I Samuel 3:1-10, [11-20], Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, 1 Cor 6:12-20, John I: 43-51
Today is the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany and by the luck of the lectionary lottery we celebrate today two epiphanies. The one is the light of the star that led the Magi to the manger. The other is the calling of Samuel to be a prophet when he was 12-13 years old–the age at which a Jewish boy has his Bar Mitzvah. These two revelations show the same divine presence disclosing itself to whom it will in different circumstances across a thousand years.
Before Samuel was born, his mother Hanna, the wife of a prominent Levite, Elkanah, was barren. She grieved. She vowed that were she blessed with a son she would consecrate him to G‑d. Eli, the priest of Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant rested, overheard her and prayed for her. Within a year she gave birth. She named her son Samuel. When he was three she took Samuel to Shiloh for Eli to raise.
At the time when Samuel began his apprenticeship under Eli, the Israelites had long-since escaped Egypt, survived the wilderness, and under Joshua, conquered the Canaanites. After the war, the tribes distributed the land among themselves by lot. They disbanded their army and their central governing council. The Israelites were governed, to the extent that they were at all, by local tribal chiefs each of which was part warrior, part priest, called “judges.” Miraculously, despite fighting enemies without and themselves within, Israel under the judges held-together in the Promised Land for 300 years. Think of the United States in 1781 under the Articles of Confederation but before the Constitution in 1789, do that and you will grasp the situation of Israel, from 1,300—1,000 BC. By any reasonable odds, it should have been just a matter of time, before each nation fractured, was conquered, assimilated by some foreign power, and forgotten. Unless, of course, each nation did something radically new.
Eli was one of Israel’s judges. And well he should be. Eli was a priest in a line that stretched back to Aaron–Moses’ right-hand man. Eli presided over the shrine of the Ark at Shiloh. How Many of you Have Seen “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Then you have seen the ark I am talking about. People from beyond Eli’s region came to Shiloh to offer yearly sacrifices. Shiloh was one of the few points of national unity. But there was a problem. Eli had two good-for-nothing sons. These two extorted undue portions of the sacrifices the people brought to Shiloh. They sexually abused women whenever they could. Eli criticized his sons–but without effect.
Now keep in mind that if obedience to Yaweh was what made the Jews different from all the other peoples around them–anything that would discredit that belief was a threat to Jewish cultural identity and national survival. What would happen to belief in Yaweh if Eli’s sons inherited the priesthood of Shiloh? The moral center of Israel would collapse and not long after that, the nation.
While the first part of our lection shows that Eli was kind to Samuel, the second part shows he never curbed his worthless sons. Yaweh then gives Samuel a message that, as our scripture says “will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” God took the priesthood from Eli and gave it to Samuel.
So what next? Samuel grew up, “the Lord was with him, And all Israel…knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.” So all is well? Not quite. The people suffered constant raids by the Philistines. In response, some of the tribes would fight some of the time, all the tribes would fight some of the time but no tribe would reliably fight at any given time. The people implored Samuel, for a king like all the other nations. Samuel said “No.” But the Lord over-ruled Samuel “Harken, unto the voice of the people, they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” (I Sam 8:6) When the first King of the Jews, Saul displeased Yaweh, Yaweh instructed Samuel to consecrate David as king.
David captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it his capitol. Then, under David’s son, Solomon, the first temple was built.
The events I have summarized occurred around about 1,000 BC. The Book of Samuel was written in 550 during the Babylonian exile. When the Jews looked back on their history they looked upon the Kingships of David and Solomon as marking their best days. It is no wonder that when they thought of a Messiah they would expect someone of the stature of David. Thanks ultimately to the obedience of Samuel, who consecrated David, the Jews of the exile had a cultural memory strong enough to nurture hope when reason alone counseled despair. And so at Epiphany, we celebrate Jesus, son of David, consecrated by Samuel as the incarnate prophetic light come to dwell among us—and defy the darkness.
So what do we learn from the epiphany that came to Samuel when he was scarcely old enough to understand—and that came to the 3 Wisemen who followed a star, the meaning of which they but understood in part? The epiphany sent to Samuel came to him at night. Samuel after consulting Eli, listened and followed a destiny he would never have chosen for himself, and knew he could not achieve alone. The epiphany of the wise men also came at night. The 3 wise men noticed the new star because it was their business to keep watch at night and interpret the signs of their times.
And so let us with Samuel wait in silence in the darkness and like the wise in every generation should we be given light, let us interpret the signs of our times as best we can bringing such gifts as we have. Should we hear the call of vocation–SAMUEL, SAMUEL—calling each of us by name beyond the sacred page, let us say what Samuel’s imperfect master Eli, instructed him to say—”Speak Lord, for thy servant is listening.”
Tomorrow we celebrate the birthday of a great modern prophet—MLK. When I was an undergraduate at Portland State it was my privilege to hear Dr. King. I cannot remember his words, but I will never forget how I felt when he spoke. I experienced King as a charismatic personality who radiated the depth and urgency of his passionate, prophetic quest for social justice. King lived his life following the way of Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, all the prophets, and of Jesus. And he speaks still, bidding us to awaken, leave the darkness, follow the voice and star of conscience, and advance that Great Epiphany Day when the shadows of the human heart vanish and the Kingdom of righteousness and justice breaks forth in the light. In Memphis at the end of what would be his last sermon King bequeathed us these words.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”