1 Samuel 3:1-20
Young Sam tended to God under Eli’s instruction. God rarely spoke back then. And people lacked vision. Eli, too, was nearly blind. One day, as Eli was sleeping in his room and Sam was lying down in God’s temple next to God’s covenant box, God called to Sam, “Sam!”
“Right here,” Sam said. And he ran to Eli’s room, saying, “I’m right here. You called me.”
“I didn’t call you,” said Eli. “Go lie down.” So Sam did.
God called Sam again, “Sam!” And again Sam got up and went to Eli, saying, “I’m right here. You called me.”
“I didn’t call you,” said Eli. “Go lie down.”
This had never happened to Sam before, this hearing God speak. So when God called a third time, “Sam!” he got up and went to Eli and said, “I’m right here. You called me.”
Then Eli realized that it was God calling the kid. So Eli said, “Go lie down again, Sam. And if the voice calls you again, say, ‘Speak, God. I’m listening.'” So Sam went back again to lie down.
Then God called yet again, “Sam!” And Sam said, “Speak, God. I’m listening.”
So God told Sam, “Look at this! I’m going to do something in Israel that will get a huge buzz going. I’m about to do everything I said about Eli and his house. Every last word will come true. I’ve told him that I would strip his family from power. He knew his sons were screwing up, cursing God, and he didn’t stop them. Nothing, not even the most extravagant sacrifice, will suffice to undo what they have done. Ever.”
Sam didn’t move from there until morning. He opened the temple doors. And he was afraid to tell Eli what he’d seen. But Eli called him and said, “Sam, my son.”
Sam said, “Yes?”
Eli said, “What did God say? Don’t keep it from me. If you keep any of it from me, God will do it to you as well.”
So Sam told him everything. Every detail. And when he was finished, Eli said, “It really was God. What God said, God will do.”
So Sam grew up, and as God spoke to him, so he spoke. So everyone from north to south knew that Sam was God’s reliable truth-teller.
As it turns out, it’s not that the divine voice is silent, or that the divine vision is absent. As it turns out, the disconnect is a combination of blindness and cowardice.
Eli’s blindness keeps him from seeing the visions he needs to lead, and his cowardice leaves him unable to do what he knows is right. As a result, an entire generation has come to ruin.
Samuel’s calling presents a moment of truth. First, will he hear? And then, having heard, will he be overcome by fear and fail to speak? It’s a moment that every individual will face at one time or another, and maybe more than once. (Probably more than once.) The elder generation can only provide a bit of guidance.
It’s not that we can’t hear the divine calling. Chances are we’ve heard it. It’s what keeps us up at night, or interrupts our train of thought during the day. The question is whether we’ll answer. And the answer is to be willing go beyond merely hearing to enter into a deep listening and understanding. Even when what we’re given to understand is something we’d really rather not know about. Because knowledge implies responsibility.
And responsibility is the second issue. Eli knew and yet failed to act. We may be sympathetic to Eli’s plight. Having to confront members of one’s own family with their wrongdoing is one of the most difficult things anyone has to do. But sympathy doesn’t absolve Eli of responsibility. Samuel faces the same difficulty: telling his mentor and guardian the truth must feel like biting the hand that feeds him. But his choice is to act on his knowledge, to tell the truth.
The next time something’s keeping you up at night, take Eli’s advice, and listen. But don’t stop there. The next morning, even if you’re afraid, follow through. Even today, there’s not really any shortage of divine voice and vision.