I will admit that I’m not the best at diagnosing what is wrong with a car, or even recognizing something is wrong until it’s too late.
I was not gifted with the talents of mechanical understanding. I am guilty of opening the hood of a car, looking at the engine, nodding knowingly, and then admitting that I have no idea what’s wrong, what I’m looking for, or even knowing where to look if something is wrong. Which often leads me to ignore a problem, thinking it’s not a big deal if the car is still running.
Yes, I know this is bad form, and yes, this has led to expensive repairs. But I don’t think I’m alone in this. If the car still works, just makes a funny noise, how often will we push it to the limits of its ability unless it is no longer able to function? We keep going and going until it’s too late, and major work is necessary?
Naturally, this extends beyond cars. Some of us will often overlook a problem in life as long as the car is still working, so to speak. Life is going on, so what’s to worry? Okay, so there’s a few squeaks here, a few grumbles there, and there may be smoke coming out of the engine after a while, but it’s okay! It’s fine.
Of course I’m talking about denial, and the fact that it’s not just a river in Egypt. Denial that there even is a problem is the source of even more problems for many people. In fact, it’s denial of a problem that kicks off the story of the book of Samuel, a saga that spans three lifetimes, many wars, and ends in a dynasty and a covenant.
Over the summer, I’m going to start a new sermon series I’m calling “A Man of God’s Own Heart.” We’re going to go through the lives of 3 important figures in Israel’s history: Samuel, Saul, and David. I personally love the narrative of Samuel. I find it compelling in its examination of the personal, as well as the political, because often the political becomes personal very quickly.
Today though, we start with a story many Sunday School teachers will remember well. It is a call story, one that resonates with me quite vividly, and one I hope will “tingle in your ears,” as the word of God often does.
The Powers that Were
As with many passages, this one needs a bit of understanding of the circumstances of the setting. This was a time in Israel’s history before any king ruled the nation. As such, the rulers were basically tribal warlords known as Judges, and rose to power through either prophetic lineage or military power. In Samuel, the ruling party in Israel rested with the priesthood of Eli and his family. Which… is problematic.
Why is Eli problematic? Well, nothing really. His sons, Hophni and Phineas on the other hand? Big problems. They abused their political power like crazy, doing such reprehensible things as money laundering, misusing temple offerings, and of course, abuse of women. To summarize: Eli’s sons were bad news. The worst thing is this: Eli wouldn’t do anything about it.
Oh, he “tried,” ostensibly. He warned them that what they were doing was “bad.” He said that sinning against God would mean repercussions eventually. But did he really try to stop them? No, not really. Not in any meaningful way. If he really wanted to address the problem, he could have. He could have taken them to court, or brought up charges against them with the other priests. But he didn’t. He let it go. He heard the noise in the engine, and he chose to ignore it, hoping it would get better. He loved his sons, and that’s not a problem, but when it actively harms people like they were doing? That becomes irresponsible. And that leads God to take things into God’s own hands.
The Powers that Might Be
So the situation is this: Israel is under corrupt leadership, unwilling to deal with the problems under the hood in any meaningful way. So what’s God’s solution to this issue? Easy. Find a new leader, a new prophet, one closer to God’s heart than Eli is. The good news, is that there is such a new leader available! Except… except for the fact that he’s about 10 years old.
Now then, it is easy to make the leap in logic that is often made at this point: God chose a young boy to right the wrongs of the world, and that means God favors the young! Which would make sense, if not for the fact that this is the same God who called a geriatric Abraham to be the founder of a nation, or for a middle aged Moses to lead his people out of bondage. So let’s not get confused here. God doesn’t care what age you are. No age is better or worse for God; it may be better for a more senior citizen to be a prophet than a young person. A may be better for a youth than another person. It simply depends on the situation; in this case, it was a 10 year old.
That then leads us to the question of “Why THIS 10 year old?” Why Samuel? What made him special?
Samuel’s story, as it often is, starts with his mother, Hannah. Hannah was the wife of Elkanah, an older man, and Hannah was the favored wife. However, and this is important, Hannah couldn’t have children, and it grieved her greatly because of this. How many people out there long to have children, and cannot? She greatly wanted one and could not. So she prayed. She went to the temple and prayed so hard and so loud, Eli thought she was drunk–which should be familiar to us, having just gone through Pentecost. Finally, she made a deal with God: if God were to give her a child, she would give the child to God– by offering him up to the temple to be raised. And so it was, and so she did. Samuel was that child, and when he came of age, Hannah gave him to be raised by Eli in the temple.
Samuel’s story starts as a miracle, but even miraculous people raised in the church can still be in the dark when it comes to having a relationship with God. The text says he “Did not know God.” I know I can identify with that. I was raised in church all my life, but it took God affecting my life personally for me to really begin to know who God is. And so it is with Samuel.
So we have this funny little story of Samuel being called to by God, and Samuel confusing God’s voice with Eli’s. And it’s charming, and repetitious like good stories are. We come to the climax, where Samuel finally recognizes the voice of God and answers back…and God tells Samuel what’s going to happen.
What’s going to happen? Something that will make Israel’s ears tingle! I love that line. It’s so… descriptive, yet mysterious. Because that thing is going to be difficult. And that thing is that who runs Israel is going to have to change. Those in charge refuse to deal with their problems, so God is going to fix it by force. It’s not going to be pretty.
The Realities of Now
Eli, to his credit, takes the news pretty well, given it means the end of his reign as judge and prophet of Israel. It’s a good example for us to follow, too, in some ways. Not the “refused to do something about it” part, that part we shouldn’t emulate. No, being open to honest criticism–that’s what we need to keep in mind.
If anything, this story is the first chapter in a long history of things that need to change. Eli represents the people in power now, who have historically had power. Samuel represents the generation to follow. Eli admits that someday, he will no longer be in charge, and that Samuel will take charge after him. As it is, Eli’s task is to train Samuel in the best way he knows how. Give him his wisdom and experience, in hopes Samuel will do better as things change.
That’s the lesson of this chapter. Change is inevitable; we have to be ready to roll with it. God is ultimately in charge. It’s up to us to impart wisdom to the next generation, in hopes that they can undo the mistakes that we have done. Through it all, God is leading us, guiding us, and ultimately saving us in God’s own way. Thanks be to God.