Head-Down

Year B Second Sunday after Epiphany (1 Samuel 3:1-20)

This is a sermon I wrote for the homiletics class that I’m taking at Emmanuel College.

The covers are pulled up around your shoulders, and your bedroom is totally silent except for the sound of your breathing. The grey light of morning filters through your curtains and nothing is moving except for the slow rise and fall of blankets as your breathe. You, of course are in dream-land. Completely asleep. In your dream you’re fighting off the brimstone-laden advances of a fire-breathing dragon in a dank cave in when in the distance you hear the far-off sound of trumpets. No wait, those aren’t trumpets… is it the sound of a truck backing up? You’re so distracted by the sound that while you’re looking for its source the dragon lunges at you – and suddenly you’re awake. That sound; that distracting and insistent sound, was of course your alarm clock beeping away to remind you that it’s time to roll out of bed and prepare for the day ahead.

The scripture today revolves around another sleeper: Samuel. You see, Samuel was kind of a helper in the temple. You can think of him as a kind of apprentice to Eli. The temple was a place where the ark of the covenant was kept. This version of the temple had stone walls, and was a somewhat permanent structure, though it didn’t have a traditional roof. Instead the roof was made of tent fabric, which would have been a holdover from David’s time when the temple was a more portable design. It’s believed that there would be rooms near the front of the temple for the priests to sleep. Inside the temple proper there was a large, seven-branched menorah which would have been filled with olive oil to light the temple through the night. It’s near here that on this particular night Samuel was sleeping. It was nearly morning and Samuel lay in a deep sleep, when he hears his name being called in the distance. “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel’s master, Eli, was old and losing his vision, so it makes sense that he would need assistance in getting around, particularly in the darkness of night. Samuel runs to Eli and presents himself to his master. But Eli is confused – he didn’t call Samuel! “Go back to sleep! Lie down.” he says. Samuel goes back to his sleeping place and tries to doze off again, when he hears his name being called again! “Samuel!” Again, he runs to Eli and again Eli tells him to lie down – it wasn’t him that called. The temple is quiet again… Samuel is exhausted. It’s only an hour or two from when he needs to be up to start opening up the temple for the day. His eyes grow heavy and again the voice calls his name! “Samuel!” Someone has got to be playing a trick on him! But being the loyal apprentice that he is, Samuel gets up again and goes to Eli. Eli is confused for a moment, then abruptly the situation makes sense to him. “Samuel,” he says, “Go lie down; and if God calls you again, you shall say, ‘speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Samuel nods in understanding and returns to his place. In the low light of the lamp, his mind begins to slow and Samuel starts to drift off… “Samuel! … Samuel!” Suddenly he is alert and in the shadows of the room, Samuel can see a figure. It’s the Lord! He responds, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And so the Lord spoke to Samuel and told him of the punishment for Eli’s house because of the unfaithful actions of Eli’s sons, confirming the prophecy which was pronounced previously by an unnamed man.

Well! So much for sleeping. Samuel lay there until the morning and when it was time, he opened the doors of the temple and started getting things ready for the day ahead when Eli called to him. “What was it that the Lord told you?”, said Eli. Of course, Samuel didn’t want to tell Eli about the curse that the Lord had set out. Eli insisted though, and so Samuel told him what the Lord had said to him. Eli had already heard the prophecy from the unnamed man, but that didn’t dull the shock of hearing it confirmed through his apprentice. Once he had absorbed it, he replied in the way of a fatalist, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

Back at the very beginning of this scripture, during the prologue to the story of Samuel’s call, the author states that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” and “visions were not widespread.” This kind of silent treatment from God can be seen as God’s judgement against the way that people were living in Israel. Samuel was born into a time in Israel when the people were moving toward a time of great change in the way that they were governed and in how they related to God as a covenant people. The leadership in the temple was called into question as Eli, the prophet of that time must have been seen as someone who didn’t have a lot of influence over the people – it was no secret that he wasn’t trying very hard to keep a handle on his sons who were essentially stealing from the offering plate! God wasn’t happy with this prophet, nor was God pleased with the people of Israel.

Even today, it sometimes seems as though God doesn’t make God’s word known frequently in our lives… more often it’s as though people can’t be bothered to pay attention to what God is doing in the world.

When I was working toward my undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo, I would frequently ride my bike to school – particularly in the fall and spring. The campus at UW has a road that encircles much of it, predictably called “Ring Road”. On the west side of the campus, Ring Road goes down a decent grade (for southern Ontario), which is fantastic when riding your bike to the university’s colleges in that area… but thoroughly a pain when heading home! I can remember one fall morning making my way home from campus and struggling up this hill.. On my left I could see clusters of students making their way from their dorms onto the main campus across the road. Near the top of the hill I could see another cyclist who was starting to pick up speed on the downward slope. As he continued to pedal and go faster and faster it was obvious that he was going to cross the path of a student walking toward the campus, so he started ringing the bell mounted on his handlebars. Ding! Ding! I could clearly hear the bell from my vantage point, but the student was completely oblivious. Looking closer one could see that the student has headphones in and was busy texting on their phone while walking straight into the road. The cyclist continued to ring his bell and started to move toward the centre of the road to make room, but a passing car made it impossible! A collision seemed imminent when the cyclist shouted “HEY! LOOK OUT!” catching the student’s attention just in the nick of time as he was nearly creamed by the bicycle.

Sometimes we’re a lot like that student. We go through our lives with our heads down and earbuds in, oblivious to the world around us… sometimes literally with our iPods and cell phones, but more often than not we are simply too wrapped up in our own problems and challenges that we don’t take the time to see the needs of those around us. We don’t hear the insistent call of the Lord in our lives.

Samuel experienced this kind of spiritual deafness when it came to hearing the Lord. The scripture says that Samuel didn’t “know” the Lord and so he was unable to grasp that it was the Lord calling to him and not Eli. The good news in this story, however, was that the Lord continued to call to Samuel. The Lord was persistent in attempting to open communications with Samuel. The authors of the text go so far as to show the Lord repeating Samuel’s name in order to catch Samuel’s attention. The Lord was ready to call a new prophet after a long time of silence, and a misunderstanding of the call wasn’t about to get in the way. It’s time for God to shake things up and get their attention. The scripture says that God is going to do something which will make the ears of anyone who hears of it tingle! The beginning of this great tingling plan is to break the silence which had held fast over Israel for so long and to speak through Samuel to the people of Israel. In this story we see God appear right there in the temple.

Today God calls us too. We might not hear at first, but God is persistent and continues to call to us in various ways. Whether it’s a niggling at our conscience which lasts for weeks (or years!) before we acknowledge its presence, or if it’s a close friend in our life who encourages you to pursue a specific vocation. We, those in training for ordered ministry, sometimes forget that the Lord calls everyone to tasks. Whether it be a call to Word, Sacrament, and Pastoral Care, or be it volunteering at a soup kitchen, God will call to us until we grasp what it is that we are being called to.

My largest experience of a call from was through opportunities presented to me through my experience of church community, partnered with that insistent, persistent pulling that told me “this is what I want you to do. Helping to lead and inspire the people of My church on earth is what you need to prepare for.” This is a message that, for me, looking back on it was being sent to me for a few years before I acknowledged it. All of us will experience calls in different directions to do different things, but everyone remains called to love others as we would love ourselves. Sometimes many of us despair over the fact that in our lives we don’t seem to experience a call in the manner Samuel does – a direct, face-to-face conversation with God – the jarring alarm clock beeping sound which jerks us out of our old ways and into new ones..

Over the years, however, I have come to realize that God’s calls tend to reflect a more gentle, guiding hand. Imagine yourself in your bed again. The comforter and sheets are pulled up snugly around your shoulders and morning is slowly appearing. Gradually the sun rises outside your window, shining its invigorating light through the curtains and onto your face. The light filters through the leaves and flickers gently over your face. Through your nostrils, you can smell breakfast being prepared in the kitchen. Gradually you awaken and rise for the day. Today is the day that you will finally hear and understand God’s consistent call in your life.
Amen.

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