You will be quickly forgiven if, upon first reading, you decide not to preach on this little snippet of Scripture. How can you build a helpful Gospel centered sermon on this gerrymandered bit of fluff? Why in the world would the RCL land here for this first Sunday after Christmas? I mean, the first Sunday after Christmas is a bit of a downer anyway. What is there to say after the celebration of God entering history as a Jewish baby to save the world? Why would any preacher follow that world-shattering news with this story about Samuel’s early years? Not only does this take us backward in history, but it takes us downward in dramatic effect and theological import.
So, why would you preach on this story, instead of the Gospel reading for today which tells the wonderful story of Jesus in the Temple at the age of 12? The only reason to preach on this vignette from Samuel’s early life are its connections with that story about Jesus’ early life. If you play on those connections, you might find a sermon that speaks powerfully to our time.
The most obvious connection between the story of Samuel here in I Samuel and the story of Jesus in the Temple in Luke 2 is the nearly verbatim repetition of this description of their early lives. “And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men (I Samuel 2:26).” “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52, and cf. 2:40).”
Now that parallel description might be unexceptional, just the normal way a mother might report on the growth of her son, except for all the other parallels between Samuel and Jesus. Both were miracle births, involving direct intervention by God. Both births elicited magnificent and similar songs of praise from their mothers. Both are presented to God in the Temple, which is exactly where we find them in these parallel readings. And, as we’ve seen, both grow in wisdom, stature, and favor.
The major difference between the two readings is Jesus’ stunning explanation of his presence “in my father’s house” or as other translations add “being about my father’s business.” That takes us to the major preaching point on these twin passages, but that’s for a little later.
For now, we need to focus on the crises surrounding this text about Samuel, crises that explain why Samuel is so important to the story of salvation and, thus, why he is a type of Christ. The first crisis is found in the words between our edited reading. In verses 22-25, we read about the depraved priestly ministry of Eli’s sons. Not only were they misusing the sacrifices offered to God (2:12-17), a sin that was very great in God’s sight, but they were also having sex with the women who served in the Temple, a sin that was very great in Eli’s sight, but which he could not make them stop.
So, the worship of God was being polluted in dramatic ways. That put Israel’s faith in real jeopardy, because as the old saying goes “the way we worship is the way we believe.” But there was a Savior on the way, a child of destiny, who will cleanse the Temple.
That internal religious problem was compounded by an external political/military problem. In fact, it is likely that the spiritual crisis contributed to the political crisis. That crisis was the ongoing and increasing attacks by the Philistines. It got so bad that those pagans actually stole the ark of the covenant from the Tabernacle in I Samuel 4. Into this crisis comes a Savior, a child of destiny. He would be instrumental in appointing the first kings of Israel who would finally get rid of the Philistine menace.
So, Samuel served in a time of crisis and transition and was the central figure in saving and securing the Kingdom of God on earth. He was not only a king maker, ushering in the Davidic line that would be so central in God’s dealings with Israel (and, indeed, the world), but he also functioned in a royal way by rallying the troops to defeat the Philistines (I Samuel 7).
Samuel was also a prophet, on whose words the whole nation hung (3:19-21). And, though not officially a priest, he functioned as one, wearing an ephod, sleeping near the ark of the covenant, and ultimately being on the scene when the wicked sons of Eli were removed from the roles as priests. Even as Eli’s sons died for their sins, new life was growing in Israel in the person of Samuel.
There had been no one in Israel like Samuel since the days of the great Moses. He was, in a sense, the combination of prophet, priest and king that Christ would be. To say that Samuel was a type of Christ is an understatement.
Thus, our little text gives us opportunity to reflect on the work of Christ, particularly if we notice the one great difference between Samuel and Jesus. As I said above, there are numerous parallels between the two men and the two texts: miraculous births, magnificent birth songs, childhood presence in the Temple, growth in wisdom and stature and favor, important service in the Kingdom of God as prophet, priest and king. All those continuities make this little text very interesting.
But there is a major discontinuity that makes it gospel, or at least a prelude to the Gospel. The difference between Samuel and Jesus is found in Jesus’ words about being in what he called “my father’s house” doing “his Father’s business.” Samuel may have been a child of destiny, but Jesus was the Son of God.
Or to put it in a way that doesn’t involve trinitarian speculation, Samuel’s ministry would soon fade away, as he inaugurated the era of the kings. As Samuel aged, his person and work became less important. And then he died and it was over. Jesus ministry did not fade away. He never got the chance to grow old. He died at a young age, but that was not the end of his ministry and influence. He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and now continues to do his Father’s business as the great Prophet, Priest and King. He was human, just like Samuel, just like us, but he was the Father’s Child, the Savior of his people throughout the world.
Thus, a focus on the marvelous ministry of Samuel as introduced by this prelude in I Samuel 2 can lead you into a sermon on the immeasurably greater ministry of Jesus as introduced by the prelude in Luke 2. As Samuel was the child sent by God to deal with the crises of his times, so Jesus is the Child sent by God to deal with the crises of our times, and all times. A fitting conclusion to your sermon on this text would be a unison/responsive reading of today’s reading from Psalm 148, which calls the universe to praise the Lord because “he has raised up for his people a horn…. Praise the Lord!”
As I am writing this piece, the hotly contested mid-term elections are about to occur in the United States. As you read this piece, those elections will have been over for nearly two months. Looking ahead, many people are looking for a transition, either eagerly or fearfully. Looking back, you know what happened and are either happy or sad. However those elections turn out, some will see their work fade away while others will see a new beginning. Between my writing and your reading, we have celebrated the birth of One whose work will never fade away. It is his enduring work of salvation that gives us stability and security in the unending crises of our time.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 30, 2018
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 Commentary