Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Epiphany – 1 Samuel 3:1-20
Have you ever God call you? What was it like? Some folks have pretty interesting stories, like angels singing and wild visions. Others feel like they’ve heard God call in totally ordinary, mundane things. I remember the first time I heard God call. I was at a theological conference of all things. I wasn’t in candidacy or anything yet. Just a casual churchgoer. I remember having a great time. At the end of the weekend, we were standing around a room doing a closing prayer, and it suddenly hit me – “Wait a minute! I’m not ready to leave! These are the folks I’m supposed to be working with! This is what I’m supposed to be doing!” And lo and behold, here I am….
Our Old Testament reading gives us another kind of call story. God calls the prophet Samuel. But to understand Samuel’s call, it’s important to remember where Samuel comes from. It starts with Elkanah and his two wives Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah bears children but Hannah is barren. “The Lord had closed her womb.” Now, Elkanah is a dutiful husband to Peninnah and father for their kids, but it’s no secret how much he loves Hannah, and Peninnah resents it. So Peninnah bullies Hannah upside and down. Torments her. Treats her like trash. What kind of woman can’t bear children? For years this goes on and what does that do to a person? All she can do is weep. Can’t eat, can’t sleep.
So Hannah goes to the temple and weeps bitterly as she prays in desperation. “If only you would look on the misery of your servant and remember me.” It’s a miracle she prays at all. She feels completely forgotten by God. “Give me a child, and I swear to give him to you as a Nazirite until the day of his death.” Now, that’s strong. That’s a holy order. She’d be giving him up to live his whole life in the temple. But whatever it takes.
Now while she’s weeping and praying her heart out to God, the temple priest Eli is watching. He thinks she’s drunk. So he yells out “how long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” But Hannah pulls herself together just enough to say “No, my lord, I’m not drunk. I’ve been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard me as a worthless woman.” Now, Eli is kind of a jerk, but he does one thing right. He bestows God’s blessing upon her. And indeed, she conceives and gives birth to her son Samuel. She even keeps her promise to God. Once Samuel is weaned, she takes him to the temple and leaves him there for the Lord.
Now, I know that’s not in our readings this morning, but we need to remember it in order to understand why God calls Samuel. We hear that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” God’s been pretty silent for a while. See, Israel is full of political and social chaos. Israelites brutalizing each other. It’s a bad scene. So maybe the prayer of this one righteous woman so surprises God that God sets something new in motion. Fast forward. Samuel’s living at the temple and serving Eli the priest. But it’s messed up. Our passage says, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” Like going to church your whole life and never hearing about Jesus. What’s Eli been teaching him all this time? But Eli’s old and tired and growing blind, so maybe he’s been checked out for a while. We know what that’s like, right?