On this Second Sunday after Epiphany, the parallels between this Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading (John 1:43-51) are obvious and instructive. Both are about calling, of Samuel and of the first disciples. Both are about God revealing himself, through his spoken word and through the Word made flesh. Both calls evoke a life changing response, as Samuel becomes a reliable prophet and those fishermen become disciples. Both are perfect texts for this season of Epiphany, because they point to the glory of God revealed to the likes of us in times like these.
“In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” It was the time of the Judges, when everyone did what was right in their own eyes because there was no king in the land. What people did was increasingly vile, as the last chapters of the book of Judges reveal. The priestly sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, participated in the depravity of the day, stealing the choicest parts of the people’s sacrifices and having sex with women at the very gates of the Temple.
It’s impossible to know whether the word of the Lord was rare in those days because of that widespread sin or whether there was such depravity because the word of the Lord was rare. Suffice it say that even the main man of God, Eli, was so spiritually blind and deaf that he didn’t recognize the word of the Lord when it finally did come to Samuel.
“The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli.” Samuel was a miracle baby, given to the barren Hannah after her desperate prayer. In response, Hannah gave three-year-old Samuel back to God by handing him over to Eli for Temple service. According to Josephus, Samuel was about 12 years old when God called him.
For nine years he has been “ministering before the Lord.” We aren’t told exactly what that meant, but he had immediate access to the holiest parts of the Temple (the Tabernacle, actually), even sleeping next to the Ark of the Covenant. He was as physically close to the Lord as he could be, but as verse 7 says, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”
Thus, when the word of the Lord came to Samuel, he didn’t know what to make of it. But the Lord knew him by name from all eternity. I add that note because of the lectionary reading from Psalm 139, which celebrates how thoroughly God knows his own. Though written by King David, whom Samuel will later anoint, it is true for all of us. “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me….” That knowledge is so complete that God even knows our thoughts before we even speak them. So, of course, God knows this little boy’s name. “Samuel, Samuel.”
But, as I said before, Samuel did not know Yahweh. Oh, he may have known that name. And he may have known a lot about the Lord, having served in the Temple all his life. But he didn’t know the Lord personally, experientially, intimately. To put it in contemporary evangelical terms, he didn’t have a personal relationship with the Lord. Because he didn’t know the Lord that way, it took God three tries to get through to Samuel.
In fact, it took some guidance from the blind Eli before Samuel knew what was happening. Indeed, it even took Eli three tries before he got it. The first two times Samuel came running to Eli’s bedside, thinking the old man had called him, the old man just told him to go back to bed. The third time was the charm, as the blind old man, whose spiritual lamp was flickering like the lamp of God (verse 3), realized that “the Lord was calling the boy.”
Eli gave Samuel advice that should make us prick up our ears. “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Don’t get up and run to do your duty. Just lie there and speak to him and then listen. Sure enough, God wasn’t going to give up on Samuel just because he didn’t know the Lord yet. In his persistent, irresistible grace, God came a fourth time, calling Samuel by name. Indeed, says the text, “Yahweh came and stood there….” This is a genuine epiphany.
But Samuel didn’t see God. He heard God. As verse 21 says, “God revealed himself to Samuel through his word.” The word of God came to Samuel a fourth time and this time Samuel heard more than his name. He heard the will of the Lord, because this time he was listening. What he heard wasn’t pleasant; it was a word of judgment against the house of Eli for the sins of his sons and for his own weakness as a father. Eli accepted that word from God.
Samuel continued to hear the word of the Lord and to speak God’s word to Israel. None of Samuel’s words from God “fell to the ground,” that is, were useless and ineffective, precisely because those words did indeed come from God. Samuel didn’t make them up, as did the false prophets of Israel’s later history. Samuel simply listened. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
It would be tempting to preach a sermon on that particular line. How many times has God spoken to us, but we didn’t know it was the Lord? How many times have we recognized that God was speaking, but we didn’t hear his message because we were too busy running to do our duty? To hear the word of the Lord to us, it is essential that we pray these words from the heart. This is true not only for preachers looking for the word of the Lord for next Sunday’s sermon, but also for every Christian as we open our Bibles in our daily devotions or attend worship each Sunday. An open ear and heart are essential to hearing God’s will for our lives.
It would also be very tempting to preach a sermon about being close to God in many ways, but not really knowing God in a personal way. Familiarity with the things of God, deep knowledge of the Bible, expertise in correct doctrine, and regular participation in spiritual disciplines are not the same as knowing God. No matter what ecclesiastical tradition we call home, God calls all of us to a personal knowledge of God. Paul should speak for all of us when he says, “I want to know Christ… (Philippians 3).”
Both of those approaches to preaching on this text textual and helpful, but let’s be sure that we preach the Christ that Paul wanted to know. It is God in Christ who has come and stood in our place. It is God in Christ who has called us to be his disciples whatever our occupation. It is God in Christ who speaks his word of judgment and salvation to us. It is God in Christ who has revealed himself through his word. This story is not first of all about Samuel or Eli; it is about the God who has revealed himself, not by appearing in person, but by speaking a word.
God would not appear in person for quite a while, but when he did, it would be glorious. “No one has ever seen God, but God, the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known (John 1:18).” The God who revealed himself through his word to Samuel has now revealed himself through the Word made flesh. It is fascinating, and surely not accidental, that twelve-year-old Samuel didn’t know it was God calling, but twelve-year-old Jesus, sitting in the temple, knew that he had to be about his Father’s business.
Preach an Epiphany sermon. Preach about the glory of God revealed to and in a twelve-year-old boy.
I have a ministerial friend who hears God speak all the time. He has written a book entitled, God Told Me, in which he helps people recognize the voice of God in their lives. I have heard God speak only 2 times in my life (well, maybe three if I count my call to ministry), apart from what I read in the Bible and what I interpreted as the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Both were times when I desperately needed a word from God. So, each time I stopped running, went on retreat, sat still for a long time, focused on the Bible in my hands, and said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Then God spoke clearly, not with a deep baritone, but with words in my head that I can quote to this day. How often have you heard God speak?
The idea that God reveals himself through his word is at the center of this text. As I pondered the power of God’s revelatory word, I recalled one of the most memorable movies I’ve ever seen. “The Book of Eli” is a post-apocalyptic tale about the rough, tough man Eli (played by Denzel Washington), who is on a mission to deliver a mysterious book to whatever is left of civilization on the west coast of America.
As he walks through a desolate world wielding his fierce sword with bloody results, Eli wanders into a violent town ruled by a sadistic man. The man learns that Eli has a book and demands to have it. He explains why in a chilling scene. “The person who has this book can rule the world.” The Book of Eli has incredible power and if this man can get it, he will dominate this ruined world.
Well, he doesn’t get it. Eli escapes all the traps laid for him and makes it to the west coast, where he finds a community of scholars on Alcatraz. Their job is to preserve the great works of civilization. Somewhere along his journey, Eli has lost his book, but the movie ends with Eli reciting the whole book from memory. He begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Book of Eli was a King James Version of the Bible, the book that revealed the glory of God and changed the world.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 17, 2021
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) Commentary