For Your Servant is Listening

The Lord called Samuel again the third time.  Samuel jumped up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you did call me.”  Then Eli perceived that the Lord had called the boy, therefore he said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if He calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.  Then the Lord came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”  Samuel answered, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.”         I Samuel 3:8-10

One of the earliest traumas of my life was in the church I grew up in.  Across the whole back of the chancel was a great curtain from ceiling to floor.  In my young mind, since we faced the chancel in our worship of God, it was only natural for me to assume that God was on the other side of the curtain; we were on this side worshiping and He would be back there listening to us.

Finally one December day, my curiosity got the better of me: I wanted a peek at the Lord.  Mustering up all my courage after one Sunday Service, I made my way to the front right-hand side of the chancel (where there was no altar rail).  With eagerness and anticipation – and apprehensive of what I might see – , I pushed away ever so slightly the curtain.  I was going to catch a glimpse of the Lord we worshiped, perhaps even see some of the grandeur of heaven.

Imagine my utter disappointment to discover that there was a cinderblock wall behind that curtain!  It was just a wall!  And then, before I could get over my shock, one of the ladies discovered me and proceeded to scold me for being up in the chancel, when I had no business being up there.

In fact she scolded me so well, that when Christmas came in the next week or so and our pre-school Sunday School class was to go in the chancel to sing “Away in the Manger!” – let all the other kids go up, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to go up there, no how!  No amount of persuading would get me to enter the chancel, because I knew better.  So I, the pastor’s son, sat out while the rest of my class sang their song.

Imagine what it was like to have God Himself speak to young Samuel.  What a wondrous experience it must have been.  Was it a bit scary at first?  but then God didn’t come to Samuel the way He did for, say, Ezekiel or Isaiah, with the vision of the heavenly throneroom and overpowering majesty.  The picture presented in this passage is one where the Lord stood by the door – or on the other side of the curtain – in the temple and had a quiet conversation with this young boy.

Imagine being Samuel.  At that time in Israel’s history, people just didn’t have visions and conversations with the Lord like this.  What a tingle of thrill to realize that God would so honor him, would talk to him in such a way!  Did the wonder and astonishment make it hard to keep his mind on listening to the Lord?

But then, once he realized what the message was, how hard it must have been for Samuel, since the message wasn’t a nice one.  God didn’t spend any time chitchatting, asking how things were going, did he like living in the temple, how he was doing in his studies, what things he liked to do best.  No, there was a serious message to be given and that was the reason for this event.

The message was of judgment toward Eli and his faithless sons.  Perhaps what made the story so sad was Eli himself.  It was not as if he had been so terrible that with great relief you looked forward to him being thrown out.  It was not as if the man was so spiritually inept that he would teach bad theology.

Eli was genuinely a man spiritually sensitive to God.  Look at how gentle he was with Samuel and, in an age when spiritual revelation was quiet, he still quickly realized that GOD was speaking to Samuel.  Later the thing that made him fall backward in shock, whereby he broke his neck and died – it was not when he heard about the deaths of his sons, but rather it was the news of the capture of the Ark of Covenant which caused his death.

So Eli had a genuine spirituality, but he also had a serious problem: his sons abused the privilege and responsibility of their priesthood.  They made a mockery of it, confusing and eroding the faith of the common folk of Israel [I Samuel 2:12-17].  Now it is true that the sons were grown men and were responsible for their own decisions, but God’s judgment was that Eli, as High Priest, as the spiritual leader and teacher of Israel, had oversight of the spiritual health of Israel, yet despite that he let his less-than-spiritual sons REMAIN as priests.

Although he had warned his sons, and even was warned by God himself, Eli had not practiced the necessary discipline for protecting Israel’s spiritual walk with the Lord.  Eli would not remove his sons from the priesthood, and now, as the saying goes, “the buck stops here” – he himself would be removed.   What a most unpleasant message, what a burden, this child, Samuel, was given for Eli.
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Samuel, of course, continued in this extraordinary relationship with the Lord.  He played an essential role in some wonderful events, however he also had a few more sad duties which he would reluctantly carry out.

Two people had the chance to “peek behind the curtain,” and yet the outcomes were radically different.  Samuel was obedient, and Eli, although mostly spiritual, just could not bring himself to do the unpleasant task that was required of him.

The lessons for today center our attention on the idea that there are decisions to be made:  The Old Testament Lesson, of course, was whether Samuel would listen and obey, but more, that he would continue to be the faithful messenger of the Lord.  The Epistle [I Corinthians 6:12-20] sets before us the question whether we will take seriously the fact that God is with us and that we are the Lord’s – not just in the mind, not just in the intentions, but that we will be the very temple of the Holy Spirit.  The Gospel [John 1:43-51] questions whether we will follow our preconceived ideas about God and follow the crowd, or whether we will “come and see” and investigate for ourselves the call of our Lord to be one who follows in the footsteps of the Savior.

Like the challenge which faced Eli, we also must decide just whether we can really be spiritual in one area without being obedient in other areas, or whether we are serious about being the Lord’s representative in our lives.  Paul speaks of prostitution, and is quite specifically talking about the misuse of the body in that regard.  Yet throughout the Old Testament, prostitution also described the faithlessness of Israel, the spiritual prostitution of giving themselves to false gods.  Israel also had tried to play both sides of the fence and found out the hard way that it just didn’t work as they were led off into 70 years of captivity.

This is the concern for us as well.  Yes, we may be able to pride ourselves in that we have not been messing around with prostitutes, but when we think of the spiritual aspect, then it is a lot easier to flush with embarrassment.  Does Paul’s words have meaning for us as well?  Well, after all, how often do our following after false gods also have effect on our bodies?  One only has to think of how jealousy is often referred to as “eating your heart out.”   Anger, fear, and other such things which so often dominate our lives raise the blood pressure.  Many other things as well can abuse our minds, our bodies, our lives – all of which should be inhabited by the Holy Spirit.

The difficulty that Eli in the Old Testament Lesson reminds us about is that we can be in a very spiritual position, and even genuinely concerned about spiritual matters, and yet still have an area of our lives for which we just won’t take responsibility before the Lord.  There are places in our days in which if we look behind those doors in ourselves which we so often keep tightly shut, we find that we are indeed in rebellion.  We really don’t want the Lord to take over.  We really are not keen to obey.  We just can’t accept that if we do it the Lord’s way, that He will make it work out, because that was what He has promised.

So in the midst of this it is valuable to look closely at the Gospel and although Jesus changes the figure of speech to “seeing,” still His statement is just as challenging as Samuel’s was, when Jesus says to Nathaniel, “Before Philip called you, I saw you.”  Nathaniel likely wasn’t doing anything that he would have been ashamed of, but Jesus is speaking of something deeper. Perhaps at the foremost is that Jesus was saying to Nathaniel: “I notice you.  In fact, I know more about you than you could ever realize.  I have seen you.”

Likely in us, what Jesus was saying would raise all sorts of fears.  And yet, no matter all that Jesus had seen in Nathaniel, Jesus did more than accept him, He made him into a disciple.  Jesus is here as well, really and truly –, as truly as when two or three are gathered in His Name; as truly as He comes in Holy Communion, declaring to us that He has seen each of us as well, and then touches our lives with His very own Body and Blood.  And we also find that Jesus, knowing everything, has accepted us, making Himself of one Body with us, one Life, while calling even you and me to be His disciples, His representatives, here in this community, in this world.

But there is much more, for He has allowed us to look behind the curtain and discover that it is by no means a cinderblock wall, instead we discover the Glory of God.  Here in our worship we can say in response, “I have seen You –  in Your Word I have seen Your goodness; in Baptism I have seen Your Covenant; in Your life on this earth, I have seen the intensity of Your mercy and grace for my every day; in Holy Communion, I have seen unmatchable loving-kindness and faithfulness; on the Cross I have seen Your forgiveness and justice.  You have seen me, O Lord, and I have seen You!”

What a delight, then, it is to open up those long closed doors of our selves, coming to the Lord with our guilts and shame, handing them over in repentance, and in return finding peace, extraordinary life and power with God.  How delightful to discover than throughout all of this, the Holy Spirit has moved in to stay, in eagerness willing to work with us, showing us His way of wisdom and rebirth, showing us the extraordinary value that He would give to us.

We have something which is greater than what Samuel would ever experience in his whole life.  Here in Word and Sacrament, the Savior Who died and rose and Who now sits at the Father’s right hand comes, stands and calls OUR names. It must be our solemn resolve to respond here and now, with the same words on our lips as were on Samuel’s “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!”

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