1 Samuel 3:1-20 & John 1:43-51
The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
I wonder if that is how it is today too?
I wonder if the word of the Lord is as rare in our day as it was in Samuel’s?
Is it true that visions are not widespread?
Has God really stopped speaking?
Samuel was just a boy. And by that we’re talking Primary school age having not yet reached 12 years old when he would become a man. He lived in the Temple and it seems he sleeps right beside the Ark of the Covenant. That’s the box containing the tablets of stone Moses had brought down from the mountain with the 10 commandments on them. These are the most holy of holy things, the box that contains the promises of God… and Samuel is allowed to sleep beside them because he is a child and children were incapable of sin. To sin you had to have understanding, capacity. Children didn’t have that so Samuel was allowed where among adults only the High Priest would enter.
Samuel was already unusual. He had been dedicated to God by his mother, Hannah. She had prayed and prayed for this child and when he came she promised he would serve the Lord. When Samuel was old enough he went to live in the Temple as God’s servant. Samuel was the opposite of Eli’s sons who, despite being in line to become the High Priest, had no regard for God.
The boy Samuel would have been involved in the daily tasks of the Temple. He would have watched and learned as Eli, the High priest, went about his work; leading worship, presiding at the Festivals, accepting sacrifices, and settling disputes. Samuel literally eats, sleeps and breathes Temple life… but Samuel did not yet know the Lord.
How could that be?
How could a boy who was a gift from God, an answer to prayer, a child dedicated to God, a boy who spent every moment of his life in the Temple, who slept beside the Ark of the Covenant, how could Samuel not yet know the Lord? How could Samuel be around all that religion and not know God?
It’s a good question. It’s a question we might ask these days too. The answer might explain why the word of the Lord was rare and nobody had visions…
Observance is one of those words with two meanings. It means “the practice of keeping all the requirements of law, morality, or ritual”. But it also means “the action of watching or noticing something”.
The first one is doing what you’re supposed to do. Keeping the rules. No more, no less. Observing the requirements doesn’t really suggest any kind of passion or even attachment. It’s just doing what you have to do.
Observing as in watching is kind of similar. You’re detached. You might be really interested in what you are watching, but it’s not yours. When we observe, we watch someone else’s practice or behaviour.
Observance is one of the things Jesus challenges. Sure, you might observe the law, you might do all the religious practices, but do you live it out?
Observance is doing the things because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
Observance is saying the prayers, singing the songs, attending the services.
Observance is watching, being present but not really taking part.
Observance isn’t any guarantee of actually meeting God, and it’s absolutely no guarantee of any kind of relationship.
Samuel’s daily life is both kinds of observance. We could say that Samuel is observing observance. He sees people rehearsing the required rituals, saying the stipulated sentences, and lending lip-service to the liturgy. They are quite literally going through the motions. Their hearts aren’t in it, never mind their souls. They are just doing what they have been told they need to do. Doing what is required.
One night Samuel is asleep in his usual spot, next to the Ark of the Covenant, when he hears a voice calling his name. He assumes it’s Eli because, well because who else would it be? He goes through to where the old man is sleeping and asks what he wants. Why did you call me? It wasn’t me. Go back to bed.
This happens again… and then again. It’s on the third occasion Eli realises what’s going on. What Eli does then is insightful and generous. It’s God. It’s God who is calling your name. When it happens again say, ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’
I say it’s insightful and generous because God hasn’t spoken for a long time. Eli could just have sent the child back to bed. There’s nothing there. It’s just a dream. Go to sleep and leave me alone. But he doesn’t. Instead Eli prepares Samuel for something that he himself will not receive. God has already told Eli that he will be the last of his line. He will be the last High Priest of his house because Eli’s sons are a bad lot and Eli has done nothing to stop their blasphemy.
Eli could have been jealous of Samuel.
He could have tried to stop it happening.
He could have tried to keep control.
Tried to hang on to whatever power he had left.
But Eli doesn’t. Samuel, go back to bed… and wait.
Samuel does what he’s told. He goes back to bed and waits.
Ok. Sure. No problem.
I’ll just go and lie in the room with the box that the armies of Israel carried before them into battle. The box that laid waste to whole regions. The box that contained the very tablets God had written…
Go back to sleep next to that box and when the God who did those things speaks to you just say, ‘speak Lord, your servant is listening’.
I wonder what you would do if someone told you to go and lie down and wait for God to speak to you?
But Samuel does. He goes back to bed and waits. And God introduces himself. And Samuel listens. And their relationship begins.
And what a start it is…
The Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle’.
What an amazing image! Something is going to happen that is so amazing, so unexpected, so unbelievable that when people hear about it their ears will tingle. Our equivalent would be the hairs on the back of your neck standing up… or goosebumps.
Something incredible is about to happen!
But first… I need to tell you what will happen to Eli and his family.
When God is finished speaking to Samuel Eli wants to know what was said. He wants nothing but the truth because Eli knows that God is God, and whatever God has decided is the right thing to do, even if it means something difficult for him.
Eli wants Samuel to be able to tell him, one of the most powerful people in the land, the High Priest himself, that God has passed judgement on Eli and his family. If Samuel is going to be a prophet then has to be able to speak truth to power. He has to be able to tell the people what God wants, even to Eli who has been like a father to Samuel.
Hundreds of years later, someone else encounters God in an unexpected way.
Nathaniel is sitting under a fig tree. A fig tree is the symbol of Israel in John’s Gospel. Jesus himself says of Nathaniel ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’.
But Nathaniel is hesitant.
How do you know me? Because I don’t know you… apart from what my friend Philip has just told me. And he says you’re from Nazareth so, to be honest, my hopes aren’t that high!
Nathaniel is observant. An honest man who keeps the law and all the religious requirements, a man who watches what’s happening, but Nathaniel, just like Samuel, doesn’t yet know God.
I wonder if we assume that watching or listening each week to the hymns I choose, listening to the prayers I choose, hearing the bits of the Bible I choose, enduring 15 or so minutes of me talking at you about whatever I choose… I wonder, do you think that mean you know God?
The answer is no. No it doesn’t. This is absolutely no guarantee that you know God.
It could just be observance.
You could be just going through the motions.
You’re the only one who will know if that’s the case.
Are you observant…
Here, but not really?
Or are you like Samuel or Nathaniel… open to meeting God. Keen to follow up on the introduction…
The Bible talks often about fruitfulness. Jesus tells parables about a fig tree that doesn’t produce any fruit. Paul talks about the fruits of the Spirit.
Knowing God makes a difference. Things happen. Fruit is produced. Others are introduced to God.
Eli helps Samuel hear what God had to say.
It was the same for Philip… come and see… introducing Nathaniel Jesus. Come and see!!!
Philip couldn’t help himself. Come and see who we have found!
But Samuel could have ignored Eli and the voice calling his name.
Nathaniel could have just stayed sitting under his tree. Just carried on as normal.
I had supervision the other day and my supervisor Jane called me out on something. She asked me a brilliant question that I’ve been thinking about ever since. It’s such a simple question.
She asked me how my actual practice differs from my potential practice? What do I do… and what could I do. And why am I not doing all that I could do?
I’ve been wondering about it ever since. Why do I do what I do in the way I do it? Could it be better? How? And if I know it could be better… what’s stopping me?
I was chatting to my wife Avril about it for ages afterwards and eventually she asked the one question I’d been avoiding… have you prayed about it?
No. I hadn’t prayed about it. I hadn’t prayed about it at all.
We both burst out laughing. It’s not like you’re the minister…
That’s observance. Instead of being the first thing I did, prayer was the last option. If all else fails break glass…
But isn’t that what we do? God can be the last person we want to hear from. It’s not because God isn’t saying anything… We just don’t listen for God speaking.
I don’t think that’s because we aren’t interested. You are. You don’t need to be here. Nobody is making you come.
So is it because we just haven’t been introduced properly yet? That we don’t really know God? We’ve never moved beyond observing from a distance?
I think its hard to listen well because the world is full of noise. More than ever we are bombarded with images and sounds. Our lives are almost never quiet. People claim all kinds of things and steal our attention from what truly matters.
Kenda Creasy Dean tells the story of a class she taught at Princeton Theological Seminary on communicating the Gospel. The task was to think about how we could spread the Good News. How can we tell people about Jesus above all the noise?
The answers might be ones you would suggest. We could have adverts on TV and radio. We could have our own youtube channel, instagram, facebook, x, threads, tiktok… We could stand on the street corner with a megaphone…. or a great big set of speakers… So that’s what she did. She set up a room with all that noise, speakers, TVs, computers… and someone standing reading the bible. Of course the person reading the Bible couldn’t be heard over all the cacophony.
So, how could they make themselves heard?
What’s the answer? Make an even bigger noise? More advertising?
The answer that came from one of the students was profound in its simplicity… we need to get close enough to whisper.
Knowing God is about getting close. Close enough that we can share our hopes and dreams and worries and hurts and close enough that when God answers, when God whispers in that still, small voice, we hear. We listen. We pay attention.
And in that conversation a relationship grows. We get to know God. We get better at talking to God. At being honest. At being vulnerable. At listening and then acting, together with God.
Nathaniel’s life would never be the same. He blurts out a crazy declaration about who Jesus is… Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel! because that’s what the books say. That’s the right answer. It’s the right words. It’s exactly what an observant person should say.
Jesus tells him he’s going to find out what that actually means. And it is more than Nathaniel could ever imagine. And he will find out by being close to Jesus. By experiencing, not just observing from a distance.
For Samuel his closeness to God meant a life of telling the people the truth. And God let none of those words fall to the ground. And those who heard them… their ears tingled because Samuel was speaking God’s words.
I wonder what it would mean for you and for me? There’s only one way to find out. You could stay sitting under your tree… Or you could come and see… come and see what God is doing… listen for what God is saying, get to know God and spend time with God. Invite your friends, your family to come and see…