Speak for Your Servant is Listening
1 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.”
Eli stood there holding a hand that fit all the way inside his. Both hands were trembling. The cries of a young mother could be heard and her moist eyes seen. A promise was being kept. She had begged God for a son and here he was. She had promised that once he was weened she would present him to the Lord and give him over to the Lord in service.
This little toddler was looking up and this old man was looking down. The connection they were making would lead to amazing things to come. Did they see glimpses of an Israel with an insecure king? Did they sees flashes of oil being poured on young David’s head? Did Eli realize his time was coming to an end?
Perhaps now his hand squeezed the boys hand. Samuel he was named. Eli knew what he needed to do. He had messed up big time with raising his now adult sons. This was a second chance. This was a doorway to something important; something good.
He would have a little help around the tabernacle and a young mind and heart to help form and shape. He would not repeat the mistakes of the past. Wisdom had been gained and that wisdom would be applied.
The Word of the Lord was Rare in Those Days...
The Word of the Lord was Rare in Those Days...
So it was a dry season for the people of God. And I suppose during times like this human beings tend to fall into routines. Maintenance mode. The future may be calling. The needs may actually be urgent. But it’s easier to keep things comfortable. I’m sure Eli liked to keep himself busy. Otherwise he had bad memories to process and disappointment with his sons. And maybe even some authority that needed to be taken to clear things up.
Maybe sometimes when the Word of the Lord has been rare, it’s not that the Lord has been silent. Maybe God has been speaking. Maybe sometimes when the Word of the Lord has been rare, we’ve wanted to make that Word about others. Maybe it’s hard to take a look at one’s own life and embrace the need to correct your crooked paths. Now in this story we are learning about Eli’s struggles and triumphs but I want to ask you to do something for me. I want you to not keep this story at a distance. I want to ask you to lean in to this story. If we keep it at a safe and comfortable distance we might say things like: how could Eli let these things happen? Look at what Eli did, wow! But if we are going to learn anything from this story we might need to let it hit a little closer to home.
Instead, let’s try to understand. Let’s see with spirit enabled eyes. Let’s learn all we can. Let’s take a look at the house of Eli the priest at Shiloh.
The House of Eli
The House of Eli
So Eli was the high priest of Shiloh; in charge of all the sacrifices and the prayers in the Tabernacle for all who came to offer worship and praise and to pray earnestly in God’s presence. I’m sure young Eli felt it such a privilege to serve God. But let’s face it he was living in depressing times. These were not days of people seeking the Lord with all their heart. These were days where violent men and tribal leaders slugged and sworded it out. Justice was extremely local and very temporary. You can’t read any of the stories in this time period thinking: and they lived happily ever after… And so maybe it got to him. But we can’t just see him as the bad man among a bunch of great people. No, he’s more like the man to be pitied. The man who let the lukewarmness of everyone around him wear him down; take his edge off. Maybe he lost his wife for she is not mentioned as far as I know. But he basically became the second to last judge or leader of Israel before the time of the kings and that’s important to remember. Perhaps in this role his priestly responsibilities became secondary and the constant political pressures of judging Israel and dealing with powerful men eroded his moral compass. Perhaps he just wasn’t an attentive father and out of guilt he let his kids get away with terrible terrible things. However it all got started, where it ended up was a huge huge mess.
A failure of restraint. This is when we know better but we say, ah, well, even when it leads to injustice.
It’s not that Eli’s sons were less than perfect. Nobody is perfect. This passage has been used way too many times to heap shame on pastors families as their kids struggle with growing pains. Thankfully we did not experience that. This was not kids experiencing normal rebellion or youthful mistakes. No this was extreme. Eli’s sons were systematically taking advantage of people as they were carrying out their duties. Like dipping your hand in the offering plate or literally extorting money from someone or saying: you’ve got to bring me extra cash or fine goods along with your offering or God won’t accept it. Even having sexual immorality with the women who served there. He should have done something to restrain them or just removed them from their responsibilities. Did he fear them? Was he afraid of losing the relationship? Did he secretly admire the nerve and savvy they displayed? We may never know I guess. But the result was a disgrace. A deep stain on the fabric of the tabernacle.
In all this mess, there was Samuel. His name sounds like the Hebrew for “heard by God”. Because God had heard a mother’s earnest prayer. Now I don’t think it’s just a matter of Hannah his mother being blessed. God had a larger purpose in this very unique time in history. It was as much about the moment they were in and their willingness as it was anything else. But at last some things started to go right...
Starting with Samuel, a boy who was learning the right things. A boy who was eager to grow in faith. A boy who was getting the right amount of attention from his surrogate father.
26 Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.
Eli may have blown it before but he was getting it right now.
So Samuel who’s mother had been heard by God found himself sleeping in the house of the Lord. How good it is to bring children into the house of the Lord and expose them to the things of God. How else will they understand the importance of worship? How else will they understand they have responsibilities to their creator? How else will they learn to hear God calling? How will they know God’s purpose for their lives?
When we present children today in baptism or dedication the parents and family promise to love and nurture the child. They promise to raise the child to know the Lord. They promise that the pitter patter of little feet will be heard among the fellowship of believers. Then the whole community of faith makes a commitment to that family to love and protect that child. To teach them about God, to support and guide them safely through the challenging days of youth. And to teach them most of all to recognize when the voice of God is calling and how to respond.
All this and more is going on on this fateful night long ago...
Eli lay down and quickly fell hard asleep. Was he snoring? Meanwhile the night is coming on and the day has almost passed but the lamp had not quite gone out. In a way that’s a powerful descriptor of this moment in Israel’s history. Lamp is almost out. The word of the Lord is rare, but still that flame was present.
Samuel lay down and began to drift into the dreams of young boys when he thought he heard his name! Samuel! Here I am! No answer.
Well he was familiar with this routine. When the old man called he better hop to it so quick little steps were into Eli’s chambers. Here I am! you called me!
And Eli said no I didn’t call call you I was trying to send you a text and I don’t know how to work this new phone! My bad.
No I’m just kidding. Eli said, no, go back to sleep I didn’t call you. Silly boy.
Back to his mat and again the eyes about the close: Samuel! This time he can’t deny it I know I heard the voice! Eli says no! I didn’t call you go back to bed and have mercy on this old man.
7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
And this is where it hits us where we live. Kids reach this vulnerable age. Some call it the age of accountability. It’s when young people are especially aware spiritually and are now mature enough to make a connection with God. It’s a different age and stage for each and every person. But these are incredibly important moments. Moments that are difficult to repeat. We can miss them because we are used to being the all and all for our kids. This is the time when we have to remember they are on loan from God.
I remember a time when my oldest Sarah was small. Holding her brought such joy and peace. But in that moment sitting in a recliner in the basement of a church parsonage in Crestwood, IL God spoke to me. He said this is a wonderful moment, isn’t it? Never forget it. But also never forget that she doesn’t belong to you. She belongs to me. She’s got to grow up some day. So hold onto her gently and loosely. It pierced by heart just a little bit but then another moment of peace. She belongs to God. We both belong to God. God has been watching over me and he will watch over her. I can trust it.
Ultimately kids have to make their own choices and find their own connection to God. We can take them to the water. We can encourage them to drink. What we teach them they will never be able to get away from fully, but they must learn to drink for themselves.
This was the time for Samuel’s first sip from God. A moment that was being missed by the man responsible. Would he blow it again?
Once again the Lord called: Samuel!
Samuel, ever wanting to please but not knowing what to do went to Eli. Here I am, you called me.
This time Eli’s eyes were finally fully open and he could finally see: The Lord was calling the boy:
Go and lie down and if the Lord calls you again say: Speak for your servant is listening.
Eli passed on the thing that only someone who has known the Lord can pass on to someone younger. Giving them permission to recognize the moment and speak with God.
11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.
And the Lord began to speak. And the Word of the Lord was no longer rare. Something new has begun again in the heart of a new generation. There are no shortcuts. Sometimes it seems to take so much time. But we mustn’t be impatient and we can’t lose our nerve.
The moment of truth
The moment of truth
The next morning the boy is opening the doors and getting ready for a new day. Perhaps he is busying himself with an attention to detail not usually seen. Whatever he was doing, Eli noticed. He knew a young man with something on his mind. He knew enough to ask.
But there is a difference between knowing and doing. And this is where Eli is a hero. We never tell the story this way but he’s absolutely galant here. 90% of people would have done the math and made every effort to divert the boy’s attention. But Eli isn’t having it. The second most important verse in this passage comes next. And it’s one of the most important in the history of God’s unfolding story.
Everything was not on the line in an election. Everything was not on the line for who was chosen as judge. Everything was on the line over how an old jaded man handled a young sensitive boy. Like a messiah in a manger God often comes in the moments we could easily ignore if we wanted to.
17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”
Is this how most national leaders behave? Tell me the truth? No, it’s tell me what I want to hear or you’re out on your ear.
Eli has been that guy. Eli has grown weary of being that guy. Eli sees what is coming. And he’s willing to let it be said. He’s willing to let it be said because he’s tired of the Word of the Lord being rare in his day. More than anything, even if he can’t see it all himself. He doesn’t want to leave this world until somebody is on track with how God speaks.
God comes quietly, sometimes in the night but always when we are still enough to listen. God comes sometimes with troubling news but always with the truth. But it’s fragile. Sadly, the history of God’s people shows that we can ignore the truth and tell ourselves other stories so long that we completely lose our way.
The only way back is hearing the truth. It’s not the World’s fault when we fall for lies. We know better.
If we never mentor a new generation we can’t see a brighter future. If we don’t let a new generation speak truth to our authority then we cannot improve and God will have to move on without us. And if we go so far as to reject everyone he sends well then the consequences are devastating.
All of this is hanging by a thread when verse 18 happens:
18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
Suddenly a huge weight lifts off Samuel’s shoulders. He can know the Lord. He can hear from God and act on it. His spiritual journey has begun in earnest.
But suddenly a huge weight is lifted off Eli, too. He knows that he will face judgment for his actions. But he knows he has done what he can to let a new day dawn.
And so this word comes to us today. Most of us today pretty experienced in the things of God. Maybe we have noticed too that younger generations aren’t exactly flourishing. How many are here this morning? We can blame them for going after other gods. Or we like Eli can take them and their children by the hand. We can love them. We can build into their lives. We can teach them what we know. We can love and we can wait and we can be patient.
And when the crucial moment comes we can trust the Lord to speak into their lives. We can give them permission to step up and meet God on God’s terms. And then we can encourage them to speak the truth, even when it’s hard for us to hear.
Israel’s greatest king would be anointed by this young boy. This young man now would help turn the tide. Great days are ahead, because of these precious and powerful moments. Well played, God. And Well played, Eli. Well played, indeed.
Folks it’s our move. What are we doing to help our children and grandchildren and friends and neighbors hear the voice of God and answer? What are we doing to mentor them into this life we may have taken for granted? Are we willing to take the heat and share the love?
We live in the age of Grace and mercy and forgiveness. I believe God can restore us if we repent and are willing. But sometimes he stirs the pot and makes us uncomfortable to get our attention. Let’s commit today to realize that the light is somewhat dim. Let’s admit our lamp may go out if nothing changes. Let’s lean in and listen together for the voice of God in the hearts of a new generation.
Speak Lord, for your servant is listening. Some of us are called to give our lives completely to God’s work. But all of us are called. And all of us can answer that call. We can give our lives completely to whatever God’s purpose is. We need spirit-filled plumbers and teachers and salesmen and musicians and doctors and artists and police officers and scientists.
It can only happen if we tell them how to hear from God. Will you tell them? Do you know who you need to tell? Do you know their names?
Speak Lord, for your servants are listening… He who has ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church.