Matthew T. Phillips

I Hear Voices (1 Samuel 3:1-4:1a)

The Second Sunday After the Epiphany (B)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina

3:1Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the 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. 4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! 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. 6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up 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.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told 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. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17Eli 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.” 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. 21The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord. 4:1aAnd the word of Samuel came to all Israel.

1 Samuel 3:1-4:1a NRSV

Out of the silence

I couldn’t count how often I’ve heard that back in “Bible times” God spoke to people regularly, but now God doesn’t do that any more. When you read the stories of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, and hear about prophets and leaders talking to God and receiving clear instructions, it’s easy to fall into this notion that until a couple hundred years ago, God was downright chatty and very involved in things around earth, and then God kind of went into retirement lately, so we don’t hear from him much any more.

The fact is, though, that the scripture goes out of its way to tell us that even this far back, there was a time when God seemed distant from the people. Samuel was in training with God’s chosen priest and prophet Eli, but even in such good company, Samuel had never really “known” the Lord. Much like us, Samuel lived in a world where people weren’t used to hearing a calling from God, and so it never even struck him—a person with at least some informal theological training—that God might speak to him. He didn’t even really know how to listen, but out of the silence, with help from his blind old mentor, Samuel heard.

At least part of the message for us is that what makes the times when God seems chatty different from the times when it seems God must have retired is not how much God speaks, but how much we hear.

In holy places

Samuel does seem to have been one step ahead of us. While Eli was asleep in his room, Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, near the ark of the covenant: the Holy of Holies. Why would he be doing that? Surely there was a cot for him somewhere else.

There are any number of reasons. The scripture tells us that Samuel did not yet know the Lord; perhaps he didn’t realize how holy was the place he had picked to sleep. That’s pretty hard to believe, though. He was “ministering to the Lord under Eli,” so it stands to reason that he would have been observing the worship life of the temple for quite a while, and he would know that this inner sanctuary was the place of God’s special presence. Maybe he was scared. Foreign powers were threatening the well-being of Israel and the nation feared being conquered. Israel was upset at the system of spiritual leadership and was calling for a more powerful king. Maybe Samuel was worried about the course of his people and wanted to be close to God where he might be more protected.

Although it’s hard to say with an entirely straight face, the epistle lesson this week suggests that where we sleep is of significance: sleeping is an intimate act that involves great trust. Maybe Samuel slept in God’s presence because he was aching to know God. So then, how is he any different from us? Though young and old, we all would like to know God more closely. We’re not sleeping in the sanctuary, and I’m not suggesting anybody bring their sleeping bags next week, but to varying degrees we have all centered our lives in the church: this is where we come for the pivotal moments in our lives, we return for the beginning of each week, we break bread together, we share each other’s concerns and praises.

Once we hear

Believe it or not, I think we’re actually on the right track to hear God’s word for us. I think we could stand to use language of discernment a little more, and we could certainly get better at helping each other to hear God’s voice (after all, if not for Eli, Samuel might still be trying wandering around, trying to find the person who was speaking to him in the night). What happens, though, when we finally hear God’s voice?

From our scripture and the witness of the history of the church, it appears the first thing that will probably happen is that we’ll decide we don’t like what God’s voice has to say. God’s message almost always goes against the grain of the world—sometimes even of the church. Poor young Samuel was immediately set in opposition to his mentor when he heard God’s message of judgment against Eli for his failure to restrain his wayward sons. You can imagine that as he finished talking with God and lay back down, he was tying to think of ways that he could avoid telling the man who had trained him and cared for him that his time in God’s favor had ended. And let’s not forget either that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Samuel might have been worried about the reaction he would receive when he told people he heard voices at night, never mind what they were saying. Samuel went about his morning chores, opening the doors into the temple, a routine action that took on new significance on this particular morning now that Samuel had become a new mouthpiece for God’s word to the people.

Eli called out to Samuel, and the nervous new prophet answered the same way he had answered God: “here I am.” Eli reminded Samuel that it was not for him to decide which of God’s words got shared: he had to tell all that had been told to him. And so Samuel sheepishly told Eli of God’s word against him.

Here at the climax of the story, it’s pretty hard to believe what happens next. Eli gives up. If anyone else had come to him and said, “the Lord came to me in a dream last night and said your gig is up,” he would have protested. But Samuel was just the right person to deliver the message. Eli trusted him; even called to him as his son, which probably had something to do with Eli wishing his sons had been as good as Samuel, and then he never would have been in this trouble to start with. Eli had seen that Samuel had a good heart and a humble spirit, and he could see also how difficult this message was for Samuel to deliver, and he knew that it was God’s word.

Just the right message

God found exactly the right person to speak God’s message. That’s a pretty overwhelming thing to realize if you’ve received a message from God. The psalmists says

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord,
you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.

Psalm 139:1-5 NRSV

God knows each of us so intimately that he is able to choose exactly the right message for us to hear: one that we will be able to understand and one that the world will be able to understand when we speak it. We would probably try, like Samuel, to run from that special message, so God hems us in, behind and before, protecting us for the moment from the dangers around, and keeping us in one place so that we must listen. And then God’s hand is laid upon us in an act of comfort and command.

Greater things than these

In a world where privacy is valued so much and we aren’t used to other people knowing things about us that we didn’t share, the idea that God knows us so well that he can choose a message that only we can deliver to the world is pretty amazing. In the gospel passage today, Nathanael believed in Jesus because Jesus managed to see him while he was hidden under a fig tree. Jesus was amused:

“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”

John 1:50 NRSV

We are shocked by the power of a God who knows us when we think we are hidden, but that’s nothing. The amazing thing is not that God speaks to us. It is not even that God knows exactly which message we will be able to deliver to God’s world. The amazing thing is that God will strengthen us and stand with us as we share God’s message.

As Eli told Samuel, silence is not an option. Christians must carry God’s message into the world. The good news is that when we speak a prophetic message, we do so with the help of the Holy Spirit and the entire communion of the saints. Silence is not an option, but God’s promise is that failure will not be our end.