1 Samuel 3:1-21
I read an article recently that said many couples find sleeping in separate bedrooms to be good for their personal health and the health of their marriages. We don’t always see it that way; oftentimes we catch ourselves assuming that a couple who sleep apart must be a troubled couple. But if you’ve got very different sleeping styles or schedules, having separate rooms can be beneficial to the relationship.
Mike and I went to separate bedrooms quite awhile ago, because we just don’t have the same styles, and bedtime turned into a power struggle just about every night—over the temperature of the room, lights and electronics, you name it. We find we like each other a whole lot better now.
Before this happened, scenes like this one happened quite a lot.
He would get up, often around 3 a.m., and go downstairs to find something to eat. Inevitably he would wake me up either getting up or coming back to bed. I do not like being awakened suddenly in the middle of the night—if it’s an emergency I cope and adjust, but it’s an entirely different matter if there’s no good reason for it. I just want to get back to sleep as quickly as possible, and I sure don’t want to try to have a pleasant conversation with anybody if it’s not necessary.
But when Mike’s awake, he’s awake.
So this one night, after he had been up and came back to bed, he woke me up and I got up for a moment, opening my eyes just enough to find my way to the facility and back. And when I came back, he was laying there awake, and he said, “Hi!” Cheerful as he could be, which I found highly annoying.
And he said, “How’s it going?”
I said, “I don’t want to chat.”
He said, “Oh, come on, let’s chat!”
But at 3 in the morning, chatting is my least favorite activity.
I wonder what Samuel thought when that voice called his name in the middle of the night. He was trying to sleep, in the sanctuary—seems to have been his regular job, from the way the text talks—and someone’s calling to him: “Samuel! Samuel!”
The text tells us that he didn’t yet know the Lord. That probably doesn’t mean he absolutely didn’t know there even was a Lord —after all, he lived and worked in the Lord’s sanctuary—but more likely it meant he had not had a personal experience with the Lord yet. So, when Samuel heard the voice calling his name, he assumed it was old Eli, the priest, his boss—because he and Eli were the only people who were there.
If it had been me, I probably would have at the very least muttered under my breath as I got up to find out what he could possibly want at that hour: “…trying to sleep here…”
But when Samuel got to where Eli was, the old man was sound asleep. When he woke him up and said, “Here I am; you called me; what do you need?”
Eli said, “No, I didn’t call you.”
Samuel went back and lay down, no doubt confused, but also grateful to be going back to bed instead of having to pull himself together and go work. But it happened again.
What kind of cruel joke is this? he might have thought as he again went into Eli’s room. And again he got the same answer.
And yet again, once he was back in his bed and starting to drift off, he heard the voice calling his name.
This time, finally, Eli began to realize what was going on. This fellow is supposed to be the priest of the Lord, but it took him three tries to figure out that it was God who was speaking to Samuel. I don’t know that we can blame him: the text does say that the word of the Lord was rare in those days, and if you don’t hear something very often, I suppose you might have trouble recognizing it when you do hear it.
But at any rate, now that he understands who it is that’s calling to Samuel, he’s able to guide the boy in how he should respond. He gives him the words to say when God called again, and Samuel uses those exact words. “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
I remember this story from a Sunday school lesson when I was a child. Maybe you first heard it this way, too.
The story stopped with Samuel’s response, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And there were a couple of points that we were supposed to take away from the lesson. First, God speaks to us when we least expect it, and we need to pay attention so we hear and God doesn’t have to call us four times, like in Samuel’s case, before we answer. Second, we were meant to understand that God sometimes calls even little children, like we were, and gives us jobs to do. Those are good points, granted; but when we read the whole passage, what we have today, including what God told Samuel and what happened in the morning, we find there’s something more going on.
In a way, this is the story of the dawning of a new age. The old way is described at the very beginning of the text, continuing a description that began in chapter 2.
Many years before, Eli’s ancestor had been promised that God would favor him and would give his sons the responsibility to be priests of the Lord through all their generations. But now Eli was old and his sons were the priests—and they were corrupt, sinful, mistreating the sacrifices to the Lord, refusing to listen to their father, who tried to get them to straighten up. The age of Eli’s family as priests was coming to an end.
It was an age where spirits were dull, where people focused on other things and did not hear the word of the Lord or see visions from the Lord. The leaders were corrupt, so there was no one to guide the people in the ways of the Lord.
But the lamp of God had not yet gone out.
On the surface, this is just a statement about what time it was when God called to Samuel. There was a lamp in the sanctuary that kept burning all night, but apparently would use up all its fuel and go out just before morning came. But perhaps this is also a symbol, a metaphor for the situation in that old age that was coming to an end.
It was a time when the word of the Lord was rare. People didn’t see visions. Eli, the old priest, was growing blind. The darkness was thick and pervasive. But the lamp of God had not yet gone out. It may have been flickering, may have been fading, but it had not yet gone out. There was still a chance.
In some parts of the world, fireworks are shot off at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Evidently in the past there were places where folks traditionally shot guns—sometimes outside, sometimes up their chimneys—on New Year’s Eve. Fireworks might be seen as a positive substitution for gunshots. It’s an exuberant outburst in the middle of the night—but it’s more than that.
Apparently the original purpose of making all this noise right at the end of one yar and the beginning of the next was to run off the old year, scare it so it’d leave, so that the new year could arrive. Out with the old, in with the new.
On our New Year’s Eve, it’s fireworks and maybe gunfire. In our text today, it was the voice of the Lord, speaking into the stillness of the middle of the night, intruding on Samuel’s sleep with the same message: out with the old, in with the new.
Sociologists tell us that every human organization, every social movement, has a life cycle. It begins with some exciting new idea, new way of thinking, new way of doing things. That new thing gains followers—even though the old way might well be resisting it with all its might—and there is a great deal of energy and excitement among those followers.
Then, as the original folks, the ones who had the new idea or vision, begin to die off, a second generation in the movement seeks to preserve the idea and the movement. Rules, creeds, established ways of thinking and ways of doing things all begin to be codified, written down and circulated among the members, so that the new movement can continue and be faithful to the vision its founders had.
But eventually, the rules and established practices begin to be an end unto themselves, rather than a means of passing on the original vision. Oftentimes unthinking conformity becomes the rule of the day; oftentimes new ideas are discouraged. The energy level goes down, and folks are tired and burned out as they wonder whether they are truly making a difference or just serving an institution.
Those who are most invested in the institution worry because there aren’t many new folks who are interested in taking over for them after they’re gone. But they tend, in response to this worry, to dig in their heels and insist all the that “the way it’s always been done” is the only way it can be done.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, there is a new vision. It might be a new reading of the Scriptures—like what happened to Martin Luther. Or it might be a passion to restore the original vision, to make it live and be relevant in a new time—like the vision of Alexander and Thomas Campbell and Barton Stone, who began the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
And suddenly there is renewed energy, and the new vision gains followers, and the cycle starts all over again.
There are some folks who believe mainline churches are at the end of our life cycle. We’re losing energy and membership, they say, and younger folks aren’t necessarily buying into the institution we have built and maintained so well for so long. This way of thinking wonders if there is a future for us, or if we, like Eli, should simply resign ourselves to the inevitable.
But the lamp of God has not yet gone out. There is still the possibility of a new word from the Lord, a new vision, the revelation of a new path into the future.
As we wait in the sanctuary of the Lord, even in this time when the word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread—for our time is, I believe, a lot like Samuel’s—we just might hear God calling us into a new life. And when we hear it, let us respond just as Eli taught Samuel to respond: “Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.”