1 Samuel 3:1-4:1
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Have you ever been somewhere and suddenly thought
you heard someone calling your name?
You turned around looking for that voice, perhaps you even answered out loud, but in the end, you found yourself unable to figure where that voice came from.
If there were other people nearby, you might even have gone up to one of them – each of them individually – and asked, “Were you calling my name?”
And as each person slowly shook their head “No,”
as one or two of them gave you a strange look like, “Are you feeling all right?”
you retreated back to whatever you were doing feeling a bit foolish
even as you still can’t let go of the sense that someone was calling your name.
Has this ever been your experience?
Well today, as we open our Bibles, this is very thing is going to happen
to a boy named Samuel – the same Samuel for whom the book
that is the focus of this sermon series, 1 Samuel, is named.
However, unlike the example I gave, by the end of this story,
Samuel is going to figure out that it is God who is calling his name
– and this revelation will change not only his life
but the course of an entire people – from a loose confederacy of tribes
towards eventually becoming a unified nation.
Through this decisive moment in Samuel
– an encounter that’s all about hearing, recognizing, and answering
when the Lord speaks, we ought to listen carefully and expectantly
– because we might be surprised to learn that voice
we sometimes think we hear but never can quite seem to place
might be the Lord calling our name too.
So then, let’s hear the word of the Lord from 1 Samuel, chapter 3.
And remember to keep your Bible open after today’s reading
as the full passage we are looking at is longer than what will be read aloud.
This is a story with three players.
And the first person we are introduced to is Samuel.
Samuel’s birth, let us recall, was miraculous.
His life was an answer to the prayer of a mother
who for so long could not bring a child into this world.
Once Samuel was born, his mother, Hannah, sang a prophetic song
that anticipated her son’s arrival as the Lord’s answer not only to her own closed womb but also the beginning of God’s reversal of the barrenness of Israel.
Before he was even conceived, Hannah dedicated Samuel to the Lord’s service and this is where we find in Shiloh serving at the tabernacle
– the portable temple to the Lord among the priests of Israel
– ministering to the Lord and the Lord’s people.
Samuel is somewhat older now, but still being described as a boy
– he is more than likely a young adolescent.
Samuel is not alone. He is in the company of the second player in our story, Eli.
Eli is the high priest of the tabernacle
as well as the current judge or military leader over Israel.
From the brief description given of Eli, he has not aged gracefully.
The breakdown of his physical body reflects the corruption of his person
as Eli has, over many years, has chosen not to lead and
serve the people of Israel faithfully.
Eli has allowed his two sons, Hophni and Phineas,
to continue to serve as priests despite their abuse of their spiritual power.
Eli has looked the other way and even at times,
benefitting from the spoils of their unfaithfulness.
Eli’s failing eyesight reflects not just his physical decline
but also, the failure of his moral and spiritual insight.
Eli’s lack of vision mirrors the seemingly hopeless condition of Israel.
Against this backdrop, the quick mention of
“The lamp of God had not yet gone out,” is no minor detail.
This lamp of God referred to the lampstand that stood in the Holy Place,
the second most inner chamber of the Tabernacle.
According to Exodus, chapter 27 and Leviticus, chapter 24,
this lampstand was to remain lit all the time.
It would burn all day and night but would need to be replenished at dawn.
On the one hand, mention of this lampstand having not yet gone out,
informs of what time is when this encounter unfolds
– it is very early in the morning before the sunrise.
On the other hand, this fading light also is
symbolic of Israel’s diminishing situation
due to a lack of wise and faithful spiritual leadership
by Eli and his house.
And yet, the fact the lamp had not yet gone out,
that its light was still flickering, however dimly,
also serves as a sign of hope that God has not abandoned His people.
As this lamp continues to persistently burn,
Eli and Samuel are asleep in their beds
– in separate chambers in the precincts of the Tabernacle,
not inside the Holy Place but nonetheless in close proximity to the ark of the covenant – the tangible icon that represented the Lord’s presence.
In other words, young Samuel is dwelling in his Father’s house
– a fact that ought to later provide for him and for Eli
some clue as to who might be speaking…
…when suddenly in the dead of night, just before dawn,
the Lord calls Samuel’s name.
Samuel responds by assuming the voice that is calling him is Eli.
He runs to where Eli is sleeping nearby and obediently reports for duty.
But Eli assures Samuel that he did not call him. He tells Samuel to go back to bed.
Again and again, this scene plays out – three times in succession
as God calls Samuel, Samuel runs to Eli in response,
and Eli insists he did not make this call.
In the middle of the night, Samuel receives a summons
from his boss to do something.
In reporting for duty, Samuel just doesn’t realize which boss it is.
Samuel keeps mistaking an ailing Eli for God’s actual voice.
The reason for this, we’re told, is Samuel still was very young in his faith.
The explanation given that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord” does not mean Samuel didn’t know who God is – Yahweh, the Lord of all creation, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and then later, Moses and Joshua.
Samuel’s mother, Hannah dedicated Samuel to lifelong service to the Lord,
and surely Samuel knows that.
Added to this, Samuel has been working in the tabernacle in Shiloh for some time – many years now – faithfully working for the Lord by attentively serving the Lord’s people. Samuel has been growing up in God’s presence – with a knowledge of the Lord and a commitment to Him.
The key is “the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him”
– meaning, Samuel has not yet heard YHWH speak to him
in an audible way – until this moment.
Even the older and more experience Eli, the high priest, the judge over all Israel,
at first, doesn’t understand what is happening either.
Unlike the inexperienced Samuel, Eli’s lack of perception
is reflective of how out of practice – how bad his spiritual senses
(sight and hearing) have become.
And yet, God in His grace, waits patiently for the light to come on for poor Eli.
Eli is old, he can no longer see, but Eli can still be used by the Lord.
After being awakened for the third time,
Eli begins to understand that something special is happening.
Eli failed his own sons. Eli failed the people entrusted to his care.
But Eli does not fail in adopted son, Samuel – and by extension,
all the children of Israel – as he is the one who finally recognizes,
who finally realizes, that it is the Lord who is calling.
Eli, in the end, at the very least, knew how to attend to the voice of God.
He advises Samuel well as to his posture and his response
when the Lord calls Samuel yet again.
The first three times, Samuel responded to the voice he did not recognize,
the call he assumed came from Eli, by saying, “Here I am.”
But interestingly, the fourth time he’s called, “Samuel, Samuel,”
having been taught and finally realizing who was calling his name,
Samuel answers differently saying, “Speak, for your servant is listening!”
It’s a decidedly different response as Samuel shifts from
making claim of his own status to acknowledging the presence of the Lord
– to declaring his submission to God as a servant
– to affirming that his service to the Lord begins by listening to God.
As Samuel quiets his own voice to hear God’s,
the Lord promises to do something stunning
—something that will get every Israelite’s attention
—something so dramatic that people will later remember
where they were when they heard the news.
What the Lord was about to do was in the short term not very pleasant
but in the long term, what was needed.
Out of the barrenness of apathy and injustice
– most severely reflected through the leadership of
Eli and his sons, Hophni and Phinehas,
the Lord was going to birth new possibilities
– the opportunity for unity after so much division,
the renewal of life and its fruitfulness after languishing
so long under the shadow of death,
and the possibility for hope to a people
who had been caught in a vicious cycle of brokenness and violence.
But this is the fullness of what God would later do through his calling of Samuel. For now, the only specifics the Lord gives Samuel are the judgment against Eli,
his sons, and his house for their abuse of their spiritual authority and power.
While this may be news to Samuel, it is not new information.
The Lord had previously revealed this to Eli.
What is new in this message given to Samuel is the declaration
that the wait is over, the time of judgment against Eli and his house has come.
In the aftermath of this word from the Lord,
Samuel lies awake for the remainder of the night.
The irony is both bitter and tragic: Samuel first thought the voice
calling him in the night belonged to Eli, but the voice belonged to God,
and the message is against Eli and his house.
Much later, the oracles Samuel are given will be delivered
with clarity and without compromise, but here and now, the first time around, uncertainty and confusion cloud his first prophetic experience.
Samuel’s first word from the Lord is to tell his boss, his mentor,
his adopted father, that he’s fired.
Imagine being a teenager and bearing the burden of
speaking a word of judgment, of condemnation against
THE most powerful family in all Israel.
Samuel doesn’t deliver the message right away.
Understandably, he doesn’t want to give it.
As morning comes, once again, Samuel is called by name
– but this time the voice that is speaking really does belong to Eli.
Eli is anxious to hear what God has said. Samuel remains reluctant to share.
Undeterred, Eli threatens Samuel with a curse
to get him to share the word he received from the Lord.
Samuel tells Eli everything. He holds nothing back what God has spoken.
Again, there is nothing new for Eli in what Samuel shares except for the timing
– that the Lord’s judgment is about to be executed NOW.
Eli’s response to this news – to the alarm finally going off – seemingly is
one of humble resignation: “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”
Maybe Eli’s conscience is weighing heavily on him and so his response is
one of accepting the Lord’s judgment as just and right.
But then, Eli’s response might also be one of apathy
– less of a closing, remorseful note
but just more of the same in a sadly flawed life.
After all, Eli still doesn’t repent.
Even here, even now before the Lord’s prophetic word a second time,
no regret, no contrition is expressed by Eli – as far as we know.
Samuel, meanwhile, goes from delivering his first prophecy
to becoming recognized as a prophet through all of Israel.
From this moment on, Samuel went from being a pastoral intern
in the tabernacle to become Israel’s next prophet, priest, and judge
– the one through whom the Lord spoke to all Israel.
Mind you, there is nothing about Samuel that makes this happen.
Samuel’s call – God being present in Samuel’s life and in his words
– blessing Samuel’s words and his works – all of it
– just like his very birth by Hannah,
all of it happens by the grace of God.
All that grace is unleashed in and through Samuel’s life
from Samuel’s adopting and keeping of just one posture
– listening and obeying the word that God gave him.
The grace of God revealed as the Lord called Samuel by name.
Do you hear the Lord calling your name?
Because, beloved, we need to understand, God is still speaking.
There seems to be a lot of growing doubt about that
– surprisingly – within the Church, the Body of Christ.
As a pastor, I often have professed Christians
who looking for specific guidance, or venting their frustration or at times,
just confessing their resolved acceptance,
I often have followers of Jesus tell me
they have never heard the Lord speaking to them.
In this last year – with all we’ve been through as
both a nation and a much wider world,
this nagging conviction as to the silence of God
has become even more acute.
However, the story of Samuel challenges this belief
and, if we pay attention, offers us great encouragement
that God is still speaking to us.
One of the parts of this story that I intentionally overlooked is
the mention at the very beginning of the fact that
“The word of the Lord was rare…”
Many take this observation to mean that
God wasn’t talking to the people of Israel.
Because of their unrelenting sin and persistent, practical rejection
of God in their daily lives, the Lord went silent and stopped speaking.
My question for us today is why is this our assumption?
That God wasn’t speaking, that the Lord had chosen to remain silent.
Why couldn’t it be the other way around – that God was still speaking
but the reasons the word of the Lord was rare,
the explanation for why there wasn’t a lot of vision,
is because the people of Israel had stopped listening.
After all, the people of Israel still had the word of God, didn’t they?
They had been given and retained the promises made to Abraham,
the Law given to Moses, and instructions for living together in the land
They had the stories of the Lord’s deliverance in life of Jacob and of Joseph,
of the Exodus, of the entry into the Promised Land,
and of the repeated times during the period of the Judges
when the Lord had rescued them from being conquered.
But what was the vicious cycle of that period of the Judges?
It was the people always forgot and forsook the Lord
once things were settled back down.
And yet, through all those years – those centuries of time,
through the word that had been given by God
– had the Lord made it unclear as to who He was,
what He had promised, where He was taking them,
and who they were to be as His people
– all the while, being assured of His presence, protection, and love?
The reason the word of the Lord was heard infrequently is
because those who had been tasked with sharing that word from the Lord
– the priesthood – weren’t doing their job.
They were abusing their leadership for their own benefit and glory.
The reason that visions from God were uncommon and no matter could hear the Lord calling their name is because those who were supposed to be open and receptive to God’s voice and movement through their worship of the Lord
were too busy doing what was right in their own eyes.
The religious rituals were steady but internal division among the tribes of Israel and spiritual lethargy among the people as a whole had left the community deaf, dumb, and blind to any divine animation or proclamation.
Was God not speaking or were the people not listening?
Is the reason the people of Israel could not discern the will of the Lord
because God had gone silent or because the word of God
had not permeated the hearts and minds of the community?
The story of Samuel is not the story of the God
who finally starts talking again after giving His people the silent treatment.
The story of Samuel is a wake-up call for us – like Samuel
– to realize that the Lord is calling our name.
The story of Samuel is an invitation for us to remember
and to recognize what it means to be summoned into God’s presence;
to know the prompting of divine voice, and how to listen intently
for directions for the Lord’s work for us in the world.
God, our Father, wants to be heard.
Jesus, our Lord and Savior, longs for us to hear his voice.
Through the giving of His Spirit, our God isn’t hiding.
The Lord wants us to hear Him calling our name.
Now I know lots of people watching this right now are saying,
“Well, I’ve never God calling my name!”
And my question is, are we truly listening?
Do we realize how the Lord speaks to us?
One of the regular ways God speaks to us is through scripture – His word.
Notice, the Lord speaks to Samuel through His word
– a word God already gave through someone the Lord sent to Eli
– but also, a word, a promise – to do something new
– something transformative – that the Lord had given previously
to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, etc.
Let us understand.
If we’re not regularly reading, studying, chewing on, meditating,
and abiding in the word of God, we will not recognize the Lord’s voice
in our lives.
The scriptures have been and always will be, — the lens, the frame
by which we recognize and discern the voice and the direction
God is speaking to us through His Spirit.
Another way important way the Lord speaks to us is
through His people – the Church.
Eli’s role in Samuel’s recognition of his emerging conversation with God
underscores how the Lord speaks to us by His word through each other.
Samuel heard someone calling his name
but at first, couldn’t figure out who it was.
But thanks to a little help from a mentor,
Samuel was able to listen and receive what the Lord was saying to him.
Like Samuel, we need encouragement and guidance in learning
how to discern God’s voice as well as to how to
keep attentive and observant as to the Lord’s call upon our lives.
The wisdom and experience of those who have come before us
– no matter how flawed or broken like Eli – helps us to attune
our ears and heart to hear from the Lord.
Who helped you listen for God?
Has anyone ever done this for you?
Have you ever even asked for this sort of help?
For those of us in Christ, we are given by God, through His Spirit,
the great privilege of speaking His word and guiding each other
to tune our ears and our eyes to His movement and calling in our lives.
One of the key things we learn from this story is the importance of focus.
We live at a time so different than Samuel or Eli’s,
when technology has given us more ways to communicate than ever before.
I mean seriously, there are very few excuses for us to be “out of touch”
or “not in the know” unless we want to be – unless we choose to be.
More often, if we don’t hear what someone is saying
– including our Creator, it’s because we don’t want to hear it.
It’s called selective hearing.
And it’s a timeless manifestation of our brokenness as human beings.
Whether it’s ignoring emails, screening phone calls and texts,
or simply putting headphones in and cutting ourselves off from the world
– we all practice selective hearing.
In a day and age, where we can personally filter the sources from where we get our news, our facts and our opinions – where we so easily can turn off some voices even as we turn up others who tell us what we want to hear, so we only have to accept what we want to believe – we all practice selective listening.
More and more – as we isolate ourselves in our own echo chambers and tune out the voices with which we disagree or oppose, as we instead singularly focus and give our attention to what fits the narrative of our lives and the world
we’ve already decided is true and real, we all are becoming experts
at practicing selective listening.
As we look around and see what it is doing to our country, to our world,
to our neighborhoods, to our families, and our marriage, is there any doubt that selective listening or perhaps even no listening at all has affected our relationship with God – that it’s not the Lord who isn’t speaking
but we who have our ears and our eyes, our hearts and our minds closed?
Just because we can’t hear or see the Lord
doesn’t mean that God is not speaking or making Himself plain to us.
As one whose job is not to preach what I think or want but what God is saying,
in this hour of our challenge, in this season of our darkness due to a global pandemic, political division, and widespread unrest and even violence,
I declare to us in the midst of the many voices competing for our attention,
we can recognize the voice of the Lord in this.
Time and time again, when God speaks here the Lord has no tolerance
for those who prey on the weak, who abuse their power,
or who eat their fill while others are hungry.
In the Word made flesh, in Jesus Christ, we hear and see
the God who calls us to instead lay down our lives for each other,
to love and to forgive our enemies whoever they might be,
and to practice, to enact righteousness and justice
in all the spaces that we occupy together.
If we truly want to hear the Lord as He calls our name,
our posture, our disposition toward Heaven must be
no different than Samuel’s “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
God wants to be heard. God speaks clearly and truly to us.
Hearing God is possible, necessary, and beneficial to our lives.
But listening to God is a practice we hone and develop.
It’s not easy for those of us who aren’t in the habit of listening.
It comes more naturally to some than it does to others.
And even for those of us, well-practiced at listening, we still need others to help us listen – to listen better, to listen more deeply – as our Father calls our name.
Now I know there are still of us out there who are insisting try as they have,
they have never heard the Lord speak to them – let alone call their name.
And to you I again present the story of Samuel
– who was just a boy with no experience of God.
Young Samuel who knew a lot about the Lord
but hadn’t yet learned how to recognize the voice of God.
Nonetheless, the Lord kept speaking until Samuel finally recognized His voice.
And once Samuel God speaking, he adopted an attitude,
a posture of expectation for the rest of his life – so that for the rest of his life
– Samuel was known as a man who listened to the Lord.
This same God who walked in Samuel’s life and called his name
is alive and present in the rooms of ordinary people like you and me
and He is calling our name.
In spite of our selective listening and in spite of our disobedience
the Lord graciously continues to speak to us
– and even as we see in the case of Eli – the Lord speaks through us.
God is infinitely more patient with our deafness than we are with one another. The Lord, in his grace, continues to speak.
No, the Lord hasn’t taken his Word from our homes,
from the Church, from this country, from this world.
In fact, just the opposite,
God is speaking to us in more places in the same old ways as He always has
– in His Word, by His Spirit, and through His people.
And the Lord keeps calling
– even if with miss His call – the second, the third, or even the fourth time.
Expectation is key. Do we expect the Lord to be speaking – to us?
Expectation positions us to hear God in the everyday of life.
Beloved, let us expect to hear the Lord calling our name.
I am convinced the Lord has, for each of us,
some special work that is going to change the world
– and by world it may mean the planet or the little piece of the world
that you find yourself in: your job, your family, wherever you call home.
How exactly are we being called to move in these days
towards a collective vision of our work in this nation, in our world?
How are we being called to join the Lord’s movement towards a more collaborative and sharing vision and witness to truth, and beauty, and peace,
and reconciliation and joy in this nation and in our world?
Only God knows exactly. But the word of the Lord spoken thus far in Christ
is calling each one of us, all of us together, to join the parade of His Kingdom
that marches along the moral arc of the universe bending always
towards love, mercy, and justice.
This same God who knows where He is taking us is still speaking
– calling us by name, equipping us to follow His call,
and leading us into a future that, despite all appearances to the contrary,
where the best is yet to come. Amen.