Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Faith Formation

1 Samuel 3:1-20

When it comes to reading and understanding all the depth of Scripture, context is key. There’s the text, what it says, and then there’s the context around it that informs our understanding of it. We’ll look at both this morning.

At this time, Samuel is just a boy, probably no more than 12 or 13 years old. When he was born, his mother dedicated him to the Lord, and since then he has lived with Eli, the high priest, and assisted him in the Lord’s Tabernacle. Samuel’s father was from the tribe of Levi, but he was not a member of a priestly line. So Samuel is an “unofficial junior Tabernacle assistant,” or something like that.

“In those days, messages from the Lord were very rare.” This is a time of national crisis. For starters, there is a foreign threat. The Philistines have moved into the neighborhood, and they are technologically superior to the Israelites and bent on conquest. There was internal strife. Several times in the Book of Judges, we see the tribes of Israel fighting with each other. There is a political vacuum. When God established Israel in the Promised Land, there was no king. Each tribe had their own leadership, and when there was a need for cooperation between the tribes, God would raise up a “judge” for the occasion. But when we read the book of Judges, we find this repeated formula: “In those days Israel had no king and everyone did as he saw fit.” In other words, there’s a power vacuum. There’s a lack of leadership. The real problem, of course, is that people were not looking to God for leadership. They wanted someone like Moses or Joshua, rather than looking to God, they wanted a leader they could see.

There were other issues, as well. There is religious corruption. Eli was a godly man, but in his old age, his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were really the ones running the show, and they were not good. They used their position for their own selfish gain. And there is a general spiritual deprivation. People are not seeking God or obeying him as they should.

“Eli is almost blind.” I wonder if that’s meant not just as a commentary on his eyesight, but also on his leadership. Perhaps it means that he is unwilling to see the corruption going on in his own household.

“The lamp of God had not yet gone out.” Now this might refer to the menorah, the branched candle stand in the Tabernacle. It was never supposed to go out. But it might also mean something else. The phrase, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out,” might also mean, “There was still hope.”

The boy Samuel was sleeping in the Tabernacle, near the Ark. There was a religious practice in the ancient Near East world called “incubation,” in which a person would offer sacrifices and then sleep in the temple, in the hopes of receiving a divine dream. Now there’s no hint that Samuel intended his sleep in that way, he’s just tending to things, but the ancient readers of the text would understand that association.

And sure enough, he has a dream. Now, we wouldn’t call it a dream, since he is awoken by God’s voice, but in the ancient Near East, they would understand it as such. “Sleeping dreams” and “waking dreams” were both “dreams” to them.

He doesn’t recognize God’s voice. He hasn’t heard from God before. In the Old Testament, we see “schools of prophets.” Young people would go and learn from an older prophet. How can a person learn to recognize God’s voice if not from someone who already knows about hearing from God? Spiritual leadership must be learned. This is why we still have things like seminaries, and courses of study for local pastors, and lay servant schools, and Sunday Schools.

Finally, with Eli’s help, he understands what is happening and hears from God. “Your servant is listening.” He is receptive to hearing from God. And what he hears is a message of judgment. Eli and his family will be swept away. His sons were corrupt. They used their position for satisfying their greed and sexual desires.

In the morning, Eli demands to hear the message from God. He is a strange model of faith, for sure. He recognizes that while he himself is not the source of the corruption, he is caught up in it, and involved in it, through his inability to correct the behavior of his sons. And as such, he accepts God’s judgment. I guess that’s a model of faith in its own way, too.

The message Samuel brings confirms the message that Eli already received in the previous chapter. As such, that message is confirmed to be from the Lord. And it also establishes that Samuel is a prophet. He hears from God and speaks for God. And this becomes known all throughout the land, from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, setting up the leadership of Samuel, the last of the judges. Samuel becomes the leader of the transition from a nation guided by judges to one ruled by a king. God’s purpose is a new beginning, to address the current crisis.

This new start is rooted in a child whose mother dedicated him to the Lord. That’s the beginning of 1 Samuel. Hannah is one of two wives of a Levite named Elkanah. The other wife has given him children, but Hannah is unable to conceive. In that culture, to be unable to conceive was a serious matter for a woman. Not only was it a source of public shame; it was also a threat to her security. Women were unable to

earn a living, so if her husband dies, she has no one to take care of her. A child would be kind of equivalent to receiving Social Security benefits in our nation.

Hannah prays for a child, but she does so with the promise that if God grants her request, she will dedicate him to the Lord. He will belong to God all his life. God grants her request, and after Samuel is weaned, she takes him to the Tabernacle and dedicates him to God. She would return every year to give him new clothes which were like those worn by the priests.

Hannah is not only a model of faith, but also a model of godly parenting. She ensures that Samuel grows up to know and serve God. In that way, she stands in contrast to Eli. Eli’s “career” has been all about serving God. But he has failed in one of his most important duties: Raising up his own sons to be godly men like him.

Faith formation and learning spiritual leadership are the responsibility of both parents and the faithful community. And we see that in this story. Hannah puts Samuel on the path to spiritual leadership, and Eli helps him at a critical moment. In order for their to be a next generation of faithful leadership, it requires both committed parents and a supportive faith community.

The more I reflect on this story, the more I see parallels to our world today. We may not have a foreign threat, but we do have a very real threat in the coronavirus pandemic. We absolutely have disunity and “fighting between the tribes” in our society. I think we have a lack of effective leadership. And is there a general spiritual deprivation? I certainly think so.

So I have to wonder, is God setting the stage for a change in our world and our society? Maybe. But in order to move forward into a more faithful future, it’s going to require spiritual leaders in the next generation. Is the faithful community raising up a next generation of spiritual leaders?

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