A long, long time ago in a land far, far away, there lived a woman, Hannah. Hannah was barren, unable to have children. As if this wasn't enough, her barrenness only brought her shame, making her an outcast in her community.
She had learned, as a small child, that the safest place to go in your suffering was the Temple. She knew that when you turned to YHWH for help, YHWH would show the way. She knew that if she was faithful to YHWH, YHWH would be faithful to her. So, she went to the Temple to pray. Her prayer is animated and passionate,
"O LORD, if you will look favorably on your servant and grant me a male child, then I will return him to you."
Her prayer is so intense that the priest of the Temple, Eli, believes Hannah is drunk. She is not drunk. She is desperate and in her desperation she makes this promise: if YHWH will grant her a son, she will return him in service to the LORD.
YHWH hears Hannah’s prayer and responds. Hannah bears a son, Samuel. And, as she promised, she brings him to the temple. There she finds Eli, the same priest who witnessed her prayer. Eli becomes the guardian of Samuel, raising him and teaching him the ways of the Temple.
Now, Eli has two sons, inheritors of his ministry at the Temple. These two sons, are corrupt, stealing the sacrifices of the penitent. They are corrupting the Temple, the house of worship and residence of YWHW; they are laughing in the face of God. Eli tries to intercede. His sons, though, do not listen. Meanwhile, Eli grows old and weak, perhaps even in character and faith.
The word of the LORD, YWHW, seems very far away.
Have you ever had one of these moments, one of those times when we long for God’s voice to speak? Sometimes it is in the midst of our deepest grief and loneliness. Other times we are trying to find our way, looking for the next step or path in life. Always, we yearn to know we are not alone and that someone will help us find our way.
This is why this story in First Samuel still matters. It begins with one woman, desperate for God’s intervention. Slowly, we witness a whole community who no longer hear or see God in their world. This story confirms our faith: God will break the silence; God will speak.
And so, on an ordinary night, Samuel awakens to a voice calling his name. It takes three times before Eli realizes what is going on. We know what happens next for Samuel: the LORD speaks.
When Samuel says to YHWH, “Speak, for your servant is listening,” what does he expect? Does he imagine that he will become a great prophet and priest? Does he hope to hear a vision for the future of Israel? Does he receive a vision he would have imagined?
God tells Samuel that he will destroy Eli for the wickedness of his sons. I can imagine that this is not pleasant for Samuel. Eli is his mentor and guardian; Samuel serves him faithfully. God asks Samuel to bear a vision that denies and denounces the sacrilege of the temple under Eli’s priesthood. Samuel must decide: faithfulness to God’s message or protecting Eli. One thing is clear, when God speaks to Samuel, Samuel must choose which way to follow: his way or God’ way.
Thankfully, Eli makes the choice easy: he insists on hearing YHWH’s message. This is a revelation, despite his weakness, of Eli’s faith. Eli accepts the Word of God and affirms Samuel’s call as a bearer of God’s wisdom.
This call, to bear God’s wisdom, begins with this story. It follows Samuel the rest of his life. Samuel inherits Eli’s priesthood; only, he becomes greater than Eli. We remember Samuel because he anoints the first two kings of Israel. He also becomes a vehicle for the Word of God. He travels the land calling Israel to repentance and faithfulness to YHWH. He offers God’s reconciliation and justice to God’s people. From this moment forward, Samuel becomes a great prophet for his people.
Not so long ago, in a land very close by, there lived a young man. This young man witnessed the oppression of his people. He saw the abuse of the authorities. And, one day, he accepted the call to demand a different way of life.
I will confess that I do not know how it happened or why. This is what I know: Martin Luther King, Jr. was a lead voice in the Civil Rights movement. I know that his faith was a primary motivator. I know that a desire for justice and equality gave him passion to work on behalf of others. I know that he sought to reconcile us to one another and to God. I can imagine that he had nights where he yearned for God’s voice, a vision from YHWH. I can imagine that when he heard God’s Word in his life, it was a challenge: a challenge to dive deeper into God’s desire, God’s way of justice and reconciliation.
I bring our attention to MLK today for two primary reasons. Tomorrow is the day we remember the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a life worth remembering. The life of MLK reminds us of our own baptismal covenant: the promise to strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being. And together, the story of Samuel and MLK offer us some reminders about our life of faith and discipleship.
Hannah knows her deep desire is to be a mother. She answers this desire by offering it back to God, by giving it up. It could not have been easy leaving Samuel with Eli, especially knowing the reputation of his sons. Yet, God's call to be a mother meant a different path, a different way.
Eli is a priest of YHWH. He was a man of deep faith. Surely he never imagined that his own sons would betray this faith. Despite this reality, he still seeks the ways and wisdom of God. It could not have been easy to hear those words of YHWH. And still, because Eli is faithful, his path is a different way than what he imagined or expected.
Samuel is a boy, faithful to Eli and the Temple. He may be seeking God's way in his life; and, he might have imagined that God would call him as the great priest of Israel. After hearing the word of the LORD, he sits up all night seeking to understand God's word, God's way. It could not have been easy and it was a different path, a different way, than he imagined.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is an African-American boy growing up in white-ruled Alabama. Surely, he yearned for a different way, a different life. He must’ve imagined that there was a leader who would show the way. It could not have been easy to realize he was that leader, the one to lead the way.
These stories remind us that God’s call in our lives, God’s vision is radically different from our own. They remind us that God’s motivation is faithfulness and justice. If we ask to hear God’s voice in our lives, then we must be ready to give up our own lives, our way. If we seek to follow God’s way, then we will find ourselves following a different way. This way bears God’s wisdom in the world offering reconciliation, justice and faith that God still speaks.
May God make us ready to listen.