1 Samuel 3.1-20
Did you know that getting out of bed too quickly can be bad for you? Someone has done a study. And surprise surprise, when we first get out of bed, the state of our brain is the same as if we were completely drunk. It wears off though, very quickly. Yet in those first few moments it is apparently risky to attempt anything hazardous or make major decisions.
The effect must be less for children. In our first bible reading today, the boy Samuel got out of bed quickly and came running when he heard a voice calling him. He did not know it was God, because, says the writer, he did not yet know the Lord. He thought it was his guardian, Eli the priest. But for Samuel it was a very significant getting out of bed, because it changed his life forever.
These are the two people involved in this story.
First Eli. He was old. His sight was failing him. He had two sons, who were also priests. They happened to be scoundrels. God wanted to stop the handing down of priestly duties from father to son, because Eli’s boys were such awful priests. Eli had attempted to restrain the activities of his sons, but he had been unsuccessful in controlling them. So Eli must have been quite a broken man in his later years.
However, the extraordinary thing in the story is that even though everything seemed to be falling apart for Eli, he still had a role to play in God’s plan; he still had something very important to do for God. It was to Eli that the boy Samuel had been entrusted for training. And on the night when the Lord called Samuel, it was Eli who helped the child to listen and respond to God. Eli observed what was happening in Samuel and gave the right words of encouragement at the right moment. It is a beautiful picture of God using us in spite of our weakness or our frailty.
I have a grandson who confides in me. He is a complex person; I try to help him, but sometimes it seems things will never get resolved. But as I was reflecting on Eli and the boy Samuel, it occurred to me that I am, like Eli, at least a point of stability in my grandson's life. That is at least what Eli was for Samuel. And God used that relationship for something good. So I mustn't give up. You might be in a similar role with someone you know and love. You might be their one safe harbour in the storm. It can be a very tough role to have. You may never see a change in the person. But God has appointed you and will give you the needed grace to see it through.
And then there is the boy Samuel. Samuel’s mother Hannah had been childless for some time. In those days to be childless as a woman was to have lost one’s purpose in life. A man had several wives in those days. Hannah had been bullied by a rival wife for being childless. But she prayed to God, and he heard her prayer; and she conceived. When Samuel was born, Hannah made a vow to offer Samuel in God’s service. When he was weaned, which could have been age 3 or 4 or even slightly older, he was taken to the temple and left with Eli the priest. I have always inwardly winced on hearing this. But we should not judge other cultures and times by our own.
What is extraordinary about that night in the temple is that God spoke directly to someone who did not know him. The biblical expression ‘to know’ means to know well, as we might say to have faith or believe. Samuel didn’t yet know God. Adults often agonise over not having enough faith, but children don’t. Jesus said that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move mountains.
So what does it take to hear from God? What do you need? To whom will he speak? We usually think of a child as being open to new things, although not always, as most parents would know. It is certainly true that as we grow older, we can lose our openness as we become set in our ways. How can we cultivate that openness of spirit of the little child? Brother Roger of Taizé, who has given us the chants we sing every Sunday in our Eucharist, says it is a matter of cultivating a good heart, and being a person who prays and listens.
Many of the great spiritual writers say that enough faith is just crying out ‘here I am God,’ or even the simple longing to be able to pray. And this prayer is heard. There is no special technique. It is the plea of the penitent thief hanging on the cross, ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.’ Or the prayer of the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’ The only way to enter God's presence is without pride or pretence.
The child Samuel did not know the Lord at that early time in his life when the Lord called to him. Samuel did not know who was calling. God calls today and many do not know him. Unless they are helped, they will not know who it is who is calling.
God loves far more widely than just committed believers. The world is filled with God's grace, it just takes the eyes of faith to see it. Peoples of other faiths have the same longings for the eternal that we have. They can have the same sense that Samuel had, that someone is calling them. And there is only one Someone who is calling.
God’s love is costly for God, since he loves even those who do not love him. We are right to think that there is a catch, that there has to be a price paid for this love that throws itself away. Jesus paid the price of this costly love. He paid the price once for all. So that we might all hear God calling and come into his presence, in the night, or at anytime.
What is he saying to you today? Here are some possibilities:
Do not be afraid, I am with you in this trial.
Give that problem to me, I will carry the burden.
You are forgiven; enter into my joy.
I love you very much.
I love X as much as you do; leave him/her to me.
You are my representative in that situation; have patience.