God brings low, and lifts up high (1 Samuel 3) [sermon 10-15-2017]


October 12, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for October 15, 2017. From an ongoing series: “Word and Presence: God among us in the Old Testament.”

For further background, especially about the birth of Samuel, see my sermon from last year, Hannah’s Prayer.

The text is 1 Samuel 3.

Resources that helped shape this sermon include:

Bill T. Arnold, 1 & 2 Samuel. The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 80-90.

*Walter Brueggemann. First and Second Samuel. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 25-28.

*Stephen B. Chapman. 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 1 – 90.

Francesca Aran Murphy. 1 Samuel. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010), 27-32.

*Especially insightful.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen:

Call and response

Our story today is about Samuel, who heard and obeyed the word of God. And the word of God in this story is in the form of a calling. Over and over, we heard how: The Lord called to Samuel. This is something we’ve seen several times already in this series—the word of God comes in the form of a call, an invitation, a summons.

We heard that in the first story of this series. In the creation story, God didn’t just speak things into existence; God called them forth. God summoned them. God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared (Gen. 1.3). The light was summoned, and the light obeyed God’s call to come forth. And that’s how it happened with all the cosmos. God called out to the elements, and they appeared and configured themselves in obedience to God’s word.

Just as God called forth light from the dark chaos at the beginning of creation; God also called Abraham from the chaos of the ruins of Babel in Genesis 12. Called him to leave everything behind, and walk with God on a lifelong journey of faith. Abraham obeyed. Even when God called him to offer his future—his only son Isaac—as a sacrifice to God. And then, God called out to Abraham again: Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me (Gen. 22.12). The call of God claimed everything from Abraham—his past and his future—and gave everything back to him again.

Then a couple of weeks ago, we heard how God called out to Moses from a burning bush, and sent him to free Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, from slavery in Egypt.

When God called Abraham and Moses, they both replied the same way: I’m here. I’m present. I’m listening. I’m engaged. I’m ready to hear you out. And in our story today, the boy Samuel answers the call of God with those same words: I’m here.

The name Samuel means something along the lines of, He calls on God. But in our story today, what we find is God calling on Samuel. And Samuel responding with the same wide-eyed obedience we’ve already seen from Moses, Abraham, and even the light when God called it forth from the darkness.

When God calls

Anytime you hear a word or calling from God in the Bible, you know you’re on the cusp of something new and exciting. When God calls, possibilities that weren’t present before present themselves. What had not even been considered is about to happen. The scripts are ‘bout to be flipped, and things are going to change.

That’s what’s happening in our story today. It’s a few hundred years since last week’s lesson, when God led Israel through the wilderness. In the days of Moses, and his successor, Joshua, God led his people openly. They experienced God in the manna they ate every day. In the cloud that guided them by day, and the fire that led them by night. And in the earthquakes and lightning and smoke around Mount Sinai. And they heard from God on the regular.

But after they settled into the Promised Land, and Joshua died, Israel entered a new kind of wilderness: a moral and spiritual wasteland. The book of Judges describes it like this: In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what they thought to be right (Judges 17.6; 21.25). It was a time of turmoil, full of violence and confusion. There was no one to lead the people. The Twelve Tribes of Israel fought among themselves almost as much as they battled with enemy neighbors. Things were ugly. When it would get really awful, God would raise up spiritual, political, and military leaders called judges to lead the people and defend them. But they’d often be generations apart. That’s the world Samuel was born into.

It was a time when, as our story today points out: The Lord’s word was rare … and visions weren’t widely known. People didn’t see or hear too much from God. Maybe it was because they weren’t looking or listening. But God spoke to the young temple assistant Samuel, and the boy listened. He didn’t even know he was listening to God at first. Even the priest he served, Eli, wasn’t really expecting God to say anything new. That’s why it took him three times to realize the voice Samuel heard in the wee hours of the morning was YHWH’s.

When Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had dedicated her baby boy to God’s service, she prayed that God would shake things up. She prayed to the God who brings low, but also lifts up high! (1 Sam. 2.7) The God who flips the script and makes things happen. And she ended her prayer by asking: May God give strength to his king (1 Sam. 2.10). But remember, there was no king in Israel in those days. And Hannah knew that was a real problem. She was weary of living in a land of confusion, corruption, and violence. A world where there was no king, and no word from YHWH, so each person did what they though to be right.

When God called to Samuel, he wasn’t speaking tenderly to a child. He was raising him up as a mighty prophet who would receive words and visions from God; and would go on to anoint Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David.

Samuel was living in the borderland between two eras. The Wild West days of the Judges; and the rise of Israel as an established kingdom. And Samuel was God’s link between these two periods. God’s word was about to change everything for Israel.

Your servant is listening

So we were told, as the story began, that words and visions from YHWH were rare in Samuel’s time. Then we’re told about Eli, the priest Samuel assisted in YHWH’s temple, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see. I don’t think those two points are unrelated. No one was getting any visions from God because the spiritual leaders were spiritually blind. We actually get a hint of this early on in the book of 1 Samuel. Like so many biblical women, Samuel’s mother Hannah couldn’t conceive. And she was praying earnestly, desperately at the temple for a son. And 1 Samuel 1.13-14 tells us Eli saw Hannah praying and thought she was drunk. So he told her: “How long will you act like a drunk? Sober up!” How blind he was! He was looking at a hurting woman in desperate prayer, but only saw a drunk woman clowning. If this man is so blind to what is right in front of him, how can we expect him to perceive the will of God? If he can’t hear Hannah’s anguish in her silent prayer, how would he ever hear the word of the Lord?

But God had heard Hannah’s prayer, and gave her Samuel. Hannah, in gratitude, offered Samuel to service in God’s house. That’s how he’d come to live with Eli.

Then we are told that blind Eli was lying down in his room. A spiritually blind man lying in his bed—we saw that a few weeks ago from Isaac. Like old Isaac, old Eli had basically given up. But we’re also told God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet. On the one hand, the note that the lamp hadn’t gone out was just a time stamp—it was the early hours of the morning, just before dawn. On another, spiritual and metaphorical, level, God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet means there is still hope for God’s people. The light hasn’t gone out for Israel. Even though their leaders are blind, and as we will see shortly, corrupt. There is still hope for Israel because God is still with them. Later in life, Samuel anointed Israel’s greatest king, David. And David said this about God: you are my lamp, O Lord, the Lord lightens my darkness (2 Sam. 22.29). Israel as a nation could have spoken those words.

There’s still hope for Israel because, in a dark and confusing time in their history, God spoke in the predawn darkness to a boy named Samuel. And young Samuel—the answer to his mother’s prayers; the answer to Israel’s prayers; even the answer to God’s own prayers; listened to God and replied: Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.

Finally, someone to hear the word of God, and catch a glimpse of God’s vision for Israel! Oh church, this is why we must never underestimate how important it is to be present for God, and ready to hear and obey God’s call. Everything hung on this moment—would this child listen to God, and obey? Because Samuel had no way of knowing it, but as God spoke to him in the darkness, God was raising him up for the salvation of his people.

God’s word brings low, and lifts up high

The word God spoke to Samuel wasn’t good news for Eli. In fact, God told Samuel that what he was about to do was so stunning it would make the ears of all who hear it tingle! God was about to punish Eli and his household because his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. That is indeed a stunning thing to hear about—the sons of the high priest were cursing God.

The story of how exactly they were cursing God was told in the chapter before, 1 Samuel 2.12ff. Eli’s sons, Phinehas and Hophni, were abusing the sacrificial system. The priests got their food from the sacrifices Israelites would offer to God. The best portions of meat were reserved for the Lord, and the priests would eat from what was left. It was supposed to be luck of the draw. The priest’s assistant would come with a three-pronged fork in hand. He would thrust it into the cauldron or the pot. Whatever the fork brought up, the priest would take for himself (1 Sam. 2.13-14). But Hophni and Phinehas would send their assistants to grab meat reserved for God before the fat was even burned off. And if the person offering the sacrifice protested, the assistants would threaten them with physical violence. Basically they were overseeing strong-armed robberies—not just from the Israelites, but from God! What’s more, they were having their ways with the women who served at the meeting tent’s entrance (1 Sam. 2.22). For these reasons, we are told that: Eli’s sons were despicable men who didn’t know the Lord (1 Samuel 2.12). So while the sins of Eli’s sons were magnified in the eyes of God and the people of Israel; the boy Samuel kept growing up and was more and more liked by both the Lord and the people (1 Sam. 2.26).

For all these reasons, God told Samuel the household of Eli’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering. In the next chapter, 1 Samuel 4.13ff, God brings his terrible word of judgment against Eli’s family to pass. Hophni and Phinehas were killed by Philistine marauders. When Eli heard about it, he fell off his chair and broke his neck and died. The story makes sure to tell us that at this point Eli was very old and very fat, which is why the fall killed him.

And so we learn how God feels about spiritual leaders who bully God’s people; who prevent the faithful from making their offerings to God; who use their power to pursue their own agendas and serve themselves. 1 Sam. 2.26 says the Lord wanted to kill them. Our story today tells us when spiritual leaders behave in those ways, they’re cursing God.

When Samuel’s mother Hannah brought him to God’s house to dedicate him to the Lord, she sang praises to God who brings low, but also lifts up high! That’s what’s going on in our story today. He’s bringing low the household of Eli, who’ve grown blind and fat abusing God’s people and their privilege. God is bringing them low so he can lift Samuel up high. Samuel—who humbly says to God: Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening—will lead Israel for the next generation. Samuel, who listens when God calls, is chosen to guide God’s people into a new era. And the people of God recognized that. Our story tells us: All Israel … knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the Lord’s prophet.

Truly, God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet in Israel. For God has called Samuel to be the light who will guide them. Who will listen for a word from the Lord, and be open to God’s vision for his people.

Embracing God’s call

The next morning, Eli told Samuel not to hide … a single word that God had spoken to him. And Samuel did not. He told Eli how God would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about, and there was absolutely nothing any of them could do at this point to change God’s mind about it.

And Eli—surprisingly—took the news as well as anyone could: “He is the Lord, ” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.” He resigned himself to his family’s fate right there. In that moment, Eli and Samuel are joined together in obedient submission to God’s word. Even though this word from God means Samuel will be lifted high, and Eli will be brought down low. But Samuel didn’t gloat over this news. I’m sure it was incredibly painful for Samuel to tell Eli what God said. Eli was like a father to him. We should never be eager to hurt someone with the words of God.

Samuel and Eli both recognized this moment for what it was: a tragedy. Eli, who was supposed to be the spiritual leader of God’s people, turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the ways his sons were abusing the people. In doing so, he’d also grown blind and deaf to God. So that God had to bypass him and work through the young man, Samuel.

And through Samuel God has his people poised on the dawning of a new era. The days when there was no king in Israel, so each person did what they thought to be right, were about to be over.

For us now, this story challenges the church, and all of us who make up the church, to be open to where God is leading us. Eli had let himself go into a place where he wasn’t looking for God’s guidance, and he wasn’t listening to God’s voice. And that’s exactly why the Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. Because Israel’s leaders weren’t listening to God’s voice, or looking for signs of God’s movements. Eli didn’t know until it was too late that his time was up, and God had passed him by. Eli and his sons stand as an ongoing warning to God’s people.

We need to recognize—like Samuel’s mother Hannah did—that whenever God brings one thing down, God is always doing that to raise something else up high. God was bringing the time of Eli and the Judges to an end, so God could raise up Samuel, and through Samuel, to raise up David to shepherd his people. The wisest thing that Eli did in our story today was to encourage Samuel to listen to God’s call, and to embrace whatever God told him. No matter how much it hurt Eli, or how irrelevant it made Eli. In that moment, Eli showed deep character—he cared more about the future of his people than he did about his own legacy.

This story calls us, like Samuel, to say: Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening; to listen with open hearts; to discern what God is bringing down, and what God is lifting up; and to embrace God’s movements.

Because there was someone like Samuel dwelling in God’s house—someone who was willing to hear God out and yield to God’s word and God’s vision—our story tells us God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet. There was still hope for Israel. And as long as there are people in the church who seek God’s word and God’s vision, God’s lamp will continue to shine among the church as well.

God speaks to those who listen. They will discern God’s presence among us. Amen.


3 thoughts on “God brings low, and lifts up high (1 Samuel 3) [sermon 10-15-2017]

  1. Xyhelm says:

    I took Eli’s response to Samuel’s prophecy very differently. Instead of changing his life, Eli is just throwing up his hands, separating himself from God. He is saying, “He is the Lord. He’ll do whatever He wants to do. It makes no difference to me. God can do whatever suits His fancy. I won’t be able to stop Him. And I don’t care.”

    • jmar198013 says:

      The commentaries I consulted are evenly divided between my interpretation of Eli’s response, and yours. The reason I lean the way I do on Eli is, from a literary perspective, Eli is provided as a contrast to Saul. When Samuel tells Eli authority will be taken from him and his sons, and there’s nothing he can do to change God’s mind about this, Eli submits to God’s word. But when Samuel tells Saul authority will be taken from him and his sons, Saul resists the word of God.

      The author of 1 Samuel does a very good job presenting Eli, Samuel, Saul, and David as complex characters–there’s so one who’s a total white hat or black hat in those stories. They are presented as men with tragic flaws.

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