A sermon by Marilyn Stahl
“And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.” – I Sam. 3:20
You knit us together in our mothers’ wombs.
Help us grow in faith and trust in You,
Formed by your Word. AMEN.
Doesn’t every mother hope that her child will grow up to be trustworthy and a person of integrity? In today’s text from the Hebrew Scriptures, we have the story of young Samuel’s call. How did Samuel become a trustworthy prophet of the Lord? Are there trustworthy prophets today?
I. Formed in his mother’s womb
Samuel’s formation as a prophet began with his mother Hannah. We learn about Hannah in the prior chapters of 1st Samuel. Samuel’s father had two wives. For a long time, Hannah was barren, while his father’s other wife had many children. Being childless caused Hannah much suffering and humiliation. To make Hannah miserable, the other wife “would taunt her that the Lord had closed her womb.”
Every year, the family went to worship and offer sacrifice to the Lord at Shiloh. One year, Hannah was feeling so wretched that she wept and silently prayed in her heart, moving her lips without making a sound:
“O Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget me, and if You will grant me a child, I will dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life . . .”
Hannah saw that her longed-for child belonged to God even before he was conceived. As the Psalmist proclaims: It was you who created my conscience; You fashioned me in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am awesomely, wondrously made!
Eli, the old high priest – who will later play such a large role in Samuel’s life – watched Hannah as she prayed in silence. With his eyesight growing dim, Eli totally misread the situation. Rather than seeing the truth of a suffering woman totally dependent on God’s mercy, Eli assumed that Hannah was drunk. “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!”
This shows that Eli’s “dim eyesight” is not just literal – he is also out of touch with the prayers, longings, and aspirations of the people.
“Oh no, my lord!” Hannah replied. “I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the LORD.”
“Then go in peace,” said Eli, “and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him.”
Soon, Hannah does have a son. She names him Samuel, which means, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
The Scripture records Hannah’s joyful song of thanksgiving, praising God for salvation of the lowly and oppressed. “My heart exults in the Lord; . . . I rejoice in Your deliverance.” These verses are later echoed in Mary’s Magnificat.
Faithful to her promise and totally trusting the goodness of God, as soon as Samuel is weaned, Hannah lends him to God. She brings Samuel to Eli to be raised at Shiloh.
II. Mystery in the Night
I wonder what Hannah must have felt in her heart and soul as she handed her precious child over to old, blind Eli.
Did she know what everyone else in the community knew? That Eli’s sons were corrupt scoundrels – that they exploited their priestly positions to fatten themselves, that they took the best part of the people’s offerings? Eli’s sons even slept around with the women at the entrance gates. Surely, she didn’t want her boy to grow up to be like that. Yet, here she was, placing her innocent child in the midst of this corrupt priestly system.
Honoring her commitment to dedicate Samuel to God could not have been easy for Hannah. What a huge risk for a mother to take! It seems almost unbelievable, certainly irrational. What amazing courage, to remain true to that vow!
The rest of the story shows how God was at work through Hannah’s act of faithfulness.
The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
Then one night, something amazing happened.
The lamp of God was burning in the dark. Everyone had gone to bed. Eli was lying down in his room. Samuel was lying down near the ark, which represented the presence of God.
A call pierces the darkness. “Samuel, Samuel.”
Assuming it must be Eli, Samuel obediently runs right to Eli and announces: “Here I am!”
But the old priest says, “I did not call. Go lie down again.” This scene is repeated three times.
Scholars have noted that in this narrative, “the night” operates as a metaphor for a time of change, confusion, and bewilderment. (See, e.g. W. Brueggemann) The night is full of mystery. At night, the rational mind is stilled. Our subconscious comes alive creating wild images and bold new possibilities. And which of you has not wondered whether one dream or another is not really a visitation or a message?
A local poet, David Whyte, has written about the transformative power of the night in a poem entitled, “Sweet Darkness:”
When your eyes are tired
The world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
No part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
Where the night has eyes
To recognize its own.
There you can be sure
You are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb tonight.
The night will give you a horizon
Further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was meant to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
Except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
Confinement of your aloneness
To learn that
Anything or anyone
That does not bring you alive
Is too small for you.
This night is a liminal time for Samuel. He is on the threshold of a great transformation. A Voice is calling that will lead Samuel to discover his true vocation as a prophet, in communion with God.
When Samuel runs to Eli a third time, old Eli perceives that God is calling the boy.
“If God calls again,” Eli instructs Samuel, “say: ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’”
III. Morning light
We often end the telling of the Samuel and Eli story here. “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
But now is when the story just begins to get interesting!
The Lord came and stood there, calling his name.
God’s message is shocking, disturbing and unsettling: First, God warns Samuel that what God is about to do will make people’s “ears tingle.” What could this mean? Samuel is about to hear a hard truth. God is going to strip the priesthood from Eli’s family. Eli’s sons are corrupt, yet Eli did little to restrain them. It’s over for Eli’s family as priests.
Wow. The Word of God stops Samuel in his tracks. After this encounter with the Divine, he is no longer the obedient little boy jumping up and running to Eli. He waits until morning.
We can only imagine what must have been going through that young boy’s mind as he lay there in the dark. Did he think of his mother’s faith – how she had trusted God so absolutely and completely that she had been willing to dedicate him to God before he was even conceived? Why had God led her to place him here with old Eli and his greedy sons? What was the deep purpose of his life?
In the morning, Samuel opens the doors of the house of the Lord. Today – the second Sunday after Epiphany – can’t you just see all that morning Mediterranean light streaming in? How the image of light has changed since the beginning of the story! From a little flickering lamp in the night to the brilliant morning sun.
Yet, Samuel is afraid.
How can he tell Eli the truth about the coming judgment against Eli and his corrupt sons? Samuel is only a youth. What if Eli gets angry and throws him out?
Does Samuel have the courage to be a channel of God’s Word, no matter what the cost? Is he willing to speak truth to power? Will he accept his prophetic vocation?
Then Eli arrives. He wants to hear about the vision. At the very least, Samuel’s presence in the community has made Eli eager to hear God’s word.
We are not told that Samuel was a particularly articulate or gifted speaker. Samuel simply told Eli the truth and hid nothing. By this courageous act, Samuel became a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
IV. Our Call
Where can we see the intervention of a trustworthy prophet in our own times? Certainly the holiday for Martin Luther King’s birthday tomorrow brings to mind King’s amazing oratory. We resonate with his prophetic call to overcome the three evils of racism, war, and poverty.
We are all called to listen to God in our lives and respond with courage and integrity.
As we move into a time of silent reflection, I invite you to consider these questions:
- What people and experiences have formed your capacity to trust God and others? Offer a word of thanks for them.
- In your relationship with others, are you trustworthy?
- How is the Light of God’s presence shining in your life today?