Today, we’re going to hear a piece of Scripture that we don’t get to hear very often—from 1 Samuel, this is the call of Samuel, who was a priest and a judge over Israel, just before the time of the kings. But in order to fully understand what’s going on here, we need to back up just a little further.
Samuel is the son of Hannah and Elkanah, whose story is found in the first two chapters of this book. Hannah prayed fervently for this child, and when he was born, dedicated him to the service of the Lord. So when he was old enough, he was sent to live with the priest Eli at Shiloh. These were still the days of the Tabernacle—the mobile Temple—and Eli and his sons were the priests who kept it all up. But Eli’s sons were…not nice people. They took advantage of the local women. They stole from the offerings and sacrifices that the people brought, and they gained a reputation as, well, jerks.
God had warned Eli about this, but they would not be dissuaded. You see, God had promised at one point that Eli’s descendants would maintain the priesthood far into the future—so, they thought, they could do what they wanted.
God remained unimpressed. And that is where we pick up the story.
Scripture: 1 Samuel 3:1-20
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.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the 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. 4Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and 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. 6The 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.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The 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. 9Therefore 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.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ 11Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’
15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ 17Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’
19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
If you take out the part about Eli and his sons, this is a beautiful call story—a young man who had been prayed over by a faithful mother, grown up in the service of the Lord, was mentored by a wise priest, hears the voice of God calling him to be a faithful servant in a new way. Samuel is widely considered by scholars to be the bridge between the time of the judges and the time of kings in ancient Israel, and he’s also considered to be one of the first prophets in the kingdom. He was faithful his whole life long, and he would go on to both anoint new kings and criticize them. The people listened well to him in the same way he listened for the voice of God.
That’s probably why the lectionary—the schedule of readings that churches around the world follow—conveniently leaves those parts out. It’s awkward and sad to think that Samuel, who had been raised by Eli, would have to be the one to deliver the news that his sons would not continue on as priests, and his lineage would not go on to serve in this way because of their actions.
But I had us hear the whole story today because those awkward parts raise what I think is an important question for us: what happens when a leader whom God has raised up decides they know better, decides to go their own way, and leaves behind the ways of God?
We see this pattern playing out all over the Old Testament—kings, in particular, priests, leaders and military personnel.
And every time, God sends someone to call them back. Sometimes, it works—the stories of David and Jonah are great examples. Most of the time, it doesn’t. And God’s reactions to that particular person vary: sometimes, they are cut off and destroyed. Sometimes, they’re just removed from leadership. Sometimes, the people pay the price for their unfaithfulness.
But there’s also another pattern to been seen here: in the face of an unfaithful leader who refuses to change course, God always raises up a counterpoint—a faithful prophet, a competing voice who can lead the people away from evil and towards faithfulness.
When I was in seminary, I had this amazing Church History professor: Dr. Dennis Voskuil. I’m convinced that it takes a very special sort of person to spend a lifetime studying the history of the church—the good, the bad, and the ugly–and still choose to be part of it, and Dr. Voskuil was and is definitely that special person.
He would often listen to his students despairing about some of the unfaithfulness we saw and experienced—in local churches, in popular Christianity, in our own lives and histories. From financial misconduct to tabloid scandals to leaders who just kept missing the mark, each one seemed like the end of the world to us. We occasionally worked up the courage to wonder aloud if the next big Thing would mean the end of the church as we knew it.
And he would listen intently to us, because he is an incredibly kind person, and then he would inevitably quote from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 16: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church.”
In every generation, no matter how far some have strayed, there has always been a “faithful remnant,” as God often calls them. Sometimes that remnant was quite small—even just a handful of people—but still, there they were, just like Samuel: continually worshipping God, continually walking in God’s ways, continually looking and listening for the heart and voice of God in their midst.
Two more recent examples come to mind, both of which come straight out of our Book of Confessions—part of the PCUSA’s constitution.
The first is the Confessing Church, which was a group of churches in Germany in the 1930’s that resisted Nazi control and spoke against some of the worst of Hitler’s policies. After a series of laws were enacted that were specifically designed to bring the churches under government control and in line with Nazi ideologies, and after a large portion of German Christian churches went along with it and supported those policies, several leading scholars banded together to form a resistance movement.
In 1934, representatives from the Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches in Germany gathered in the city of Barmen to draw up a document that we now call the Theological Declaration of Barmen. The core message was this: that Jesus Christ alone is the head of the Church, and we as God’s people are called to follow him and only him—not any one government leader, not any political party, not any other ideology. It was a theological statement in a politically-charged time, and the statement alone did not fight physical battles. It could not undo the atrocities that were to come. But it did offer the people of God another way to think about how God was at work in their time and their place, and it informed other ways of resisting.
The second example is the Confession of Belhar, which was based on the same sort of format as Barmen. This confession was written in South Africa in 1986, and focuses directly on that country’s Apartheid policies, which separated all people by skin color at every level—schools, workplaces, cities and towns, citizenship status, and yes, even churches. In fact, Apartheid was designed primarily by a Dutch Reformed minister. But instead of condemning individuals or even church bodies directly, the Confession of Belhar condemns not only Apartheid and racism specifically, but our tendency to separate ourselves even within the body of Christ. It calls the people of God to work for unity, reconciliation, and justice. Churches around the world have adopted it as a confession not only in solidarity with our South African brothers and sisters, but also as a reminder that we, too, are called to do this work in our own times and places.
I tell these stories not only because I’m proud to be part of a denomination that believes these theological statements are important, and also because I’m a nerd and I love this stuff. I say this because I want to encourage us, when we’re tempted towards despair, to look for the faithful remnant.
In the same way that Mr. Rogers always reminded us to look for the helpers when tragedy strikes—if you’re ever tempted to despair at the state of the church, watch and wait and listen to the faithful resistance in a harsh and divided world. Because no matter how bad things get, God will always raise up faithful people who can teach us how to walk in God’s ways–we just have to be willing to listen.
And that’s what Samuel teaches us. We might not hear a literal voice calling our name, but when we know Jesus well enough to recognize the heart of God in a faithful leader, in our modern-day prophets and our own hearts and minds, then we will always be able to find the holy resistance.