Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is the reading commonly called “The Call of Samuel,” and it is one we hear in children’s sermons and Confirmation services, and of course, Ordination services. It seems like a nice story about young Samuel learning about the workings of the worship in his religion and being called by God. We do need to understand something, though. Samuel was first brought to the temple when he was about three years old. You see, his mother was barren, and she prayed to God for a child, promising that the child would be given to the service of God. So as soon as he was weaned, Hannah returned to the temple and left Samuel with Eli, to grow up to become a priest.
Today’s reading takes place several years later. So, Samuel has been living at the temple for quite a while. The word used for the worship space is “temple,” but we need to remember that this is really the tent sanctuary that was built in the wilderness and carried into the promised land. The temple in Jerusalem will not be built for many years.
The first verse of our reading is, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” For several weeks, we have heard God do a lot of talking. God spoke, and the world and everything in it was created. God spoke to Abraham, and led him out of his homeland, promising to make a great nation of his descendants. God spoke to Jacob in a dream. God spoke to Moses in the burning bush, and all through the exodus story, and provided manna in the desert. So, what has happened? Where is God? Is God giving the Israelites the silent treatment? Or are the people just not listening to God anymore? What has happened to this relationship?
We have skipped over several books of the Bible to get to today’s reading: Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and Ruth. I will not try to give you an overview of these books, but let’s just say that things didn’t go so well between God and the people.
The people wandered away from God, fought wars with the people around them and with each other, and generally behaved very badly. And by the end of the book of Judges, we hear, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
So, Samuel is living in the temple, asleep in the Sanctuary, when he hears someone calling his name. He thinks it’s Eli, and runs to see what he wants. After this happens three times, Eli realizes that it is God calling Samuel and tells him what to say in response to God's call, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’
Samuel gets an earful from God, all about what he is going to do to Eli and his sons because they have neglected and disrespected God’s sanctuary. No wonder Samuel didn’t want to tell Eli what God had said. This is the man who raised him and taught him everything he knows! Imagine how hard it was to speak those words to someone you cared about.
Samuel must have been surprised at Eli’s response. There is no weeping or anger at God, just “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” Eli accepts his responsibility for what had happened and understands God's response.
This is much more than a call story. An encouraging passage to help us see that God is calling all of us to be disciples. This is a huge transformation for Israel. The old corrupt system is being swept away, with Eli and his sons, and the relationship with God
will be renewed with Samuel. The word of God will no longer be rare among the people. God will take an active hand, guiding Samuel to anoint first Saul, and then David kings over Israel, and Israel will become a great nation. But there will also be exile and hardship. Kings will fail; civil war will split the nation. And again, God will come to God's people, and God's word will be heard.
God is always speaking. God is always with us. We are called as Samuel was called, to listen to God's word in our own lives. This story teaches us that there will be bumps in the road of discipleship, just as Samuel will have. But we need to pay attention to Samuel and Eli. Both trusted God in good times and bad. Samuel accepted his call from God and Eli accepted that his leadership was over.
So how will we hear God's voice? How DO we hear God's voice?
Should we all start sleeping in the Sanctuary? Probably not. We affirm that God is always with us, but God is also hidden in plain sight. We can look and listen for God's voice wherever we are. This week, take some time to notice where you see and hear God.
Is it when you see someone being kind to a stranger? Maybe God will speak to you, or maybe we will see God in our relationships—how we care for those we know and those we don’t know. Maybe God is speaking to us when caring for people is more important than budgets and rules. I know I hear God speak when I see nurses, doctors, rescuers, teachers—anyone who chooses to live their life in service to those in need.
God is all around us, speaking to us about love and care and relationships. We learn this from Jesus as he traveled around sharing God’s love and care for all creation. He was continually listening for God. So, what will we hear when we listen for God's voice?