As we stand on the brink of the inauguration, I find it interesting that the Old Testament lectionary reading for last Sunday tells the story of a power shift for the Israelite nation. The two books of Samuel recount the essential work of the prophet, Samuel, whom God uses to anoint the first of the Israelite kings. The chapters on either side of our passage read like a Harrison Ford script, including the unique powers of the Ark of the Covenant and people who lose their lives for spiritually misbehaving. So strap on whatever protective gear seems appropriate for a Raiders of the Lost Ark story and let’s jump in!
The story starts off with seeming calm. In fact, the lectionary planning committee suggests we only focus on the first ten verses of the story. This is the sweet account of a young boy being called into service by God. How nice. But when we add the next ten verses, which are listed as optional-for-the-brave-of-heart, the tone of the story completely changes! All of us are guilty at some point of paying attention only to a selective narrative. Perhaps it is taught to us. Certainly our life experience shapes it. We get comfortable with it and our view easily narrows. So it takes courage to jump into these 20 verses to see what surfaces for us.
We learn that the priest who ruled over the Israelites was Eli. If you back up a chapter you will learn about his sons. These are not Sunday School lessons to be read at bedtime with your children! Suffice it to say, Eli didn’t do a good job of raising his boys. Young Samuel was given over to Eli’s care as a toddler and somehow the priest raised a fine young man. The scene is set by several descriptions about the spiritual state of their nation. The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread. HOWEVER, the lamp of God had not yet gone out. There is a flicker of hope in an otherwise spiritually dark time.
God calls out to young Samuel who sleeps in the temple while the blind, elderly priest is asleep in his room. Samuel hasn’t yet learned to recognize God’s voice so three times he runs off to Eli, asking him what he wants. Samuel is an obedient child. It takes three times for Eli to realize Who is calling this young man. Even though his sight is diminished and his track record as a father is dismal, Eli recognizes God’s presence. Why does the arrival of God in the Temple surprise this holy man? Had he narrowed his expectations of God’s activity to a selective narrative that didn’t include a power shift? In spite of his tapered view on God’s movement, Eli knows that God is near. He gives Samuel the answer for the next time he hears the voice. Then the old priest drifts back into exhausted sleep. Lawrence Wood writes, “..while Samuel sleeps, God turns out to be delightfully awake.”
The third time God calls out, Samuel has his answer: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
This adolescent boy could have no idea how dangerous it would be to answer God’s call. After assuring God of his attentiveness, God immediately dumps a big secret on him. The bad behavior of Eli’s sons has not gone unnoticed. The norm for leadership succession then and now, in many places, is birth right. Eli’s sons assume they will inherit the mantle of responsibility when their frail father dies. They want to help themselves even more inappropriately to the perks of power. But God has other plans, plans to destroy Eli’s lineage. God will supplant the birthright of Eli’s sons by transferring power to the adopted son who had been dropped at Eli’s door years before. I imagine that went over about as well as Cinderella’s step-sisters learning that she is marrying the Prince! No wonder Samuel found it impossible to fall back asleep after this epiphany! In that moment, Samuel had to grow up fast. Young Samuel had to announce to Eli the charges against his family. Do you know how much courage it takes to listen well and speak words of truth clearly? What if those words God asks you to speak go against the selective narrative of those around you? What if they go against the selective narrative with which you have become so comfortable? This midnight calling is a heavy initiation into his new position as prophet of the Hebrew people. Years later God called into service a man by the name of Jeremiah. God’s mandate to this prophet who never asked for the job was this: “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” Can you imagine the courage it took for Jeremiah to sign the work contract? In 1 Samuel 3 God chooses a boy on the cusp of manhood who must learn the language of the Spirit. He is an outsider to power and doesn’t have a team to promote his agenda. He has questions about his role. His naivete is clearly on display. But we have seen with the birth narratives that questions asked honestly and earnestly of God are welcomed. Questions asked so as to understand the truth launch us on a journey for which we are equipped step by step.
God seems to be excited to share this news: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.” When did your ears last tingle with news that came your way? I witnessed last week how our ears tingled at our Tuesday morning Zoom Bible Study as class members talked about how they had just gotten the COVID vaccination. What good news! With the varied narratives circulating about the ineptitude of the distribution process, what an unexpected gift it was to hear that the light of God has not yet gone out in spite of a hellish year of COVID domination!
Our ears tingled ten days ago when our screens lit up with unimaginable images of an angry mob breaking into the Capitol building, carrying spears, guns and zip ties. The unrest in our country was on display for the world to see. Our ears have tingled with news at so many different moments in the past year. We are exhausted trying to determine a response of faith to these deep lines of division resulting from ardent allegiance to varied selective narratives.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, but only those who see take off their shoes; the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
God is continually breaking into our world to introduce a time of renewal and forgiveness. Even though visions are rare and the word of God is increasingly absent in our culture today, the lamp of God’s light has not completely gone out! I like blackberries but have I missed that heaven is crammed between the prickly branches even more abundantly than the berries? What is it that I really crave: sweet fruit or God’s presence?
I admire Eli for the fact that he commands Samuel to share God’s message, no matter how difficult it might be for him to hear. Though the old priest has been sleeping on the job at times, he accepts that God is in control. When the fullness of God’s narrative goes against our own selective narrative, Eli reminds us that we may be disciplined. If we have been sleeping while on duty for Christ’s Church, we may discover that God has been very much awake and vigilant over our troubled world.
No doubt we approach the inauguration this week with feelings that are quite different from other election years. I am greatly saddened over the deep divisions that often prevent us from seeing each other in our full humanity. I am worried about the threat of violence. I am offended as a follower of Jesus that Truth has become so elusive since so many people claim their selective narrative to be Gospel truth. I am weary of witnessing acts of discrimination that harm individuals and nations. I think of poor Samuel who got much more in his job description than he bargained for. His humility was essential as he entered into the politics of his people on behalf of his God.
We are a people of hope so I do not despair. I wonder who we relate to in this story? Is it Eli, the tired old priest who was surprised when God showed up at church? Is it Samuel, who had to learn the language of the Spirit and yield power over his life to the God who came calling? Is it the sons of Eli who abandoned the moral imperative of their position by grabbing the goods of power for themselves?
Perhaps the crucial question that surfaces for us out of this story is: What shall we say or do when God shows up? Eli’s wisdom lives on. We set aside the selective narrative that has driven our decisions. Like Samuel, we make a humble commitment in the dark: Speak, for your servant is listening.