Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 3, 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) Commentary
At first glance, “the word of the Lord” hardly seems as “rare” in many parts of Christ’s Church as it was in Samuel and Eli’s family’s day (1). After all, many who are reading this make at least part of our living proclaiming that word of the Lord. American cable television providers still broadcast numerous church services and preachers. People who at least claim to proclaim the word of the Lord bombard social media.
In fact, it sometimes seems as if the problem is not so much that the word of the Lord is “rare,” but that it’s so common. It’s increasingly hard to actually hear God speaking. It’s hard to untangle so much of the noise that our culture makes from God’s Word of Life. So many people claim to speak for God that we need some kind of good theological filter to help us listen for God’s Word.
The Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday might serve as a kind of metaphor for our culture’s struggle to hear the word of the Lord. While, of course, it’s so much more than metaphor, 1 Samuel 3 is a passage the Spirit can use to help those who proclaim it to speak its truths into the 21st century.
I Samuel 3 reintroduces us to the Samuel whom we first “meet” in earlier in the book. His godly but once-infertile mother had given him back to God after God empowered her to miraculously conceive and give birth to him. Now our text’s Samuel has matured enough to live in the temple of the Lord where he works for the aging priest Eli.
Yet Samuel works in a spiritually and morally vacuous Israel. It’s not just that Israel’s priests are moral and spiritual hooligans. It’s also that Israelites aren’t listening to the Lord who’d done so much for their ancestors and them. Israel has, as one scholar notes, spiritually become much like her priest who is hearing and sight-impaired. All Israelites, as the end of the book of Judges mourns, they as they see “fit.”
Those who proclaim 1 Samuel 3 may want to explore parallels between Samuel’s and our 21st century world. While the word of the Lord may not seem rare, many of our contemporaries also do as they see “fit.” 1 Samuel’s preachers and teachers won’t have to troll the media very long to find examples of this moral and spiritual anarchy. Yet, of course, we want to be careful not to imply that it’s just “others” who do as they please. There are enough examples of God’s people doing as we see fit to fill a whole library of lessons and sermons.
Yet God speaks God’s grace into Israel as well as our own darkness. Some scholars find a hint of that in verse 3’s report that “The lamp of God” that was the golden menorah that God had called Moses to commission had “not yet gone out.” It was a symbol of God’s lasting presence that Israel’s priests fueled with the oil the Israelites brought to them. Verse 3 implies that that “lamp of God” is flickering as Samuel works for Eli. Yet it’s not yet extinguished. That at least suggests that there’s still hope for an Israel that’s spiritually blind and deaf.
That hope shows up in God’s persistent call to Samuel. While both visions and the word of the Lord are rare (1) in his day, God gives him both a vision and a message in the same night (10-14). Yet Samuel is, in a sense, a kind of outsider. Eli’s sons are of the priestly line. Samuel’s parents are faithful but aging people with no particularly famous lineage. Yet because Eli’s sons have not used their lineage to serve the Lord, God turns to Samuel, not at all unlike the way God also turned to outsiders like Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David and fishermen-turned-Jesus’ disciples.
Of course, the young outsider Samuel at least seems to be as largely deaf to God’s call as his fellow Israelites. God must, after all, call to him three times before, with help, the young man recognizes that it’s the Lord who’s trying to tell him something. He, after all, assumes his boss is calling to him in the night. Samuel seems more in tune to his boss’s voice than the Lord’s.
The word of the Lord is rare in Samuel’s day. What’s more, the young man is first sleeping, then perhaps dozing when God calls him. On top of that, while Samuel “ministers before the Lord” (1), he does “not yet know the Lord” (7). Yet it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to see in Samuel’s failure to recognize God’s a mirror of his fellow Israelites’ failure to recognize God’s voice.
Ironically, it’s old Eli who’s physically as well as perhaps at least somewhat spiritually hearing and sight-impaired who finally figures out that it’s God who’s talking to Samuel. Yet here too there’s great grace. After all, while Eli and his family are in moral and spiritual shambles, God empowers him to recognize what’s going on with Samuel. While Eli’s priestly dynasty will soon die with him, God equips him to help move God’s plans and purposes forward by sending Samuel back to listen for the Lord.
Of course, it takes the old priest three tries to finally figure out that it’s God who’s on “the other end of the line.” “Go and lie down,” Eli eventually tells his young charge, “and if he calls to you say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’” (9).
Those who proclaim 1 Samuel 3 might at this point point out how God’s voice is heard only in community in this text. Samuel doesn’t hear God speaking to him until Eli helps him to listen for it. In a culture that’s so noisy, those who proclaim this Sunday’s Old Testament lesson might explore with hearers the importance of God’s adopted sons and daughters both needing each other and coming together, like Samuel and Eli, to hear God speaking.
Yet when Samuel does finally get down to listening to God’s voice, God’s message must almost certainly chill him to the bone. God, after all, warns him that desperate times are coming to and for Eli’s spiritually and morally bankrupt family. The priestly family will, in fact, fall so hard and precipitously that a daughter-in-law will deduce that God’s glory has simply departed from Israel (I Samuel 4:21).
Yet our text offers Samuel and Israel hope. After all, even old Eli responds to God’s ghastly warning by saying, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes” (18). What’s more, while the word of the Lord is rare as 1 Samuel 3 opens, its narrator closes the chapter with the report that God’s word is coming fast and furious. In fact, because God is with Samuel, God lets “none of his words fall to the ground” (19). God wastes none of God’s prophetic words through God’s servant Samuel. God’s words have their desired affect.
Those who proclaim 1 Samuel may want to look for ways to show those who hear us how God’s words continue to have their desired affect, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. Preachers and teachers may even want to look for examples of the kinds of Samuel’s through whom God continues to speak in the 21st century. The word of the Lord is, after all, by God’s amazing grace, no longer “rare.”
The story of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s road toward canonization in the Roman Catholic Church is a fascinating case study in the perils and controversies of proclaiming God’s word. A Salvadoran death squad allegedly gunned down the advocate for the poor and others on society’s margins while he was celebrating mass in 1980.
While already in 2015 Pope Francis declared Romero a martyr and announced his intention to move his canonization ahead, he met fierce opposition. Romero, after all, was proponent of liberation theology, a movement popular in many quarters in the 60’s and 70’s but fell out of favor. Subsequent Roman Catholic theologians argued sometimes vehemently about whether the death squad assassinated Romero for his political or theological views.
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