God’s Call: Hannah and Eli, Samuel and Eli’s Sons

1 Samuel 3:1-20

1 Samuel 1-4

I got thinking about one’s ‘sense of call’ the other night. Here is how it was.

They were just about to start boarding my flight home on Friday and so I made one last run to the restroom. As I came back down the escalator to the gate area, I heard the sound of an agonized wail. I looked to my left to see an old man sprawled out on the floor with his distressed caregiver — perhaps a daughter — standing over him. Evidently as she had tried to get him into his wheelchair she lost her grip on him and he had slipped to the floor. Moving towards them, I asked if she could use some help. (Obviously this was so.) But almost before she got done saying ‘yes,’ two young men were right there. I stepped back as one of them knelt down at the old man’s side and said softly, “Sir, my name is Cameron Smith. I’m going to help you into your chair.” And with seemingly little effort in a matter of moments they had done just that.

I went back to my seat for a moment. But then I stepped out of my normal introverted mode and walked over to Cameron. I thanked him for what he had done. He shook his head, saying it was nothing. And then I asked, “Are you military?” I was pretty sure I already knew the answer to my question. I could see it in the cut of his hair and in the poised way he carried himself. “Yes,” he said. “Air Force. I’m on my way to my uncle’s in Chesterton, Indiana for a Memorial Day Picnic.” We visited for a few more minutes before it was time to board the plane for home.

I couldn’t get him out of my mind though. Nor could I get over my reaction to witnessing his kindness. For you see, his gentleness with a stranger actually brought tears to my eyes. And as I thought about young Cameron, I got to wondering about who and what had shaped him. Surely dozens of others overheard the distressed cry of an old man the other night. Perhaps others would have stepped up as well if Cameron and another man whose name I did not catch had not offered to help so quickly. And perhaps not. Indeed, what compels one person to step up and lend a hand while another stays buried in his phone?  And isn’t doing so answering some kind of inner call to kindness and connection — to something so much more. If asked, I expect Cameron may have said he felt ‘called’ to serve his country. And that is certainly a ‘call.’ And yet, he demonstrated for a whole lot of us the other night that in the midst of that larger ‘call,’ he has been shaped to respond quickly and with gentle kindness to others in distress. I can’t help but wonder what made this so. Indeed, I cannot help but wonder if what I saw the other night actually informs his larger call to serve.

And yes, I couldn’t help but think about one’s sense of call in these last days as I have paused in the story of young Samuel. It is a story which many of us who grew up being nurtured by these ancient stories have known our whole lives for the story of the boy hearing God’s call in the night is one which makes its way into many a Sunday School Curriculum.  This makes sense, I suppose, since the ‘hero’ of the story is a youngster — one who other children might be able to see themselves in. And yet, I have wondered now what it is to hear this oh so familiar story with the ears of one who is further along in life. To do so it seems to me that we need to look beyond the verses which will be read this coming Sunday. For instance,

  • We need to listen to Hannah’s agonizing prayer — as she begs to be blessed with a child. We need to hear her desperate grief as she offers to ‘give back’ the very gift for which she is yearning.
  • We need to pause and wonder at Eli’s cynicism as he presumed that Hannah was drunk. And yes, we need to consider why it is that he so quickly turned aside his first judgment to bless Hannah with the hoped for promise that perhaps God might just act.
  • We need to allow our hearts to be lifted up as we listen in on Hannah’s hymn of rejoicing and yes, we need to stand still in the certainty that themes of her song would be echoed again centuries later in the voice of another unlikely mother. (Luke 1:46-55)
  • We need to marvel at the depth of Hannah’s devotion when she did, in fact, ‘give the child back,’ leaving him in Eli’s care to serve in the temple. Indeed, what kind of ‘call’ was she answering then?
  • And we cannot help but be dismayed to hear of the ways in which Eli’s sons denied, or cheapened or turned their backs on God’s call to them to follow in the faith of their father.
  • Oh, we can’t help but wonder about how Eli felt about his own call to serve. Surely he could not have imagined when he first responded to God’s call that those he would hope to entrust his life’s work to would be so undeserving. One can only imagine that he was discouraged, ashamed, no doubt heartbroken.
  • And yes, as we come to the lesson which is ours to ponder and perhaps to preach in the days to come, you cannot help but wonder how it was that Eli felt when he discerned that Samuel was hearing God’s own voice speaking — a voice which had not been heard in a very long time.

To be sure, you have to read a whole lot more than 20 verses to get a more complete picture of what shaped the calls of Eli and Samuel, Hannah and even Eli’s sons. And while even with that you don’t get nearly enough, you do get something. Indeed, I got a fuller sense of what motivated and shaped Eli when I paused again in the moment of his death in chapter 4 (1 Samuel 4:17-18). You remember this next part: Israel was at war with the Philistines. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas were killed in battle. And the ark of the covenant was stolen. What captured my attention this time was that when Eli received this news, probably in a state of shock, he fell over and broke his neck. However, the story is told in such a way that we are led to believe that it was not the news that his sons had died which killed him, but that the ark of the covenant had been stolen. Indeed, it would appear that perhaps Eli’s sense of call was all wrapped up in guarding the ark of the covenant and now it was gone.

One can certainly spend time with Samuel in the night, listening and responding to the voice of God. However, this time through I am especially wondering what it is that shapes people so as to be able to hear and respond to such a call. In Samuel’s case, it was at least both his mother’s devotion and Eli’s encouragement. And no doubt hours and hours, months and months spent in the temple.

At the same time, the story gives not a clue as to what shaped Eli’s call, but we get a sense that in spite of everything, he did not lose track of that call altogether. We know this first when he relented and blessed Hannah. We know it again when he sends Samuel back with the words “Here I am” with which to respond to voice of God. Perhaps we know it once more when he simply receives with resignation Samuel’s message from God. And we know it once more at his reaction to knowing that the focus of his call is now beyond his reach and for the time being, beyond the reach of all of Israel.

And so I am wondering now…

  • In a moment in the airport, a young airman named Cameron Smith got me wondering about what shapes our sense of call. What have you witnessed lately which has caused you to think about this in your own life or in the lives of others?
  • As you read the story before us, do you identify with Hannah? With Eli? With Samuel? Why is that one captures your imagination more than another?
  • Does it seem important to you to move beyond the twenty verses the lectionary assigns in 1 Samuel in order to get a more complete picture of the ‘calls’ we might consider here? Why or why not?
  • What or who has most shaped your sense of call? Is that a story you might share this week?