1 Samuel 3:1-10 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.”
Over the next couple of months we’re going to read through the story of King David together. We’ll look at his rise to power and his self-inflicted fall. One of the reasons I think David’s story, told in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, is so interesting is because the storyteller refuses to give us a simple picture of David or really any of the other characters in these books. All of these characters have virtues and all of them are greatly flawed, which is to say corrupt and unjust and sinful. And their virtues don't necessarily redeem their flaws. The storytellers of the Bible are deeply concerned that we do not make idols of our leaders, that we don’t get carried away in some charismatic scheme and think we’re following God. So before we even meet David, his story begins with another less than pristine leader so that we’ll begin to get the point. His name is Eli.
Eli was a priest of Israel. He spent his days in the tabernacle, offering the peoples’ sacrifices in the very presence of the LORD. He got to spend his time in a place that God’s glory had filled before all the people of Israel when they’d left the land of their slavery. And now, here they were, in the land of Promise and Eli was their priest, the priest to a whole kingdom of priests, this people gifted to let God’s own presence shine through them to the nations. What a calling, what a life!
But there was a problem. Or two problems. Eli’s two sons treated the people’s sacrifices like their own personal buffet. They walked around with forks and devoured for themselves what was supposed to be for God and God’s people. And they used their position as priests to force themselves upon women who came to the tabernacle to worship. Their appetites knew no bounds and because of their position people let them get away with it. Even Eli basically tolerated their behavior—boys will be boys and all that.
So under Eli’s watch the Word of the Lord ceased and visions no longer came upon the children of Israel. There is a breakdown in the people’s connection with God and since worship in the tabernacle is the most intimate meeting of God and Israel, it’s not hard to see where the problem lies. Eli’s own eyes grew dim. He was a priest without a word, a leader without vision, a preacher without a gospel.
What is Eli to do? You can feel him drifting along, not particularly happy about his sons corruption, but not really doing anything about it either. His son’s corruption is no good, but it’s best not to rock the boat; don’t want to upset the whole system. When sin, exploitation, and injustice become commonplace, we become habituated to things that we know are wrong. “That’s just the way the world is, that’s the business we work in, it might not be appropriate but we don’t have to be all P.C. about it.” We have our recent examples of sexual assault and harassment that are finally being brought to light and condemned for the evil they are; but many of these men (some of them pastors) assaulted women for years even though people basically knew what was going on.
Eli allowed himself to drift into this kind of complacency and one day found that his eyes had gone dim, that the Word of the Lord was rare and visions were few. What was taken for granted was lost. When holy things were used for exploitation, their power goes elsewhere. All of this happened under Eli.
Now it would be easy to beat up on Eli. That old fool. Good thing we’re nothing like him. But, I think if we’re honest we’d have to say that we are like Eli. We are complacent about sins that make God deeply deeply angry. A recent poll found that of every demographic group in America, white evangelicals, at 68%, are the most likely to think that we should not admit refugees into this country. Which is strange because the Bible clearly says that justice is welcoming the alien, the orphan, and the widow; and the Christian tradition has taught for 2,000 years that if there is going to be a government, it’s only purpose is to uphold justice. Yet many many Christians in this country have been formed to believe that we as a society have no responsibility at all to the immigrant, the orphan, or the widow; and many of us who might think that’s wrong aren’t willing to do much about it. That’s just one example of many, but there are a lot of people around us who would rather complain about a culture war than roll up their sleeves and do the work of being the church: holding all things in common, loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us. We drift along, knowing things aren’t great, but aren’t willing to do much about it.
But that’s not all there is to Eli, and that’s not all there is to us, either. Eli might be a mess, he might not be very good, but among his deep, perhaps even irredeemable flaws, there are some things he does in this story that point toward a different way. Eli lights the lamp in the tabernacle, he encourages a young boy named Samuel, and he accepts God’s judgement.
Despite Eli’s blindness and the corruption of his sons, “the lamp of the Lord had not yet gone out.” However useless the priests had become as they turned the people’s worship to their own selfish benefit, a light still burned that was beyond them. The light was not itself a word or a vision, but it represents the possibility that God might speak again. And the lamp of the Lord had not yet gone out because it was Eli’s job to light it every morning. No matter God’s silence, despite his failure to check his sons and their appetites, Eli lit the lamp in the tabernacle every morning. Perhaps it seemed like an empty ritual some days, morning after morning, with no word from God, but at least in that, Eli was faithful, tending the very lamp that shed light on his son’s dark deeds and his own sins of omission.
The lamp of the Lord had not yet gone out, and one night under its light, something happened to a young boy serving Eli in the tabernacle, a boy named Samuel. He was his family’s first born. His mother had come to the tabernacle to pray and Eli, already losing his vision, had mistaken her devotion as drunkenness. But this woman prayed that if God would give her a child she would send him to serve God in the tabernacle. Eli had accepted him and now here he was, doing menial tasks, cleaning up after Eli’s sons.
In this time of silence, of darkness, that’s who God calls. Not Eli, not anymore. He’d lost that role. Not the priest, but the boy. “Samuel, Samuel” but Samuel assumes it must be Eli calling to him. This has to happen a few time, but Eli does, to his credit, realize what’s happening. I wonder if it felt like a long forgotten memory all of the sudden coming to mind after decades. Like he was waking up in more ways than one. “Oh yes. That’s right. God can speak in this place. Well, Samuel, better tell the LORD that you’re listening.” The Word of God had returned, just not to Eli.
The Word speaks to Samuel, but it is Eli who recognizes what’s happening. It takes him a minute. But he doesn’t get jealous or angry that after years of silence God comes to the boy. When he finally recognizes what’s happening, he even instructs Samuel in what to do. What Eli doesn’t get for himself, he encourages Samuel to receive.
Now, the Word didn’t exactly bring Good News for Eli. God’s first word to Samuel is judgement upon Eli and his sons. When Samuel tells this to Eli, Eli says, “It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him.” This is not how we would expect people to respond when they hear a message of judgement against themselves. I’d expect Eli to say “No, you got that wrong. That can’t be what God said, I’m still the priest!” But Eli accepts the truth of the message. He knows his sons are corrupt, he knows he knew better but he let it slide. He doesn’t quite come to the point of repentance but he hears God’s word and accepts it for what it is. “It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him.”
So Eli, in his weariness, in the silent darkness, lights the lamp, encourages Samuel, and doesn’t shy away from accusation. If we want to make space for the Word of the Lord in our own humble ways, we can do these things, too. Week in and week out, we come to worship together to light the lamp of Scripture: to sing it and pray it and tell these stories again. These Scriptures are ours and yet they are always beyond us. They inspire us with their beauty and they critique us with their goodness. Doing those things does not mean we are the people God wants us to be (that we are free from corruption and complacency); but showing up and lighting the lamp means there’s always a chance we’ll be confronted with the Good News of who God is calling us to be.
And as we light lamps, we can encourage those who receive visions and words of inspiration, in our midst or in unexpected places. Our world has changed and is changing ever more rapidly. In 1978, the average cost of housing, food, and insurance took up 50% of the average household’s income. Today that number is 75%. Of all the jobs created since the recession in 2008, 95% of them are part-time, temporary, or contract. So people have less money and less stability, which makes it harder to start a family, buy a house, and put down roots in a church. We have to ask what it looks like to be a church in this kind of world. While we will always worship and teach the Scriptures, churches are going to have to organize our lives in different ways in the future. We can look forlorn on the good old days, but if “hope” means “Things will look like that again” hope will be disappointed. But we can look for the Samuels in our community and say, “What is God saying to you? We need you to tell us.” We can use our position and our resources to support whatever God’s Spirit is doing next.
And finally, and this is the hardest one of all, we can accept judgment. A lot of Christians have learned this habit that when someone critiques the church or our church, it means that the Gospel is under attack, and so the appropriate response is to bunker down and launch our own projectiles back. But, in this country at least, 90% of our issues would go away if Christians stopped embarrassing ourselves, if we’d go get Eli’s sons and say “Stop it!” If Christians in this country want to continue to wed ourselves to white nationalism, continue to whine about secular agendas, all while giving golden parachutes to leaders who send abuse victims back to their abusers and tell rape victims to practice "forgiveness" by not pressing charges, we will be sent into exile and it won’t be queer people or feminists or any other "secular agenda" that makes the church collapse; it will be God's own judgment. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to be defensive and terrified of everything. We can look at ourselves honestly and say, yes, we need to learn and grow and be better. When we hear words of accusation and judgement leveled against us as Christians we can use them as opportunities for humility and repentance.
Ultimately, under Eli’s priesthood, the Word of God does return. Just not to Eli. Eli and his sons had been the very reason it had gone silent, but Eli held on to some ways to welcome it’s return. And that’s our job, too. We stumble along and grow weary, we become too familiar with corruption and injustice and sin; but we can make sure our story, the story of our lives and American Christianity is at least more interesting than that. Eli prepares the way for Samuel, who prepares the way for David, and however corrupt he becomes as well, David gave us many of the Psalms that we still sing back to God and through David’s house the Word returns in the flesh with the birth of Jesus. So if we light our lamps, encourage new visions, and do the work of repentance, there’s no telling what or who we might leave behind to keep singing God’s praise in the age to come. Amen.
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