1 Samuel 3:1-20
Now the boy Samuel was serving the LORD under Eli. The LORD’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. 2 One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. 3 God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the LORD’s temple, where God’s chest was.
4 The LORD called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.
5 Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.
6 Again the LORD called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”
7 (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)
8 A third time the LORD called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
Then Eli realized that it was the LORD who was calling the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD. Your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.
10 Then the LORD came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”
Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
11 The LORD said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! 12 On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household– every last bit of it! 13 I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about– how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. 14 Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.”
15 Samuel lay there until morning, then opened the doors of the LORD’s house. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel, saying: “Samuel, my son!”
“I’m here,” Samuel said.
17 “What did he say to you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide anything from me. May God deal harshly with you and worse still if you hide from me a single word from everything he said to you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.
“He is the LORD, ” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.”
19 So Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail.
20 All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the LORD’s prophet. (CEB)
Samuel and Eli
Have you ever noticed how many call stories there are in the Bible? I think these call stories are records of some of the most powerful moments in human history. They’re really amazing stories because the infinite God of creation calls seemingly insignificant human beings to do God’s will. Many of these call stories are theophany events: moments where God reveals God’s self in some powerful and unusual way.
In Exodus 3, Moses was called in the great theophany of the burning bush. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah was given a vision of God seated on the throne in majesty and glory. In Luke 1, Mary, the mother of Jesus, experienced the visitation of the Angel of the Lord. In Acts of the Apostles 9, Paul was blinded by a heavenly light and saw the risen Lord Jesus appear to him. These are all powerful call stories.
And yet I find this—perhaps less impressive—call story of the boy Samuel to be closer to my heart than any of the others. That’s because there are some similarities between it and my own call story, but also because there appears to be a similarity between it and the state of the world today. In the very first verse of 1 Samuel 3, something is mentioned that I think many Christians find relatable. We’re told, “The LORD’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.” (1 Samuel 3:1b CEB).
And as if to put an exclamation point on this scarcity of the Lord’s word and lack of visions, we’re given this example of the boy Samuel who hears a voice calling his name. But, instead of recognizing the voice for whose it was, Samuel thinks it is Eli. He runs to him saying, “I’m here. You called me?”
This happens twice before we’re told as a side note, “Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7 CEB). And poor old Eli didn’t get what was going on either. All he knew was that this kid kept waking him up.
It isn’t until the third time that the Lord calls Samuel, and Samuel mistakenly goes to Eli yet again, that Eli perceives that the Lord is calling Samuel, so he tells Samuel what to say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” So, on the fourth try, the Lord finally gets Samuel to listen to the word of the Lord. As we find out by the end of the chapter (verse 21, which the lectionary left out), “The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh because the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh through the LORD’s own word” (1 Sam. 3:21 CEB). So the drought and scarcity of the word of the Lord ended to some degree, because Samuel became a reliable source for the hearing of God’s word.
As I said, many Christians would probably agree that the word of the Lord is rare in these days; visions are not widely known. But I don’t know that I would agree with that take. If we look closely at what was going on in Samuel’s day, we discover that things were not as they should have been with Israel’s religious life. Eli’s sons were cursing God and doing all kinds of wrong things while they were serving as priests. Eli knew about it, and yet did nothing to stop the evil they were doing.
You see, I think the word of the Lord was probably as active as ever, but people simply weren’t able to hear because they weren’t listening. How can we hear the word of the Lord if we aren’t even listening? How can we hear when the din of the world around us so easily drowns out the voice of God? If you remember from the story of Elijah, God didn’t speak in the fire, the earthquake, or the wind. God spoke in the sound of sheer silence (c.f. 1 Kings 19:12).
When it comes to hearing the word of the Lord, I bet we all have a bit of a learning curve just like Samuel had. When Samuel heard this voice for the first time, he didn’t recognize it for what it was. But we’re told that, “So Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail” (1 Sam. 3:19 CEB). Samuel didn’t follow after the ways of Eli’s corrupt sons, he listened ever more closely for the voice of the Lord so that he could hear when the Lord spoke.
I know I’ve mentioned my call to ministry before, but call is important in the life of the church, so I’m going to tell it again. My call began when I was serving as an acolyte at Central United Methodist Church in Evansville. There were moments when I sat in the front pew in my acolyte robe as my pastor preached and I heard God speak to me. I heard God say that I would do what my pastor was doing. But at the time, I didn’t understand what this voice was. All I knew was that such thoughts scared the heck out of me because I’m an introvert and there was no way on God’s green earth I was ever going to stand up in front of people and talk. I was just a boy, and I didn’t recognize the word of the Lord even as that voice spoke to me.
That voice came and went over the years until I was in college. It was almost mid-February in 1996 when the voice of the Lord came again with a vigor and an intensity I’d never before experienced. It was absolutely inescapable—almost to the point of being annoying. At first, I wasn’t sure what was going on. I recognized it as the same voice, the same feeling, the same sense of call to ministry that I’d experienced as a boy sitting in the front pew at church, and I just hoped it would go away as it had each time before.
But I also tried to understand what it was telling me. I finally recognized it as the voice of God calling me to ministry on St. Valentine’s Day while I was trying to study chemistry. I knew that God was calling me to ministry. And, for a few seconds, I know that I registered my protest, I tried to push back. I thought, there’s no way you could want me to do this, I can’t talk in front of other people!
But then God argued back with the overwhelming weight and intensity of that voice, and I can’t even quote what God said in that moment but it was an audible declaration—I heard it—and all I could do was push my chemistry book back, throw my pencil aside and—with, I admit, some degree of frustration because of the fact that I couldn’t seem to change God’s mind about it—say out loud, “All right, God, I’ll do it!” And once those words were nearly shouted from my lips, I felt a profound sense of peace.
Sometimes I wonder if the voice of the Lord is rare in these days, or if we just need to learn how to listen. That was my call to ordained ministry, and it was a profound event. But not all calls to ministry are calls to ordination or preaching. Long before I was called to ordained ministry I was called to the ministry of all Christians, which is also called the Priesthood of all believers, through my baptism. When I think about it, that might have been an even more profound moment in my life, though I don’t remember it at all.
You see, it was at my baptism that the Lord took me and, when I was nothing more than an infant, filled me with the grace of God, mysteriously incorporated me into the body of Christ, united me with Christ in his death and resurrection, marked me as God’s own with the seal of the Holy Spirit, placed me in a covenant relationship with God, and forgave me of my sin.
We United Methodists believe firmly, along with the ancient position of the church, that baptism is something that God does, not something that we do by choosing to be baptized, and not something the pastor does to us by applying the water to us. Baptism is an act of God through the church and it’s a means of grace where the one being baptized receives the grace of God.
That’s why I think my baptism was a more profound moment in my life than my call to ordination. Without my parents placing me in the care of the church through my baptism as an infant—much as Hannah placed her son, Samuel, in the care of the house of the Lord at Shiloh right after he was weaned—how would these later calls have taken place? How would my call to ordination have come without the faith of my parents first offering me to Christ in the mystery of holy baptism? How would Samuel’s call as a prophet have come without his mother’s offering her son as a nazirite to God?
Baptism is both a call to ministry and a call to a new and different kind of life in Christ. Every baptized person has been called by God to the ministry of all Christians. Our Book of Discipline says, “Very early in its history, the church came to understand that all of its members were commissioned in baptism to ministries of love, justice, and service…all who follow Jesus have a share in the ministry of Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve.” That’s a call! We who follow Jesus Christ are called by God to move beyond ourselves and carry the Great Commission into the larger world around us.
We’re called by God, but sometimes we still find the word of the Lord difficult to hear. If we don’t feel particularly called by God to anything, then maybe we need to listen better. We live in a multitasking world of short attention-spans. When we have conversations with people, we’re usually doing something else, too. Talking on the phone while flipping through TV channels, talking to a coworker while checking our e-mail, talking to our kids while working on a project.
We live in a time and place where we’re losing the art of listening. When was the last time we focused solely on the person we were talking to without pulling a smart phone from our purse or pocket? (I’ve seen elderly people eat together at restaurants while each were on their smart phones, so it’s not just a young-people thing). When was the last time we focused solely on what God is trying to say to us?
This story of Samuel’s call can serve as our invitation to hear again and to recognize again the call of God upon our lives. We are called by God to ministries of love and service. The word of the Lord might not be so rare in these days as we think. We simply need to be better listeners to what the Lord is saying.
Where is God calling you?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!