By Chris Yoder
Today we’ve been given two stories about obedience. In the Gospel lesson, Philip is obedient to Jesus’ summons to follow him, and Nathanael also obediently responds to Jesus through Philip’s invitation to come and see. In the Old Testament lesson, the boy Samuel hears the Lord calling him and says, “Speak, for thy servant hears.” It’s this story I want to look at with you this morning. I want to consider Samuel’s story and his obedience to see what we might learn about ours.
Let’s begin by recalling where it is in the story of Israel that Samuel enters. At this point, the Lord has delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, has given them the Law, has brought them to the promised land, and has sent judges to rule over them. But the people of Israel have become increasingly unruly. “In those days,” we read, “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). To be clear, from the Bible’s perspective, this situation was most certainly not a libertarian utopia, but an almost unbearable tragedy. The Book of Judges paints a picture of a nation spiraling toward moral and civil disintegration. It’s at this point in Israel’s history that the story of Samuel begins.
Samuel, you’ll remember, was Hannah’s child. Hannah was a woman married to a man who lived in an obscure village in the hill country of Israel. She desperately wanted to have a child, so she prayed fervently to the Lord for one. She promised that, if he would give her a son, she would give him to the Lord. An old priest named Eli interceded for her, “and in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:20).
When he was weaned, Hannah kept her promise and brought her son to the house of the Lord, saying, “I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:28). So it was that Samuel, as a little boy, came to serve in the temple of the Lord under the old priest Eli. We’re told that the boy grew “both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men,” and that “his mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year” (1 Sam. 2:26; 2:17).
Now, Eli, the old priest, had two sons who were no good. They were also priests, and their names were Hophni and Phinehas. “The sons of Eli,” the Bible says, “were worthless men; they had no regard for the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:12). They abused the office of the priesthood. If there would have been an ecclesiastical court in their day, they would certainly have been convicted of “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.” They used their position as priests to indulge their appetites. When the people brought sacrifices to the Lord, the sons of Eli would take the best portions of the meat for themselves. They’d thrust a giant fork into the pots of meat and take whatever came up. If anyone resisted, they would threaten force. They also took advantage of the women who served at the entrance of the temple. In short, they were men who abused their power and blasphemed God. Their sin “was very great in the sight of the Lord” (see 1 Sam. 2:12-17, 22-25).
The aged Eli learned what his sons were doing, and he made a feeble attempt to rein them in. “But they would not listen to the voice of their father” (1 Sam. 2:25).They were cocksure of themselves, and the Lord used this to bring about his judgment upon them. But perhaps it was also the case that Eli’s warning had been only half-hearted to begin with. You see, it seems that Eli himself had profited off his sons’ misdeeds. Perhaps he chose to remain willfully ignorant of where his sons had sourced all those choice cuts of meat from. He’s described as “heavy” (1 Sam. 3:18), which suggests that those purloined offerings contributed to his paunch. And as his waistline expanded, his eyesight dimmed. His eyes grew dim from old age, certainly, but also as a fitting consequence for his having turned a blind eye to his son’s evil dealings. His habitual failure to restrain evil has left his moral vision clouded with cataracts.
What a contrast Samuel cuts with Eli and his sons. The sons are arrogantly wicked, and one shudders to think of how they might have treated the boy Samuel. And Eli is in his dotage, overweight, and imperceptive. In our passage we meet him lying in his bed, a further symbol of his spiritual weakness. I imagine him with sleep apnea, alternately snoring loudly and startling awake, exhausted and unseeing. The contrast with Samuel could not be more strongly drawn. We meet him, young and healthy, “lying down within the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was,” as close to the Lord as he can get. Just before dawn, he hears someone calling his name, and immediately he runs to Eli’s bedside, eager to serve. “Here I am,” he says, “for you called” (1 Sam. 3:5).
Notice how perceptive Samuel is. He has ears to hear the Lord calling. He has been preserved from the spiritual dullness that characterizes Eli and his sons. He is willing to listen; willing to be instructed, to obey. The word “obey”, after all, is derived from a Latin word meaning “to hear.” Its opposite is deafness or dullness. You could even say that disobedience is absurd—a word which literally means “out of tune”; it is irrational, tone deaf. But Samuel is sensible, he has an ear for obedience. And so it is that he says to the Lord, “Speak, for thy servant hears.”
The real test of Samuel’s obedience, though, came when Eli asked him, “What was it that the Lord told you?” Samuel was understandably afraid to tell the vision to Eli. It is clear that he loved and respected Eli, who was essentially his adopted father, and that Eli, for all his faults, loved Samuel as a son. And no one wants to tell a beloved father figure that he has been in the wrong and will be justly punished. But this is just what Samuel was called to do. He was called to declare God’s judgment on the house of Eli. And, by God’s grace, he did tell Eli everything and hid nothing from him. In this act, Samuel showed true obedience. He honored the Lord above all else. He gave more weight to the voice of the Lord than anything else.
This choice was one of many that formed a habit of obedience in Samuel. Such acts of obedience would lead him to become a prophet the Lord would use to make and break kings. The Lord would make him into the saint who would see that nothing is more pleasing to the Lord than obedience, that “to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22).
What does all this have to do with you and me?
Perhaps the first thing to say is that Samuel’s obedience foreshadows the obedience of Christ. The Letter to the Hebrews teaches that we are saved through Christ’s perfect obedience, that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). Christ’s obedience enables our obedience. Consequently, if we are obedient, it is to God’s glory, not ours, because it is God who works in us, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” as St Paul says (Phil. 2:13).
Not many of us are faced with as dramatic a call as Samuel was. I, at least, have never heard the Lord calling my name. I don’t know about you. On the other hand, John Henry Newman points out that “we are not called once only, but many times.” “All through our life Christ is calling,” he says, “He called us first in Baptism; but afterward also; whether we obey his voice or not, he graciously calls us still” (“Divine Calls,” Parochial and Plain Sermons, 8:2). The Lord may not call us as he called Samuel — or the apostles, for that matter — but still he calls us all through our life. Christ’s call comes most often through the mundane circumstances of our lives, through the quotidian choices we are faced with. In how you will respond when your colleague emails you, or your cat annoys you, or someone cuts you off in traffic.
How we respond will shape our character. Eli did not become what he was overnight, but through a lifetime of choices. Nor did Samuel become a prophet without deciding, again and again, to obey the Lord.
“[E]very time you make a choice,” C.S. Lewis says,
you are turning the central part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different than what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. […] Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other (Mere Christianity, 87).
Of course, we do not become heavenly creatures on our own. It is the Lord who makes us heavenly, who makes us into creatures that can wholeheartedly obey him. And we are never so hellish as to be beyond the reach of his redemption. But always Christ Jesus is calling us, drawing us to himself. Obeying his voice is both harder and easier than we think. As C.S. Lewis imagines it, “Christ says,”
‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. […] No half-measures are any good. […] Hand over [your whole self], all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours’ (ibid. p. 169. This whole paragraphs draws heavily on Lewis).
Christ says, “Give me All.” May the Lord grant us grace to hear his call and to say, with Samuel, “Here I am! Take all of me.”
The Rev. Chris Yoder is rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.