Sunday, June 2, 2024

Moments of Redemption

  1 Samuel 3:1-20

I wish someone would make a mini-series about Samuel’s life. It would open with this scene of the voice calling to the boy Samuel, and flow forward to all world-shifting drama Samuel will be in the dead center of: war, oppression, sweeping tragedy and great triumph, battles and brutality, victories and defeat, the Philistines’ capture of the Ark of the Covenant – the most sacred object of God, containing the ten commandments, Aaron’s staff and a bowl of manna—and after enduring horrific curses, their hasty return of it.  The little boy Samuel will grow up to become to the people of Israel judge, prophet and priest -converging these distinct roles in a single person as Israel becomes a monarchy. He’ll appoint Israel’s first king, the mighty, handsome warrior Saul, who ends up egotistical, self-serving and eventually going mad, and then sneakily anointing the youngest, backwoods, nobody, poet, shepherd kid to take his place who turns out to be King David. For the rest of his days, no matter who is in charge, Samuel will remain God’s spokesperson in Israel.

This child here in the temple, on the cusp of his first, unfortunate prophesy, will become the key figure that holds Israel to its identity. It would be something to watch, really gripping TV.


But the story would be punctuated with flashbacks too. Why is this child sleeping by himself in the temple near the Ark of the Covenant? Why is he being cared for by an elderly priest and not at home with his family? In one scene, we’ll see his mother arrive in the temple from afar, an annual pilgrimage, She’ll hug him close, give him a beautiful new robe she’s made him—she seems to love him fiercely. But then she’ll leave again. The next year she’ll return with another handmade robe and a passel of younger siblings he hardly knows. But here he sleeps, alone. 


And then we’ll understand, a few episodes in, when we see this same spot where he is lying now, curled up on a mat with a blanket, years earlier. There his own mother lay in a distraught heap, sobbing, begging God for a miracle, promising that if God finally gave her a child, she would dedicate him to serve God his whole life. Eli the priest found her there, and told her God had heard her cries.  


Three or four years later, she returned to the temple, to this priest that had seen her in her distress. This time she brought her young son and handed him over to Eli for care and instruction.  And then Hannah sang one of scripture’s handful of epic, prophetic songs of praise for God’s faithfulness, a song that harkens back to Miriam on the banks of the Red Sea when the Egyptians were defeated and God delivered the Israelites from slavery, and forward to Mary when Elizabeth recognizes she is carrying the Messiah who will deliver us all from death. 


We’d need to do justice to Hannah’s song, so our mini-series would probably need to be a musical - or an opera! – and here would build a swelling orchestral, triumphant and poignant emphasis on the surprising coexistence of her great sacrifice and her overwhelming gratitude, as she released what she most wanted in all the world and recognized God’s unshakeable hand at work in the world, the way her son will too one day. 


At the end of the song, of course we’d have to zoom in on little Sam, who would probably be sitting on the floor in this same spot he sleeps now, perhaps balancing a carved, wooden sheep on his knee and softly baaing, oblivious to all that’s about to happen to him or through him. He’d look so cute, and ordinary, that we’d scarcely believe this kid will become one greatest prophets in all Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


But the really, juicy interesting parts of the show, I suspect, would be around the priest Eli. Eli, who didn’t plan to raise this boy but ended up doing so. Eli, who had already raised two, extremely disappointing sons.  He’s a good priest but a lax father, and his sons have become thugs, mafioso types, blustering bullies. The bible actually calls them “scoundrels who had no regard for the Lord or the duties of the priests to the people.” Instead of serving God and caring for the people, they take what they want from whomever they want and make a mockery of God, stealing, abusing women, and demanding people’s meat sacrifices in the temple be served to them instead of offered to God. Eli begs them to repent, but they don’t listen to him. 

These sons are the great sorrow of his pained and troubled heart, and he has been warned by an unnamed prophet that God is not happy, and his sons will die on the same day as each other, and instead of Eli’s household, a different great priest will arise to lead the people.


And so, we return to the evening in question. 

Little Samuel is sound asleep near the sacred vessel of God’s power and presence, and then God calls him by name. Samuel? Samuel? 

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days, and visions were not widespread,” we’re told. And yet, YHWH speaks. And not to a great leader, but to a child, an adoring mother’s grateful sacrifice, a regretful priest’s young “padawan.”   


Three times the voice awakens him, three times Samuel runs into Eli’s room and shakes the priest awake, “Here I am, did you call me, Eli?” And twice Eli sends him back to bed. 

But the third time – (“though his eyesight had gone dim”, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out”) - Eli perceives what is happening.  “Samuel,” it says, “did not yet know the Lord,” but Eli did, and he sensed that the God of Adam, Abraham, Miriam and Moses, and the boy’s faithful mother, Hannah, was summoning the child. So, he tells little Sammy, “If it happens again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’


God calls again and Samuel answers, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’ And God launches Samuel’s prophesy career then and there, with a real corker, one that, we’re told, will make BOTH ears of whoever hears of it tingle!  Samuel is to tell his dear teacher and guide that God plans to punish his household and wipe out his line because his sons are evil and he’s done nothing to stop them.

The poor child doesn’t sleep a wink. 


When Eli greets him in the morning and asks what God said last night, Sam’s afraid to tell him. But here is Eli’s great, redemptive moment. Here he steps into his own obedience as priest, surrogate father, and shaper of a prophet.  From humility and his awareness both of who God is and who this young child might turn out to be, Eli says two things. First, he says, “No matter what, however bad it is, you must tell me, Samuel, or may whatever it is happen to you.”  And, then, after Samuel shares the terrible vision, Eli answers, “God is God. Let God do as he sees fit.” 


 The very next words are, “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel…knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.”


For the remainder of his life and beyond, Samuel will continue to listen for the voice of God and obey – even if he feels annoyed about it, or if doing so puts him at risk, he will guide the people of God through turbulent times. And he will raise two untrustworthy sons of his own and suffer a similar disappointment to Eli. He’ll have a great retirement party and then get reluctantly yanked back on duty. And even after he’s dead, he’ll be conjured back to predict the outcome of a battle and make the on-his-way-out King Saul dearly regret having summoned his cranky ghost.


But on this evening, when God calls to Samuel and he awakens to the call of God on his life, the boy can know none of these things, and neither can those whose lives and futures he will have a hand in shaping. 


But one person does sense what is coming, and chooses to accept and join in, even if it’s not the way he would have wanted it to be. One person does recognize the hand of God at work, even if God’s voice doesn’t come to him. 


So here’s where our mini-series would have a little twist.  

While our show will be ostensibly, and truly, about Samuel, it’s really about God working through it all, the lives of every one of them, and we would probably be surprised to see it most in Eli. 


We’ve been talking about receiving our lives, what is, what’s difficult, what God is doing, what will be, and today we’re talking about receiving what God has already done.  That is to say, God is redeeming this world because God has already determined that this life and everyone in it exists for the love and belonging God embodied in Christ Jesus. God has already reconciled the world to Godself in Christ. God has called good God’s wildly diverse and harmonious creation, and God has condemned what defiles and dehumanizes, what divides and destroys.


 Redemption begins in judgment; resurrection starts in death. God’s word speaks this judgement into the world. The judgment of God is just and can be trusted. Because God's judgment is rooted in the love that breathed this world into being and summons all in love back to the Creator. So, God will always judge good and evil, and condemn that which violates the belonging of people to God or one another. And God took it all into the heart of God when Jesus breathed his last and death seemed to have won. And then, in resurrection, the power of death to destroy and divide was broken, and love will be the final word over it all. God’s judgment is God’s grace. God’s judgment puts death to death and raises all to life.


Eli receives God’s judgment spoken through the child Samuel. Even while Samuel is afraid to speak it, Eli recognizes God’s judgment is coming, and knows it is true and right. Heartbreaking, no doubt, but just and good, necessary even. He recognizes in this moment, watching what is happening with this boy, that his own leadership is ending, and God is doing a new thing, through this child. And he sees that God is giving him the chance to participate, still. Always. God is inviting Eli to share in redemption, his own redemption, the ongoing redemption of Israel, by raising this boy to listen for the word of God, and by encouraging him to speak it, as frightening as it may be, to stand up and speak out God’s word of judgment and God’s word of hope.


Later on, little Samuel’s first prophesy will come true. In the terrible battle when Israel is brutally defeated, and the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant, both Eli’s sons will be among the dead that day.  And Eli, then 98 years old, waiting at the gate of the city for news of the battle, will accept word of his sons with resignation, but when he hears about the Ark, he will cry out and fall backwards, break his neck, and die.  


And on the surface his story will have ended tragically. But the story is more than the surface glance, and Eli participated in God’s redemption all along. After the death of what his life was to be, he was resurrected into his purpose. He taught the great prophet Samuel to say, Speak Lord, your Servant is Listening. He recognized the voice of God calling to the boy, and accepted the judgment of God speaking through him.  Eli encouraged Samuel to speak what is true, to love God above all else and to care for God’s people.  

And it began this evening, this moment.


What God is doing is far beyond what we can see or know in any one moment. It includes the faith and the failings of all those gone before, and weaves us into a narrative that reaches beyond time.  While kings and nations rise and fall, mothers sacrifice and fathers sorrow, courage and trust weave through ordinary lives, God’s judgment and grace hold us all. And God does not waver in redeeming this beloved world, and drawing us all into the project.


God meets us in death and brings life. There is nothing that qualifies us to join in this redemption except our humility and our willingness to learn to say, Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.



 Read previous sermons about Hannah and Samuel

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