[This post is excerpted from this full sermon.]
The very first sentence of this story tells us that “the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.” And this sentence tells us right away how things are supposed to work. Samuel is a boy and Eli is a grown-up. Samuel is serving under Eli.
Which means that it is God who is not following protocol here. God has no business coming directly to Samuel. God’s supposed to go through Eli. Eli is a priest at the temple. His entire purpose in life is to mediate the word of God. Eli exists in the world so that God can speak to the people through him. God is supposed to speak to all of the people through Eli; and God is especially supposed to speak through Eli if God wants the attention of a boy serving under Eli.
But that is not how it happens. The Lord calls directly to Samuel, and this is so out of order, so unexpected, that it takes Eli awhile to figure out what is going on. According to our story, it is not until the third time Samuel comes running in to Eli’s room that Eli “perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.” Because the Lord is not supposed to be calling the boy. The Lord is supposed to be calling the old, blind priest who has served in the temple for decades.
But finally, Eli figures out what is happening. And this is where I think he is at least a little heroic. He tells Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if the voice calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
Perhaps by calling Eli “heroic” I am simply defining “hero” as someone who takes a better, more mature course of action than I imagine I would take in a similar situation. Because here is how I imagine it might have gone down if I were in Eli’s position. (You know, in my alternate universe where women served as priests in the temple.)
The fifth or sixth time Sammy came running in saying, “Here I am. You called me”–when I figured out it was actually God calling Samuel—I would have said, “Oh dear. That’s God calling you. God must be terribly confused. Here, let me just put on my robe and I’ll go back to your room with you so I can talk to God and see what’s up.”
Even though Eli, by all rights, is the one God should be talking to, Eli accepts the fact that God is speaking not to him, but to Samuel. And rather than get angry or jealous or bitter, Eli helps Samuel understand that it is the Lord speaking and instructs Samuel about how to best receive the word of God.
Not everyone can do that, you know. Some people are so sure about who God should be talking to and what God should be saying that they can miss the word of God altogether.
There’s a prayer I love by Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann that begins: “We are your people and mostly we don’t mind, except that you do not fit any of our categories. We keep pushing . . . trying to make you fit the God we would rather have.”
I love that prayer because, if we are honest, we have to admit that for all of us there is a God we would rather have. We all hold onto the way things should be. The way God should be. Who is and is not worthy to carry the divine message in this world.
It is hard to hear God when the divine voice operates outside the reasonable parameters we have set for it.
We serve a God who does not fit our categories or behave in ways we think a respectable God should behave. And listening for that God, instead of the God we would rather have, is hard. It is maddening. And it is necessary.