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… Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:1, 10)
The book of Samuel covers an important period in Israel’s history. It records the transition of Israel from a tribal community, led by a series of judges, to a statehood ruled by a single king. Under Joshua’s leadership, took control of the promised land and divided it up into territories – sections of land for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. These territories were ruled by Judges who banded together to battle the ever-threating Philistines, but they lacked the unification that a king could bring. So, a movement arose to have Israel anoint a king to rule over all of Israel. Some people resisted that movement however, arguing that God was ruler of Israel and expressing the fear that that an earthly ruler would only lead to the secularization of the nation and away from God.
But the movement continued to grow until the powers that be finally gave in and anointed Saul as Israel’s first king sometime in the late 11th century BCE. And the person who anointed Saul at his coronation was none other than the prophet Samuel (who warned them that it would not always be a bed of roses having a monarchy).
So, now you know the rest of the story ‒ there’s a lot of transition going on in Israel as it moves from a tribal community, where the arc of the covenant was housed in a tent, to a kingdom where it was housed in the new temple. And Samuel will play a big part in this transition, so it’s no wonder that God goes to extraordinary measures in today’s passage to get his attention. Granted, God often uses drama to get people’s attention ‒ calling Moses through a burning bush, calling Mary through an angel named Gabriel, calling Paul through a bright light and voice on the road to Damascus, but most of us don’t experience the call of God quite like that. We hear God’s call as a still small voice, or in one door closing and another opening, or in a sense of restlessness that won’t subside till we make a certain decision. Whatever the case, God’s call requires an attentive ear ‒ we need to be listening for it – which is certainly one of the lessons in today’s story.
The young boy Samuel was living under the care of an old high priest named Eli in the sanctuary at Shiloh. His mother had devoted him to the Lord and Eli was prepping him for service in the temple – perhaps to become a high priest like him one day. God’s call comes in the middle of the night, perhaps close to dawn because it says, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” Samuel is asleep near the arc of the covenant when he hears his name called twice. The boy figures that Eli is calling him since nobody else is in there, so he goes to the entrance where the old man is sleeping and says, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli says, “I didn’t call you, go back to sleep.”
Again, Samuel hears his name called and again goes to Eli who tells him to go back to sleep. Finally, a third call and a light goes on over Eli’s head and he realizes the Lord is calling Samuel. So he says: “Go, lie down again and if he calls again say: ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’” He does and God calls a fourth time, and Samuel says the words we should all keep close at heart: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”
God gives Samuel the unsavory task of pronouncing judgment upon Eli’s sons for their evil ways, and on Eli himself for failing to reel them in. Samuel goes on to become a prophet of the people Israel and anoints Saul as the first king. When Saul proves to be a disappointment, God sends Samuel to the house of Jesse to find a replacement king. He is led to Jesse’s youngest boy, David, who he anoints with oil to become God’s new choice for king. (Granted, Saul does not resign gracefully but ultimately David supersedes Saul as king.) So, the call of Samuel by God sets forth a domino effect... big change in leadership and in organization of Israel happens as a result of his call. And it leads (ultimately) to one of the most prosperous, stable and faithful seasons of Israel’s history. So, the words ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” ... are no small words!
The story of Samuel’s call is a reminder that we need to be intentional about our listening for God. Without intentional ears, God’s call for us can be easily missed. Don’t ignore God. Be open and expectant of God’s word. Be attentive to his calling. God should not have to hit you over the head with a bag of hammers to get your attention! Listen attentively and expectantly for God’s call. This poem by Mayberry says it quite nicely I think:
God speaks – I listen.
Do I really?
God speaks in such a multitude of ways and I listen to so few.
God uses so many voices but
I tune out all but a few.
God uses a wide spectrum
Of senses to speak, but I am
Tuned in with a narrow range.
I sometimes miss hearing God.
When the hungry plead for food
The lonely plead for compassion
The sick plead for healing relief
The prisoners plead for freedom
The frightened plead for support
The angry plead for hearing.
So often I don’t hear...
why oh why?
My listening is so limited
O God help my listening.
Fortunately, God is persistent in calling us, as Samuel himself proves. It takes four tries before Samuel responds to God! Thankfully, God is not easily dissuaded, but even God’s persistence is not enough to guarantee that we will hear and heed the call. It still takes intentionality – a belief that God indeed is speaking to us ‒ each day and every day.
Perhaps nobody has spoken more eloquently of this than Frederick Bueckner. He suggests that paying attention to the events of our lives is one of the best ways to discern God’s call to us:
“(God) speaks not just through the sounds we hear, of course, but through the events in all their complexity and variety, through the harmonies and disharmonies and counterpoint of all that happens... and the reason that his words are impossible to capture in human language is of course that they are ultimately always incarnate words. They are words fleshed out in the everydayness no less than in the crises of our own experience.”
He concludes saying this:
“If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less that in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
So, listen up people! God is speaking to you each and every day. Sometimes God’s message may be something quite simple: “I love you,” “You are going to be OK,” “I am with you.” Sometimes it may be something very challenging: “Speak up for the vulnerable,” “give yourself generously to this cause.” Sometimes God’s voice might be leading you in a certain direction: “I want you to be a doctor” or “I am calling you to ministry.”
Of course, you can’t hear it if you aren’t listening, so do what your kindergarten teacher taught you long ago and “put on your listening ears,” and begin to hear that voice that’s been calling you all along.