a sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-20
preached on January 15, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Samuel must have been dreaming. Someone kept calling out to him in the night, saying, “Samuel, Samuel.” He kept waking up, wondering if Eli, the chief priest, needed something from him. When he went in to Eli, though, the old man hadn’t called for him, nor had he heard anything. Samuel must have been dreaming.
Except it kept happening. Just as he was getting back to sleep, Samuel heard the voice again: “Samuel, Samuel.” Again he went in to Eli, and again Eli sent him back to bed. Then it happened again. Just as Samuel started to sleep, he heard that same voice calling out a third time: “Samuel, Samuel.” This time, when Samuel came in to him, Eli realized that something might be going on. Even though he himself was not the greatest leader or most faithful priest, even though his sons had abused their power and position in the temple, even though Eli was old and didn’t see or hear or dream very well anymore, he did realize that God might be up to something with Samuel. So Eli sent Samuel back to bed with a new instruction: “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
Now it was no dream. When Samuel heard the voice calling out to him again, he responded as Eli had instructed him. The Lord spoke to Samuel that night and for many years to come. First Samuel heard that God was up to something “that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” Surely that got Samuel’s attention! Samuel’s ears tingled all night long, for God was planning to punish Eli’s house forever, because his sons had blasphemed God and Eli had done nothing about it.
It was a difficult word – worse than a nightmare for Samuel – and the night was long. Samuel did not sleep. In the morning, he didn’t want to tell Eli what God had told him, but when Eli asked him directly, he had no choice but to tell him the whole story. Eli, to his credit, did not harm the messenger, even with such difficult news, though his ears surely tingled a bit, for they both knew that Samuel’s encounter with God that night was no dream.They knew that God’s words would come true.
A night that started out as a dream was the beginning of Samuel’s long and difficult career as a prophet for the people of Israel, where everything he said and did would get the people’s attention even if they wouldn’t really listen, where ears would tingle all the time out of fear and hope for what God would do.
It’s easy to imagine that God’s call to us is just a dream. We even use that language sometimes. We talk about “dreaming” and “visioning” when we try to think ahead about what God is calling us to do. But these words make God’s call seem distant and difficult to make real. We aren’t willing to answer God’s call, thinking, like Samuel, that it must be someone else calling us, and our Elis just keep telling us to go back to bed instead of urging us to listen to what God has to say. We’d rather not imagine that God actually makes our ears tingle these days. Even if we actually hear the call, we often just get overwhelmed, uncertain of what to do with this news because we don’t know how others will respond to us, and we figure that things are just fine as they are.
But God’s call is more than a dream. Samuel could have left it all there in the bed that night, assuming that this strange voice in the night was just a bad dream, but Eli, the one whom God condemned, encouraged him to take it seriously, to trust that this tingle in his ears was really God, to listen to the good and the bad that God would offer him, and even to dream that God would be up to something more than Samuel could ever imagine among his people.
Like Samuel, we have a choice when our ears tingle. We can respond to that tingling out of fear, afraid of what might happen, preferring to dwell in uncertainty, assuming that things will not go well, that the glass is half-empty, that the news will be bad. Or we can let our ears tingle with hope, trusting that God is opening a new way for us even when there seems to be nothing ahead, looking for something beyond our expectations and imaginations when we face a new and different day, showing the world that there is a better and more perfect day still to come.
We need a little of both of these tinglings, pastor Donna Schaper says. “Let one ear tingle with fear,” she suggests, for the reality is that things are not yet perfect. (Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 1, p. 246) There is still much pain and danger and hurt in our world, and God will deal with it just as God dealt with Eli and his sons. And yet we can’t let all our tingling be in our ear of fear. We need to imagine that God can and will do something more, that our dreams might come true, that God might just choose us and work in and through us, that God might just be ready to bring us what we dream about, that our dreaming might be something more than idle nothingness and might actually become real and true for us, here and now.
I know no one who can balance the tingle of fear and the tingle of hope better than Martin Luther King, Jr. He brought our nation and our world a firm dose of reality as he stood up with so many others to protest racism, war, and injustice. And yet he also called us to dream about something new and different, to imagine that our nation and our world might be something better than what it was.
His dream has not yet been realized. The world is difficult, and things are not yet perfect. There is still more work to be done. But his dream matters for us today. Listen to him proclaim that dream once again:
May we join in that dream of freedom and hope for all people as our ears tingle with God’s call in this and every time and place until we are free at last forevermore.
Amen and amen.