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Politics of Scripture

Listening to the Call

Listening and responding is a blueprint for us all: it’s amazing and wise to discern God’s leading in the context of community. 

1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” 15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) (NRSVue)

[Editor’s note: This post first appeared on “Politics of Scripture,” January 11, 2021.]

Samuel’s call story is one of those classic call stories in the Bible that we (preachers, teachers, church folks) tend to gravitate toward. Perhaps these stories are loved because call stories remind us that God continues to seek out humanity to help restore the world, or even because we are hoping for guidance to know God’s will so we can discern meaning and live abundantly and productively. Samuel’s call story is powerful because Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice immediately, and instead needs to rely on the help of Eli to identify and interpret God’s call. 

This is also more than just a call story, however. It’s a story about the changing of the guard. It’s a story about an old priest, Eli, who has devoted his entire life in service to the Lord. He has lovingly cared for the temple at Shiloh. While there, he has protected and tended to the tabernacle. He has patiently and faithfully served the Lord and has been listening for years, maybe a lifetime, to hear the voice of God. Despite this lifetime of service, as far as the biblical stories tell us, Eli has never heard God speak to him. Still, Eli has the wisdom to recognize that Samuel experiences God’s call and advises Samuel on what to do. 

When thinking about the key figures in Samuel’s call story, I can’t help but think: what could have happened if Samuel hadn’t asked Eli for guidance? The role of Eli in the story should not go unnoticed, as it offers us wisdom and insight into the role of others in identifying, accepting, and supporting our own efforts and work in greater society. 

In this text Israel begins its journey of transformation from a political system run by judges into a monarchy. The United States has a very different political system than ancient Israel: the US is a representative democracy. By definition, this system is dependent upon the voices of its citizens. The very act of listening intently and actively is of immeasurable value in a democracy that was meant to be written by the people, and for the people. 

Similarly to how Samuel relied on Eli, the elected officials of the United States government, by design, are required to rely on the citizens for wisdom and experience to what the country needs. The citizens speak, telling their officials, “This is how we live every day and what we have personally dealt with.”

In my reading of this week’s lectionary text, I see the elected officials as akin to Samuel, who recognizes the authority and reliability of Eli. The constituents, then, bear some similarity to Eli in the sense that they draw on their lived experience to guide their elected officials.

To numerous Americans, however, it often feels like while many of the elected officials should be listening as Samuel did, they are instead pursuing their own interests. Additionally, it can feel like many elected officials don’t quite understand the effect hardships (i.e. a global pandemic) can have on financial stability or emotional well-being. Throughout this global pandemic, Americans have stated that they need relief, as 40% of them noted that someone in their household lost their job or income due to COVID-19. Also, in December 2020 two-thirds of Americans said the federal government hadn’t provided enough economic support in response to the economic fallout from the pandemic. The relief bill recently passed by the Senate was a scaled down version, compared to the CARES Act, which was passed earlier in 2020. These constituents have the lived experience to know what they need to survive and thrive in US society. While the government did act, they did so at the last possible moment, before thousands of Americans would have faced homelessness due to the impending expiration of the eviction prohibition. It’s apparent that many representatives are not listening to the needs of their constituents. 

In this week’s lectionary text, there is a very different outcome for Israel because Samuel chooses to listen to the wisdom of Eli. At the time Samuel hears God’s call for the first time, Eli’s life is coming to a close. The writer of the book says that Eli’s eyes had grown weak; literally he was unable to see, but he still guarded the ark with his life. It’s a story of transition, but it’s also a call story, as well as a story about Eli helping Samuel to hear this call. 

At the time of Eli and Samuel, Israel was not a unified country. The end of the book of Judges details a time when tribes were fighting. Specifically, the text reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). In this text, with no one to guide them, people turned to their own wisdom rather than looking to the guidance of leaders. Indeed, their leaders were not reliable. Given the recent storming of the US Capitol by armed insurrectionists, it’s become apparent that not all of the US leaders are reliable, either.

The writer of Samuel tells us that something happened which intervenes in this process: a prayer. A really simple prayer from Hannah, who tells God “if I have a son, I’ll dedicate him to your service” (1 Samuel 1:11). 

God responds favorably to her prayer: Hannah has a child. After Samuel is born, she has a decision to make: does she forget her promise to God, or does she give Samuel to the Temple priests as a servant? The story tells us she keeps her promise, and Samuel is at the temple the night he hears God call him. 

Our text begins when Samuel goes to bed. I imagine his eyes were just beginning to close when he hears God’s voice say,  “Samuel…Samuel” (1 Samuel 3:4). 

“Eli I’m here! What do you need?” is Samuel’s reply (3:5). 

Eli says plainly to Samuel, “I didn’t call you. Go back to bed and go back to sleep” (3:5). 

After the third instance, Samuel dashes out of bed running to Eli, shouting, “Eli, I’m coming! What can I do?” (3:8). 

It’s in this moment that Eli realizes what is happening: Samuel is hearing a voice that Eli has never heard. Instead of ignoring and pushing Samuel aside, lying to him about the voice, or doing something else that might potentially obstruct Samuel hearing God’s call, Eli responds by offering guidance that changes the course of Samuel’s life: “If you hear that voice again say, ‘Speak Lord your servant is listening’” (3:9).

More importantly, Samuel heeds this advice and allows his life to be changed. As the story goes, Samuel lies down and sure enough, the voice spoke again a fourth time: “Samuel…Samuel.” And this time, Samuel replies, “Speak, Lord your servant is listening” (3:10). 

Not only did Samuel listen, Samuel heard and chose to respond to what he heard. He was willing to share the truth that he now knew with Eli. Listening and responding is a blueprint for us all: it’s amazing and wise to discern God’s leading in the context of community. 

In the eleventh verse, the whole emphasis of the call shifts to something very different, from God’s “call”, to God’s “promise”. It’s a promise directed at Samuel specifically, which nonetheless resonates down to each of us here today. 

The next words that God speaks to Samuel is a statement from God about what God is going to do: “I’m about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear tingle” (3:11). I imagine it’s the kind of tingle that ignites a funny feeling up your spine, like when trumpets blare at the beginning of a song. In this powerful statement, God relays the truth to Samuel, a truth that is out of the ordinary, challenging, and one that Samuel will speak for all to hear. God makes it clear to Samuel that people will listen to him. 

So, a remarkable series of events unfold in this call story. God calls out to Samuel multiple times without a response. Samuel, hearing this voice for the first time, does not have the experience to understand. Eli offers wise counsel and support to Samuel, and Samuel listens. I imagine a very different outcome if Samuel hadn’t listened to Eli’s advice on how to answer God. 

Given the lack of response from many of the elected officials in the US Congress to the needs of their constituents as a result of the COVD-19 pandemic, it often feels as if this is the very scenario Americans are experiencing.

Without guidance and a transition to policies that acknowledge the deficits of the policies the country has in place, Americans are all left helpless and unable to move their country forward. The voice of the people cannot speak, hear, or do anything, because many representatives of the people are actually not listening to their needs. The people are in need of leaders and elected officials who are reliable and willing to help. 

Similarly, at the beginning of Samuel’s call story, Israel is in need of a strong, reliable leader. With the guidance and wisdom of Eli, Samuel begins the long process to move Israel to a unified monarchy. Samuel hasn’t lived as long as Eli and doesn’t have the same experience or knowledge. Samuel is responsible for recognizing Eli’s wisdom in acknowledging God’s call and listening. 

Here in the United States, we have a long way to go. But the good news is, God doesn’t give up on people, even if the elected officials stop listening. There are still justice doers and seekers who continue to strive for goodness and mercy and righteousness in the United States every day.  

Samuel’s call story is powerful because he doesn’t recognize the voice of God and relies on the wisdom of others. Imagine how much good the elected officials could do if they truly listened to the guidance of the ones who know and understand what it’s like to live in the United States better than anyone.

The voice behind the call provides an avenue for God to continue to move in the world, if only we, constituents and elected officials alike, take the time to listen.

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