The first reading this morning tells the story of the calling of the prophet Samuel. It’s a great story:
For years, a man named Elkanah had travelled from the hill country where he lived into Shiloh, one of the places considered sacred by ancient Israel, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was stored, and the place where Eli was the local priest.
Elkhanah had two wives (a common custom of the time), and one of them (named Peninah) was bearing children, but the other (Hannah) was not. Peninah was making life extremely difficult for Hannah, mocking and insulting her for not being able to bear children. In a society that placed a very high value on child-bearing and family, Hannah would have been seen by many as a freak, a liability, and second-class citizen.
So, desperate for validation as a woman and as a member of the community, Hannah went on her own to the temple, and prayed fervently to God for a child, so fervently that Eli the priest thought she was drunk and reprimanded her. She was not drunk, but her faithful hope resulted in a child, Samuel, whom she had agreed (should the miracle of childbirth occur) to dedicate to God.
Marc Chagall, Hannah Prays to the Lord
Like Jesus, Samuel was a child whose birth was seen as a direct gift from God. Samuel’s mother Hannah was a good woman who had suffered much abuse and misunderstanding because she had not borne a child in the conventional way. When we speak of women as long-suffering, this is a story that illustrates it. Hannah’s song celebrating the birth of Samuel (see 1 Samuel 2) is one of great joy and gratitude – the joy of being vindicated by God, and delivered from the cruelties of those who mock and bully us.
In the passage we read this morning, it is now some years later, and the young Samuel, the “miracle child” dedicated to God, is serving in the temple at Shiloh, and Eli, now described as a very old man, is still the priest.
Eli’s inability to tell whether Hannah was praying or drunk is a sign of his lack of spiritual insight, wisdom and sensitivity. The reality of the day is further described when today’s text says: “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Eli’s dimness of eyesight becomes a metaphor of the spiritual condition of the people of Israel of the time, a condition that priests like Eli helped to create.
Old Eli is a has-been who has been ineffective in maintaining the priorities and principles of the temple (again, it brings to mind the story of Jesus, who confronted the temple authorities many years later). His sons are thoroughly entitled and have become corrupt and self-serving, stealing from the offerings people made at the temple, and taking advantage of the women. Eli recognizes the behaviours as evil, but takes no real steps to put a stop to the behaviour (1Samuel 2:23—25).
He is asleep when God calls, a reminder that he is unconscious and unaware even while great things are happening around him. It is another scathing comment about the low quality of Israel’s spiritual life at the time.
There are inevitably going to be times in our lives when we personally feel disconnected from God – even Mother Teresa experienced this. This story describes a time when the whole community was disconnected. The people continued going through the motions, but the deeper significance and vitality had been lost; it was a time when there was no one you could turn to for guidance. The younger generation, represented by Eli’s sons, has lost interest in religious practice, refusing to take up the torch and has instead become focused on material things – sound familiar at all?
Eli symbolizes the fact that sometimes things get old and beyond fixing and need to be replaced. After a long time we can forget – we can lose track of what we’re really doing here. We can get disoriented – turned away from God and toward our self so it simply becomes a matter of walking through old routines, like Eli, making sure the candles are lit at the right time, the doors secured safely, and the offerings coming in.
As Meister Eckhart said, “The essence of God is birthing.” The birth and call of this boy Samuel represents the way God breaks in with something new and fresh, bringing new life to what is old and tired and obsolete. He represents a break with the past, and the dawning of a new era in which people would be tuned in and attentive to God.
One of the obvious themes in the readings today is that God calls – God communicates. So you could say that life is about call and response, establishing the deeper dialogue, the conversation at the heart of things that we call the Word – learning to recognize the Word, understand the Word, and most importantly, to respond to the Word in faithful action.
The voice of the Lord, when it breaks through, is a creative force, bringing great things into being. In this reading from 1Samuel 3, we see young Samuel learning to identify the voice, distinguishing between the voice of God and merely human voices.
The story acknowledges that it is difficult to discern the voice of God, even at the best of times — even in the context of the temple in the vicinity of the Ark of the Covenant. Add in TV, radio, the internet, constant twitter feeds and so on, and the conditions get much more complicated and confusing.
If the essence of the spiritual life is about becoming open to God’s activity in our lives, what voices are we hearing? The harsh voice of Peninah, the one that mocked and humiliated Hannah, is the kind of voice that bullies and diminishes people, making us feel we’re not good enough. That voice made it more difficult for Hannah to conceive, and makes it more difficult for people in general to realize their potential. We are used to hearing the strident voices of people like Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins, completely dismissing the reality of God and the value of faith, which can demoralize believers and make them think life is meaningless and there’s no point in turning toward God. We are used to hearing the angry, threatening voices of terrorists, dividing people and making them fearful, making it sound like our society, and indeed Western civilization, is a lost cause. We are used to the voices of singers and music videos that celebrate violence and hatred, much of it directed toward women and people in authority, making us think that the way of compassion and peace is ineffective and useless. There are also the voices of hubris, that tell us that life is all about self-indulgence, that the secret to happiness is within reach as long as you buy this product or try this latest diet – voices that tell us that our self-esteem is an end in itself. We are also used to hearing the voices of those cynics who try to convince us that the church is full of hypocrites, tempting us to think we can serve God better on the tennis court or at Walmart than by going to church.
If you think about it, in the course of each and every day, we hear a lot of voices, and we hear so many unhelpful, misleading and discouraging ones! It is so important to listen for and hear the right voices – the ones that are life-giving and affirming and encouraging; the ones that offer hope and possibility; the ones that offer both affirmation and truth.
What voices are we missing? What voices are being drowned out in the noise of our world? Perhaps the voices of those who are suffering at the hands of oppressors; perhaps the voices of the poor; perhaps the voice of the earth – the birds, the rivers, the soil; perhaps the voices of children; perhaps the voice that is calling the Church to greater faithfulness and unity. This reading makes it clear that one of the greatest priorities for anyone who wishes to serve God is the willingness and ability to listen – to listen deeply.
What is required is revealed in the person of Samuel: time and silence, space and solitude; a youthful openness or receptiveness; the willingness to take Jesus’ advice to become childlike (what some would call “the beginner’s mind”), especially in the sense of not being cynical and no longer willing to listen for the word of God.
People today are gradually, intuitively, instinctively stumbling back to this temple within – the place of still waters in which we can learn to hear God’s Word simply by being still and allowing ourselves to become present to the One who is always near us. That way continues to open up to us as we learn how to meditate and pray contemplatively.
And then, having made time and space and inner silence for the Word, it’s a matter of what you choose to do with it. We might think here of Nathaniel sitting by himself under a tree (as we read in today’s Gospel reading). Suddenly Christ becomes present to him, and Nathaniel’s response is to get up and become an active follower of the way of Jesus. This is the difference between being at church as an end in itself, and seeing the church as a place where we purposely open ourselves to God and experience transformation. Discipleship is not a passive thing.
None of us is perfect and a lot of us (myself included, no doubt) are more like old Eli than we would want to admit, but the story of Samuel is as relevant today as it was then, pointing us in the direction of a spiritual renewal that can change the nature not only of the Church but of our whole society.
As in Samuel’s time, the lamp of the Lord has not yet gone out – darkness has not taken over. In fact, there are signs that we might be on the verge of a great spiritual renewal. The name Samuel means “God hears,” or, “God is listening.” Out of one oppressed woman’s desperate and heart-felt voice crying for help came a change that would impact all of Israel. God responded to Hannah’s prayer with a child, a child who ushered in a new era that left the old ways behind and enabled a huge step into unknown territory. Isn’t that what we just celebrated at Christmas?
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
1 Samuel 3:1-10 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 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. Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and 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. The 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.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. The 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. Therefore 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. Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
1 Corinthians 6:12-20 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
John 1:43-51 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”