Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Psalm 19:14
We have passed the season of Christmas, we have entered the Christian season of Epiphany. Epiphany extends from the end of Christmas to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent. This year there are six Sundays in Epiphany. Epiphany is defined as “a moment when you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.” The focus of Christmas was welcoming the Christ Child into our world and symbolically we light the Christ candle to celebrate the light that is come into our world.
During this season of Epiphany the focus turns to trying to understand the significance of Christ’s entrance into the world. The New Testament readings come from the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The Old Testament readings usually come from the Prophets and point toward the new thing God is going to accomplish.
The Old Testament text today begins with telling us that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Some of you may be familiar with Samuel, but some maybe not so much, so I will recount the story of Samuel to you here:
There was a man by the name of Elkanah and he had two wives whose names were Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah was able to have children, Hannah could not. Hannah would go to the temple and pray and ask for a child. There was a priest in the temple named Eli. Hannah begged God and said, “Lord, if you give me a son, I will give him back to you.” Eli thought Hannah may be drunk at the time for how she was praying, but she assured him she was not drunk and Eli realizing this, said, “May God grant you what you have prayed for.”
Not long after, Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a child and named him, Samuel, which means “I begged from the Lord.”
Samuel went to live with Eli, the priest, in the temple.
That is where our text today picks up, and the text begins, “The word of the Lord was rare, visions were not widespread.” I have thought much about this statement over the past couple of weeks as I thought about this sermon - and I wonder if the same is true for us. “If the word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread?” I tend to think it is not true. I think the word of the Lord is being spoken and people are listening. I think people are seeing, some maybe more than others, but I think that there are people who are seeing, but back to the text…
We don’t know why the word of the Lord was rare in those days, but we can surmise. In the second chapter of Samuel we find that the sons of Eli the priest -- priests themselves -- took advantage of their religious position by forcing worshippers into relinquishing part of their sacrificial offerings for the sons’ personal benefit. We also discover that the sons of Eli had sexual relations with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. And we learn how Eli, despite the pleas of the people and the warning of a mysterious man of God, did nothing to discipline his sons or correct the injustices they perpetrated. So when the narrator tells us at the outset of the third chapter that the word of the Lord has become rare, it is difficult not to attribute the rarity of God’s word to the disobedience of Israel’s priestly leaders, to the failings of Eli and his sons.
The story tells itself, in the way that the most memorable Old Testament narratives do. Samuel is to sleep one night in the room of the temple that housed the ark, that visible symbol of God’s presence. Eli has his own room elsewhere in the temple precincts. But after Samuel lies down, God speaks to him. “Samuel, Samuel!” God calls out. “Here I am!” says Samuel, who then runs, however, to Eli and announces: “Here I am, for you called me.” Understandably, Eli sends the boy away: “But I didn’t call you” The same thing occurs once more: God calls Samuel; Samuel answers, running to Eli; Eli sends him back to bed.
“Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” the text says.
Samuel is a priest, or at least a priest-in-training, someone who ministers before the Lord, but he does not yet know the Lord. Much has been written about this but we all in our journey’s can look back and see times when maybe we didn’t yet know the Lord or how God speaks to us.
Then for the third time God calls Samuel and Samuel runs to Eli. But this time, Eli gets it. “Go, lie down,” he tells the boy, “and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” And when Samuel returns and responds too God with this phrase, the one he has received from Eli, God delivers a word to Samuel about what will come to pass in Israel, a word that is also a message of judgment against Eli and his house for their corruption.
Samuel hears God’s voice, but he does not recognize it on his own and he himself does not know how to respond to it properly.
Only when Eli tells him what to do - to lie down and speak - gives him the words to say - does Samuel realize what to do.
It is Eli who first realizes that God is attempting to speak to the boy, Eli who tells Samuel how to proceed and Eli who responds in humility after Samuel later tells him the contents of God’s message, most of which was not flattering to Eli. This took courage on Samuel’s part. Eli’s response, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
Samuel is important in OT history for at least three reasons. First, Samuel was the last of the judges. He was a judge; that is, people from neighboring villages would come to him for advice and he would give them judgments as to what was wise and good. His word was law. Samuel was the last of the judges.
Secondly, he was the anointer of kings, the designator of the first two kings of Israel. Samuel anointed both King Saul and King David to be kings.
And third, Samuel was important because he was the first of the prophets, where the Spirit and Word of the Lord came and lived in this person in a powerful way. A prophet then spoke the Word from the Lord with boldness, strength and conviction. Samuel was the first in a long line of prophets, followed quickly by Elijah and Elisha, by Isaiah and Jeremiah, by Hosea and Amos, by Daniel and Ezekiel, all of whom had the courage to speak honestly and forthrightly to everybody, including their kings over them.
A judge, an anointer of kings, the first prophet. The Spirit and Word of the Lord came and lived in Samuel in a powerful way, but when it first happened -Samuel didn’t recognize the voice of God. He had to learn what he was listening for.
Eli seems to have become so focused on other things that God stopped speaking to him. God chose instead to speak to Samuel, the young boy - the inexperienced one. We can tend to dismiss those who haven’t been around as long, who may be younger, who may be inexperienced. As a church we need to be careful of this. Because with new life because new eyes to see, new ears to hear. The work of Eli wasn’t through - he had to instruct Samuel on how to listen and guided him. Samuel had to listen and have the courage to speak. Work of prophets is hard work to speak newness into set ways of being.
Prophet’s look forward to the future. And the ability to look forward to the future even when times are hard is a great gift. And our optimism is not just based on the power of the human spirit or the power of positive thinking, our fascination with the future is based on our solid belief that God is at work in our lives, in our church, and in our world.
In the Gospel text today, Nathanael didn’t believe that any good thing could come out of Nazareth. Old thinking. Old ways of being. And Jesus assured Nathanael that he would see greater things. He would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending. Every once in a while, the heavens break open just a little bit, and the rays of God’s light shines through. And for that moment we believe; we believe that the best is yet to come. God isn’t finished with us just yet.
And we find the strength to roll up our sleeves and get back to work. The work of God gets accomplished two different ways; sometimes by miraculous signs and sometimes through patience and hard work, by being attuned and listening for the voice of God.
And that takes courage. And it requires us to listen for God speaking. Most of us would love for God to intervene and miraculously fix what is wrong in our lives, our churches, and in our world. We would like for that to happen. And while it may, I wouldn’t bet on it. We always have two options; wait for a miracle or some miraculous sign, or roll up our sleeves and do the things we know to do. AMEN.