The Call of Eli

January 18, 2015    1 Samuel 3:1-20

Rebecca DePoe


Most second year seminary students participate in a field education internship to help them discern their call to ministry. As part of my field education internship, every month here at Bellevue I learn how to do a different part of the worship service. Leading different parts of the worship service helps me discern my call to pastoral ministry because it lets me explore a wide variety of pastoral skills. For the month of January, my worship assignment is to learn how to do the children’s sermon. As I was putting together my first children’s sermon, I knew I needed to practice my sermon in front of a child. Luckily for me, the family that I live with has a two and a half year old son named Landon. Landon loves listening to stories, and he always asks really great questions about them. I knew if Landon liked my children’s sermon I would be set for giving it on Sunday morning.

On Saturday night after dinner, I wrangled Landon into his bedroom so he could listen to my children’s sermon. As I was getting the props for the sermon together, Landon pulled his little red chair over and sat down. After he sat down he announced, “reBEKah, I am going to be a CH-URCH PAS-TOR.” It was one of the cutest things I have ever seen.  I thought of the years I have spent discerning my call to ministry that have lead me to the point where I can say I am going to be a Church Pastor. And here my two and a half year old housemate was telling me he was going to be a pastor with the same confidence he usually reserves for telling us that he wants a cookie. Clearly discerning one’s call in life does not produce as much angst in a two and a half year old as it does in a twenty something year old.

Despite how cute his announcement was, Landon cannot say for sure that he is going to be a church pastor when he grows up because he does not really know what a church pastor is yet. Sure, he knows that I spend a lot of time in the library reading books and writing papers. He’s listened to his Dad and I share our experiences about seminary. He’s even heard his pastor, pastor Paul, preach many times. But Landon’s understanding of his calling is limited because at two and a half, he does not know the Lord yet.  

Landon’s announcement that he wants to be a church pastor when he grows up reminded me of our Old Testament reading for today because in both instances the Lord uses children to speak into an adult’s sense of call. The story begins with Eli and Samuel asleep in different rooms of the temple. We learn that Eli is old and blind, and Samuel is young and ministering under Eli. Eli is a priest, called to proclaim the word of the Lord to the people Israel. Samuel is called to be Eli’s apprentice because his mother dedicated him to the Lord’s service in exchange for the Lord allowing her to conceive and bear a child.

The story of Samuel’s call begins with the narrator telling us that words of the Lord were not common in those days. But why was the word of the Lord not common to the people in those days? Especially given the fact that Eli, as a priest, was called to proclaim the word of the Lord to the people Israel. To answer this question, I turned to a commentary by Dr. Gnana Robinson, an Old Testament Scholar at United Theological College. He explains that the Hebrew word for “word” is dabar, and that one of the meanings of dabar is the medium of the communication of the will of the Lord. Robinson argues that the ultimate purpose of the Lord in communicating with his people is always the salvation of his people. In other words, the Lord is always trying to communicate salvation to his people, but sometimes he has to use other means of communication to get that message across. The fact that the word of the Lord was not common in those days foreshadows that the Lord is about to change the medium by which he communicates his will. We see this change occur as he calls to Samuel in his sleep.

The Lord first speaks to Samuel by calling him when he is asleep. Samuel, who does not know the Lord, naturally thinks Eli is calling him. By the third time Samuel hears the Lord calling him, Eli realizes that Samuel is not mistakenly hearing Eli call him, but he is hearing the voice of the Lord calling him. Even though Eli is old and blind, he is still a priest, and still sensitive to the call of the Lord. He not only recognizes that the Lord is calling Samuel, but that Samuel needs to understand how to address God. It must have been very humbling for Eli to recognize that the Lord was calling Samuel, and not calling Eli. After all, Eli is the priest, and Samuel is his apprentice. Surely if the Lord had a message for his people he would deliver it to Eli! Eli teaching Samuel how to address the Lord is an incredible act of obedience to the Lord on Eli’s part. Here he’s teaching Samuel how to be obedient to the Lord’s call even if it wasn’t exactly the way Eli planned to teach him.

Eli’s obedience to the Lord is further tested when Samuel receives the Lord’s message. The Lord tells Samuel that he is about to destroy Eli’s house, and that there is nothing Eli’s house can do to escape his judgement. Eli’s house could offer eternal sacrifices, and the Lord would still destroy Eli’s house- that’s how badly their behavior has angered the Lord. Here it’s important to note that the ancient Israelites did not think of kinship, or family, in the same way that we do. In the ancient near east, if your father was a priest, you would be a priest, your sons would be a priest, and their sons would be priests. No one wondered what they would be when they grew up. There was no spending years discerning the Lord’s  call on your life. You were called to do what your parents were called to do regardless of how well, or how poorly, your gifts and talents fit into what your ancestors were called to do.

Eli’s people were priests. Priests were called to proclaim the Lord’s salvation to all people, and to help people discern the will of the Lord for their lives. Eli was a fine priest. But Eli had grown old and allowed his sons to make a mockery of the priesthood. As we see in the second chapter of First Samuel, Eli’s sons had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people. The worshipped foreign gods and treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt. Eli knew that his sons were terrible priests. The Lord tells Samuel that he will bring down Eli’s house both because Eli’s sons were blaspheming the Lord, and because Eli did nothing to restrain his sons. So while Eli may have been obedient to the Lord’s call to proclaim salvation as a priest, he was not obedient to the Lord as a parent, and his whole house would suffer accordingly.

Samuel is understandably afraid to share with Eli his word from the Lord. I can’t say I blame him. I can’t imagine how to tell one of my mentors that the Lord told me that he was going to destroy not only my mentor, but my mentor’s entire bloodline. It would be even harder to tell my mentor that the Lord was going to destroy my mentor’s entire bloodline not because of something my mentor did, but because of something my mentor’s children did. But in another act of obedience, Eli tells Samuel that he must share his word from the Lord or face the Lord’s wrath two- fold. Here Eli is teaching Samuel that being called by the Lord means being obedient in sharing the Lord’s word with his people. Even if you know that sharing that word will cause someone you love pain.

I love Eli’s response after Samuel tells him the bad news- “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.” In this line we see how Eli lives out being obedient to the Lord’s call.  He recognizes that Samuel’s word is indeed from the Lord, and submits his will to the Lord’s will. While both Samuel and Eli are called to be obedient to the Lord’s call, obedience looks different for Samuel than it does for Eli. Samuel is a young boy. He doesn’t have the wisdom Eli does. Nor does Samuel have a family that he is responsible for and that might derail his obedience to the Lord.

            When I think of what obedience looks like for Eli versus Samuel I’m again reminded of Landon’s announcement that he wants to be a church pastor. It’s much easier for Landon to be obedient to the Lord’s call to ministry when he don’t have any experience at ministry. He has yet to bomb a sermon. Or sound foolish as he tries to read the Old Testament in Hebrew. Or feel weak in the knees as he tries to defend his statement of faith in front of the Committee for the Preparation of Ministry. I’m sure at this point in his ministry, Eli has experienced more than a few failures, and those failures might tempt him to be disobedient to the will of the Lord. But one thing that this story teaches is is that while we are all called to be obedient to the Lord’s call in our lives, that obedience looks different for different people in different situations. Landon’s lack of experience doesn’t make his call to ministry any less valid, but being obedient to the Lord’s will in his life looks different than what being obedient to the Lord’s will looks like in mine.

Eli’s response to Samuel’s word from the Lord has much to teach us theologically about what it means to be obedient to God’s call. First, it affirms that the we must be obedient to the Lord’s call in our lives because the Lord speaks through his servants for the salvation of all people. As hard as it is to wrap our minds around the Lord destroying a feeble old man for the sins of his sons, we have to remember that Eli’s house represents the priesthood at its worst. According to the classical priest Gregory the Great, whose book Pastoral Care was the authoritative word on pastoral care for 1000 years, no one does more damage to the Church than when he who is thought holy acts evilly. Or, in other words, someone called to obedience to the Lord who acts disobediently.  It’s also worth remembering that the Lord’s initiative to call Samuel came at the cost of destroying Eli’s house. The Lord’s act teaches us that the Lord is a God willing to do the difficult things that need done for the salvation of the people. Eli knows this, and sees his obedience to the Lord as one way to live into the reality that the Lord speaks for the salvation of all people.

Eli’s response is also theologically significant in that it illustrates how a person’s obedience to the Lord’s call affirms the Lord’s sovereignty in the salvation of all people. Eli telling Samuel, “it is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him” is one way for Eli to teach Samuel that the Lord, and not the priesthood, are ultimately responsible for the salvation of the people. In other words, the Lord can act through a priest who is obedient to the Lord’s will in his or her life, but a priest cannot bring about the salvation of his people. Only the Lord can do this. I think it’s also worth nothing that when Eli says “it is the Lord,” he is not just talking about the God the Father of the Old Testament, but the God incarnate in the man Jesus Christ, and the God sent into the world through the Holy Spirit. This is the only God capable of ushering in the salvation of all people.

But how do we participate in the Lord’s salvation plan for all people? It’s tempting to conclude that we are to be like Samuel with our child-like faith and blind obedience to the Lord’s voice. It’s easy to pledge our obedience to the Lord when we are young and full of energy, but empty of experience. But I think it’s more helpful to think about what the call of Eli teaches us in terms of the role our individual obedience plays in the Lord’s salvation plan for all people. Eli is a man who was called to be obedient to God a long time ago. He’s old, and he’s tired. He knows his kids are bad priests but he loves them anyway. Yet he’s still obedient to the Lord’s call in his life even when life has worn him out. The story of the call of Samuel is really a story about the call of Eli. Eli teaches us that obedience to the Lord’s call in our lives requires more than just listening to the Lord, it means trusting that the Lord always acts for your good even when life doesn’t feel good. The good news of the call of Eli is that in being obedient to the Lord’s call in our lives, we get to participate in the salvation of all people.