Today we hear the story of two people trying to listen to what God has to say. I pray some of you are familiar with text. The young Samuel has been entrusted into the care of the esteemed High Priest, Eli. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, so taken by her being given the gift of motherhood in her seemingly barren state, dedicated her miracle boy to the service of the Temple. Samuel was now under the care of the elderly Eli who, though once revered, had seen his reputation tarnished by his sons who abused the power of their station in life. They were skimming off the top and taking more of their share of the sacrifices offered in the temple. It’s powerful to be the sons of the high priest and it’s easy to be corrupted by such power.
But now the elderly Eli has been entrusted with another youth’s care and rearing. And Samuel was special. Though surely this time the two spent together was filled with lessons of piety and ritual the scripture only shares the details of one lesson: how God speaks to us.
The story tells us that sometimes God needs to knock multiple times before the door is open unto him. Perhaps you thought prayer worked the other way? Surely it does but it’s clear in this story that sometimes God is the knocker. It takes a few times before either Samuel or Eli understand who is trying to get their attention. I think there is a misconception of prayer that if we pray long enough and hard enough we can wear God down and get our way. I have heard the term “prayer warrior” used before but if our prayer is war who are we fighting? No, I think that prayer works the other way. Slowly but surely prayer turns us from saying to God “my will be done, my will be done,” to “thy will be done, thy will be done.” God has chosen not to make us robots but creatures of freewill. Because of this sometimes it takes time for us to understand that what we want for this world is not necessarily what God wants. But God loves us enough to let us have our yearnings and, with prayer and time, align our yearnings with his.
Coming to understand God’s will for us and others sometimes comes directly from God but sometimes it comes from others, even those we would be least likely to expect. There is a belief that God can only uses a direct line when communicating. We certainly see examples of this. God speaks directly with the young Samuel, even if it took a few knocks for him to get the door open. But what we see in this extended passage is that while God speaks to Samuel, his message is for Eli. We might think that the elder priest would be the liaison for God’s message after having years of practice. But here we can see that God uses those we least expect to give us his message. In fact, most of scripture underscores that God prefers to communicate through those who are of lower social status be they younger, less experienced, or poorer than those to whom they preach. We often put our trust in those with the largest audience, the best reputation, and the most experience but God entrusts those who have nothing but reliance on him to bear his truth into the world. We would do well to take a lottery ticket often when it comes to seeking out what God has to say because the surer bets for hearing God’s true and lively word often comes from those whom we see as long shot prophets.
Perhaps we are hesitant to open up the door or heed the words of unlikely heralds because what they have to say sounds like bad news upon first blush. Sometimes God’s word for us is painful to hear. We know that the word “Gospel” means “good news” but sometimes it is bad news before it is good. God’s love for us is deep and genuine. And that means that God will not spare our feelings if it means jeopardizing our souls. God will always sacrifice our pride to tell us we are messing up. God will never spare us the embarrassment of telling us our fly is down or there is mud on our face. God will give it to us straight whether we want to hear it or not. Perhaps this is why it takes a few knocks sometimes before we are ready to open up. Perhaps this is why God subversively sneaks in his message to our hearts with those for whom we might let our guards down. God is a good parent who knows all of the tricks to get his ornery children to listen.
But God does not do this to leave us in despair but to rescue us from danger. The bad news for Eli is that his whole family is going to be punished for what his sons have been doing. Eli will be punished because he saw what was happening and did nothing. But the good news is that God will act. God will be the good parent that Eli failed to be. God will punish the unjust and give back integrity to the sacrifices of his people. It’s bad news but it’s good news. It’s bad news because the initial confrontation with his own failures is painful, embarrassing and frightening. It’s good news because God’s justice is being done and he cares enough to execute it.
We read this story and think we should be Samuel but Eli shines as an example of receiving God’s communication. Even when confronted by the ruin of his family he understands it to be for the best. He has the ears to hear that this inconvenient truth has come from God. God has knocked, God has sent an unlikely bearer of God’s word, and God has given bad news. Eli could have kept the door closed; dismissed the Samuel as too young to know what he’s talking about; or kept on ignoring the truth of his sons’ corruption.
But Eli, soaked with the years of prayers of his office, knows how to hear God. And simply responds, “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good.” May we all come to receive God’s words with such grace.