Preaching 1 Samuel 3:1-10
If the Samuel text is the focus for preaching, it is best to include verses 11-20 which the lectionary make optional. Without those concluding verses, the narrative is an idyllic story of an innocent boy called into service by God. With the additional verses, however, the plot changes drastically, demonstrating God's overthrow of an old and decrepit order, represented by a greedy and disobedient priestly family. Samuel is then presented as the wave of God's future, the ushering in of a new age
1. While visual imagery is present in the narrative (e.g., eyesight, lamp of God, morning, etc.), it is the auditory which is dominant. The God of this narrative is a speaking God, one who calls and invites. The hero of the story, the young Samuel, is one who not only hears, but listens attentively. Samuel, unlike the sons of Eli, took responsibility for the word of the Lord, seldom heard in those days.
Samuel is the antithesis of the neglectful person spoken of by Origen:
"You are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries, so you know how, when you have received the Body of the Lord, you reverently exercise every care lest a particle of it fall, and lest anything of the consecrated gift perish. You account yourselves guilty, and rightly do you so believe, if any of it be lost through negligence. But if you observe such caution in keeping His Body, and properly so, how it is that you think neglecting the Word of God a lesser crime than neglecting His Body?"1
Should the preacher wish to focus on responsibility for hearing the word of the Lord (v. 19), Samuel is an apt model, for he is completely responsive and obedient to the word. Even during God's call at night, when presumably he was at rest or asleep,2 Samuel was initially attentive and continually attentive. His obedience comes at a price; having been given a terrible message to deliver, he is afraid to tell the old man Eli (v. 15). The actual verdict is not reiterated but reference is made to the previous verses 12-14. The point, however, is inescapable: God's purpose will not be thwarted.
Eli, however, also is a model for hearing the word of the Lord. Eli's response is marked by faith and grace: "It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him" (v. 18). Eli, in a different fashion, is submissive and accepting of God's efficacious word, not questioning or resistant to God's judgment, even when the personal consequences are dire.
The preacher may wish to present the congregation with Samuel and Eli together as models of faith—though coming from different vantage points. Rather than preparing a sermon which caricatures Samuel and Eli—Samuel as responsive and Eli as unresponsive—perhaps the preacher would do well to allow an interplay of the two figures in order to offer the congregation an understanding of how we Christians are in fact both the eager youthful Samuel as well as the aged dim-sighted Eli. While we would fancy ourselves as the ever-attentive Samuel, resting in the temple of the Lord awaiting God's word, often we find that while the lamp of God is not extinguished, our sight is dim and our vision is blurred. What is critical is that despite who we are and how we respond God's grand design will not be stopped.
2. The preacher may wish to take a different tack regarding this passage. In light of the fact that this epiphany season focuses on enlightenment and baptism, one may wish to focus on the progressive nature of revelation and conversion. "Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him" (v. 7). God calls to Samuel four times, and with each call there is a progressive revelation for Samuel. Gradually in the narrative (although it seems quite quick to the reader), Samuel comes to know the Lord and the word of the Lord.
While not denying the possibility of the almost instantaneous conversion experience, conversion is an on-going process for most Christians. Samuel's growing up in the Lord depended on several encounters, which dispelled his initial confusion and misunderstanding. Samuel's understanding that the voice of the Lord had called rested upon his dialogue with Eli, one supposed to know God and God's ways. It is Eli who could offer discernment to young Samuel; his spiritual guidance—despite what personal shortcomings Eli may have had—set the stage for God's working in the life of Samuel. So too our on-going conversion, our growing up in Christ Jesus depends on dialogue who those who know God; it rests on individual and communitarian discernment of the Word of Lord.
John Allyn Melloh
1. Hom. in Ex. 13, 3. Quoted in W. A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1970), pp. 205-6. 2. Clement of Alexandria, Pedagogue 2.9: "We must therefore sleep so as to be easily awakened. For it is said: `Let your loins be girt, and your lamps burning and be like those waiting for their master...' For a sleeping individual is of no more use than a dead one."