Weekly Seeds: Coming Through the Night

Sunday, January 17, 2021
Second Sunday after Epiphany

Focus Theme:
Coming through the Night

Focus Prayer:
Steadfast God, you have enriched and enlightened us by the revelation of your eternal Christ. Comfort us in our mortality and strengthen us to walk the path of your desire, so that by word and deed we may manifest the gracious news of your faithfulness and love. Amen.

Focus Reading:

1 Samuel 3:1–10 (11–20)
3 Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. 2 One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. 3 God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was. 
4 The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said. 
5 Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?” 
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did. 
6 Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” 
“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.” 
7 (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.) 
8 A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” 
Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been. 
10 Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” 
Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.” 
11 The Lord said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! 12 On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household—every last bit of it! 13 I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about—how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. 14 Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.” 
15 Samuel lay there until morning, then opened the doors of the Lord’s house. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel, saying: “Samuel, my son!” 
“I’m here,” Samuel said. 
17 “What did he say to you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide anything from me. May God deal harshly with you and worse still if you hide from me a single word from everything he said to you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. 
“He is the Lord,” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.” 
19 As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.

All readings for this Sunday:
1 Samuel 3:1–10 (11–20)
Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18
1 Corinthians 6:12–20
John 1:43–51

Focus Questions:

  1.      How do you hear from God?
  2.      What role do dreams play in your life?
  3.      How do you react to messages you do not want to hear?
  4.      In what ways do you hear God calling you to respond to our times?
  5.      What beauty do you find in the night?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Why does it become so hard to hear from God? How do we know when we receive a divinely-inspired vision? And, what do we do with it?

The text opens with what might seem to be an incidental comment, “The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.” In fact, that introduction into the events to follow indicates the significance of the moment. Samuel will become the leading authority in Israel, and that rise in stature begins here. His call into ministry coincides with an end to the disconnection experienced between the people and God reflected by the dearth of divine revelation through prophecy and visions.

Over and over in the biblical text, we find instances where God seems far away. There are moments of peril and uncertainty in which the Creator seems indifferent to the condition of the created. Often, the introduction of a new prophet–a new messenger–signals a turn in the relationship. That is certainly the case with Samuel, whose ministry significantly shifts the leadership structure in Israel. The word comes to Samuel, and it comes through the night as dreams often do.

This call narrative is also a dream narrative. The call of Samuel is distinctive in that “Samuel receives a message that is not specifically addressed to him, and he does not receive a
mission assignment. He is not even directed by the Lord to repeat the message.” (Robert Gnuse) In some ways, the interaction between God and Samuel is a divine statement of continued presence. God is still here and still at work. It is not necessary to hear God or see God to know that the Holy One remains involved in the lives of God’s people. Even though the message is not one of comfort, there is the assurance that God is not far away.

In the United Church of Christ, we affirm that God is still speaking. Has God ever stopped? Has there ever been a time when the One who was and is and is to come abandoned those who bear the divine image and imprint? Or, is the disconnect found in ears that have been blocked or are not calibrated to recognize the voice of God? Have we lost the ability to discern a God-vision from a fantasy? God is still speaking, but are we listening…and do we believe it?

Samuel was already in the service of the house of God under the tutelage of Eli. His mother, Hannah, had dedicated Samuel’s life unto God before his conception. Walter Brueggemann notes that Samuel is a mutual gift, from God to Hannah and from Hannah back to God. His future, therefore, as a pivotal leader in the destiny of his people reflect the words of Psalm 139, “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” (v. 16b) Therefore, this call narrative is more confirmation than commissioning. “This was not a young boy, having reached a certain age, automatically beginning to function within the kind of spiritual experience known to his elders. Samuel carried out his service willingly and naturally, but without as yet a conviction that it involved a personal connection between himself and his God or a direct responsibility toward the people.” (Mary J. Evans) Yet, Samuel has a role to play in the life of Israel. While there is no specific assignment found within God’s words to Samuel, this moment serves as an announcement to Samuel, and to Eli, that his ministry is about to begin in earnest. His connection with God becomes established. Visions are on the horizon, and the word from God will be heard again.God has something to say and to reveal to the people and will do so through Samuel.

At first, Samuel doesn’t recognize it. He wakes upon hearing his name interrupt his slumber. Thinking that it must be Eli, he responds to his mentor, who in turn assumes that Samuel has been dreaming. Neither of them considers that it might be the voice of God reaching into Samuel’s sleep to awaken him, and eventually the children of Israel, to what is to come. The interchange is reminiscent of the word-play found in the Abbott and Costello skit “Who’s on First?” The back and forth reflects how mis-communication happens when we fail to hear beyond the limits of our expectations. Abbott is identifying names, but Costello thinks he’s posing a question. Costello answers the question that hasn’t been answered, and Abbott responds to the specific question rather than the larger problem. The two might as well have communicated in different languages given the lack of understanding that occurs through their conversation. While that skit provided classic comedy, that way of interacting with God would make for a deficient, confusing, and frustrating prayer life.

It takes three times for Eli to recognize the possibility that the “rare” word of God is entering into the world through Samuel. In each instance that Samuel thinks he is responding to Eli, he says, “I’m here.” For his encounter with God, Samuel receives a new response to give. “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” God doesn’t call the prophet to determine his location, God calls to see if God is being heard.

How often does God call us in ways that we do not recognize? How many times does God speak, but we think the message is coming from a different source? How often do we think it’s sufficient to be present when God wants us to listen?

That expression, “showing up is half the battle,” may be true, but it does not speak to which half is harder to wage. Certainly, there are times when presence is enough and is, in fact, a gift. The tradition of having calling hours or a wake, just as one example, demonstrates how presence can help to uplift and encourage those in despair. At the same time, that presence tends to be accompanied by some action, even if it is simply to share stories that convey solidarity and extend comfort. Presence leads to action.

Here, we see that the other half of the presence equation is listening. And, God has something to say that is not easy to hear. Perhaps that is why we would rather be present than participate. We fear what God is going to say. We might wonder if, at the time of Eli and Samuel, was the word of God really rare or were listeners of God harder to find? “Visions weren’t widely known,” but was that because God didn’t give them or because people didn’t receive them or share what God had revealed to them. The word that God speaks to Samuel would have been difficult to accept. Eli appears to understand this as he insists on hearing what God had to say. As Brueggemann states, “When the message of the dream theophany is given, however, there is nothing idyllic or childlike about it (vv. 11–14). The substance of the message should receive our primary attention. That substance is hard, abrasive, and devastating.” Judgement will come upon Eli’s family without hope of reconciliation. The prospect of delivering this message terrifies Samuel, but Eli insists on hearing it.

What if Eli hadn’t insisted on hearing the full message? What if he had been satisfied with a watered-down, comforting message that would have taken the edge off of God’s pronouncement? How often are the messages pastors deliver on a Sunday morning tempered by a concern that the people before us will not be able to receive it fully? Certainly, many speak past the fear, but what if we consider that there is at least someone who wants to hear it all. What if Eli wasn’t just directing his protege to tell God that Samuel was listening but was also including himself in that message to God? What if Eli was expecting to hear a word that was directed to him or was at least open to the possibility?

As I write this, the run-off election for the United States Senate in Georgia has concluded and the United States Congress has recognized the results from the Electoral College. Violent groups stormed the Capital Building, and four people lost their lives. Curfews in the District of Columbia were imposed because the assumption is that more trouble happens at night, yet the violence and intrusion occurred fully in the light of day, exposed for the entire world to see. In the midst of United States and Confederate flags on display, there were some who had shirts or signs with the name of Jesus in an attempt to associate their faith with these actions. It sent a message.

What message do we send as we display or withhold the banner of Christ in our lives? If God is still speaking, do we convey that message in word or deed or does fear keep us quiet and thus the word of God “rare” in the world?

God speaks to Samuel, and Eli insists on hearing the message. It isn’t God who instructs the young prophet to convey God’s word, but the one impacted by the proclamation has to draw it out of the fear that contains it. Eli accepts the harsh pronouncement. That acceptance was the gift of Eli to Samuel who increases in stature, in authority, and in impact even as Eli fades away into the shadows. The role of the prophet is never an easy one, but Samuel got his feet wet by delivering the worst news to the most significant person in his life. I imagine no other news he delivered on behalf of the One who called him ever garnered the level of fear of that initial message that came through the night. Eli’s insistence liberates Samuel to be the prophet he was called to be, and “the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” (v. 19) Brueggeman reminds us that Samuel, not Eli and his family’s imminent downfall, is the leading character in the narrative as “a bearer of revelation, as he is a child of miraculous birth. He is the one in whom Israel’s destiny for the future is vested.”

Samuel’s ears have learned to recognize the sound of God’s voice, and it happened through the night. Our culture has come to associate darkness as an inherently bad thing. Throughout the chaos and challenges of the past year, I have lost count of how many times I have heard it described as a “dark time.” It seems to be used as an all-inclusive metaphor for all things bad. Aside from the reality that is a hurtful and harmful attitude in a society plagued by racism and colorism, it also just isn’t true. When God creates the light, it does not replace the dark. It contrasts its function, and both are good.

Specifically, the darkness of night provides something of real value. In this passage, the night makes space for Samuel to hear God. The night is the time designated for sleeping, the time when our bodies rest, recharge, and rejuvenate. The night often, in a work-driven culture, is the only time available for recreation and reconnection with family and friends. The darkness of the late and early hours of the day provide time to commune with God without interruptions as we alternately wind down or gear up for the day.

Late into the night, as the Senate deliberated on the election results, one member of that body forcefully conveyed the message that the only response to the condition of our times is to tell the truth. He received an unexpected but sustained round of applause. That message, like so many others that need our full attention to be heard, came through the night.

The night has its own beauty and its own revelation. The heavens are only visible to the naked eye when the light of the sun retreats, and the reflection of the moon and the distant beams from stars so far away pierce into the beautiful, dark canopy that accompanies our rest. From the darkness of the womb, Christ breaks into the world. From the darkness of the tomb, Christ does it again. Those dark places are sources of anticipation, rest, preparation, and life. And for Samuel, that night where he lay in his room, the word of God, which had been rare, spoke to him, called him by name, and led him on the path to his–and his nation’s–destiny.

For further reflection:
“We are never short on opportunities to answer the call to assist the widows, support the homeless, stand up for justice, and to preach Christ crucified and resurrected. That is the true calling of every believer.” — Andrena Sawyer

“Everybody has a vocation to some form of life-work. However, behand that call (and deeper than any call), everybody has a vocation to be a person to be fully and deeply human in Christ Jesus.” –Brennan Manning

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay (lindsayc@ucc.org) is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.