Here I am
Sermon preached at Enmore, Second Sunday after Pentecost, 3rd. June 2018
Readings: 1 Samuel 3.1–20; Psalm 139; 1–6, 13–18; 2 Corinthians 4:5–12; Mark 2:23–3:6
The story of the call of Samuel is a beautifully told narrative in the Old Testament which is probably very familiar to most of us and for that reason alone is worthy of consideration. Familiarity may not breed contempt but it may breed the idea that this story has nothing new to teach us.
First of all let’s remember the context. Samuel was a child of promise. His mother Hannah, had been childless in a marriage where she was loved but not loved exclusively. Her husband, Elkanah had another wife who bore him several children: polygamy being common in those days. Hannah remained childless, the source of great grief to her, made all the more painful because her rival continually tormented her about her infertility. One day when visiting the sacred tabernacle at Shiloh she poured out her heart to God and made a vow that if God would give her a child she would give this child back to the Lord. She shared this information with Eli the priest, who sent her away with the comforting words, “Go in peace, the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” God not only answers Hannah’s prayer but he also answers Israel’s prayer for Israel is waiting for a new leader. Israel at this point in history is not a nation but a group of tribes, constantly warring with each other and without any central authority either religious or political. The land is marred by lawlessness; the narrator of the Book of Judges describes the situation as ‘every man does what is right in his own eyes.’
When Samuel is born, Hannah is true to her word and after weaning the child presents him to Eli with the words, “For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives he is given to the Lord.” This was an extraordinary action on Hannah’s part but it illustrates a fact which is true for all children. Children are not a possession- as parents we don’t own them; they are given to us by God to love, nurture and care for until the day comes when they can be independent of us and make their own decisions. Hannah recognised that Samuel was a gift and she had the courage to give the gift back to God. God honoured her incredibly difficult decision by making Samuel the man who would lead Israel to a new beginning and who would see David enthroned as the King, ushering in an age of prosperity and greatness.
At the beginning of chapter three, Samuel is still a boy but has been a kind of apprentice to Eli for a number of years. In chapter two we are told that ‘the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people.’ Samuel stands in stark contrast to Eli’s own sons who use their position of authority to exploit people and enrich themselves. The narrator also tells us that in those days ‘the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread.’ It was a time of spiritual barrenness. This is the context for Samuel’s call. Two times Samuel hears a voice calling him in the night and not surprisingly he assumes it is his mentor and guide, Eli but Eli sends him back to bed. When it happens a third time Samuel again goes to Eli and this time Eli perceives that Samuel is hearing the voice of God. He instructs Samuel to go back to bed and if called again to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Samuel does as instructed and receives the message God has for him.
The story is about vocation or calling. ‘Vocation’ comes from the Latin voceo (to call): a vocation is not a task I choose for myself but a call to me from someone else to which I attend and respond. Vocation results from Calling. In the history of the Church we have sometimes limited vocation to the call to full time Christian ministry. That is a pity because there is a very real sense in which all Christians are called. What are we called to? To quote the baptism service, we are called to ‘strive to live as a disciple of Christ, loving God with your whole heart, and your neighbour as yourself until your life’s end.’ Then after being baptised the candidates are exhorted ‘to shine as a light to the world to the glory of God the Father.’ That calling is expressed in our daily life as a teacher, lawyer, plumber, carpenter, mother, father, home manager, retiree, whatever we happen to be. We need to revive the concept of Christian vocation, using the gifts, abilities, education and skills we possess for God’s glory. When we use those gifts to add to the happiness and well- being of our workplace, our clients, customers, children, grandchildren or the wider community we bring glory to God. I was an Audiologist before being a priest- one vocation was not spiritually superior to the other. I gave up one to pursue the other only because I believed God was calling me to do something different.
Sometimes God calls us to change direction and take a new path – when we have been quite happy with the old path taking a new one can be a challenge. Samuel’s role as God’s spokesperson was difficult. The message God gave to Samuel when he called him that night was a hard one. In the second half of the narrative we discover that Eli was about to lose his job as Priest; worse than that, his house was to be punished forever because he had failed to restrain his sons from their corrupt ways. Having received that message, Samuel remains awake for the rest of the night wondering how he is going to convey this message in the morning. He need not have feared, Eli was aware that the message would not be good news and insisted that Samuel hold nothing back. Their roles are suddenly reversed. Before this happened Samuel was dependant on Eli for everything but now Eli waits on Samuel to hear his fate. The young innocent one is now authorised, the old knowing one is now disempowered.
There will be many more times in Samuel’s long career when he will be the bearer of unwelcome news. When the people demand a king he will tell them honestly what kingship will involve- heavier taxes, sons made into soldiers and daughters made servants and concubines. When they appoint a new King, Saul, it will be Samuel who will one day have to tell Saul that his kingdom is to be taken from him and given to another. His prophetic role will make him a lonely, sometimes unpopular figure but he remains obedient to the call of God on his life and faithfully delivers the messages entrusted to him.
Finally, a brief word about today’s Gospel reading. The account of Jesus and his disciples making their way through the grainfields has been the source of some debate. It appears the disciples were hungry and thought chewing some grain might keep them going until the next town when a proper meal might be available. Plucking heads of grain was not prohibited in the Mosaic law but harvesting grain with a scythe was. However the Pharisees liked to tighten up the law and remove all the loop holes, so they regarded the disciples’ actions as work and therefore prohibited. Jesus justifies his disciples behaviour by referring to an incident described in 1 Samuel 21.1–6 when David and his soldiers are being pursued by Saul’s army and David goes to the High Priest, Abiathar, to ask for some bread. Abiathar tells him that the only bread he has is consecrated bread and is reluctant to give it to David. However, David is insistent and takes some bread away. The account Jesus gives is slightly at odds with the text of 1 Samuel and the High Priest named is not Abiathar but Ahimelech. Now the usual explanation is that Mark just made an honest mistake when recounting this event and that is the cause of the discrepancy but I rather like the explanation given by another commentator, (William Placher). He argues that Jesus deliberately introduced some errors into the story to show that these Pharisees who were quick to burden the common people with their rules, were actually rather ignorant of the Scriptures and therefore didn’t notice the errors in Jesus’ account. Whatever way we look at it the real point of Jesus’ message in this incident is found in his statement, that, ‘the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath.’ To have a day of rest and refreshment in a society where too many people are over busy and over worked is a blessing we ignore at our peril.