It`s often suggested that if you`re going to really understand a passage from the Bible then you need to be aware of its context- that is to say- you need to at least acknowledge that the things you are reading might be set in a much larger narrative or story. So when it comes to tonight`s short extract from the First book of Samuel, although this incident in particular is very well known, unless we appreciate something of what has gone before it we will I believe miss something quite significant.
Our passage of course, was the calling of Samuel; the young boy who hears the Lord calling him in the night. But here`s the background; this call is set against the backdrop of what one can only describe as a period of `malaise` in the life of Israel`s faith. And all of this is accentuated by the skilfulness of the story teller. The setting for our reading is darkness. Everyone`s sleepy and the sanctuary lamp hasn’t quite gone out. And what interests me is the way these act as metaphors to which we`ll return in just a moment.
But you may recall, the Book of Samuel opens with the account of a childless woman, Hannah. She goes to the shrine at Shiloh to pray and we hear of her heartfelt pleas to the Lord that she might have a son. We hear about her husband who doesn`t understand what she`s going through; his other wife who taunts Hannah and then there`s the priest, Eli who gracelessly misinterprets her prayers of longing as drunkenness. And what strikes me is the way this judgemental attitude, this lack of compassion just seems so in keeping with the peoples` general lack of devotion to the Lord; a point underlined by the behaviour of Eli`s corrupt and disreputable sons Hophni & Phineas. So as we begin, this is the context we need to bear in mind. The focus is on the decline of the shrine at Shiloh.
However, the Lord is gracious to Hannah and gives her a son. And against this background we might marvel at her faith as she dedicates him to the Lord and gives him into the hands of this place and it`s people who are a shadow of what they are called to be. So when we turn to our passage, and as if to labour the point, the writer tells us three significant things. Firstly, he says “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread”. Their faith lacked vitality. Secondly, he describes Eli as someone “whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see”. They were afflicted with spiritual blindness. And thirdly, as if to accentuate his laziness we`re told he was “lying down in his room”- as if to say `he`d left the place where he should have been”.
Now, having painted this picture of decline the writer gives us a glimmer of hope. Because, notice the contrast comes when we`re told, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out”. Such a small thing; just a flicker but this is where the boy Samuel comes into play. For unlike Eli, he`s not in his room, he`s “was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was”… And almost because of this – this proximity to the ark- the symbol of the presence, he hears a voice.
Again, the story is set up beautifully. It`s a dark time, peoples` senses are dimmed; they`re led by priests who have lost touch with the Lord and who are going through the motions of faith…… but before the lamp completely goes out something flickers into life. And we know the story: then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’
Now, because, as we`re told young “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” there is this somewhat comic to-ing and fro-ing between Samuel and Eli, until eventually Eli realises what`s going on and he says 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`. And the rest, as they say, is history……
So where does this magnificent story lead us? Well I find both words of judgement and encouragement here. Firstly, I admit to a certain nervousness when reflecting on Eli the priest. Perhaps like me you would recoil at his brittle and condemnatory assumptions about Hannah and only when she explains her plight does he bless her in the name of the Lord. Such jumping to conclusions; such a failure of compassion is not only a personal issue for us all to wrestle with but also to repent of as a community; wherever we have been guilty of a collective censoriousness.
But Secondly, what I find encouraging- and there`s a certain wistfulness about it – is the way Eli is able to fulfil his task of helping Samuel recognise the voice of the Lord. I mean we may have some justification for being critical of him but out of the depths of his long service, as I say, something flickers into life. It`s the remembrance that he and the shine over which he was custodian were to be truly priestly; that is `bridge builders` between the Lord and his people. And for once, Eli gets it right. Indeed, he went further. Eli insisted that Samuel tell him everything that the Lord had said to him even though it didn`t make comfortable hearing. Much to his credit Eli acknowledged his failings and those of the people and said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’ But, as I say, it didn’t end there.
The word `spirituality` is often unhelpfully bandied about these days. And what we often hear people doing is differentiating between what they call being `spiritual` and being `religious`. Now, that`s a discussion for another day- but the implication is that somehow `spiritual` equals good and religious equals bad and that by definition you wouldn’t go to the likes of `Church of England` for anything `spiritual`. My point is that despite having an incredible heritage and richness behind us when it comes to guiding people in the life of prayer we have allowed ourselves to be pigeon holed as severely lacking in this department. We have allowed all manner of charlatans and wolves in sheep`s clothing to imperil peoples` souls.
You would with some justification go to the Shrine at Shiloh and ask “You do, do God here, don`t you?” And it`s an important question to bear in mind when reflecting on our common life; it`s something that exercises me all the time, given the multitude of things that preoccupy us. In other words, the very thought that people might not consider us place, a resource through which they might be drawn closer to God is as much a matter of shame for us as it was for Eli who was lying down at home rather than resting (as Samuel did) in the presence of the Lord.
But like some jaded `whisky priest` who suddenly remembers why he first came into ministry Eli draws on this memory to nurture Samuel`s faith. Finally the penny drops, he realises that it`s not about him but God. He points away from himself. “I didn`t call you” he says to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ In much the same way I look upon our church locally and in the wider scene as standing under the judgement of the Lord. In the sense that what we have allowed ourselves to become is far than honouring to him. But I find hope in entering into this tale of the voice of God calling in the night. There is something deeply affecting in that picture of the lamp of God still flickering and of what happens when there is a waiting on God and a quality of listening. I say again, for all his failings Eli pointed Samuel away from himself and led him into an encounter with the Lord and this is surely our task.
Because all of this, this worship, this liturgy we find so warming is not about us. It points us to the Lord so that we might become the kind of people who point, indeed lead others to him. Samuel lay down in the presence of the Lord and listened. There`s the foundational task for us all. The transformational work begins in silence. As the writer of one of the psalms says: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently before him”. (Ps. 37.7)