Crows Nest Uniting Church
Epiphany 2 • 18 Jan 2015


1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
John 1:35-42


Rev. Chris Udy


‘The word of the Lord
was rare in those days;
visions were not widespread.’
Every time we read
the story of Samuel’s call
that’s the verse that hooks and holds my attention.
There are some who mightn’t agree,
but for many of us
these days also belong to a time
when visions and words from the Lord
are in limited supply.
Terrorist groups
and some political hopefuls or has-beens
might drop God’s name
at regular intervals,
but, for them, the name of God
is wielded in desperate defence
of a world that’s passing away.
When it comes to having vision -
seeing the world as it could be
and describing it in a way
that gives people hope and courage -
that seems very rare.
The visions that we hear about
tend to be negative and divisive,
rather than constructive and positive -
and those who have words from the Lord
are delivering threats and warnings,
not a sense of call or invitation.
 
‘The word of the Lord
was rare in those days;
visions were not widespread.’
That doesn’t mean they were over:
it doesn’t mean
that no-one had a vocation
or that no-one could see a future
they wanted to live in;
there were probably dreams aplenty -
but none of them were big enough,
or clear enough,
or inclusive enough,
to bring the people together,
to fire imagination
and to focus the effort and expectations
of all the other people;
to release them from self-interest and self-preservation
and to work for something better.
 
In Israel this came near the end
of the time when Israel was ruled by judges.
The book of Exodus says
that on their way to the promised land
Moses had attempted both to guide and rule his people -
but he’d been overwhelmed
with their grumbles and complaints
and demands that he settle conflicts and disagreements.
Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro,
told him he needed help,
and advised him to appoint
a group of elders,
who could mediate disputes and provide judgements.
So Moses appointed 70 elders - or judges -
and then he gave them the law,
a written code that set out commandments
to guide both the people and the judges.
After Moses died,
and Joshua led the tribes of Israel
over the Jordan river and into Palestine,
judges continued their work -
not only when there were problems between people,
but also when the people needed to work together,
especially when they went to war
or found they were under attack.
 
Judges tended to emerge and be recognised
rather than being appointed or elected,
and they included people like Deborah,
who was both a judge and a military leader,
and gave her judgements
underneath a palm tree near the village of Ramah.
Gideon was a judge, as also was Samson,
although there are some who might ask questions
about Samson’s judgement.
The judges ruled for about 200 years,
but their leadership was patchy and unfocussed,
and the final verse at the end of the book of judges,
before the book of Ruth was slotted in
to plant a seed of hope for David’s reign,
the final verse reads:
“In those days there was no king in Israel;
everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
 
And that’s where the story of Samuel begins.
Samuel would turn out
to be the last of the judges,
and it would be his calling -
although he wasn’t happy about it at all -
it would be his calling
both to find and anoint
the first king of Israel - King Saul.
Then, while Saul was still alive,
taking a great risk
of political chaos and personal danger,
Samuel anointed another king - King David -
and provided him with frank and fearless advice
in the very best traditions of public service.
But now we’re getting
a long way ahead of our reading.
 
“In those days there was no king in Israel;
everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” and
“The word of the Lord
was rare in those days;
visions were not widespread.”
 
Samuel had been promised to God’s service
by his mother, Hannah,
before he was born.
Like Abraham’s wife, Sarah,
Hannah had been unable to conceive,
and she keenly felt the shame of that condition.
So she had made a deal with God
that if God gave her a son
she would give him back to God as a nazirite -
a person separated and consecrated to God’s service.
Samuel was born a short time after,
and when he was weaned -
so about three -
Hannah took him to Shiloh,
where the Ark of the Covenant was kept
in a shrine to Yahweh -
and she gave her toddler into the care
of Eli the priest and his family.
Eli was a good man,
but he was growing old,
and his sons, who were supposed to succeed him
into the priesthood -
were already causing him problems.
They were “scoundrels”, the text says,
accused of stealing the meat
from sacrificial offerings
and sleeping with the women
who were appointed to serve in the tent
where the people gathered for worship.
So Samuel grew up in a difficult place,
seeing his mother just once a year
when she visited to provide him
with gifts of clothing.
 
Some years later,
when, according to Jewish tradition,
Samuel was about 12,
he woke to hear his name being called -
“Samuel, Samuel”.
As we read today,
he assumed it was Eli calling him,
so he ran in to the room where Eli was sleeping.
“Here I am - you called me.”
Eli assured him he hadn’t called,
and sent him back to lie down
where he’d been beside the ark in the temple.
Samuel did as he’d been told,
but again he heard his name being called,
and again he ran in to Eli,
only to be told to go back and lie down again.
When the call came a third time,
Eli realised something significant was happening,
so he instructed Samuel
to reply to the voice he’d heard:
“Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”
And when Samuel did what Eli taught him
the word of the Lord came to him
and he began his calling and his career
as a lifetime judge and prophet.
 
Unfortunately the first word
Samuel heard from the Lord
was as awkward and dangerous
as almost all the others
he would go on to receive.
We didn’t read it today -
and our lectionary readings never include it -
but God’s first word to Samuel
went like this:
“I am about to do something in Israel
that will make both ears
of everyone who hears about it tingle.
At that time I will carry out against Eli
everything I spoke against his family -
from beginning to end.
I told him that I would judge his family forever
because of the sin he knew about;
his sons blasphemed God,
and he failed to restrain them.
Therefore I swore to the house of Eli,
‘The guilt of Eli’s house
will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’”
 
Understandably, Samuel was reluctant
to pass on to Eli what he’d heard from God.
Instead he lay there, rigid, beside the ark,
until the morning came
and Eli demanded that he tell him what he’d heard.
Samuel then came out with everything,
and Eli’s response
was amazingly gracious and measured:
“It is the Lord” he said,
“Let him do what seems good to him”.
 
It isn’t especially safe or rewarding
to be on the receiving end
of words from the Lord;
maybe that’s why they’d become so rare.
But Samuel and his prophecies
would come to play a pivotal role
in planting a vision
that would see the transformation of Israel
from a loose confederation of tribes
who were as often in conflict with each other
as they were with all the people who lived nearby.
He didn’t want to do it,
but when the leaders of the tribes
came to demand that he find them a king
to lead them in their war with the Philistines,
Samuel made sure that the king they had
was not only a warrior,
but that he would be able to unite them,
to build a new royal city in Jerusalem,
and to lay the foundations
for the golden age of Israel as a nation.
Samuel’s first choice - Saul -
turned out to have problems -
so Samuel took his life in his hands
to anoint the man -
who was then still a shepherd boy -
who would bring the tribes together
and make Israel a nation to be respected.
The problem was that he did it
while King Saul was still alive,
and that’s not the sort of thing
that makes monarchs happy.
 
The word of the Lord, it seems,
doesn’t always lead immediately
to happiness, prosperity and harmony.
The word of the Lord is disturbing;
it subverts the status quo;
it makes the ears of those who hear it tingle,
and it plants a vision that grows
and becomes widespread,
and profoundly changes the way people live
and how they work together.
 
Like many stories we first hear in Sunday School,
the story of Samuel’s call
is not as romantic or straightforward
as it might have appeared when we were younger.
It isn’t about obedience,
or choosing the life of faith from an early age.
Like many of the most significant stories in the Bible
this is a profoundly subversive story.
Samuel’s life was difficult;
he was disconnected at a very early age
from the people who, we’d imagine,
should have kept him with them longer,
and might have been more nurturing and protective.
He was then put in the impossible position
of having to announce -
to the man who’d cared for him and trained him -
that he and his family would soon face retribution.
Thankfully, Eli was a good and gracious man,
or else young Samuel
might have found his prophetic life shortlived -
but not much else that Samuel
believed he was called to do
was easy, or popular, or even apparently successful.
It’s only a generation later,
after some years of heartbreak and bloodshed and toil,
that the words Samuel had heard from the Lord
would bear their fruit in progress,
and that vision of a nation
where people could work for the common good together,
and where everyone, including the king,
was expected to live ethically
and was held to moral account -
it was a generation
before that vision took shape and form -
and, even then, it lasted barely a moment.
First David, and then Solomon,
brought Israel together;
together Israel built Jerusalem,
and then the Temple,
and, for a while, it looked like a sacred state,
a holy nation, a religious empire,
might have fulfilled the vision
God was giving to his people -
but that was just a moment in time -
one stage in the development of God’s people -
and very soon the word of the Lord
was challenging and subverting those
who’d turned that kingdom and that temple
into something corrupted and oppressive.
 
Words from the Lord tend not to give comfort
to those who are in power:
they keep suggesting that things could be better;
they keep speaking up
for people who’ve been pushed to the margins
and have no other hope
than for prophets to emerge and stand alongside them;
they keep holding people accountable
for violence and greed and lies and other pollution;
and they keep planting visions
of a world where people live
with justice and in peace,
and with the chance to grow into
the kind of people
God has always hoped for and intended.
 
“The word of the Lord
was rare in those days;
visions were not widespread.”
 
We could do with a few more Samuels these days -
people who listen carefully
to what’s happening around them
and who have the courage to speak up,
even when they know they’ll face reaction -
people who are committed to a clear vision,
not for their own power or control,
but for the human commonwealth -
for all God’s children together.
We could also do with some Elis -
people who understand
that it’s too late to be seeing everything
in terms of self-interest -
people who can accept
that some of the things
that make us comfortable and settled
are actually doing us, and those who live around us,
serious harm;
people who can see beyond our present troubles
to a different kind of world
and let that vision take root
and grow widespread.
 
“The word of the Lord
was rare in those days;
visions were not widespread.”
So maybe the time has come
for all of us
to listen.