(1 Samuel 3: 1-20)
I find myself drawn this morning to the very last verse of our passage today:
And all Israel knew that Samuel was a prophet of the Lord.
I think there are a couple of reasons why I’m drawn to this. For one, this isn’t a passage I read all that much, at least the second half of it. I’m betting I’m not alone in this. When we think of the story of young Samuel in the temple, we think of the part Rebecca read, because that is the part that makes for great storytelling and preaching. This back-and-forth between God and young Samuel, who had lived in the temple since he was a baby, left there by a grateful mother who was just glad to give birth to him in the first place; left there to be trained by the head priest Eli to one day be a priest himself.
I’m drawn to the narrative that unfolds in the middle of the night; of a young boy hearing the voice of God and assuming it is Eli doing the speaking. And Eli thinking it’s just a boy’s sleepy imagination running wild, until three times in when it hits him where this voice is really coming from. And so he sends Samuel back to bed with a directive to respond next time by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
As a preacher and teacher I’ve tended to focus on just that first part of the story because the sermon or lesson plan that comes from it practically writes itself: the need for us to recognize God’s voice when we hear it, and to respond ourselves with “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
I’ve just never paid much attention to what comes after it. And truth be told, the way the lectionary presents it on this Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, it gives the preacher a bit of a pass. That second half of the passage, verses 11-20, it’s listed in parenthesis, which is a lectionary way of saying, “you don’t need to bother with this if you don’t want to.” So, I haven’t. Until this Sunday.
It’s certainly not the fun part of the story. Samuel does as Eli commands and God speaks to Samuel about things to come for Eli and his family. And it is not good. Eli, as wonderful a man as he was, as highly thought of as he was, is not unlike most of us whose families are far from perfect. Over the years, Eli’s sons had routinely abused their priestly power and privilege for personal gain. They took for themselves what they could simply because they could. Eli had long struggled with how to deal with his scoundrel sons because he loved them. And as we know, when we don’t hold people accountable for their actions, things only tend to get worse.
So the message God commands Samuel to tell Eli the next morning is one of reckoning for his sons. Justice will be served. I can only imagine the embarrassment this must have been for the old priest. It wasn’t like his sons’ behavior was some big secret. But to have your family’s dirty laundry acknowledged by God and voiced to you by your young protege could not have felt very good. And the reckoning – the knowledge that his sons, and family by extension, were facing consequences for their actions. This was not the best news to wake up to after a night of interrupted sleep.
Which brings us back to that final verse again:
And all Israel knew that Samuel was a prophet of the Lord.
I’ve been thinking about that verse in light of the complete story because what I’m curious about is what exactly it was that led “all of Israel” to know that Samuel was a prophet. Make no mistake, Samuel was indeed a great prophet; the first one, actually, and one of the best, as far as speaking God’s word to God’s people. The great prophetic tradition with giants like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, you can draw a line through them all the way back to Samuel.
But check out the language here: it’s not saying that they all knew he would be, one day a prophet. It says they knew he already was. In that moment. And that’s what has me wondering, because in that moment Samuel was a kid. Just a kid. How could all of Israel look at this kid and go, “now there’s a prophet right there, lemme tell ya!” I mean, he didn’t even have facial hair yet. Isn’t that like a prophet requirement or something? And he wasn’t yelling or screaming or railing like we think prophets do. What was it that made it so obvious to everyone in Israel that young Samuel was a prophet?
Could it be that he spoke the word of God? I mean, prophets certainly do that. He gave voice to what God has commanded him to speak. Is that what made everyone see him as a prophet? Or could it be that God came to him and spoke his name in the middle of the night and woke him up, three times? We have this understanding that prophets have a special or close relationship with God – and calling your name and waking you up sounds pretty close. Is that why all of Israel knew that Eli’s young protege was a prophet?
Maybe – but I keep coming back to that moment with Eli and how hard it must’ve been to hear that difficult news. But I also think about the fact that, as uncomfortable as that was for Eli, it certainly was no walk in the park for Samuel, either. I mean, as we’ve already said, Samuel was just a kid. And Eli was the lead priest in the temple, he’s the guy in charge. And not only that, Eli was something of a father figure to Samuel; he had literally raised the boy from infancy. Their relationship was deeply personal.
And so I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for Samuel to look Eli straight in the eye and tell Eli what he had to hear.
And maybe that is what tipped Israel off to the fact that there was indeed a prophet in their midst, young as he might be. Because more than anything, that is what prophets do. They tell the people what they need to hear. Sometimes that involves speaking truth to power. Sometimes that is unveiling what is hidden in plain sight. Sometimes that is being honest and direct about the brokenness that sits in us all. And it is always, always about speaking in love, because truth and revelation and honesty and love go hand in hand when it comes to saying hard things.
Do you get the sense, people of God, that we might be in a similar moment? Are you feeling at all like we are trying to discern the voice of God for us right now? And when we discern that word, when we have an inkling, at least, of what needs to be said, that we then have the courage and bravery to give voice to it, hard as it might be for others to hear, hard as it might be for us to say?
You know, as your pastor I have the privilege of walking with you on many of your “holy ground” moments, even when those moments don’t always feel as holy. I’ve conversed with folks who know it is time to have a heart-to-heart with an aging parent about in-home care or assisted living. I’ve also had conversations with people who’ve been on the receiving end of those chats with their adult children. It’s not easy for either. It takes a little bit of Samuel in us to speak the truth in love, don’t you think?
I’m aware that we are living in divisive times, and that those divisions often cut right through the family tree or through friendships. I know many of us are faced with having difficult conversations with someone we love who sees things totally opposite of the way we see them; who hold perspectives and beliefs and understandings wildly divergent from our own. I’m aware that the tendency is to think that talking about these things only furthers the divide, but I find myself leaning in to what my minister colleague Bruce Reyes-Chow says: that pointing out the divide is not being divisive. Pointing out the divide is not being divisive. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that those conversations can still be painful and hurtful, and oftentimes we simply choose not to have them because of that. It takes a little bit of Samuel in us to speak the truth in love.
In a larger sense, our entire nation is in the midst of a difficult ongoing dialogue. We have people who, in many ways, resemble the audience the apostle Paul was addressing in his first Corinthian letter, one of the other lectionary passages this Sunday. There was a faction in that church who believed that their identity as a follower of Christ meant that the rules didn’t apply to them anymore; that they could literally do whatever they wanted. Paul sums up their life motto in six words: All things are lawful for me.
How do you have a conversation with that? Paul gives it his best shot and answers their assertion with one of his own: but not all things are beneficial. In other words, as my mom used to tell me, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I kind of feel like our nation, and American Christianity in particular, is smack in the middle of that messy, difficult and even frightening conversation right now.
Beloved, I wonder if you and I are just a bunch of young Samuels, listening for God’s word to us and then, when we have a sense of what it is, leaning into our calling to be the prophets God needs us to be?
Tomorrow, as you know, is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the day we celebrate and give thanks to God for a man who was the closest thing to a 20th century American prophet as one could find. Dr. King’s legacy is ensconced in our nation’s ethos for a host of reasons; one of them being his “I Have A Dream” speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th, 1963.
For certain, it was a speech of profound oratory skill and soaring rhetoric. But what made it prophetic is captured in a story some of us may not know. Prior to that day, Dr. King had gathered with his speech writing team, working to craft the message. The plan initially was for the speech to be shorter than it was, more measured in tone, more lecture-like. And there was this debate among the writing team about the best image to lift up as the guiding metaphor. One image was the image of a “bad check,” highlighting America’s failure to deliver on her promises of freedom to her citizens of color. The other image was of a “dream.” It was an image he had used on occasion in previous speeches. But in the end, the team thought the “bad check” image would be more suited to the moment and the low-key approach Dr. King thought he’d be taking.
And so when the speech came around, Dr. King followed the manuscript he and his team had crafted – and it was certainly good enough. But as the speech went on, it became clear that something wasn’t quite connecting. Like a moment was being missed. All of that changed near the end of the speech when, in a scripted pause, Dr. King heard a voice behind him yell out, “The Dream, Martin – tell them about the Dream!” The voice belonged to renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, a frequent presence at Dr. King’s speeches and someone he confided in in his lowest moments, calling her up on the phone so she could soothe his soul with her soulful voice.
The Dream, Martin – tell them about the Dream!
And he did. In that moment, Dr. King went from being lecturer to preacher. In that moment, he found his Samuel voice.
Perhaps that is one way to better understand our calling as followers of Jesus in these strange and uncertain times. To listen for God’s voice and to say what needs to be said to those who need to hear it. And to rest assured in two things as we do that: first, as we said before, that pointing out the divide is not being divisive. And second, that our role in these hard conversations is not necessarily to change someone’s mind – something so hard to do in these hyper-partisan times. No, our role is simply being brave enough to have them in the first place, to talk about things that matter; and to let God, the author of all voices, take it from there.
I don’t know if you saw this past week, as I did, the NBC News interview with former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Daryl Johnson. He was talking about the radicalization of Americans to Christian Nationalists/white supremacy ideologies and how important it is to have hard conversations the right way at this tenuous crossroads of our nation’s history. One line really stood out to me: he said “Every person I’ve ever known about that’s been a white supremacist has left the movement through an act of compassion or love. They didn’t leave because someone convinced them that their belief systems were wrong. The only way we’re going to get rid of hate is through love.”
Love – not a passive, “loving someone from a distance” love. Samuel loved Eli by telling him what God told him to say. He didn’t try to soften the blow. He didn’t say it with scorn or judgment, either. Samuel spoke the truth in love, and that is what made all of Israel recognize the prophet he was.
Beloved, my hope and prayer, in these unsettling times when our country and our world are in desperate need of hearing the voice of God, is that you are brave enough to find your Samuel voice when you need to and speak the truth in love – so that people will witness the building of God’s kingdom on earth and will see in you the prophet of God you most certainly are.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 1 Corinthians 6:12
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