The boy Samuel grew up in a precarious time. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. The future looked dim. It was a time of major political shifts. The period of the judges in Israel was winding down, the time of charismatic tribal leaders was coming to an end, and nobody knew what the future would bring. The Philistine cities to the West were growing and their military strength threatened Israel’s survival. The political structures Israel had at the time were too weak to address the growing threat, and some groups were calling for uniting the tribes under a monarchy. It was a time of great anxiety not unlike our own.
As if to drive home the point that Israel was living in dark times, the narrator tells us that Eli’s “eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see” and “the lamp of God had not yet gone out,” but you can almost see it flickering. Eli was in his nineties. Almost all of his years the old priest had been serving the God of Israel. He had given his life to handling holy things, performing rituals, saying the proper prayers, and listening for the voice and word of God.
Eli had been listening for years. It was not an easy time to listen for the word of God because, as the story says, the word of God was rare in those days. Some may have thought that God’s silence was punishment for their lack of faithfulness. Others must have been quite happy; they didn’t miss that peculiar voice: more time and attention for them and their voices, more room for their aspirations.
Eli went to bed in his room, and I imagine he wasn’t sleeping very well. He was having many sleepless nights because of his sons who had taken over most of the priestly duties. Eli went to bed under the shadow of severe judgment; a man of God had come to him and declared, “Thus the Lord has said, ‘Why do you look with greedy eye at my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded, and honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people?’”
That wasn’t all, but Eli knew what the man was talking about. His sons, the new generation of priestly leadership in Shiloh, had made it a habit to take a cut of every offering, and not just that, they took the best cut of every sacrifice for their personal backyard BBQ. The contemporary term for that type of corruption would be embezzlement. Add to that serious sexual misconduct; everybody in Shiloh and beyond knew what Eli’s sons were doing with some of the female staff.
The old man was troubled by their actions; he rebuked them for abusing their positions of privilege to enrich and fatten themselves, but he did nothing to stop them. At night, though, he lay awake worrying about the future of his family, the future of the sanctuary, the future of Israel. He went to bed under the shadow of judgment, and in his heart he already knew that things would soon fall apart for him and his priestly family: His sons would die in battle against the Philistines, he would fall from his chair and break his neck upon hearing that the the ark of God had been captured by the enemy, and his daughter-in-law would die giving birth to a boy she named Ichabod, meaning “the glory’s gone.”
Eli went to bed under the shadow of judgment, worried about what would become of God’s people after the glory was gone.
And then the voice of God intruded the darkness, “Samuel! Samuel!” Three times the voice called the boy who was tending the flame in the sanctuary. Three times the boy arose to ask Eli what he wanted. We know it was God calling Samuel, but the boy didn’t, and neither did Eli at first. Discerning the voice of God is no simple matter. Samuel was so used to doing what the old priest told him, it was difficult for him to even imagine that God would speak outside of the sacred tradition he had been practicing, outside of the handling of holy things and the performing of sacred rituals and the saying of proper prayers. But Eli, old Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, old, worried Eli wasn’t completely blind. He finally remembered that the God of Israel was known to do this kind of thing. “Go, lie down,” he said to the boy; “and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
I have long loved this story. Ever since it was first read to me when I was a little boy. I liked it because it was about a kid, a kid I imagined to be like me. I liked it because it showed me that God wasn’t for grown-ups only, but that sometimes God speaks to little ones. I still identify with young Samuel and the slow process of learning to distinguish the voice of God from the busy chatter of anxiety or the authoritative voice of tradition.
I’m not an old man yet, but I am old enough to identify with Eli and his worries about the future. We live in a time of major transitions in the world, in our nation, and in the churches, and with age comes the knowledge of all the things that are no more and the things that are beginning to fade; some of them I won’t miss a bit, but others I know I’ll ache to hold on to and not let go. We worry about the dysfunction in our political institutions, we worry about the economy, we worry about the fractured church and how rare the word of God has become in our time; visions are not widespread.
I love this story because it speaks about a new beginning in the midst of painful endings. The voice of God intruded the darkness. Samuel heard it, but he didn’t know it. Eli knew it, but he didn’t hear it. For the voice of God to be heard and known, the old man and the boy had to come together.
The word of God was rare in those days, but God wasn’t silent. Samuel lay in the darkness and waited, and then the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, and Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And the Lord spoke and Samuel listened and then he lay there until morning. And in the morning he opened the doors of the house of the Lord like he had so many times before. He opened them wide, knowing that this was a new day, knowing that the Lord was about to do something in Israel that would make both ears of anyone who heard of it tingle. And Samuel began to declare it. The word of the Lord was no longer rare.
As a congregation, we will live through a major transition this year with Julia’s retirement after 36 years as our organist. It’s not a tectonic shift of global proportions, but for us it certainly is a painful disruption at the heart of what we hold sacred and dear. We may find it impossible to imagine worship in this sanctuary without Julia playing the organ, but we know we must. Over the course of just a few weeks, we must learn to bring our sacred traditions and the condensed experience and wisdom they contain into conversation with the new thing God is doing in our midst; over the course of a few weeks we must open our hearts and minds to discover the future God has in mind for us.
I can’t help but hear the story of Samuel and Eli against this background. I am encouraged by its powerful affirmation of God’s presence in all our endings and beginnings, whether large or small. We know that this transition in our worship is small compared to the global changes that effect us is so many ways; but we also know that this very local change is part of larger shifts in our culture and the place of worship in our life. It is good for us to remember that God is not bound to how things used to be nor to how we imagine things ought to be. God is present and at work and speaking in the changes we face, in the beginnings and the endings, and so we can focus on moving forward with trust and attentiveness. God is not bound to the past or the future, but to God’s people. It is good for us to remember that.
When Samuel was asleep in the sanctuary, next to the ark of the covenant, he was there to tend the flame, a small lamp representing the presence of God. The lamp was a witness against the darkness, but it was also a way to carry the fire of the altar from the end of one day to the beginning of the next. A little flame burned all through the night to start the fire again in the morning. Gustav Mahler, the Austrian composer coined a beautiful phrase. “Tradition is the preservation of fire, not the worship of ashes.”
Eli was almost blind when he heard the word of judgment against the priestly tradition he represented, and yet he was blessed to see how God made a way through Samuel for God’s vision and word to be known in Israel. Samuel was young and inexperienced when he encountered the voice of God, but he was blessed to have Eli as a teacher. Each was open to the other, and together they made the word of God heard in a time when it was rare. The fire would continue to burn. It is good for us to remember that in the changes and transitions we are facing.