One boy is apparently lost. The other boy is apparently given up by his parents.
One boy is not at all lost but is at home in the Temple doing his real Father’s work. The other boy is making his home in the Temple and slowly discovering what may well be the focus of his own life’s work for God.
That’s the side-by-side picture you get if you nestle in this Old Testament lection for the Sunday after Christmas (Year C) next to the Gospel lection regarding the boy Jesus at the Temple. The language of the two texts is a near echo of each other. The difference between them is also easy to see: whereas Jesus was, from his parents’ point of view at least, lost in Luke 2, Samuel is where he belongs. His mother knows where he is and provides regular little gift packages for the boy, too.
There may be one other similarity between the two texts that may not be so obvious, however. Because I would imagine that both Mary in Luke 2 and Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 looked at their sons with tears in their eyes. For Mary they were mostly tears of joy and relief at having finally re-located her 12-year-old following three days of sheer panic. But just behind Mary’s tears of relief were tears of a pain regarding this son, of future pains that she could only begin to imagine. She had been warned earlier in Luke 2. Old Simeon had warned Mary that a sword would pierce her soul where this child of God’s was concerned, and by the time she found that son a dozen years later teaching the scribes in the Temple, she was beginning to believe Simeon’s words. The tears she shed over Jesus at the end of Luke 2 would not be the last such tears.
Hannah’s tears in 1 Samuel 2 were sad tears. She missed her boy and even though she had never thought to renege on her promise to give her son over to God’s service if God would grant her a son (after years of infertility struggles), it tore her mother’s heart out to do it. That day she and Elkanah left Samuel at the Temple for the first time just about killed her, and she cried the whole way home. When we read in verse 20 that Eli blessed Hannah and asked that God give her more children to take the place of the one she had dedicated to the Lord’s service, you have the feeling that the old priest did this because of the pain he could see in Hannah’s eyes every time she lovingly looked at Samuel during her annual visit to the Temple.
(Image: The area around Shiloh today)
Those involved in the service—and in the long run in the salvation—of God suffer. Mary suffered. Hannah suffered.
That aside, however, the vignette sketched by the verses scooped out of 1 Samuel 2 by the Revised Common Lectionary present a portrait of the young boy Samuel that is endearingly sweet in its own way. He was doing his little altar boy duties as best he could. And each year his mother made him a “little robe” and brought it to him. These verses look nearly idyllic in their own way. Somebody cue Normal Rockwell.
But wait . . . we’ve joined a story already in progress by the time we pick up the action in verse 18 and it’s a story that continues in the four verses the Lectionary would have us skip over (verses 22-25). But that’s because there’s nothing idyllic about those verses! They are ugly, they are brutal, they are shockingly tawdry. Eli’s sons are the ultimate bad seed. They are the anti-Samuel. They steal from people making sacrifices. They act like rock stars on a tour by picking out the prettiest girls from the crowds to have sex with them later. And when old Eli, who seems to be milquetoast personified, tut-tuts his sons, they laugh him off, chalking up the old man as precisely the ineffective loser of a parent he actually is.
Little Samuel serving the Lord in the Temple is a Disney-like portrait that is definitely Rated G. But all around him swirls a moral drama that is Rated NC-17. This is not kid’s stuff. Hophni and Phineas are synecdoche for all that is wrong with Israel at that time. They were a covenant people adrift, behaving in ways that were not discernibly different from the pagan nations all around them in the Ancient Near East. Something had to change. But at the time of the events narrated in 1 Samuel 2, few could have guessed what that change would look like and fewer still would have surmised that the salvation Israel needed was even then being nurtured by Yahweh in the heart of that adorable little boy in the Temple, the one whom Hophni and Phineas brushed past rudely day after day, nearly knocking the little guy over as they rushed past him en route to their next ugly deed.
Again and again in the Bible this seems to be the divine M.O., bringing salvation slowly but surely and usually from quiet corners and through unlikely characters. Maybe on the First Sunday after Christmas it is good to come back down to earth with a homely story about parents’ losing track of a child and such. Christmas has become altogether too surreal, too ethereal, for its own good. We need a salvation that comes to the real world, warts and all, in order to heal that same world.
That’s also why we need to pay attention to the dark and difficult verses that surround this nice little portrait of Samuel at the Temple in this lection. No one likes to see—much less stare at for long—the antics of people like Hophni and Phineas. It’s revolting! (Probably there are even a few people in the average congregation who would just as soon not have their pastor point out the sexual goings-on as described in 1 Samuel 2:22.) But we can’t hunger for the salvation of God properly without seeing how and why it is so desperately needed nor can we marvel aright at the amazing ways by which God gets things done if we cannot see little Samuel—or in the Gospels, little Jesus—going up against such great odds to accomplish the work of the Lord.
Some things are not easy to look at or to see. But at the end of Year 2 of the global COVID-19 pandemic, we never need to look very far to see stuff we would just as soon not see. And it is not as though the other dark stuff of life takes a break either. In the middle of this month we witnessed the horrible destruction and loss of life though a rare December outbreak of tornados in the U.S. The world can be ugly, brutal, and dark It was so in Samuel’s day. It is so in our day. But thanks be to God, the Word of the Lord and the plans of the Lord are not derailed by the ugliness.
Indeed, it’s the little child off to the side of all that who brings true hope in a world of dead children, lost adults, and deep, deep confusion. In all that it will be, indeed, as the prophet said that “a little child shall lead them.”
Thanks be to God.
Why did God choose so quiet, humiliating, and apparently weak a path when he sent his only begotten Son to this world? Because to do us any good in this damaged, disabled world, God had to duplicate in Jesus the conditions we face. In the Incarnation, God obliged, making Jesus common, not famous; ordinary-looking, not GQ handsome; quite poor, not dazzlingly rich.
Because of the way Jesus came, Kathleen Norris has recently written, we can see in the ordinary commonness of our own everyday, workaday lives glimmers of holiness. The Incarnation means that the one who is true God came down here, into the fleshly, earthy, gritty reality of life on the third planet out from the sun. And what that Son of God in skin saves is also this gritty reality, this creation of cobblestones and hummingbirds, of Chardonnay and fried rice, of sexuality and walks in the woods.
The Incarnation reveals that something about my typical life and your typical life contains a little mystery, a little gospel, and so a lot of potential for good news. Jesus was born on the wrong side of the tracks, and that is profoundly good news for all of us who live east of Eden. We need to celebrate the earthy reality of the Incarnation for in that lies our very salvation. After all, as Frederick Buechner once wrote, one of the blunders we religious folks routinely make is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 26, 2021
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 Commentary