“We May and We Must“
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Ancient Hebrew priests like Eli had a very specific role in the life of Israel. As arbiters between the community and God, they called the people to faithfulness in living and to repentance when they went astray. And God expected priests to lead by example, to model both faithfulness and repentance.
In 1Samuel 2 we learn that Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who were priests by birthright, were “scoundrels.” They stole the best food brought in for sacrifices. They seduced the young women who welcomed worshipers at the tent of meeting. To make matters worse, Eli did nothing to stop them.
In chapter 2, we also learn of a kind of vision that Eli had. A “man of God” comes to the aging priest and says that when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, God chose an ancestor of Eli’s to serve as priest. So, Eli’s priestly lineage had the authority of both God’s anointing and long-standing tradition. In light of Eli’s failures, though, God was about to break that tradition. Eli and his household were going to fall, and God would raise up a new priest: A “trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.
6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”
7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”
Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
11Then 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. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.”
17Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”
18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. (1Samuel 3:1-20 – NRSV)
The story opens in a barren season. God’s word and guiding visions are rare. In the midst of that spiritual winter, a boy encounters God in a word-saturated vision. In his innocence and inexperience, the boy mistakes the voice calling him for Eli’s voice. Eli may have failed in many ways, but the storyteller says that “the light of God had not yet gone out.” The reference may be to an actual lamp in the sanctuary, but it also alludes to the old priest’s spiritual awareness. As far as Eli has fallen, he does, finally, recognize that God is calling Samuel.
Next time you hear the voice, says Eli, tell God that you’re listening. Samuel listens, and he receives the ear-tingling news of Eli’s downfall. Already aware of the judgement against his household, Eli says, Let God do what God will do.
That Samuel doesn’t yet “know the Lord” through all of this tells us that God is taking fresh initiative. Following the failure of Eli and his sons, God is calling a new priestly line to lead Israel.
In Israel, a priest was a pastoral theologian. He was called by God to perform sacrifices and to teach the Torah. He was also a practical theologian. He was called to lead the people in applying the Law in their lives. He was also called to speak prophetic truth to the people, regardless of its popularity. And in Israel, crises often became the most critical times to hold the community accountable to the demanding truths of the first commandment—“You shall have no other gods before me”—and the Shema—”Hear O Israel, the Lord [alone] is our God…love the Lord…with all your heart…soul [and] might.” Teach all of this to your children, and make it part of your everyday lives. (Deuteronomy 5:7 and 6:4-9)
Those truths served as the bedrock of Israel’s spiritual, ethical, moral, political, and social existence in the “real”world. Belonging to God and to God alone, everything they did was tied to their blessed-to-be-a-blessing call from God.
For Eli, then, was it imperative that he call his sons as well the community to faithfulness. In failing to do that, Eli failed to honor the first commandment and the Shema. His silence threatened to undermine all of Israel and her role as a redeeming presence in and hopeful blessing to the wider world.
As with ancient Israel, our Christian spirituality and witness cannot be limited to holding church services and doing altruistic things with time, talents, and tithes. Faithfulness to God includes our interactions with the world beyond the Church. And God calls us to mirror the ways and means of Jesus, who lived a life of radical commitment to God, and who called Jew and Gentile alike to lives of shared experience, shared responsibility, shared wealth, shared suffering, and shared joy.
I’ve heard it suggested that pastors cannot rightfully express viewpoints addressing the wider community’s struggles. I understand that concern. Someone with the authority of the pulpit must tread carefully; and certainly, the pulpit should never be used as a something partisan. Then again, while someone may have the right to say that others don’t have the right to speak, the biblical story doesn’t let pastors or the faith community off that easy. God’s Holy Spirit creates and calls a prophetic community.
The story of Eli and his sons demonstrates that there are times when silence is complicity in actions that are destructive to community and, therefore, fundamentally antithetical to God. The gospel also demonstrates that there are times when Christians and Christian communities have not only the right but the responsibility to claim their Christ-voice and speak to issues of justice, equality, and peace in the wider world.
In the Theological Declaration of Barmen, pastors and religious scholars did just that: They raised their prophetic voice and challenged Nazi attempts to co-opt, corrupt, and even silence the Church’s message and make it compatible with a fascist agenda. The writers of Barmen declared that their “imperiled” church was “threatened by the teaching methods and actions…of the ‘German Christians’”—(the state church of the Third Reich). Those methods and actions undermined the theological foundations and the unified witness of the body of Christ. And when that is allowed to happen, says Barmen, “the Church ceases to be the Church.”2
At great risk to themselves, these priests and prophets declared, “we may and [we] must speak…since we…have been given a common message to utter in a time of common need and temptation.”3
Declaring that “Jesus Christ…is the one Word of God which we have to hear…trust and obey,” the writers of Barmen rejected “false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides [Jesus], still other events and powers, figures and truths.”4
On January 6, 2021, at the US Capitol, fellow Christians raised the cross of Christ next to symbols of white supremacy, hate, and violence; but hate and violence have no place in Christ’s Church. Now, I do not think that everyone present that day was racist, hateful, and violent. It is clear, however, that that particular cross was raised not as a prophetic counterpoint to but as willful participation with those destructive forces. So, it is theological rather than political to say that, as followers of Jesus, we cannot, like Eli, remain silent in the face of such desecration.
In our own anxious days when holy words and guiding visions are all-too rare, God is calling our names. Like Samuel, let us say, “Here I am…Speak for your servant is listening.”
Whatever God says to us, “we may and [we] must” respond with a freely-offered, full-throated, prayer-actioned commitment to Jesus Christ, and to his ways of trustworthy prophecy—the ways of love, justice, and non-violent peace. For he and he alone is our way, our truth, and our life.
1Lawrence Wood, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. p. 245.
2-4For the text of the Theological Declaration of Barmen, see: https://www.creeds.net/reformed/barmen.htm