1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)
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.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 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. Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 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. 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.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 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. 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.
Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
I have grown to hate my alarm clock.
It didn’t always used to be this way. The alarm clock used to seem gentler, kinder. More forgiving. It would often cajole me to the waking world, sometimes softly singing songs, easing me into a new morning. Other times, when it beeped, was cheerful in my youthful ears, like an excited friend telling me to join in some fun. Also, my body was more conditioned to waking up earlier back then. I was a rare person; a young early-riser, the dreaded morning person. I used to not even need coffee to function, or any caffeine for that matter. No, the animosity used to not exist as starkly as it does now. The need for just 5 more minutes was nowhere in my head.
Somewhere along the line, probably in college sometime, the alarm clock’s songs were no longer gentle. They were grating. Oh, the station may have remained the same, or similar, but the noise, the noise, noise, noise, noise! It was not a song anymore. It was a death knell. It was the bells tolling not for thee but for me! Lest you think I’m exaggerating, every morning for about 3 and a half years, I had to walk up a hill to go to class, often in 100 degree heat or freezing cold. That is a journey, while sometimes invigorating, eventually turned to drudgery. And at the end of this journey, more often than not was a dreaded biology or anthropology class, something that if held at a later time might have been interesting, but at 8am, it was perhaps the least stimulating subject matter possible. Eventually, I gave up on the radio part of the clock radio, and decided to submit myself to the truth and just make it what it always was: an actual alarm, a beeping reminder that I was no longer allowed to rest, to relax, to be a do-nothing dreamer.
My cheerful friend had turned into an ear-splitting nag. The time had come for me to awaken, and do what I was called to do, whether it was school, work, or whatever.
That doesn’t mean I had to like the alarm, though.
No longer a motherly reminder, it was a cruel drill sergeant of a device. The time for pleasantries and kindness was over. Now, the alarm is not necessarily an unholy enemy, a fiend from the depths of hell, but neither is it the most pleasant thing in creation. While I may hate the alarm clock, I realize that it is a necessity. At the same time, another necessity arose: the need for just 5 more minutes. And then came my relationship with the snooze button.
Ah, to merely push back the inevitable is a comforting thought, but it doesn’t come without a price. Every push of the snooze button comes with a bite out of the precious time you might need to get ready for the day. Every delay is a not a gift but a curse. That button robs you not only of time, but of motivation; by giving into temptation to put off what you need to do… it only makes it harder to do that necessary thing. Every time you say, “just 5 more minutes,” that’s five less minutes to make a difference, if not in someone else’s life, than in your own. [Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure I pushed the snooze button this morning, and I know I pressed it twice yesterday, just so you know I’m not perfect and this sermon is just as much for me as it is for you all].
But we all know, there comes a time when you can’t say “just 5 more minutes anymore.” We all know it comes all too soon, and if we aren’t ready for it, we’ll wind up making more mistakes than we would prefer.
This story of Samuel and Eli is a story about two very holy people, good-hearted but in two very different places in life. It’s amazing how differently someone will react to the same stimulus, the same thing that prods us and pokes us, and how the same stimulus affects us at different times in our life. Preacher and writer William Willimon once said that as we go through life and read this story, it’s astounding how different we’ll read it when we are young and when we are older. The roles change so subtly and suddenly, it can turn your head.
Because when we are young (as I am, and as so many of you tend to point out that I am), we always tend to see ourselves as Samuel. Oh, we really want to be him. I mean, he wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but can you blame him? He’s young! He just doesn’t have the experience, and remember, the scriptures say that visions such as this weren’t common. What he doesn’t have in experience, though, he makes up for in enthusiasm and confidence. Each time he hears the voice, he leaps up from the bed and runs down the hall to answer what he thinks is Eli’s call for him. Man, doesn’t that sound just like a kid? So on fire, so ready, so willing, he plows through life full speed, no matter the obstacles. Samuel is the kind of I guy I wish I was, who I want to be. I wish I was someone who was so eager to answer a call, I don’t care who it is that’s calling me. Samuel never hit the snooze button.
As we get older, however, we slowly see ourselves turning into Eli. This is what I’d like to call “the snooze button effect.” Perhaps we need a little backstory on Eli, though, to appreciate this. Eli was the head priest at the time over the twelve tribes of Israel, not yet a nation at the time. He had taken on Samuel as his student and apprentice when he was a baby, since Samuel was offered by his mother Hannah as an act of thanks for his miraculous birth. Eli had a couple of sons, however, who were also priests, but they weren’t, how shall we say, the most model priests around. They had a tendency to be quote, “scoundrels.” They ate the wrong part of the sacrificed meat, and even had participated in scandalous acts involving inappropriate relations with women on temple grounds. Needless to say, this reflected poorly on our friend Eli, and for the whole temple establishment.
The church was in the midst of scandal, an all too familiar environment in our time, I’m afraid. This scandal bears an eerie similarity to our own church scandals, like the Catholic church and charges of sexual harassment, or our own denomination’s problems with money. Things were bad, and only getting worse. So I have pity on Eli. He had to be the guy in charge, after all; he was the fall guy. When things went bad, he was the one who had to stand at the podium and give solemn and apologetic responses to the allegations. After a long career of this kind of behavior, I imagine it took a heavy toll on him. No wonder his eyes were going bad; it must have been for all the tears he shed watching his life’s work fall apart in front of him.
So we have these two characters: Eli, the kind, wizened, weathered, and brow-beaten elder in charge of a dying church, and Samuel, a fresh faced enthusiastic youth who was on fire for God. And as the story goes, Samuel hears the voice of God yet doesn’t recognize it, while Eli knows the voice all too well but also knows that it is not his call to answer. No his role is different; Eli was the spiritual guide, leading Samuel to the truth. The trouble is, the call for Samuel was this: Eli’s five minutes are up.
That’s not an easy truth to take. I imagine that as excited as Eli might have been to recognize that God was speaking to Samuel, he also probably expected it was this kind of news. Eli made Samuel tell him the message from God, that Eli’s house would be punished, and Eli responded with something that I hope to one day be able to say with full confidence and humility: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
Eli had hit the snooze button too many times. There’s no doubt that he could have corrected his course, that he could have disciplined his children and repaired the church, but he didn’t. He let it slide. He hit the snooze button. He said, just 5 more minutes, I’ll fix it later. I promise I’ll wake up and fix it. Just 5 more minutes.
My brothers and sisters, there will come a day when we are no longer able to say “just 5 more minutes.” There will come a day when we have to answer for our problems, to answer the call of God. More often than not, the call from God is to Justice. Eli was called to bring his sons to justice, but ignored it. Samuel was called to bring Eli to justice, and responded. Of all the things that we can claim with certainty about our God, is that God is most of all concerned with justice, with fairness, with equality. All of God’s children, all members of the human race, are called to bear witness to the justice of God, and in order to do that we must regard our fellow brothers and sisters with love, with mercy, and with justice.
It is perhaps a bit of God’s providence that in correspondence to this scripture passage, tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Everyone knows him as a civil rights leader and a man apart and distinct from the many others of his contemporaries, but what I find incredible and awe inspiring about the man was that the only thing that surpassed his passion for civil rights was his passion for the Gospel. He was a Baptist preacher after all, and it shows in his speeches. He was an incredibly intelligent person, but it takes more than intelligence and eloquence to do what he did. It took guts. It took an iron will and an unwavering enthusiasm to live up to his ideals.
King answered the call to justice more clearly and more loudly than anyone else I can think of in modern history. It took incredible faith in the God of Love and Justice to stand up to the injustice of racial segregation in this country. He couldn’t just hit the snooze button. Those 5 minutes were long gone. The worst part about it, was that he saw his chosen arena of the church as part of the problem. His goal was to make it the solution. In one sermon, he said:
“Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church, an institution which has often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the patterns of majority opinion. The erstwhile sanction by the church of slavery, racial segregation, war, and economic exploitation is testimony to the fact that the church has hearkened more to the authority of the world than to the authority of God. Called to be the moral guardian of the community, the church at times has preserved that which is immoral and unethical. Called to combat social evils, it has remained silent behind stained glass windows. Called to lead men on the highway of brotherhood and to summon them to rise above the narrow confines of race and class, it has enunciated and practiced racial exclusiveness…We must make a choice. Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability, or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum, move to its echoing sounds? Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soulsaving music of eternity? More than ever before we are today challenged by the words of yesterday, “be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
As Samuel was a prophet for God in his day; as Dr. King was a prophet in his day, so too are we prophets for our day. There are too many evils in the world to just let simmer for another five minutes. We’ve hit the snooze button too many times. God is calling us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him, and with our fellow brothers and sisters. We can’t afford to not answer God’s call. There are too many hurting people, too many hungry people, too many sick people, too many people crying out for God, for justice, and for love. So will you answer it? Will you answer the call? Or will you simply ask again for just 5 more minutes?