Listen to the sermon here.
Do you remember Abbot and Costello’s routine “Who’s on First?” “Who’s on First?” is an epically long comedic bit about a disconnected conversation. Abbott and Costello are talking about a baseball team, but the players’ names are more than a little unhelpful. The first baseman’s name is Who. The second baseman is What. The center fielder’s name is Because. Abbot is trying to explain all of this Costello, who keeps misunderstanding him and their conversation unravels in a spectacular way.
I don’t know about you, but I go through phases of my life and faith in which I feel more than a little bit like a character in that sketch. There are times when I just feel slightly off kilter, when I can’t communicate what I want to, when I can’t hear God’s voice clearly, where everything feels a little disjointed. I’m in one of those phases of my life now where I’ll hand my husband a cup and say, “Could you give this sippy-clock to the baby?” And my accidental nonsense words often make much more sense than anything politicians or the media are saying. Are rich people corrupt jerks who are taking advantage of the rest of us? Are poor people lazy slobs who wouldn’t work if they could? Are our economic policies going to destroy our country? Where is God in all of this? Do any of the people claiming to speak for God know his heart? Is Tim Tebow really the closest thing we have to a prophet?
The writer of First Samuel captures this feeling of disconnect beautifully in the wonderful story of the Prophet Samuel’s call.
Samuel was given to Eli to raise by a woman named Hannah. Her story is another heartbreaking sermon entirely. Eli was raising Samuel in the priesthood in a time where the entire culture felt a little disconnected from God. The author of 1st Samuel introduces our story with the line: “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” He paints a picture of a community isolated from their God. Even Eli’s sons, who are supposed to carry on the line of priesthood, who are supposed to guard and protect the sacred traditions, have taking advantage of women in front of holy religious sites. They are horrible, profane men.
What happens next is not too far removed from our Abbot and Costello sketch. Now, it’s comic enough that Samuel keeps thinking the Lord’s voice is Eli’s, but this story gets even more wonderfully disconnected when you realize Sam-u-el in Hebrew means “God has heard” and El-I means “my God”.
When Hebrew speakers read this story they hear this wonderful subtext:
Then the LORD called, “God has heard! God has heard!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to “my God”, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.”
This confusion is even more pronounced because all the action in the story is happening in the most sacred part of the Temple. Samuel is literally sleeping at the foot of the Ark of the Covenant, where the Israelites believed God’s presence to rest. He is so close to God, but even in the holy of holies, God’s word is hard to hear and understand.
But, and it is a big but, remember that our God is not a God of disconnect. Our God is not a God of chaos. The very first thing God does in creation is bring order out of chaos. Even when the line of priests is as terrible as Eli’s sons, God does not abandon his people to chaos.
No, God cuts through all the disconnect and chaos and he speaks directly to the one person capable of hearing him. Samuel. Samuel cannot hear God on his own, he needs the help of his mentor who redeems himself mightily by understanding what is happening and encouraging Samuel to listen.
Eli and Samuel might not have expected God to speak. They may have assumed their disconnected way of life was the way life had to be, but when God did finally reach them, they responded immediately and with great courage.
When Samuel finally told God he was ready to listen, God did not give him an easy word. He did not say, “Samuel, I just wanted you to know that you’re really special.” Nope, he told Samuel to tell Eli,
See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.
In case you’re wondering, that is not good news. In fact, Samuel stayed in his room the rest of the night. You can just imagine him putting off communicating THAT message just a few more minutes! When he finally showed up at Eli’s door, Eli insisted he tell him the truth and to his credit, Eli took the bad news with dignity.
This moment was a critical moment in Israel’s history. Samuel is the hinge between the era when Israel was governed by Judges and when Israel was ruled by Kings. Samuel anointed both King Saul and King David and was the first big prophet of the era in which God used prophets to communicate his word. A huge, important chain of events began on this one night with God’s whispered word “Samuel. Samuel”
Samuel did not have time to prepare. There was no retreat. There were no prophet classes that he took in elementary school so he’d be ready for the responsibility. Eli did not have a corporate downsizing expert come in to gently break the news that his family was fired.
In an instant Samuel and Eli went from people who were as disconnected from God as everyone else, to being center stage on the story of God’s relationship with his people.
We are not in Advent any more, but this passage might as well be paired with the Gospel of Mark’s admonition to “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”
God is just as connected to his people of faith today as he was in Samuel’s day. We may feel disjointed and confused and disconnected. We may see signs of God’s leaders up to all sorts of bad behavior. We may believe the church is dying. But I am here to tell you that God is still God. God is still making order out of chaos. God still speaks, even if the word of the Lord is rare in these days, even if visions are not widespread.
Beware, keep alert, because you might, like Samuel, hear God whispering your name some dark night. You might roll over and tell your roommate to keep it down, but that will not stop God.
Beware, keep alert, because God may be trying to speak to you through someone else. Like Eli, it might be your job to help someone interpret what they are hearing. It might be your job to listen humbly while someone tells you how royally you have wrecked your life.
Beware, keep alert, because God might be starting something new with you. God might want to use you to break the world’s disconnect. God might want to use you to remind people that God demands justice and mercy and love. God might be calling you to use your prophetic voice against all that is broken in this world.
And if you are overwhelmed by the chaos of your own life, turn off the television and the white noise machine. Put down the newspaper and your iPhone. Tuck yourself into bed a little early tonight and wait in the dark and the silence. Listen for the sound of your own name, being called by the God that created you, knows you, and has big plans for your life.