Sermon text: 1 Samuel 3
Something sacred happens at dusk. The purple and orange clouds in the western sky herald the sun just set. The green of leaves and grass deepen like the sea, and the brown woods blacken. There is just enough light to see and search, just enough darkness to fear and wonder. The memories of the day coalesce with the possibilities of tomorrow.
In their separate temple quarters, a priest, Eli, and his young helper, Samuel, lay down at dusk, those few moments when day is night and night, day. This dusk came almost three thousand years ago at Shiloh, the worship center of primitive Israel. This day’s dusk came at a kind of historical dusk as the sun set on an old era and a new era emerged. But like any dusk, an anticipated new day required passing through night.
While he could still see, Samuel lay down near the Ark of the Covenant, the box in which God bestowed a double portion of divine presence for a wandering, scattering people. The consecrated boy, Samuel, rested nearby as a kind of guardian, although he never before this night heard a word from God or saw anything of God beyond that silent container. Portly Eli snored in an adjacent room, the light long since gone from eyes blinded by years and tears.
Eli dwelled in a darkness not only of the eye but of the soul. His two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, presumed heirs of his priestly office, served not God but their appetites. They gobbled up far more than their share of the meat pilgrims offered in sacrifice and abused the women who came for purification. When Eli called them out, they laughed him off.
He loved his sons. When he died later, he died more of a broken heart over their death than anything else. His love seemed wasted. As anyone knows who suffers divorce, criticism for same-sex commitment, rejection by a child, loss or failure in a life’s work, or anonymity and isolation after a dutiful life, nothing tastes so bitter as the sense of love wasted.
Moreover if one feels dismissed or judged by God for loving, it is the darkest night. So it was for Eli. God, it seemed, held him accountable for his sons’ sins. “A man of God” prophesied to Eli God’s vengeance on his house. So it would come to pass on a later day, a day that would be night. How Eli needed another word from the LORD, a word of consolation and hope.
This dusk in the temple ended an era when “the word of the LORD was rare,” and, “visions were not widespread” (3:1b). Such times differ from our own no more than dusk differs today from dusk of any other day. We hear only what we anticipate and see just what we expect as did Eli’s sons who expected no divine hand to block theirs from taking what they could, as did Samuel who expected no divine voice to disrupt the night as they slept near the silent ark.
“Samuel! Samuel!” the word of the LORD echoed in the temple. Samuel went to Eli, the only person he expected to call his name, who told him it was not his voice, and both likely assumed as any of us would that it was a dream. Eli sent him back to bed. Only it happened again, and when it happened a third time, Eli showed that his night was not pitch black.
Condemned for his sons’ sins, he still loved and served God even in the grogginess of disrupted sleep. He did not rule out the possibility of God’s intervention as his sons had. Unlike Samuel, Eli could fathom the word of the LORD issuing again after a long silence and the bitter taste of judgment. He instructed Samuel to respond next time, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening” (vv. 9 and 10), and Samuel did. Then Samuel saw and heard the LORD. Only by faith could Eli give such guidance.
Yet, before the rising sun burned away every vestige of night, Samuel heard a call to a bright new day against the shadowy background of Eli’s condemnation. God merely reiterated the bad news about Eli, which implied the transfer of blessing and power to Samuel, the one whose name God called. When Samuel reluctantly confirmed that, Eli replied, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him” (v. 18). Only by faith could Eli express such trust.
Samuel, whom Eli called, “my son,” proved his true son, heir of his sacred duty and more. Samuel became the last judge in the old order and the prophet through whom God would initiate the new order, the monarchy of David and his house. Although he warned of the night of royal demands, he also initiated the new day of David.
Years later, ironically, Samuel too failed to rein in his own errant sons (8:1-3). Yet, he faced no condemnation. So the most troubling character in this story is God. How could God condemn a flawed but faithful servant, Eli, then bless flawed but faithful servants like Samuel and David? What does God’s judgment of Eli mean for us when we love faithfully only to find our efforts confounded by people and circumstances beyond our control? If we serve God’s purposes with the humility and self-denial of Eli, will God nevertheless dismiss us in favor of another?
The answers lie in dusk and daybreak, in mingling of light and darkness, in the transitions from the fear and wonder of night to the sight and searching of day. The pre-existent Christ acted even before anyone saw his face and heard his name. Every delivery from the night of condemnation and death to the day of peace with God bears Christ’s fingerprint. Speaking of himself and all who bear witness to God’s love, Paul likened us to “clay jars,” fragile vases through which the light of Christ shines out of darkness (2 Corinthians 4:6-7), and Eli too is such a vase. In Christ, Eli fulfilled his vocation, partnered with God, and entered into God’s joy.
All participate in God’s ongoing formation of a peaceful creation, beloved community, and sanctified souls in spite of flaws and haplessness. If we think of our stories as our own, then the disappointment, tragedy, and death at their apparent end look like a concluding night. Love then looks wasted, a bad investment. But our stories are not ours but God’s.
In God’s story, morning will come for all. And every morning, God calls us by name and commissions us to a task no matter our mistakes and consequences. The vocation of each participates in the all-embracing providence of God, and our sins and stumbles do not cancel that. Furthermore, our one judge, Christ, who loves us and gave his life for us, redeems us all, including Eli. The LORD told Samuel that “the iniquity of Eli’s house will not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever” (v. 14). But it would be expiated in the self-giving love of Christ.
“As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground” (v. 19). In one night, really, in one dusk, the word of the LORD was no longer rare, and its fruitfulness was assured. “The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD. And the word of Samuel came to all Israel” (3:21-4:1). But Samuel would not have discerned the word of the LORD without Eli’s help. Although Eli did not live to see it, he had a share in Samuel’s fruitfulness.
However flawed and clueless we seem at times as a church and as disciples, God will make us fruitful. In the ultimate night of the cross, Christ’s condemnation in spite of love, his dereliction in spite of faithfulness, subsumed the bitterness and pain of every disappointment and judgment that Eli, you, and I suffer. All of it died with him, and our suffering came clear as a sharing of God’s suffering.
In the ultimate morning of Easter, Christ’s new life and eternal life of love subsumed every loving hope and dream by which Eli, you, and I live. All of it is alive in him. We will be known by our fruits and welcomed by name. At the end of every night, morning will come.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).