Samuel receives an unlikely call. He has experiences and responsibilities that are disproportionate to the amount of experience and expertise that he possesses. This is a strange, but inspiring story by many counts.
Our story starts with Sam’s to-be parents- Hannah and Elkanah. They have been trying to have a child for years and years. This is what Hannah desires more than anything else. She has felt the pain of infertile parents throughout history and today. In her grief, she goes to the Temple and prays to God for a son. She makes a bargain with God saying, “If you give me a child, I will let you take the child for your own service. The child will work in the Temple for the rest of their life.” A miracle happens and Hannah has a son, Samuel, whose name means “God hears.” Hannah keeps her promise and the boy spends the rest of his life working in the Temple overseeing sacrifices, cleaning up after sacrifices, offering prayers, and other priestly duties.
Hannah has high hopes for her son. She sings a prayer to God and wishes that the child would share in God’s zeal for justice and care. She sings to the God who “raises up the poor from the dust,” who “guards God’s faithful ones,” and who cuts off the wicked.
Sam works for Old Man Eli day after day. Eli has two sons of his own who are a couple of scoundrels. They embezzle the gifts that are offered to God and they sleep with the other employees in the Temple. They are corrupt leaders who have betrayed the trust of their people like so many have done since- like pastors who sleep with their congregants, like CEOs who take exorbitant amounts of money while their employees struggle to make ends meet, like mayors who gladly accept bribes while throwing their city to the wolves.
Sam is now 10 years old. 10 years of watching people come from all over the country to make sacrifices to God. He has watched the hypocrites offer sacrifices to God in the Temple, but refuse to sacrifice for God’s people- the widows, the poor, the stranger. And he has watched the intensely devout selflessly offer more than they can comfortably afford.
Sam knew the ins and outs of his job. He knew who was supposed to sacrifice what and when they were supposed to sacrifice it. He knew how much the priests were supposed to be “paid” from the gifts and how much belonged to God. He knew the stories of God who delivered Sam’s people from the land of Egypt. He knew the psalms of praise and lament that his people had been singing for generations. He knew all these things, but he didn’t know God. He knew about God, but he didn’t know God. God had not yet called him for the difficult work he would be called to do.
After another long day of preparing sacrifices and cleaning up sacrifices, Sam is ready for sleep. He rests his head by the Ark of the Covenant- the container that holds objects that recall God’s lovingkindness to God’s people. The objects of salvation. In it is a vessel containing the manna from heaven that fed his people in the wilderness, the budded staff of his priestly patriarch, Aaron, and the Ten Commandments themselves. This is the place where Sam goes to sleep.
In the middle of the night, Sam is awakened by a voice calling his name, “Samuel! Samuel!” The voice is familiar enough that Sam assumes that it belongs to Eli. Eli didn’t realize that this could be God speaking as the events seemed pretty ordinary. A sleepy boy heard something in the night. The third time this happens, Eli realizes that it might be God. God was calling out to Sam in an ordinary voice. This was not the voice that we read about in Psalm 29– the one that breaks cedars, that flashes like fire, and shakes the wilderness. This is a voice that can be mistaken for the calling of an old man.
God can call God’s people in burning bushes, thunder, and the like, but God also calls in the familiar voices. Those voices that we don’t usually associate with God’s voice. Those voices continue to call God’s people to wake up and proclaim some Good News today.
Sam could not discern this voice of God on his own. He needed the help of Eli, so he could know that this wasn’t the voice of Eli or a dream, but was the voice of God. That gift of relationship continues to serve God’s people. God gave Samuel the wisdom and faithfulness of Eli just as God gives us leaders and friends full of wisdom and faithfulness. Look at the folks in your pew or in another pew. Look at your family, your friends, the saints who have gone before us, and the saints among us. In conversation with them, in prayer to God, in the voices of Scripture we can discern God’s call to bear Good News to the world. To proclaim love and mercy and the end of injustice, sin, and death.
When Sam finally hears God’s message… it isn’t good. God is firing Eli from the priesthood and will never ever hire him or his descendants again. He and his family have been defrocked.
This has two big implications. One, after Eli is fired, Sam will take over. This relatively inexperienced, nervous boy is going to be in charge of maintaining the Temple of God and serving as a judge for God’s people. He is not unlike the young Martin Luther King Jr. who answered a call to lead a dangerous mission for justice despite having little experience in matters of public leadership. Second, Sam is charged with proclaiming God’s desire for justice, how Eli failed to prevent his sons from taking advantage of God and God’s people, and how Eli and his sons were no longer fit to serve in their current positions. Sam had to fire his boss. Talk about awkward.
Sam gets up the next morning and he rushes off to his work a little earlier than usual as he hopes to leave before Eli wakes up. Eli, however, gets up a little earlier than usual and catches Sam by the door. “So what was the big news that God wanted to tell you last night, Sam?” Sam looks down at his feet, “Well… uh… nothing that important I guess. Just stuff.” He avoids confrontation as only a 10-year-old can do. Eli, however, is persistent, “Come on. Just tell me. What kind of ‘stuff?'” Sam doesn’t answer. At this silence, wise, old Eli has an idea that it might not be good news for him. He knows the trouble his boys have been getting in. Eli gets down on his knees and looks Sam in the eye, “You can tell me. I can take it. Even if it is bad.” Sam let’s it all out. He tells Eli about how God is upset with Eli and doesn’t think that Eli is fit to continue leading at the Temple. God has fired Eli and his sons. Somehow, Eli graciously and faithfully accepts this judgment. He knows that he and his family have lost the trust of the people they were supposed to be caring for- God’s people- and that he cannot continue to serve them faithfully. Eli says, “If God thinks that is best for God’s people, then that’s how it has to be.”
This wasn’t the last difficult task that Sam was called to do. He went on to serve as a judge for the people of Israel, to anoint Saul and then David as kings, and advised them to seek out justice and to act with mercy on God’s people. To raise up the poor and guard God’s faithful people as his mother once sang so many years earlier.
Samuel received a surprising call. In the midst of these difficult callings- to fire his boss and father figure, Eli, to take care of God’s people as a judge, to appoint kings, and to continuously urge them to act with justice and mercy- Samuel was faithful to God. But he was faithful to God because God had continued to be faithful to him. God accompanied Samuel on this difficult path as God has accompanied all those who are called to proclaim peace, justice, and the end of oppression. God accompanied Samuel just as God has accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. and as God accompanies us who are pulled by that call to see the world reflect God’s mercy a little bit brighter. It’s a difficult call that stirs us from our sleep, but it is a powerful call that speaks truth to us even as we speak it to others. It is the call to proclaim God’s promise to never forget God’s people.