In our house, the parents’ room is in the basement; the kids’ rooms are upstairs on the main floor. It’s not too much of a problem as long as the kids are healthy, but it isn’t so great when they aren’t feeling well. The first wake up of a sick night leaves me with a pit of guilt in my stomach by the time I return to bed. It’s never hard to tell by the strength of the sobs that the afflicted little one has been crying for a while. We’re pretty sound sleepers downstairs in the basement, and even with a baby monitor in my ear to help me keep track of what is going on upstairs, it takes a while for that crying sound to make it out of my dreams where it has woven itself into a fabric of my subconscious and into that space of conscious thought so that my motherly instincts can kick in and wake me up. I never hear them on the first cries.
I don’t know if it’s because he wasn’t quite asleep yet or if he just has better ears, but Samuel catches God’s call on the first cry. Sort of. [whisper] “Samuel! Samuel!” he heard not too long into the night. Eli, the priest he has been serving in the temple since he was weaned from his mother’s breast, was lying down in his own room, and Samuel was in the temple of the Lord, and in case we don’t truly get what the means, the author reiterates it is where the ark of God was. It was where the holiest of treasures was. It was where the very presence of God resided. Samuel was essentially lying at the feet of God, not Eli, as he was drifting off to sleep. [whisper] “Samuel! Samuel!”
The wilderness lessons -- like the story of the provision of manna and quail we heard in recent weeks --are over, and the people have settled into the land God promised Abraham (Genesis 12:1, 15:7, 17:8). After Moses’s successor Joshua, the Israelites were led by a series of judges who rise up in difficult times. As the book of Judges comes to an end, tribal wars threaten to tear the people apart.
The birth and call of Samuel is part of a turning point in Israel’s history. God’s people had been growing frustrated with their inability to stay on top in relation to the neighboring nations. Their own sinfulness and choices against God’s will kept drawing them out of periods of relative peace into times of struggle. The boy we met in Scripture today eventually will mature into the prophet God uses to anoint the first king of Israel, Saul.
Samuel’s story opens not in the halls of power, but in the house of a man who is remembered only in the opening chapters of 1 Samuel. Elkanah is married to two women, and Hannah, his favorite, is barren. Hannah begs God for a child and during her prayer encounters the priest, Eli, who is less than comforting, even accusing the praying woman of being drunk! Despite this initial encounter, Eli tells Hannah that her prayer will be answered. Hannah has her long-awaited child, does as she promised, and gives the child to the Lord, placing him with the priest Eli at the holy place in Shiloh.
That’s how he came to hear the whisper of God in the night. Samuel was doing his job in the temple, his Very Important Ministry of watching the lamp of God and tending to the ark of God. He heard his name and certain that it was his master calling he ran quickly to Eli to see if there was more for him to do, to see if he was needed for a Very Important Job. But he must have misheard something, Eli said. “I did not call; lie down again.”
And so he did. Wondering how he could have heard his name, Samuel returned to his place of work, the temple, and lay down again. There. In the temple. Right where the ark was. The place of God’s presence. Because, of course, he had a job to do. A Very Important Ministry.
If the first call was a calm whisper, the second must have had a little more urgency to it. [urgent not-so-much whisper] “Samuel!” God was trying to get his attention. There was something pretty important to pass on, so God showed up there, you know, in the temple, where God promised to appear, to talk to Samuel who was right there. But with singular focus that was almost admirable, Samuel confused God’s voice with the voice of his master, his mentor, his boss. He was a very attentive intern. He was extremely dedicated to his job.
Hearing the beckon and assuming his services were needed for some Very Important Work, Samuel went again to Eli saying, “Here I am, for you called me.” He was ready to do whatever was needed, clean the ashes from the altar, make sure there was enough oil for the lamp, train some new attendants, make sure the poor had their portion of the offerings. But, again Eli sent him away and told him to lie down again.
By the third call, you can imagine God was getting a little more persistent. There was no more of that whispering or half-whispering stuff. [somewhat annoyed fully speaking voice] “Sam-u-el!” Something, anything to get his attention, but again, on the third call, Samuel missed his cue.
There’s a little caveat in the story at verse seven. “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” In a sense it gets him off the hook a little. It’s like the first time a child gets sick. You just aren’t used to hearing that particular big kid cry in the night yet. Samuel worked in the temple of the Lord. He was surrounded by talk of God, but apparently he hadn’t really heard it personally yet. He knew what it meant to do serve God, but he didn’t really KNOW God. So, when he heard his name, when he heard God call his name, he did what he knew to do, and he went for a third time to Eli.
I imagine this time Samuel was getting frustrated. He just wanted to get some rest. He had things to do in the morning – the temple steps needed a good sweep, the backpacks of canned goods for the elementary school needed to be filled, the shelves holding incense needed dusting, the lawn needed to be mowed, the smoky windows from yesterday’s offerings needed to be wiped down, the children’s lessons should be prepared, the new chants should be learned. Very Important Ministries were on the day’s docket and these interruptions were not going to help anything get done. In fact, these interruptions had turned into things that might make someone grumble about ministry instead of focus on the content of ministry; they were turning into Very Annoying Things.
These sorts of things, these Very Important Ministries and Very Annoying Things, they can get exhausting. They can make anyone just want to go to sleep for a while. Very Important Ministries and Very Annoying Things can simply suck the life out of us when we them to center of our world, our energy, our belief. It is easy to get consumed by them because often they seem like the most pressing things. They show up on our calendars and to do lists - go to the grocery store, copy lesson plans, show up for rehearsal, make that committee meeting, prepare that report. They stare us in the face every time we show up at church - tell someone about that stain on the wall, make sure that shelf gets tidied, see that she gets the old events off the bulletin board, let him know about the leaky sink. It seems like it's impossible to get away from then. Even when we just want to catch some sleep to get away from them, it seems like they are waking us up. We just - can't - let - them- go - unmentioned.
"Church!" we think we hear. "Take care of these Very Important Things!" But maybe what is really calling us is something else entirely.
This time, thankfully, Eli started to catch on. And Eli himself wasn’t any saint of a priest. Remember, he had mocked Hannah, Samuel’s mother, for her fervent prayer and devotion in the face of her challenges to get pregnant. He also didn’t do his own job of reigning in his sons who were being disobedient to God. He wasn’t perfect, and, in fact, he ultimately receives the difficult end of God’s word to Samuel, but at least he begins to hear what is going on. His experience and his wisdom clue him in to the idea that maybe, just maybe there is something, someONE else calling to Samuel. "Go back to bed," Eli tells Samuel, "and this time, when you hear the voice, don't come running to me. Listen closely for God."
The fourth time, this time I believe God called with a full-on sick-kid WAIL. "SAMUEL!" By name God called him, screamed for him in my imagination. "SAMUEL!!!!" It was God calling, not Eli. It was God who needed him, God who wanted him. It was God, the real deal, The Lord Almighty, the Divine One, GOD, who was calling to Samuel to speak to him, to know him, to have a relationship with him, to work with him and through him. It was God who knew his name and was calling it in the night.
Samuel was listening, but he was listening to the wrong things. He wasn't listening to BAD things. He was just listening to things that were about God instead of listening TO God. Do you see the difference? He was so distracted by the work that was supposed to be in service to God that he couldn't even hear God speak his own name. He was so focused on trying to do stuff that might make God happy, attending to Very Important Ministries and maybe Very Annoying Things, that he couldn't tell what was really important was attending to a relationship with God. He was able to serve in the temple, he was even able to serve God's purposes, but all the while he didn't even really know God.
But God called his name. God wanted something different from Samuel. God wants so much more than just people doing stuff, people tending to the temple to make sure every little thing is in order, people who hold their Very Important Ministries higher God. God wants us to know that God knows our names. God wants us to know that we each have a call and a purpose, and yes, even Very Important Ministries to do.
But more than any of that, God wants a relationship. God wants our ears tuned toward God's voice. God wants us to listen to for our name as he speaks it. God wants us to answer when she calls. God wants to talk directly to us to tell us what is important, to tell us that we are important not just for the work we do but for who we are. God wants to tell us that knowing God, being attentive to God's word, and listening for God's who even knows your name.
Listen.... Listen closely.... God is calling your name.
Italicized “catch up” history adapted from commentary on the text written by Beth Tanner, Professor of Old Testament at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, NJ and posted on www.workingpreacher.org