Do you think Eli just wanted five more minutes of sleep, or at least peace and quiet? Rest, after all, is hard to come by. Studies consistently show that very few of us get the suggested seven or eight hours at night, and for a variety of reasons, much of that becomes interrupted. So perhaps Eli just wanted a moment to collect himself before another day in the temple; another day of endless questions from the young Samuel; another day of wondering where God was in the midst of it all. His eyesight had grown dim, which we might read as a sign of aging, yes, but also a sense that the priest’s theological vision and faith might be waning as well.
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” begins our story. It was a quiet, somber time for God’s people that followed a difficult cycle which we read about in Judges. Throughout that book we hear the refrain “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” God would send the people a judge to correct their ways, and the people would comply, only to eventually falling back into doing whatever they wanted to, prompting God to send yet another judge. They have taken matters into their own hands, taking things where they could get them and essentially ignoring all that God had set before them for ways of living in covenant relationship. Later verses will reveal that Eli’s own sons have abused their positions as priests, committing some pretty heinous sins, including stealing from the offerings and sleeping with women like Hannah who had come to worship God at the tent of meeting.
The picture is fairly bleak, and understandably so the people are cynical, and may have even wondered if God had fallen asleep on them. The narrative grinds to a halt just before our text, with the slow stillness of silence. The people of God have fallen asleep, far from an engaged relationship with the divine.
In 1819, Washington Irving published what has become an iconic short story about “Rip Van Winkle.” It is set in the years before and after the Revolutionary War in a small village at the foot of New York’s Catskill Mountains. The title character is loved, but lazy. He avoids the hard work, so much so that one day he wanders into the mountains and encounters an odd group of old men. He drinks some of what they have to offers, and falls asleep. For twenty years.
A long nap sure is tempting, isn’t it? In these cold winter months, sleeping in is quite the tempting offer. We want to remain comfortable, and so we burrow deeper under our covers where it is warm and cozy. But when applied to our spiritual lives, this proves to be a troublesome metaphor for living. As Commentator Lawrence Wood notes:
We are sleeping. We do not fully sense the divinity around us. Exhaustion has so dulled our hearts, minds, and souls that we can work all day in the temple but never hear God[i].
There are so many draining things in our lives that it is easy to become fatigued and weary. When the world gets heavy, so do our theological eyelids. It can become harder and harder to see God in our midst. We may even turn to other sources for answers. When all seems at a dead end, we resign ourselves to dormancy and sleep. This is the position of Eli, and perhaps other priests in today’s text. They are asleep, and because of this they almost miss the rise of a new day. Fortunately, there is an early bird in their midst.
Samuel, the long awaited and prayed for child from a faithful woman named Hannah, has been dedicated to a life in the temple. We don’t know his exact age, only that he is a young boy, ministering to the Lord. It seems he is not so deep into his sleep that he is unable to be stirred. He hears a voice calling his name. And he responds. Except it isn’t the voice of Eli like he would expect, and so he is sent back to his slumbers. The voice calls again. Again Samuel comes. Again he is dismissed.
A lot can be missed if you stay asleep long enough. After twenty years Rip Van Winkle woke up and discovered that everything had changed, from his appearance to the town. An entire revolution has come and gone, and Rip has missed all of it. Can you imagine missing something as big as this? And yet, we too are at risk of losing sight ourselves of the transformation God is doing in the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offers powerful reflections on this story in a sermon he delivered at the National Cathedral almost exactly fifty years ago. He noted:
one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution[ii].
As it turns out in this text, God is not sleeping. Far from it. God is about to embark on a radical new way of interacting with God’s people. God is preparing to send them a king to lead and guide them. And God’s voice will not be silenced or ignored. It comes again, surer than the snooze button on your alarm clock, and Samuel is awake. This third time, Eli finally clicks in. It’s the voice of God. Suddenly, everything changes. Eli gives Samuel a response that will shape the course of his future, “speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” The time to sleep has ended.
There is a raved about alarm clock among parents of young children. It’s called the “ok to wake clock.” Essentially, it is a clock to help little ones stay in their room until the right time in the morning, and for ones who can’t yet read the clock, it gives a color cue, turning green when the time comes. Then the child knows that it’s ok to wake up. Our text for this morning should be our “ok to wake” cue to listen to the calls God is placing on our lives.
As Joseph Price describes it:
To be called by God is an act of spiritual intimacy and divine urgency. To be called by God means that God knows one’s name and, in knowing one’s name, exercises a powerful influence on the person. To be called by God also indicates a need for immediate response because the Almighty has indeed summoned one to a specific vocation or course of action[iii].
Call is a powerful thing. It begins by listening, but isn’t fully complete until we respond with our actions, lived out discipleship as we seek to follow Christ. This is what King was getting at when he talked about developing new attitudes and mental responses that the new situations demand in our world. We are called to participate in the ongoing revolution God has going in this world. To do so, we have to wake up and look around, listening with a servant’s heart.
It is fitting that this passage comes to us on a holiday weekend where we remember the life and legacy of Dr. King. He embodied a spirit of wakeful listening, and his words and actions inspired many to listen to callings in their own life to stand up against systemic injustice in our country. Although the work is not yet finished, far from it in fact, his servant spirit lives on. Tomorrow, many will do so with intentional acts of service in his honor. But the truth is, it is ongoing work that should be done every calendar day. The key for us is to pay attention, and listen for God’s word to come to us, even when we least expect it, because we all have a part to play in that calling.
If you find yourself hesitating in your own qualifications, consider the promise laid out in Psalm 139, that God knows us, intimately and deeply, and that we are, body and soul, marvelously made in the image of our creator, shaped from the inside out, created to be a part of what God is doing in the world. It isn’t a journey we travel alone. God is behind us, ahead of us, around us, a “reassuring presence, coming and going[iv].” We were made for this.
We have been knit together in our mother’s womb, and knit together as a part of the family of God. And God calls us not to stay asleep, but to wake up and do something with the gifts we have been given.
The call story of Samuel gives us a rich understanding of how call comes, and the reminder that our God is persistent with it. Even if it takes three or more times to get the message across, God calls. Samuel also reminds us that God’s call extends to everyone. As Professor Richard Boyce notes:
It takes both the attentiveness of the young Samuel’s ears and the wisdom of the old priest’s heart and mind to birth this new office in the service of the Lord[v].
Answering God’s call is the work of community, old and young together, to bring about the revolution God has in store. For the people of God in 1 Samuel, God is ushering in a new age, a new way of being in the world, a new way of leading God’s people. And it all starts with the courage a young boy and an old priest have to wake up, and pay attention. May it be so with us. Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
January 14, 2018
[i] Lawrence Wood, “Homiletical Perspective: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20),” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[ii] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” sermon delivered at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-10, accessed 1/13/18.
[iii] Joseph L. Price, “Theological Perspective: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20),” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[iv] Psalm 139:5, The Message
[v] Richard Boyce, “Exegetical Perspective: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20),” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).