Nothing quite grabs our attention like a voice in the night. After all, it almost always signals trouble. The voice may be that of a child from the next bedroom: “Grandma, I’m sick,” or a teenager’s cell phone: “Dad, I’ve run out of gas.”
Sometimes, of course, the voice in the middle of the night says nothing important. A few years ago my cell phone jarred me out of my sleep at about 3 a.m. When I answered it, the voice on the other end sounded inebriated (as I also probably did to the caller). Yet the phone call grabbed and held my attention for a long time anyway.
Since Hannah and Elkanah had been unable to bear children, Hannah had gone to the temple to promise to give back to the Lord any son God chose to give her. Eli, her feeble old priest, however, confused her weeping and praying with drunkenness.
Yet God knew that desperate Hannah was sober. God graciously gave Elkanah and her the son for whom they’d longed, wept and prayed. They responded by lending their son Samuel back to the Lord.
Old Eli’s family was far less connected to the Lord. Eli was Israel’s head priest. So he spent his life telling the Israelites what he thought God was saying. That meant that Eli had to try to listen to God in order to help Israel listen to God.
Yet that couldn’t have been particularly easy. 1 Samuel 3 begins, after all, by mourning that “in those days the word of the Lord was rare.” It’s as if God either didn’t talk much in Eli’s day or people simply didn’t listen to God very much. In any case, God was clearly not grabbing peoples’ attention. Certainly not Eli’s rowdy sons’. They, after all, were scoundrels who had no interest in carrying on their dad’s work, except to the extent that it enriched them. Eli’s sons preferred carousing and womanizing.
So God decided to work outside Eli’s family channels. Instead of choosing a mature person to proclaim the good news, God chooses a child. God will, after all, proclaim God’s faithfulness, even if God must use a kid to do it. God “finds,” as it were, that child in the spiritually crumbling house of Eli where Samuel is serving God under Eli’s guidance.
Samuel’s boss is so old that he’s losing his eyesight. In that way Eli’s a sad symbol of Israel. After all, in Eli’s time, “everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). What’s more, “there were not many visions” (1 Samuel 3:1) when Samuel was helping Eli. So 1 Samuel 3’s Israel has grown blind to God’s ways, work and will.
That’s one effect, after all, of doing what’s right not in God’s, but our own eyes. When you and I do what we think is right instead of what God says is right, it’s almost as if we build up spiritual cataracts. We find it hard to see God at work, even when it’s right in front of our eyes.
Yet while spiritual darkness seems to engulf Eli, his family and Israel, light does still flicker. After all, our text reports, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out” (3). The lamp to which that refers is the one that God had told Moses to make. It was a sign of God’s lasting presence that the priests fueled with oil the Israelites brought to the temple.
Yet our text at least implies that temple lamp is flickering as 1 Samuel 3 opens. Perhaps that merely means that it’s almost dawn. However, it may also imply that the lamp that is God’s presence is in danger of dying out in Israel.
So it’s somehow appropriate that, when God comes, it’s when virtually no one can see anything. When God comes to Israel, Eli and Samuel, everyone is still asleep, not just spiritually, as our text implies, but also physically.
Yet when God does talk in the middle of the night, it’s not to old Eli to whom God has been trying to talk for years. God doesn’t speak to the old priest who has spent his life trying to listen for God’s voice.
God speaks, instead, to a little boy whom Will Willimon suggests was listening for nothing more than his blind boss’s voice. This son of Hannah and Elkanah’s desperation is still so young that he doesn’t yet know the Lord.
Yet God has a way of speaking to the people whom we might not expect and who might not expect God. God speaks, after all, to morally flawed characters like Abram and Sarai, Jonah and Deborah. In our day God has spoken to people we’ve tried to marginalize like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa.
Yet apparently the sound of God speaking is so rare in Samuel’s day that no one quickly recognizes it. While God speaks to Samuel, not once, but three times, each time the boy confuses it with Eli’s voice. Twice, as well, even Israel’s doddering old priest confuses God’s voice with some kind of dream his helper is having.
Now we might expect young Samuel, who doesn’t yet faithfully seem to know the Lord, not to recognize God’s voice. Yet wouldn’t we expect Eli to recognize that voice quickly?
His experience reminds us that it takes some practice to recognize God’s voice. In fact, it’s no easier for citizens of the 21st century to hear God speaking than it was for Eli and Samuel. The voices around us are, after all, often loud and shrill. North American culture, for example, has turned parts of its media and politics into a shouting match where many yell but few listen, especially to those with whom we disagree.
On top of that, the voices inside us are also very loud and insistent. They naturally demand that we do what’s best for those we like and love, as well as ourselves. Our natural sinfulness makes it very hard to distinguish between God’s voice and our self-interest.
So young Samuel must learn to listen for God’s voice. He needs doddering old Eli’s help to finally hear the God who has tried three times to speak to him in the night. Samuel needs his mentor to teach him to say: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Yet when finally God speaks, God’s message is, frankly, in some ways chilling. I even sometimes wonder if old Eli regretted urging Samuel to listen to it. God’s message is, after all, a message of disruption and upheaval.
God warns Samuel that desperate times are coming to Eli’s family. They will fall so far, hard and fast that Eli’s dying daughter-in-law will eventually deduce that God’s glory has simply abandoned it.
Yet God’s message to Samuel also communicates hope. While the lamp of God’s presence may be just smoldering like glowing embers in Samuel’s day, God promises to blow those dying embers into a roaring fire.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that while the word of the Lord is “rare” as our text opens, by the end of the chapter it’s coming fast and furious. Because God is with Samuel, God lets none of the prophet’s “words fall to the ground” (19). God’s Spirit gives Samuel’s words so much power that none of them are wasted. In fact, those words are so powerful that it becomes hard to distinguish them from God’s own words.
As a result, people from all over Israel eventually recognize that Samuel speaks for God. Where God’s word was once as rare as a Texas snowstorm in July, at our text’s end God is constantly revealing himself through Samuel’s words. The lamp of God is again burning brightly, however temporarily.
Spiritual darkness may still threaten to blot out the light of God’s presence in our world, just as it threatened to extinguish the light of the world that is Jesus. Wars and recession seem to threaten to snuff out the light of the world. Yet the light that God’s presence still shines brightly, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So God still speaks, by God’s Word and Spirit. The only question is whether God’s adopted sons and daughters are listening. God gives the Holy Spirit whom God’s people need in order to hear God speaking. God has also given God’s Word by which we measure other voices.
Yet sometimes we think that God’s voice is hard to hear. After all, God sometimes speaks through people whom society easily ignores. God speaks through people with whom we don’t always theologically agree. God speaks through our Christian brothers and sisters in third and fourth world countries. God, by God’s common grace, sometimes even speaks some truth to us through followers of other religions.
So can God’s people listen closely enough to hear God speaking? Can we put aside our theological and ethnic pride long enough to hear God speaking through what sometimes seem like unlikely spokespeople? Can we, quite simply, join young Samuel in saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”?
In their book, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, editors Lee Sparks and Kathryn Hayes Sparks quote the wonderful preacher, Fred Craddock as saying, “The Bible takes listening very seriously. The Bible’s term for ‘listening’ is translated most often as ‘obey.’ The Bible doesn’t know the difference between ‘listen’ and ‘obey.’
“Listening is fundamental, but it is so hard to do. We have marvelous mechanisms for not listening. The Bible recognizes this. Recall that marvelous passage about the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4b-5, ‘Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord opened my ear and I was not rebellious.’ The wording literally is ‘God dug out my ear.’ You don’t just listen—it takes an act of God to really listen.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 14, 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) Commentary