.  We begin right off the bat in verse 1 with the declaration that “in those days the word of Yahweh was rare; there were not many visions.”  The people were both deaf and blind when it came to receiving communication from God.  Yet by the end of this same chapter in verse 21 we are told that because of Samuel’s presence at Shiloh, all of a sudden God’s bringing his word became a common occurrence once again and, what’s more, Samuel’s word then went out to all Israel.  So we go from a kind of Mojave Desert of the divine Word in verse 1 to a monsoon rain shower of that same Word by verse 21.

And the source of this radical change can be very neatly tracked down to the precise midpoint of chapter 3 in verse 10 when Samuel says, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  Your servant is listening.

Maybe it was the listening that made the difference.  Maybe the reason God’s Word had been rare was not so much because God wasn’t trying to say something but because no one was tuning in, no one was listening.  And just maybe that is true in life more often than not.

Illustration Idea

Language is central to who we are.  We can be touched, moved, stirred, reduced to tears, or deeply angered through words alone.  The invention of the telephone made this clear.  “Reach out and touch someone” used to be an advertising slogan for a phone company.  It was an odd catch-phrase when you think about it because when on the phone, the one thing you cannot literally or physically do is touch the other person (if you could, you would not be on the phone in the first place!).  Yet we’ve all been “touched” while on the phone (or now when we are on Skype or Facetime with someone).  We now know that a person can be touched by words even if you can’t see the person who is speaking them.  We all know that you can be on the phone, unable to see the person on the other end of the line, and yet the words that come through the receiver can melt your heart, break your heart, make your heart skip for joy.

It is said of the great eighteenth-century preacher George Whitfield that he had such a powerful speaking voice that he could make grown men weep and women faint dead away just from how he pronounced the word “Mesopotamia”!  That may be an exaggeration, but we do know the power of words, don’t we?  We know that we can be mesmerized by speech.  And we also know that we can be fundamentally changed by what we hear.  And if that is true in ordinary human discourse, think how this is magnified when we talk about what I Samuel 3 wants to talk about: the Word of the Lord.

“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  And what we may hear in so listening can change the world.


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