The story of Samuel, who was known by reputation as the last great judge of Israel, started auspiciously at the moment of his birth. Samuel was one of those Bible miracle babies, conceived years after his mother assumed she would live a lifetime of infertility. I guess it’s fair to say, actually, that Samuel’s story began with the story of his mother, Hannah. Hannah who prayed and wept over and over again for a son, promised God that if she were to bear a son she would dedicate him to God’s service.
And when Samuel was finally born, Hannah kept her promise. She sent her son off to the city of Shiloh and entrusted his care to Eli, an aging priest. In turn, Eli kept up his part of the bargain by enlisting Samuel to help around the temple doing various odd jobs.
Back in those days, the city of Shiloh where Eli lived was infamous for its seedy underbelly. It was the kind of city where you would walk into the temple and squeeze your wallet tightly in your hands when you folded them together to pray. Ironically, part of Shiloh’s character as a city was earned on the exploits of Eli’s two sons, whom the Bible labels as “scoundrels.”
If someone walked into the temple with an offering of sacrificial meat, for example, Eli’s two sons would pull the meat right out of the ceremonial bowl and eat heartily. As a result, over time Eli’s two sons grew content living off the sacrifices of others, stealing from the temple, and justifying their behavior because their father was a priest. In today’s world, we would call Eli’s son’s children of privilege, in the worst sense of the word.
Things reached a low point when Eli’s sons grew tired of eating boiled meat in the temple and they started to strong arm people for their meat before it was cooked. That way the sons could have personal chefs roast the meat to their own satisfaction. When word of his son’s behavior filtered back to Eli, Eli was horrified and embarrassed. But instead of confronting his offspring, Eli decided to let their behavior slide in the hopes that it would improve over time.
For years, Eli’s way of coping with his sons was effectively to do nothing. And now by the time we meet Eli in today’s story, he’s described as an old man who lost most of his eyesight and who spent day and night confined largely to his bed. By this point he had minimal focus and minimal energy…not to mention little motivation and not much left to live for.
To be sure the Bible is filled with older people who had plenty of courage and charisma and drive. But not Eli. In his old age, Eli became complacent. He was tired and worn out and unwilling to stand up for what was right. As today’s Scripture lesson puts it, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Overall, these were bleak, dreary days in the Bible and Eli’s apathy was a prime example of a culture where many were passive and had simply thrown in the towel.
I love the beginning words in this morning’s third verse, however. Times were tough and the people were tame and subdued. Meanwhile it was nighttime and Eli and his two nasty older sons and the boy Samuel were all asleep in the sanctuary of the temple. The dawn was still a few hours away. Yet according to Scripture, “The lamp of God had not yet gone out.”
Talk about the kind of devotional phrase you and I could repeat to ourselves every day as a reminder. The lamp of God had not yet gone out. Yes, the city of Shiloh was awash in unsavory activity, but there was still a light on in that sanctuary. The people were full of wickedness and injustice, but there was a lamp still burning. God’s light meant there was still a flicker of hope. There was still a faint chance.
With God, there is always a “not yet.” Thankfully. What’s more, this story helps us remember that sometimes it’s precisely those moments when human beings stop talking that God opens God’s mouth to speak.
Why God chose to break the long, dreary, widespread silence by talking to a boy in pajamas is something you and I will never know. There is often no accounting for why God does what God does. And there’s certainly no obvious reason why God would call out to a child in this story. The only thing we know to be true is that when God calls, God expects human beings to answer.
“Samuel, Samuel.” Being fast asleep, Samuel had no idea who was calling him. On the other hand, Samuel was accustomed to being called, even at all hours of the night. Such is the life of an apprentice…when someone calls and wants something, you respond.
Logically, Samuel assumed it was Eli who wanted him. So twice he showed up at the foot of Eli’s bed, only to have a drowsy Eli send Samuel back to his own room. But the third time Samuel came into Eli’s room, it was different. Eli may have lost something on his fastball, but the third time around he knew enough to trust that God was the one speaking. And lo and behold, Eli woke up and mustered up just enough energy and wisdom to teach Samuel how to respond to God’s call.
The words Eli taught Samuel were in many ways the boldest thing a human being could ever say in response to God’s voice. “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And when Samuel said those very words back to God, God spelled out God’s agenda.
It turns out God had some harsh things to say to Samuel about Eli’s indifference and the wickedness of his family members. God told Samuel that things were about to change in the city of Shiloh. Actually, God was getting ready to change the mindset and the culture across all of Israel. And all that started in the middle of the night when Samuel paid attention.
Thousands of years later, we find ourselves in the same kind of place as Samuel long ago. Wondering what word God has for us? What is God calling you and me and Wapping Community Church to do going forward?
Looking into the future, there’s a lot we don’t know yet. We don’t know what this church or the Christian church universal will look like in the next ten years or twenty years. We don’t know down the road how people will choose to spend their time or their energy or their money and what kind of faith communities they might invest in. We’re not even sure where faith will fit as part our societal landscape.
But there is one thing we do know. Once upon a time God came to a small boy fast asleep in the middle of the night. And God spoke a word to that child, despite the fact that little boy appeared totally unlikely to make a difference in the world. Nevertheless, the moment the boy listened and then responded to God, God drew a new line in the sand. God marked the beginning of a dramatic about face. And together with God’s people, God began to shape a better, more just, less painful world…
I’ve heard a few of you say to me recently that there are people you miss seeing here in worship at Wapping Community Church. I’ve heard a number of you lament how much harder it is to find people to volunteer for various boards and church projects and programs than it used to be. I’ve heard some of you waxing nostalgic about the way the church used to be.
But instead of getting bogged down in our own idealized, human version of what this church is supposed to be and what we’re supposed to look like and how we’re supposed to feel together, now is the time for keeping it simple. There’s only one thing this church and all of us really need to do. We need to listen.
God needs us to listen. And you and I need to teach each other to answer, “Go ahead, God, and speak…we’re paying attention.” Even if it seems like God has other things to do than call out to all of us at Wapping Community Church. Even if some of us are feeling tired and worn out. Can we be like Samuel who responded in the middle of the night with eager clarity? “Speak, God, we are listening.”
No, we don’t know exactly what lays ahead for Wapping Community church. But rest assured there is something next. With God there always is. Until then God’s light here at Wapping Community Church is still burning. God’s lamp is shining here in this church building. God is not yet done with this church or the Christian church universal. Not by a longshot.
In the meantime, the good news is we don’t need to know every little thing about what is in store for us. We only need to know one big, important, necessary thing. It is the most dangerous, the most daring, the most life-changing thing any of us can say.
“Go on, God. Go ahead and tell us. We’re all ears. Talk to us and give us the word. We’re listening. We’re listening.
Yes, we are listening… Amen.
NOTE: Inspiration for this sermon came from a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Mary Luti. Dr. Luti’s sermon, entitled “Go On, God, Talk. We’re Listening,” was preached at Charles Street AME Church on January 18, 2015