“Then Eli Perceived…” Comments on Faith and Discernment

Sermon prepared for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

Why did this happen? What is going on? How in the world can I make sense of this?

In our lives we are often confronted with unknowns. Things are constantly happening around us in our lives, our families, our communities, and in our world.

Sometimes, things are easy to explain. Why isn’t the vacuum working? Oh, I forgot to plug it in (oops). But many times, it’s difficult to understand the causes and origins of things that happen to us. Why did I lose that job? Why did my friend say that unkind thing to me? How can my friends and family, whom I love dearly, have such… interesting opinions sometimes when it comes to society or politics?

These puzzles are especially difficult when we hope and desire to know God’s hand in it all. Was it God that caused me to lose that job? Was it a punishment for something? Or perhaps, was it to prepare me for an unknown opportunity coming just around the corner, or to help me learn something I need for my personal growth? Or was it simply an impersonal result of a thousand different random factors that are constantly affecting human society and economics?

How can I know? Is it possible to know?

Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” (1 Samuel 3:8-9 NRSV)

This story of Eli and Samuel is part of what Biblical scholars call the “Deuteronomic history” of Israel, written many centuries later after Israel has been carried away into exile by the Babylonians. They wanted to understand why–WHY–God had allowed God’s chosen people to be conquered and carried off into defeat and exile. Was it punishment for something? Or perhaps a way that God was preparing God’s people for an even greater blessing? Or was it simply that Babylon wanted access to the strategic geographical site that happened to be occupied by Israel and Judah? These were the questions that they were wrestling with as they told their people’s story.

In this wider context, Samuel is an important link between the Reign of Judges and the Kingdom of David. We recall that Samuel was the son of Hannah who lived more than a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. She had been unable to conceive a child and had begged and begged God to grant one to her. When God finally granted her desire, she gave Samuel to Eli, a priest of Yahweh, to serve him in God’s temple as the ultimate token of gratitude for God’s blessing. Samuel eventually came to be known as a prophet, then a priest, then a judge, and before he died choose Saul, then later DAVID, to be Israel’s king.

Before that can happen, though, Samuel needs to learn how to perceive the voice of God in his life. Notice that when God first calls Samuel, he doesn’t recognize it as the voice of God but instead assumes that it’s Eli calling him. The text tells us that “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” What was, in reality, a divine presence and message, seemed to Samuel to be a merely human voice waking him up at night. It is interesting as well to see that even Eli, a priest of Yahweh, did not at first recognize God’s role in what was happening, but instead assumed it was a kid who was maybe having a bad dream. Discerning God’s hand in the world can often be difficult, indeed.

So… what do we do? Do we give up? Shrug our shoulders? Give in to the very understandable desire to say “whatever–there’s no use even looking for God in the world anymore, anyways, given how futile it can seem…. So might as well just get on with my life.”

If you’ve felt this, please please don’t despair. Don’t feel guilty. To be honest, I’ve felt this often myself. Learning to discern God’s hand in the world is NOT easy. I’ve learned, in my experience, that it is not supposed to be easy. Sometimes there are two or more equally reasonable interpretations for something–that whatever happened is the result of a matter and energy and atoms smashing into one another… OR that God is somehow in the process to guide us toward God’s purposes. And what are God’s purposes for us? To grow, to learn, and especially to love God and each other.

Theologian and scholar Terryl Givens has written that “the call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true, and have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. I am convinced that there must be [reasonable] grounds for doubt as well as belief, for only in these conditions of equilibrium and balance … is my heart truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness. Under these conditions, what I choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who I am and what I love.”

Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Samuel then choose to believe Eli’s discernment, returned to his bed, and opened himself in faith to learn what God had in store for him in his life.

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