Sunday, October 10, 2021

Hineni -- a sermon on the call of Samuel

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St John’s / Greenock St Margaret’s

Hineni (1st third “Blinded” MSG 2017)

1 Samuel 3.1-21

10 October 2021, NL4-6, Uncovered 5

Last week we read about the Israelites at the beginning of their wilderness journey, learning how to trust God and live in God’s kingdom ways. After forty years, they stood on the banks of the Jordan river and crossed into the land God promised them. It took some time to settle down and there were many conflicts and mistakes along the way. There was no leader or king, and each person did what they wanted or felt was right for themselves, and the situation deteriorated as over time the people forgot what they had learned about being God’s people. God raised up judges to be leaders who reminded people of God’s ways, but they had only limited success. By the time we get to today’s story, the people had built a shrine to house the ark of the covenant that they brought from their wilderness years, and there was a seer there — not exactly a judge, not exactly a prophet, but someone who could help conduct worship and interpret God’s word to the people. His name was Eli. He had become something of a foster-parent and mentor to a child, Samuel, because his mother Hannah had promised him to the service of God at this shrine.

We pick up the story in 1st Samuel chapter 3, and I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.


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.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 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. Then the Lord called to Samuel and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 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. 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.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 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. 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.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ 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. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’

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. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ 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.’ 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.’

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

When I arrived at my first church as a brand new minister, I discovered that one of the things the church had been putting off doing until the new minister arrived was a confirmation class. They had 20 teenagers waiting, and no plan. Among my first tasks, therefore, was to recruit several teachers and at least 20 mentors who would work with these young people one-on-one. 

In making what felt like a hundred phone calls, I lost count of the number of adults who told me they were afraid to talk to children.

Afraid of what, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps afraid that the teens would only know how to talk about mobile phones and video games? Worried that they didn’t know how to have a conversation without a script or curriculum? Or maybe afraid that the kids would have questions about God that they didn’t know how to answer? 

I wonder how Eli felt when Hannah dropped off Samuel at the temple, saying “this is the child I prayed for that day we last spoke—here, he’s dedicated to God, so take him in and teach him.” I wonder if he was afraid he wouldn’t have anything in common with a four year old, and wouldn’t be able to relate to him. Did he worry about how to talk about the God that Hannah had promised Samuel to serve?

Scripture doesn’t tell us much about people’s feelings or inner thought processes, but in this case I think it’s possible that Eli felt ill prepared for this task. His own sons were corrupt and he didn’t know how to set them right. And here, a few years after Hannah had left Samuel in the temple, we discover that in spite of his religious duties and his presence beside the ark of the covenant day and night, Samuel does not yet know the Lord, and God’s word has not been revealed to him.

It’s easy to do, isn’t it? To get so caught up in the tasks of the church that we never get around to knowing the Lord. And it’s easy to pass that on, too, as we inadvertently communicate that church or faith is an obligation grown ups bear, rather than a body, a relationship, a way of living, or a family where all are valued. Yet it is to Samuel that God speaks. Even though he doesn’t have the right education or credentials or anywhere near enough years of sitting in the pew or serving on a committee…even though he hasn’t yet been taught, even though to him God is more like a piece of furniture than a living Word…Samuel is still known, by name. God knows where to find him, and how to call him, and God waits patiently while Samuel learns how to be in this new relationship he didn’t even know to expect.

Eli had lost his sight—which, granted, was never particularly good in the first place. When he first met Hannah at prayer, what he saw was a drunken woman, rather than a person pouring out her heart to God. When Samuel appeared at his bedside at night it took three tries before reality broke through. Perhaps he thought Samuel was too young, or too inexperienced, or too ignorant of God’s ways, or maybe just adorably naive. I suspect many of us have thought the same when a young person has spoken up. Perhaps Eli was so used to doing things on his own without God that it didn’t occur to him that the Spirit’s voice could still speak. Maybe he was just tired—after all, his own sons were grown, so why did he now have to deal with teaching another round of Sunday School? Whatever the case, he was blinded, whether by his assumptions, his fear, his arrogance, or his apathy.

Once Eli began to see, though, he became the mentor Samuel needed. He passed on what he knew of prayer, and Samuel heeded his advice and ran back to his bed, probably practicing his lines as he made his way through the dark temple. When God stood at the foot of the bed, Samuel was ready—or as ready as any of us ever can be. He responded to the voice calling his name, and listened carefully for what the Lord had to say. 

What God has to say at this moment is actually a message for Eli. Perhaps Eli’s blindness extended to his ability to hear for himself. Now, through the collaboration of mentor and student, elder and child, the word of the Lord was becoming known once again. Remember at the beginning of the story we heard that the Lord’s word was rare at the time…and by the end, God is appearing again and again and all the people are hearing the word. That is only possible because the elder both teaches and learns from the younger. 

Eli’s response to the message that God gives through Samuel is fascinating. It’s a message of destruction, of punishment for not doing more to stop his corrupt sons from taking advantage of people and abusing their power as priests. It’s the sons who have done wrong, yet Eli bears the responsibility because he did not stop them. Instead he had just halfheartedly said “it is what it is” — which is exactly what he says when he hears that the consequences are coming. It is what it is. There’s nothing to be done. That’s just the way things have always been.

Perhaps it is this apathetic complacency that made it impossible for Eli to hear the word of the Lord and do his job passing it on to the people. Or perhaps this apathetic complacency has actually solidified into opposition to hearing God’s word, because it might require something of us, calling for change that we do not want. After all, saying “this is just the way it is” makes a nice cover or excuse for all sorts of mischief and wrongdoing, and at the same time lets us off the hook for things we find uncomfortable anyway.

Often when the word of the Lord shows up in a community, it’s the young people who hear and take it seriously, who then say “things need to change if we’re going to be faithful.” Young people hear with fresh ears, and they believe what we teach — that we are striving for the kingdom of God, and God’s vision is an alternative way to what this world offers and demands. And they believe it’s possible! Rather than simply accepting the way things are because it’s easier, young people, like Samuel, often insist that we take seriously the word of the Lord.  

It’s hard, though, for older people to listen. Like Eli, our vision grows dim and we are tired and we are comfortable with how things are. We like that our religious institutions are set up to serve us. And, if we’re willing to be super honest, we don’t want to admit that the way we’ve always done things has produced the results we now have, where whole generations of young people realised we didn’t actually intend to change our lives based on what we taught so they left the church to find causes or groups that put into practice the words they spoke.

Samuel’s answer when he’s called is “here I am” — that Hebrew word Hineni that we’ve heard all autumn. It’s more than just “here,” it means I’m fully present and committed, ready to do whatever you ask. That’s what he says to Eli, over and over and over: hineni. I’m here, I’m committed, I’m all-in. 

That’s what our young people are saying to us. Hineni! They trust that we, the people who have promised to bring them up to know and love Christ and his church, to pray for them and teach them, to walk alongside them on this journey of faith, are also saying Hineni to them. That we are fulfilling our promise to be fully present, committed, all in. To say “here I am” to each other across the generations is to commit ourselves to a relationship — both of teaching and learning, listening and speaking. 

Young people want to know if what we say we believe, what we teach them to believe, actually matters to us and how we live. They want to know if our faith makes a difference in our choices, our business practice, how we spend our money, how we share our resources, how we vote, how we get around, who we care about. They want to know if the Christianity we teach them gets put into practice when we see things in the world that are wrong, unjust, harming people…or if, like Eli, we simply say “it is what it is” and go on in our comfortable ways that look no different than anyone else. To say Hineni to one another, not just youngster to elder but elder to younger as well, and all of us together to God, is to promise that we will believe together in the possibility God is setting out before us, and that we will walk hand in hand on this road even when it takes us away from the safe place and into unknown territory. When we say Hineni, Here I Am, we commit to following God’s lead together, even if it means that we have to stop saying “that’s just the way things are.” 

In the whole story, Eli never once said Hineni. Not to Samuel, and not to God. In fact what he teaches Samuel to say to God is not “here I am” either — he teaches Samuel to say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Which is an important lesson — if we aren’t listening, we can’t commit. But Samuel shows us how to commit to whatever God is going to ask…and how to follow through, even when the task is difficult, like delivering bad news to his mentor and foster parent.

It often feels like the word of the Lord is rare in our days, just as it was when Samuel was a child. But perhaps if we are willing to offer our commitment, not just in words but in actions, to God and to each other, we might just uncover the promise and calling that God has been speaking all along.

May it be so. Amen.

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