This week’s reading is here.

Can’t a boy get some sleep?.

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

The story Samuel begins with Hannah’s plight and prayers in 1 Samuel 1 and 2. Hannah’s story is marked by infertility. While we’re not talking about Hannah this year, her story is intertwined with that of her son. Whether or not Samuel is a miraculous birth (like other biblical leaders) could be debated. That Samuel ends up in the temple because of his mother’s bargain with God is not up for debate.

Surely, in some of our congregations, there are women and men who hear this story and cannot think about Samuel without thinking about Hannah. Maybe, happily, theirs is a song of rejoicing in promises (and wombs) fulfilled, just like Hannah’s. Maybe their response is one of bitterness and despair: why doesn’t God grant their desire for a child.

Very few people, in the midst of grief and longing, are able to choke out the words, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Those around them, instead, must be open and patient. It is not good to speak words that are not of God as though they were: “It’s for the best.” “God’s timing is perfect.” “Am I not enough for you [as a spouse/partner/friend/child]?” (The latter was Elkanah’s question to Hannah.)

There is a warning in this story. Do not attribute to God actions which God does not cause, but give thanks for what happens, for prayers fulfilled, and for God’s assurance of presence in all times and at all places.

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

This story seems made for children. A sleepy boy in a big room by himself hears a noise. He runs to his comforter and protector, in this case- Eli. The just-woken man sends the boy back, perhaps gently or maybe gruffly. The little boy trudges back to the big room, the smoky lamp, the shadowy corners. Three times this happens.

Play with the drama of this story. Ask the children in your congregation how they think Samuel felt. How would they feel? What should Eli do? What should Samuel do? Who is talking?!

Finally, the mystery is revealed. Eli thinks the LORD is talking to Samuel. Could it be? Samuel squeaks out his line and, WHOA, it is the LORD speaking to him. How do you think Samuel felt then?

The Lord tells Samuel that he will be an important messenger. This won’t happen someday in the future- after kindergarten or high school or college. This will happen now. Today. Samuel’s first message will be to Eli! (You can skip the specifics of that message to children.)

This is a great lead into a sermon about vocation- not pastoral vocation!- but baptismal vocation. We all have a call from God to let our light shine. Here’s what it looked like for Samuel. Here’s what it could like for others: teachers, coaches, classroom helpers. You can help kids think about the roles in their lives and how God might use them.

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

Was the word of the Lord actually rare (as in not occurring) or believed to be rare because no one was listening? It is established that Eli is no longer the priest he once was and his sons, acting in his stead, are blasphemous. Yet, the Lord is probably not silent.

What is revealed about the nature and character of the Lord in this passage? Someone just coming in this Sunday, and totally unfamiliar with the rest of the Bible, might perceive that the Lord grants and withdraws favors as the Lord chooses. For such “untrained” ears, the good news of the call of Samuel is negated by the “uncall” of Eli.

It’s a painful story for Eli. He’s forced into retirement, by the one who hired him. What happens to a priest who is no longer a priest? A man who was previously privileged with the care of the holies of holies is now shut out from that inner sanctum. Eli will be sent out, into the care of his blasphemous sons and their wives. Will the Lord ever speak to him again? Is there a consolation?

The story of Samuel sets up the narrative that will ultimately be about David. Within this grander story, we will see people come into and fall out of God’s favor (Eli, Saul, Samuel). Yet, ultimately, we will see David prevail as God’s beloved through the way the story is told.

Our culture favors a narrative that success is a sign of blessing and failure is a sign of blessing withheld. The ramifications of what happens to Eli would seem to support that. He can no longer be a good priest because the Lord won’t talk to him. (Ugh. That’s enough to give any pastor indigestion! And stir up sympathy for Eli.)

Most of us would not express our own theological understanding in that way. How do we wrestle with the biblical text that feeds into that dangerous mindset? How do we look at this story, into the depth of pain and reality that is here, and speak truth about God’s abiding nature? How do you make it clear to that first time visitor that you are daring to speak on behalf of a God who is for all people? How do we speak of the gap between real presence and perceived absence?

What’s your sermon idea through which enough faith will be stirred to say,

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” 

9 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Can’t I Sleep Without Someone Talking to Me? (1 Samuel 3:1-20)

  1. great reflections–thanks Julia!
    I have been pondering what it means that Samuel was (to paraphrase) doing ministry but did not know the Lord. I wonder how often we fall into that trap.
    Though now you have me pondering how to address all those older people who feel that the change coming to The Church And The World is leaving them behind.

    One thing I know: we’re going to have to sing Here I Am, Lord.

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  2. I love (I really love) the way Samuel does not –cannot — complete the conversation with God until after he has consulted Eli. And I really, really love the way that Eli, a complete disaster as a priest, knew exactly what to say to Samuel, and how, in the “discernment of his vocation.” I preached it, one time, on how the church and the church-folks have an active role in vocation and formation, it’s not just a tete-a-tete between the candidate and God.

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  3. Julia:
    It is always helpfully disturbing to ponder how “untrained ears” hear our stories and our sermons and I appreciate your pointing out the darker side of this text. It has been easy for me to see that, of course, Eli deserves what he gets here, but does he? He was once a faithful servant of God. He made some mistakes, and wasn’t necessarily Father of the Year material. Maybe neglected his sons too much as he sought to serve the Lord and they fell off the moral wagon. They are angry with God and the church and going to get what they can out of the situation. How many modern P.K.’s could relate?

    Ouch! Now, you are getting personal.

    I will wrestle with this text in a different way, now. Thank you for stirring the pot.

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    1. This is one of the texts often referenced (along with Paul) in some of the PCUSA’s 17th century confessions that state that ability to control one’s children is a trait required of those who seek to be ordained leaders in the church.

      !!!!!!

      So interesting to ponder!

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      1. Ability to control one’s children would have disqualified me, that’s for sure. True story during the search and call process. I had a phone interview with one church as one of their top six candidates that went quite well. One member of the search committee had been unable to participate in a couple of interviews. He called me, unexpectedly at home at about 5:15. He wanted to talk with the finalists (top 3) he had missed prior to the committee scheduling neutral pulpits and final interviews. I had just gotten home with 2 hungry cranky kids, aged 4.5 and 8. The 8 year old has received a diagnosis of bipolar that is pretty serious. His behavior was (is) often quite challenging, esp when hungry. The 4 year old was a hungry 4 year old. Their mother (me) a bit stressed out, trying to be cheerful, friendly, think and speak theologically, etc while keeping my sons relatively quiet. Those of you with kids or dogs probably can guess that trying to keep them quiet only made them loader and wilder. I was increasingly distracted and spoke pretty sharply to my older son at one point. He was threatening his brother and doing something dangerous. Little brother alternated between screaming and provoking big brother. After I spoke sharply to my son, the man said that he had heard all he needed. The next day I received a letter indicating I was a finalist and inviting me to consider two alternate dates. The day after that I received a letter indicating I was no longer being considered. I consider that directly related to my sharp response (after many nice ones) to my son. Related to the inability to control my children, absolutely! Should he have agreed to talk with me even after dinner, when the children would have not been as out of sorts and I would have had another adult present to watch the children while we talked, it might well have had a different result. Might not, but still…

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        1. Ugh, Lynn. I’m so sorry. On the other hand, perhaps this was a place that it would have not been good for you to be. On the other, maybe that’s where God was calling you and human nature intervened. I want to hope the church has moved forward since this time (whenever it was- last week, last year, last century).

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    2. Martin- I like that you have attributed “getting personal” to me, even though you arrived there through your own thoughts. How many times does that happen when people are listening to us preach?

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