Summary: Like Samuel and Eli, we don't always initially recognize God's Ring Tone, but God is calling to us, and our job is to listen.
As most of you know, I had planned to be at Spirit in the Desert Retreat Center, completing an intense Mini-MBA course this past week. But last Sunday afternoon, I had a strong sense that I wasn’t supposed to go. As I told that to (my husband) Gary and then to Wanda (our congregational president), I thought back to other times I’ve had that feeling. I’m not the best at hearing or answering God in a timely manner, but I am getting more accustomed to the Ring Tones God uses to get our attention. This week, God’s Ring Tone came with the song,
“Listen! Listen, God is calling, through the Word inviting, offering forgiveness, comfort and joy.” (1)
This week, between Ray’s health crisis and meetings and visits to those at home and in hospitals, and some important conversations with members and non-members, and much to pray about, I needed to be here, and I am so thankful that I heard God’s Ring Tone, identified it, and obeyed.
I have a lot of empathy for Eli the priest. We are first introduced to him several years before the lesson we have from First Samuel today. A woman named Hannah comes to the temple and prays fervently for a child. You may remember that Hannah is one of two wives of Elkanah, and even though she is his favorite, his other wife had given him children, but Hannah had not. So Hannah is in the temple praying, hard, and Eli, unaccustomed to fervent prayer, accuses Hannah of being drunk. Hannah defends herself, and Eli tells her that God will grant her petition. Nine months later, a little boy was born and named Samuel which basically means “God heard my begging.” Now little did Eli know that part of Hannah’s prayer was the offering of that child as a nazirite which meant that he was to be separated from the world and his family and consecrated to the Lord. So, once young Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him to the temple and gave him to God which meant that he became Eli’s responsibility.
Eli’s reputation as a parent wasn’t good. The Bible calls Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, “scoundrels” who disrespected God and the people. The sons attempted to cheat the people who had brought their offerings to the temple – they tried to get part of those offerings for themselves. Hophni and Phineas also seemed quite fond of the women at the temple entrances, and slept with them. Their father, Eli, knew all of this. He gave his sons a tongue-lashing, but there were no real consequences to them so they kept up their evil ways. And God noticed. And yet, here is young, innocent Samuel dedicated to God and given to Eli’s care. Would he turn out like Hophni and Phineas? Samuel’s parents visited each year, and his mom gave him a new robe to wear, but the vast majority of the time, Eli was the only parent Samuel knew.
In our story today, God calls to young Samuel. We don’t know from Scripture exactly how old Samuel was at the time, but the Jewish Historian, Josephus, wrote that Samuel was 12 years of age when these events occurred. The text tells us, “Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.” In other words, this is a new Ring Tone for Samuel -- God has not called him previously -- so he reports to Eli for help. And it’s clearly a new Ring Tone for Eli, too. The text tells us, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Eli did not recognize that God was calling to Samuel until the third call.
Samuel hears God’s Ring Tone and responds as Eli taught him, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” So God speaks. And God’s message is not anything like, “Thank you for working in the temple, Samuel,” or even, “I have great plans for you, Samuel,” but rather, “I am about to punish Eli and his family because his sons had been disrespecting me and my people, and Eli has done practically nothing about it.”
In other words, God’s Ring Tone sounds like: dum, dum-dum-dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum!
But, in spite of the very bad news about the future of the house of Eli, Eli is respectful of the message from God, saying, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.” I give Eli a lot of credit for that response. Now God has never sent a message to me that my family will be punished, but if I ever did receive a message like that, I know that I wouldn’t accept it the way Eli did. Even though we pray, “Thy will be done,” it is not so easy to accept God’s will without complaining when that will is contrary to our own will.