1 Samuel 3:1-20
Preached at University Presbyterian Church
January 14, 2018
Rev. Elizabeth Michael
The word of the Lord was rare in those days, and visions were not widespread. That one short sentence paints an expansive picture of the landscape of Israel in the time of Samuel. Once, God was palpably near—bushes burst into flame and manna fell from the sky and lightening and thunder rained down from the mountain of the Lord. But now those days have given way to less eventful times. Once, the people of God had visions—of a night sky, where the stars splashed across the heavens were a sign of innumerable blessings, or of a land where provision flowed like milk and life tasted as sweet as honey. But now it has been a long time since their imaginations have been captured by a picture of promise. Once, God made spokespeople of mere mortals: Moses and Aaron and Joshua couldn’t go anywhere without declaring, “Thus says the Lord!” But in recent days, God has had strangely little to say.
The word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread. The scriptures are not clear—did God drape God’s self in silence, or did the people simply stop having ears to hear? Was there a divine moratorium on visions, or did the people simply make themselves willfully blind? Either way, the world is now short on Voice and vision, and the people’s common life suffers from it.
Read the book of Judges, which chronicles life just before this morning’s passage, and we get a still more particular picture of this new landscape. There is political instability, as neighboring powers take turns flexing their military might. Violence against women is on the rise. There is widespread corruption among the powerful. There is increasing disinterest in the God who led a people out of Egypt and anything that God has said about how to live. And so the people who descended from Father Abraham lose any sense of their common heritage; they turn against one another, clinging to their weapons and grasping for any advantage they can gain.
In the midst of this general disintegration of society, there are precious few who can still dream, who have a spaciousness in their consciousness that leaves them vulnerable to the night and its mysteries, who can catch a glimpse of a new way of being and follow it into wakefulness.
But there is Samuel. Samuel has always been special. He was the product of his mother Hannah’s prayerfulness and God’s mercy when at last the long-barren womb turned fruitful. Hannah was faithful to her end of the bargain, dropping Samuel off at the temple when he was still in diapers, proof that she meant him to belong wholly to God. Waking and sleeping, Samuel has made his home in the house of the Lord, opening his eyes each morning to the flame of the lamp of God and laying his head down to rest each night near the ark of the covenant, where God’s glory dwells.
No one who makes a home in the Lord’s house does so alone, of course. So there is also Eli. Eli, the old priest of God, who has given his life to the worship of God. Who has heard the prayers of the faithful and breathed in the smoke from their burnt offerings and been the one—the one!—to stand in the Holy of Holies and bear in his body the full thrust of God’s glory. But Eli is proof that no faith leader can stand completely apart from the community. The people have lost their vision, so Eli is losing his sight. And the systemic corruption that is besetting the whole community comes home to roost in Eli’s own family. His own sons, priests themselves, are making a mockery of the profession, skimming the fat off of the choicest offerings and taking advantage of the vulnerable women at the temple gates. Eli has it on good authority that his own days are numbered, but when you’ve made your home in the house of the Lord, where else do you go? And so he keeps on hearing the people’s prayers, breathing in the incense, braving the holy places.
And then the long silent word of the Lord begins again to speak. It takes both of them—clear-eyed Samuel and blind Eli—to hear and recognize the voice that comes calling in the night. Samuel hears the voice but does not know it; Eli cannot hear it for himself but quickly deduces whose it is; he sends Samuel back to bed with instructions on how to respond the next time. And so when God comes calling the third time, Samuel knows what to say: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Many times, we stop the story right here. Here where Samuel and Eli stay comfortably in their places, where that response of faithfulness—Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening—echoes forth from that temple into each of our hearts, filling us with the hope that we, too, might hear and respond to God’s call. Many times, the story stops here—ironically, we say it is a story about listening to the voice of God, but we do not turn our ears to the particular content of that voice.
In fact, the word God speaks to Samuel is a hard word. God is going to punish Eli’s family for the sins of Eli’s sons. The familial priestly line has come to an abrupt end, and there is no hope for it going any other way. That is the message that is now Samuel’s to deliver. And once he speaks it, the power of God will be unleashed on the whole community. God’s judgment has consequences for all of public life; there is a shift in the landscape now as the old, corrupt powers fall away and ground is cleared for a new work of God.
My friend Richard Boyce says that prophets have just two tools: their ears and their lips. Those who are called to bring the word of God to bear on a world in desperate need of such a word—the whole of their work is to listen and then speak. We cannot know what it cost Samuel that night to turn his ears to a hard word and then to lend his lips to that word, speaking it to his friend and mentor and to a world that does not always welcome a change in power. But we know that in making himself available to that word, he became a part of a chain of events by which Israel once again started to see visions and dream dreams.
Fifty-two years ago this month, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. lay awake in the middle of the night, roused from sleep by a voice. Only 23 years old, King, by his own account, had known little trial in life. A loving and supportive family and a succession of strong educational institutions had insulated him from many problems and burdens. But when the new preacher in town stepped into visible leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the voices started interrupting his sleep. Phone calls and letters flooded his home with increasing frequency, each one threatening King’s safety and that of his family. At first King dismissed them as the work of a few hotheads who he suspected would eventually lose interest. But as the calls grew in intensity and threat, King’s fear grew, too. One particular night he was stirred from slumber, the voice on the other end of the phone promised that, by week’s end, King would be sorry he’d ever come to Montgomery.
Courage almost gone, his mind quickly planning an exit strategy, King moved to the kitchen table and bowed his head to listen for a word from the Lord. And it came, King says, as a moment of divine presence he’d never known before. It came as “the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying ‘Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’”
Three nights later, his house was bombed. When King emerged from his front door to the hundreds of angry people who had gathered on his lawn, eager to retaliate, King turned his ear once more to that Presence and opened his lips to speak on its behalf:
“If you have weapons, take them home,” he pleaded. “If you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.” This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”
It was a prophet’s announcement of the end of sin’s power, a clearing out in the public consciousness a way for the dawning of a new day. God can do mighty things with ears and lips.
Of course, much of what is swirling in our world today is hard to listen to. There is so much noise. So much hateful speech. So much pain. We might be tempted to say the word of the Lord is rare. Certainly vision can be hard to come by.
But the consistent claim of the Christian faith is that there is no ground so hard that God cannot bring forth from it the fruit of righteousness. There is no power so entrenched that God cannot uproot it, no sin great enough to stand in the way of God’s relentless work to make all things new.
Walter Brueggemann says that those who put their faith in God find it credible when God announces “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” Samuel, like the Reverend King many years after him, shows what it is to cling to that credibility in the midst of a public crisis, to bear witness to a mighty act of God that is no mere religious exhibition but a realignment of the social order.
It might have seemed the unlikeliest of times for the word of the Lord to have a resurgence, when war was rising in the east and tensions deepening at home, when hope was scarce and moral authority was nowhere to be found. But there was a young boy who had a vision, and a preacher who had a dream; there was an old man who yielded himself to God and a crowd of angry people who put down their swords; there was a mother-to-be who sang a song of praise that turned into an anthem of revolution powerful enough to sustain the generations long after her. Ordinary people, all of them, who offered ears and lips to God. Might it happen again, even here, even now?