Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 14, 2024

1 Samuel 3:1-10, (13-20) Commentary


In the context of this morning’s Gospel reading and perhaps even some elements of the psalm, a straightforward reading might catalog this text under the genre of “call stories.” There are plenty of texts that fall in this category throughout Scripture: Abraham, Moses, Saul, David, the prophets and, yes, the disciples called by Jesus: “Follow me.”

Of course, this idea of calling can be tricky and all consuming, especially for young adults who are frequently required to have an answer to the question of what they will be when they grow up.  Some people are paralyzed by the idea that God has just one thing for them and if they don’t listen in just the right way, they will miss it.

This text should be a comfort to all those who worry that they might miss God’s will for them. After all, even Samuel needed help hearing from God! Three times he went running to the wrong place…or perhaps it was a necessary place because it was Eli who helped Samuel discern what was happening in his life.

The great theologian, pastor and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote a handbook entitled Life Together. This text was intended as a guide for Christians living in community with one another.  In it, he wrote that a Christian needs a brother or a sister in Christ “as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.” Using the gendered language of the time, Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”


More recently commentators have turned from the valid but perhaps simplistic notion of this text as a call story and have called it a theophany instead.  If calling can be a tricky concept, theophany might really trip us up!  Theophany is an appearing or in-breaking of God in the world. Textually, this interpretation of the narrative is supported by the reference in the very first verse: “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  By this introduction, our ears should already be tuned to hear God’s Word in the text, our eyes trained toward a vision.

At the midpoint in the story, the narrator continues the theme by articulating, “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.”  So we continue to anticipate that what is about to happen is a Word from God, a theophany and inbreaking.  Finally, God speaks and Samuel listens for the first time though, as the text is careful to tell us, this will be far from the last time.  “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.”


The obvious human star of the show in this passage is Samuel.  He is the one God calls. He is the one who runs back and forth uncomprehending the in-breaking of God’s Word in his life.  He is the one who listened and submitted to God’s message. But let’s spare a moment for Eli.

In fact, the lengthy lectionary reading invites us to shift our gaze from Samuel to Eli for a moment.  God’s message to Samuel is for Eli.  And even young Samuel knows will be a harsh word, difficult to hear and frightening to offer.  Eli has to coax the message out of him — a message that God is passing over Eli’s lineage, that God will not relent in punishing Eli’s sons.  Imagine hearing that Word from the Lord.  Imagine holding your breath along with Samuel after rushing through the painful words and waiting in silence for Eli’s reply.  Were there tears in the old man’s eyes?  Did his stature crumple or did he turn away sharply with fire in his eyes?  There are likely hundreds of ways of receiving news like this but all we have recorded in Scripture are Eli’s words.  No matter how he felt, he surrendered to God, saying, “”It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”

Christ Figure(s)

Many Biblical commentators have drawn out the parallels between the young prophet/priest Samuel and the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ.  Both step into their call at a time of deep brokenness: Samuel is called in because the previous lineage of priests (and judges) has broken down. Jesus arrives after 400 years of exile and divine silence. Both are the result of miraculous birth, outside the power structure and speak for the salvation of his people.

But Eli, too, it must be acknowledged, prefigures Christ — not in his birth but much closer to the time of his death.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus Christ needed a Word from the Father.  He also wanted God to relent of a terrible punishment to come.  And though no 11th hour reprieve arrived, Jesus Christ resolved, “Not my will but yours be done.”  And here there is an echo, “”It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”

Worship Idea

In recent years, many churches have celebrated Epiphany and the start of a new calendar year with the practice of receiving “star words.”  You can read more about the practice here. I will say that, in my congregation, this became a highlight of the liturgical year. Sone years, we put two or three copies of each word in the basket and invited people to connect over their shared word.  Some years, we invited people to write newsletter articles on the meaning of their word and its application in their lives. Although the practice is closely tied to the Epiphany story of the Magi following the star to find and worship the Christ-child, this year perhaps it will resonate with the story of Samuel listening for the Word of the Lord and the promise of a God who breaks into our lives in unexpected ways.


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