I Samuel 3.1-20
Eli couldn’t sleep. It was early in the dark of morning, and he lay in the tent at Shiloh. The tent which housed the Ark of the Lord. Between the darkness of night and the darkness of his aging eyes, he could barely see anything around him. But he could still hear. The quiet crackle of the final pops of oil in the lamp of the Lord, which had not yet gone out. The heavy breathing of sleep of the boy, Samuel, sleeping on the ground next to the Ark. The faint sounds of the nighttime noises outside of the tent. The sounds of the holy place surrounded him.
Not only that, but Eli could hear the whispers of the people. They had long since lost trust in his sons, as they had abused their priestly role, stealing from the people and forcing themselves on the women who had come to offer sacrifices. Those who had been entrusted with keeping the laws of justice were chief in their disobedience. Eli could not see much anymore, but he could still hear their imagined whispers.
“Old Eli can’t keep his sons in check. Maybe it’s time we replace them all.”
“Why keep priests anyway? Why don’t we get a king, like everyone else has?”
“We may not get that choice…I think God is going to come rain fire on us all for their disobedience.”
“Or worse…how do we know the Almighty is still alive? We have not heard from him in so long!”
“Here I am.” The last word was not an imagined whisper, but an actual voice. He woke to a startle to see the boy standing next to him. In a sleepy stupor, Eli slowly realized that he had finally found sleep, only to be awakened by the boy. Samuel must have had a dream, and assumed that Eli had called him. Eli wanted nothing more than to roll back over and fall asleep. But he calmly explained that he had not called the boy, and he should go back to his bed. When he heard the boy’s measured breathing again, Eli fell asleep to the imagined whispers of the people, once more.
“Here I am.” The same startled terror. The same announcement by Samuel. The same conversation to go back to bed. The same slow drift back to sleep.
“Here I am.” The third time, Eli wanted nothing more than to yell at the boy for his disruption of his sleep. But while the old man could not see, he could still hear. He could still perceive what was happening. The boy had indeed heard a voice…the voice of the Lord. Now, Eli was wide awake. He sat up and explained to the boy what he must say when the voice came again. He was still fully awake when he heard the boy’s heavy breathing again; this time it would be a long night before he could sleep again. For it was not only the whispers of the people that foretold his ending. It was the whispers of the Lord.
Together, we continue to study the theme of vocation, which we began last week. For many of us, throughout our careers, the idea of vocation has been a complex one. How many of us have struggled with the reality that our job is becoming obsolete? Whether it is automation, or computerization, or one of a thousand changes in our world, many of us have looked up one day and realized that our calling, our vocation, our skill set, has become useless. Many of us have been forced to return for more schooling or training. Others of us have had to start all over with a new career, or been forced to take early retirement, happy to get out while we can.
Or perhaps our job has not become obsolete, but it has definitely changed. How many of us have realized how significantly our jobs have changed over our careers? The priorities of culture change. The way that we do our jobs changes. The expectations or the qualifications have changed. Or, if we are on the opposite side of our vocational journey, just beginning, we can expect to change not just jobs, but careers, multiple times throughout our lives.
It is the reality that old Eli was facing, as well. The story that we read is a story of one night. One moment. But it is also the story of something much larger that is happening to the people of God. It is a liminal moment in time for the Israelites. To this point, they have been a conglomeration of several different tribes, each more or less doing their own thing. Every once and a while, a judge has been raised up to unite and protect them for a time. And in a haphazard way, they come together to worship in Shiloh.
But now there are rumblings. Eli’s sons are abusing their office. They steal from the pilgrims who come to bring offerings, and then they take advantage of the women, abusing them and their role as priests. The people start to wonder if they don’t need priests anymore, especially priests as despicable as Eli’s sons. Maybe it is time to get a king, like all of their neighbors have. A king would unite them permanently, protect them permanently, and crystalize their worship in a new way. In a way, Samuel will become the last judge, the last priest, and the first of a new office – the prophet. The prophet was a new thing for the people of God: the voice of the Lord in the time of the kings. And just like any new thing, the dying of the old things was painful. So, perhaps we can look at the disobedience of Eli’s sons not as a catalyst that kills the priesthood, but as a symptom of what is happening culturally. The world is changing, and Eli and Samuel are on opposite sides of this change.
How often have we felt like old Eli…at a loss as to how to change, confused about what it means for us, and in grief for the old ways that used to be. How often do we wish that we could just throw the covers over our heads and roll back over and go back to sleep? For sure, there was a part of Eli who thought the same thing.
But he didn’t, did he? Biblical scholar Richard Boyce correctly understands that what is happening in this story is the birth of a new office…and it is a cooperative affair. He understands that calling is not only an individual work, but a shared one.
On one hand, you have the boy Samuel. As far as a call story goes, Samuel is all over this. Mary had to ask a question first. Moses had to argue for a while. Gideon had to have God pass his tests. Eventually, they all said “Here I am,” but it took them a while. Samuel said it right away. He had the heart, the trust, the expectation, the reactivity, the hearing, the sight. Here I am. “Put me in coach! I’m ready to play.” But for Samuel, what was lacking was not trust or willingness, but wisdom.
That’s where Eli comes in, and this is why this call story is a cooperative affair. Samuel was ready to trust and do whatever he needed to do, but he needed someone who understood what was happening. Who was speaking. What the proper response would be. Trust is necessary, but it is not enough alone.
Eli is in a very different place than Samuel. He is old. He is filled with grief and regret. He had lost his innocent trust a long time ago. Perhaps Eli did all that he could to teach his children what to do and they ignored him. It happens. Perhaps Eli could have done more and he would die with regret. It happens. But either way, in this moment, Eli can let that self-righteousness or that regret take over, or he can seize this moment for Samuel and for the hope of Israel. He can give Samuel the teaching that he needs, the wisdom that he needs, the clarity that he needs, the encouragement that he needs. Or he can roll back over and go to sleep.
The question of trust here is not whether or not Samuel trusts God. Of course he does…without question, and without even hesitating. “Here I am!” No cynicism involved! The question is whether or not Eli will trust God. Even in the midst of the pain of knowing that his sons are not perfect…perhaps even the pain of wishing had done more. Even in the weariness of a late night, with weak eyes, and a tired body. Even with the lack of obligation to Samuel…after all, it’s not like this was his kid after all. Even knowing that deep down, the word of the Lord was not going to turn out roses for him. Even with all of this…even when everything inside of him told him to throw the covers over his head and roll back over and go to sleep, he propped himself up on one arm, and pulled Samuel close to him, and told him what he needed to say in response to God.
And, because he did, the boy Samuel learned how to be open to God’s calling….
- Because Eli didn’t roll back over and go to sleep, the boy Samuel learned to become the young man Samuel, and understood what to do when God called…again and again.
- Because old Eli didn’t roll back over and go to sleep, but swallowed hard and heard a difficult truth, old Samuel had the wisdom and wherewithal to swallow hard and tell difficult truths, too. Like the truth that a king would be bad news. And when they ignored that truth, a new truth that the king Saul would be replaced by a boy David.
- Because Eli didn’t roll back over and go to sleep, a prophet was born that night. And in the midst of a day in which “the word of the Lord was rare,” because of Eli’s courage and trust, the word of the Lord became more plentiful, that night and the days to come.
And the same can be true for us, can’t it? How many of us “get Eli?”
We get his grief and regret about the way things in life have turned out.
We get that even when we have no idea how to do our jobs in this changing world, God still speaks.
We get that there are these moments in life when, as much as we’d love to just roll over and go back to bed, we have to open our eyes and open our ears to the reality that God never stops calling.
We get that it isn’t always about us, but about the next generation, the next prophet, the next Samuel.
Even in a hard world, a time of transition, and in the midst of questions and fears about what the future would bring, Eli trusted. So can we.
Perhaps this is a good word for us, sisters and brothers of First Baptist.
I knew that I was going to preach this sermon in July. This is one of my sermons for my Doctor of Ministry program, and so, I planned in July to preach about Samuel on this day. Use this text in this service.
Little did I know what this day would bring. Little did I know that it would be the day that we celebrate the ordination of the soon-to-be Rev. Cody Knapik. Little did I know that I would be hand-gifted a story of a young man who grew up in this church, who from an early age knew that God had something in store for him. A young man, who when he felt called to ministry, had a lot of trust and the eagerness, but had yet to grow in wisdom. Little did I know that today we would be celebrating our own Samuel. Little did I know the pride that I would feel when I look out on our church, and see a hundred Eli’s looking back at me.
First Baptist, on this day, I want you to understand what is happening here. You saw a young man with promise and helped him grow in wisdom and stature. You saw a young man willing at an early age to say, “here I am!” and helped him to discern between the voices that surrounded him. You taught him about love. You mentored him in the ways of grace. You didn’t give up, even if you knew deep down that this wasn’t your legacy, it wasn’t your church that you were protecting, but some other church in some other part of the world that would reap the benefits of your hard work. You didn’t roll back over and go back to sleep, but you sat up and looked this young man in his eyes and taught him to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And he has. And he will continue to. And like Eli, who may not have been perfect, but who did this one thing right, you can stand up a little taller today because you did this right. The Crainville Baptist Church sees that you did this right. The world sees that you did this right. The Lord sees that you did this right.
And now we must ask, “who’s next?” Who will we teach to say, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening?” Who will we pay attention to, even when we’d love to roll over and go to bed? Who will we reach and teach and pray for and love encourage?
Will you listen for those words? “Here I am.”