by David Baer, October 15, 2017
Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-21
This week I received the news that one of my seminary professors, the Rev. Dr. David Bartlett, passed away. I took an intermediate level preaching class with Prof. Bartlett, and I was always grateful for his comments on my preaching. He had once served as the pastor of a Baptist church, and he was a master preacher himself—he could keep you spellbound for 30 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour. What kept him going, and us, his hearer was this: “The love of God isn’t just a good idea,” he used to say, “it’s really true!” And when you saw and heard him in the pulpit, with his bewhiskered face and winning smile and gracious words, you knew he believed it, and you did too.
I remember one class when Prof. Bartlett talked about prophetic preaching. He said, “When I first started, I used to think that my preaching made somebody angry on purpose, that was a prophetic sermon.” As we come today to a story about Samuel, one of the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, I remember the lesson that Prof. Bartlett said he learned from their example. It’s true that prophecy is disruptive, and it sometimes makes people angry. But prophetic speech comes to God’s people from a God who cares deeply about them and wants to see them live and thrive. When the prophets transmit God’s grief, God’s anger, God’s judgment, they do so knowing that they are part of God’s people, and that they will suffer or be saved right alongside the people they speak to. Prophecy is not about making people mad. It’s a gift from a holy and loving God who continues to guide, warn, and protect us. God is still speaking!
If you’ve been here the last few weeks, you might remember that we’re moving through the story of God and God’s people this fall, starting with the creation, and continuing with the promise God made to Abraham. And then we’ve seen how that promise is threatened, first by God himself, when he told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and then by human scheming and greed, when Jacob stole his father’s blessing from Esau. When the people were enslaved in Egypt, we began to wonder whether God had forgotten, and then God heard their cries, took notice of them, and rescued them. When the people were starving in the desert, we began to wonder whether God could pull them through their journey to the promised land, and then God sent manna to feed them as they traveled through the wilderness for forty years.
Now we’ve come forward in time. The people have reached their destination. They are living in the land God promised them, and God has given them the Torah, which in Hebrew means the “Teaching.” It’s a way of life, a description of proper relationships between God and the people, and between the people themselves, and if they follow it, God promises that they will thrive in their new home. But if they fall away from this Teaching, God promises that their crops and their health will fail, and they will come under the rule of foreigners. So it’s absolutely essential for the people to know and follow the law, and it’s absolutely essential for the leaders to set a good example.
But something has happened. There’s a new threat to God’s promise. For whatever reason, the people have lost touch with God. The story we heard today tells us that the word of the Lord was rare in those days, and visions were not widespread. It tells us that the eyesight of Eli, the chief priest at the sanctuary at Shiloh, was beginning to fail. As the boy Samuel, his assistant, beds down for the nigh, the lamp of God is flickering in the sanctuary, though it hasn’t yet gone out. This is a time when neither the people or their leaders are able to see clearly.
What’s more, earlier on in the first book of Samuel, we’re told that Eli’s sons, who are supposed to inherit his leadership position, are corrupt. They steal meat from the sacrifices meant for God. They commit sexual misconduct with the women who serve in the sanctuary alongside them. And though Eli tells them they are doing wrong, he does nothing to stop them from profaning the people’s offerings and despoiling the place of worship with their behavior. So this is a time when God’s people are poorly led, and they can no longer see their way forward. God’s people need inspiration and direction, and they’re not getting it.
This is a serious situation, but it plays out in this morning’s scripture in a pretty funny story. Not once or twice, but three times Samuel hears God calling his name, and he thinks it’s Eli, and he runs in and wakes up the old man. The first two times Eli tells him to go back to bed. It’s only the third time that Eli gets the idea that God is trying to get Samuel’s attention. We’re told that Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. There is an intimacy with God that the prophets seem to enjoy, but they can’t seem to just reach out and make contact with God. God has to make contact with them. And this hasn’t yet happened for Samuel, so he’s confused. Eli is the one who lets him know what to say, how to yield himself, to open himself to what God wants to say to him, with the words, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Now, if you picture Samuel as a ten, eleven, or twelve-year-old boy like I do, what he hears next has to be absolutely terrifying. God tells him that Eli’s family is going to be punished, that they can no longer serve as priests, and that they are way past the point of atonement or forgiveness. And God is absolutely right. Eli’s sons are awful priests, and Eli knows all about what they’re up to and doesn’t put a stop to it. This is bad news for Eli and his sons, but in a bigger sense, it’s very good news for God’s people, because it means that God doesn’t leave them to suffer abusive and corrupt leaders. Still, this is a hard message to carry for someone who’s just a kid. The text says that Samuel lay there until morning—you’ll notice it doesn’t say he slept. And as if the weight of that terrible message weren’t enough, when morning comes, Eli demands to know what God told him, and he threatens Samuel with a curse: if Samuel doesn’t tell, then whatever curses God revealed are going to fall on him too. So Samuel tells the man who is essentially his adoptive father about the judgment against his family, a judgment that Eli accepts. The story ends by telling us that as Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and didn’t let any of his words fall to the ground. In other words, the messages that Samuel spoke on God’s behalf were true and reliable, and people began to recognize that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet.
There are some lessons here for us, because prophecy isn’t dead in our own time. God is still speaking. Whenever there’s a risk that God’s people might go astray and leave the way of life God appointed for them, there is a need for prophecy, and so God sends prophets. And sometimes the prophecy comes from people everybody recognizes as leaders, like pastors. When Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of his dream of a nation where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, he was speaking as a prophet. But Samuel wasn’t any kind of recognizable leader. He was just a kid. And yet God entrusted him with important messages, and none of his words fell to the ground. This story tells me that at any time God could put a word we need to hear in the mouth of any one of you, no matter whether your age is 4 or 94; no matter whether you can quote your Bible chapter and verse or you don’t know Adonijah from Adam. It doesn’t matter. As a community, we need to be open to receiving the gift of prophecy wherever it comes from.
Now, that’s not to say that prophets don’t need other people. Samuel wouldn’t have been able to recognize God’s voice, and he wouldn’t have known how to respond, if it hadn’t been for Eli. When we talk with each other about our lives and what’s happening in them, there’s room for each of us to say to someone else, “Is it possible God is trying to get your attention?” Prophets often need other people to help them tune in to what God is saying.
And prophets also need other people because prophecy isn’t meant to be private. The message Samuel received was bad news for Eli and good news for the community. But in any case, it was meant for a larger audience. Prophecy may come through individuals, but it’s addressed to communities. It isn’t meant to be a treasured secret between you and God. It’s only in the community that the prophet’s words are tested, where we see whether or not any of them in fact fall to the ground. If God has put a word in your mouth, then we all need to hear it.
As a community, we need to be close enough to one another, in tune enough to one another’s lives, that we can help each other hear God’s voice. One thing you can do this morning is to listen carefully when you hear the joys and concerns—maybe you might be the one to play Eli to someone’s Samuel. As a community, we need to be ready for God’s word to come to us from surprising directions. And as a community, we need to be prepared to hear God speak to us and to weigh what it means for our individual members, for our church, and for the world. Prophecy is God’s gift to the church. It means we’re not on our own, adrift. God is still speaking to us, so that God’s promises might be kept, so that God’s people might be blessed, and so that God’s blessings might be multiplied and shared. God is still speaking. Thanks be to God. Amen.