‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!’
1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD in the presence of Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.
4 Then the LORD called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.
6 And the LORD called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.
8 And the LORD called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 And the LORD came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” 11 Then the LORD said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”
15 Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” And he said, “Here I am.” 17 And Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also if you
hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him.”
19 And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the LORD. (1 Samuel 3:1– 20 ESV)
The story of Samuel’s call to be a prophet of the Lord is well known and I’m sure many people have desired to hear what Samuel heard – the Lord speaking – and to say the words, ‘Speak, for your servant hears’. Of course, it begs the questions, ‘How will we know the voice of the Lord?’ (I’m guessing we’re all assuming it’s more deep and booming rather and high pitched and squeaky!) and ‘Do we really want to hear and obey whatever he says?’. It’s different if it was written in a drama script because you can then read ahead and know the lines going to be said but to enter into a conversation with a stranger – Samuel didn’t know what was going to be said to him – and in fact, he was troubled by the message that Eli had to effectively put him under oath to tell – is a leap of faith. It is not a message we’d want to hear and yet Eli’s response has always impressed me – and it is largely unnoticed – ‘It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him.’ Eli is culpable and he hasn’t acted against his sons – themselves priests also as you’d expect – whose behaviour ritually, liturgically, and in their official duties blasphemed God. Just telling them that they shouldn’t behave in this way in the office of priest wasn’t enough which ids what Eli did and nothing more led in effect to the build up of sin in the presence of holiness – not a good combination – and the inevitable happens – judgement and the end of life and of their priestly line. And Eli submits to God’s will – his faith per se is not in question but the living out of it, as a priest, is not unnoticed. When you are in office, you are no longer a private citizen, because your official words and deeds affect others for good or ill.
We have an interesting reading today – not just in these Sundays after The Epiphany where we learn that Jesus’ words are powerful – but today with our social media, our blurring of public and private, home and work – exacerbated because of the pandemic – and with an increasing rejection of responsibility for words whether said, written, texted, emailed, tweeted, published, printed, Facebooked, whatever in a society that is marked by identity politics which demands limits on words. We live in a world that says ‘Be cautious about words and speakers and check everything’ and we hear a reading that says in effect, ‘When God speaks, listen’.
We can’t replicate Samuel’s experience. We don’t want to hear what God said to Eli. Those events are just over 3,000 years old. But we can learn, as Samuel learnt, in the environment of worship how to listen to God in our time and in our place. And for us, we grow up hearing and learning about the Word made flesh, about Jesus – and the Word was with God and is God – and we all not only listen and hear the stories of Jesus and who was before and what happened after he ascended but we also can read it for ourselves in the Bible.
The Bible speaks a little about Scripture – words authorised by prophets and by apostles – as truth and it is an article of faith that Christians believe that the Old and New Testaments are inspired by the Holy Spirit to keep us focused on Jesus. Printed words present us with the Word made flesh and any speaking in his name – think pastors or teachers or anyone who talks about Jesus – is then placed within the parameters of what the prophets and apostles have said.
This means that if today God speaks to us as he did to Samuel, we run it past the canon – the authority of Scripture – to see whether it is true. Eli performed that function for Samuel’s words. He verified then and there that God had spoken and Samuel would finally know that God had spoken when the judgement fell –
and it did when the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines and the sons were killed and Eli died on hearing the news. Then Samuel would have known that the voice speaks true. And we can recognise voices.
But for us that means all voices about God and Jesus and about things spiritual and about faith and hidden things and mysteries and living in this world with Jesus must be referenced, critiqued, sieved through Scripture irrespective of the voice speaking. Cults and false teaching emerge when voice trumps text; when the spoken words update the written words to give a different message to what Jesus wants for the world. And we hear about Samuel because it is written and wherever those words take us in our understanding and learning – wherever the Holy Spirit leads us – not to get lost but to stay following Jesus, we check our interpretation, our thoughts with Scripture. A strong Lutheran principle of understanding God’s Word is ‘Scripture interprets Scripture’ to give us a coherent message.
And I stand here to tell you that the coherent message is that God loves this world that he gave his only Son – to be the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world – that whoever believes in him has eternal life which begins now – we live with Jesus now who comes to us through words – Law and Gospel is how we hear God – messages about us and our behaviour and messages about God his behaviour – and through water, bread and wine so that we can live in this world day by day.
But what if God was to say to us something like he said to Eli? It is a niggling question. That would make us fearful of God I expect especially if we know our guilt. And yet we can learn from Eli – who stood at the altar, the tabernacle, and shrines and touched holy things and spoke holy words – that this God rescued his people, nurtured them in the wilderness, and is with them in their living in the land – that this God is good. We could also read the text carefully and see that if this passage applies to anyone specifically then it is to the person standing at an altar and if that’s not your role then it is not speaking directly to you. Or we could consider what God has said to Eli and why – God to his priest – and then consider our situation and that everything in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus and that means that for us Jesus is our high priest, our sacrifice, our judgement, our punishment, and our death – not so that we can be like Eli but precisely so that we can live in faith with God day by day – not lip service but in deeds as well as words because Jesus
suffered the judgement due to us. Where Jesus is rejected there judgement lies but in the struggle with sin and faithfulness the call to repentance – to hear Law and Gospel – is the call to live. Yes, we deserve to hear judgement but instead because of Christ, we hear the absolution, mercy, forgiveness, new starts – that affect how we live, how we behave, what we say, what we do to those around us. ‘Faith active in love’ as the Bible says.
Because of Jesus, to hear God is about not being afraid. Yes, we will be challenged and stretched and uncomfortable as we battle with our sinful self but we return to church each Sunday to hear – and daily in our mind – or strictly to the font – to hear to all those baptised, ‘Don’t be afraid, I have called you by your name, you are mine’ and in our heads we know that this God – with the face of Jesus – is good – and so we listen and read and meditate and pray and eat and drink God’s Word – it is best to do it each day.
‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!’
- 1 Samuel 3:1 - 20