Göttinger Predigten

deutsch English español
português dansk Schweiz


Aktuelle Predigten


Besondere Gelegenheiten





Unsere Autoren weltweit

ISSN 2195-3171

Göttinger Predigten im Internet hg. von U. Nembach
Donations for Sermons from Goettingen

2. Sunday after Epiphany, 01/18/2009

Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-20, by David Hoster


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. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the 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. Then the LORD called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" and 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. The 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." Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. The 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. Therefore 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.

Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening." Then 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. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have             spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For 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. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever."       

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said,           "Samuel, my son." He said, "Here I am." Eli 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." So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, "It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him."

As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD. [1 Samuel 3:1-20 NRSV]

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the   law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And he            said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." [John 1:43-51 NRSV]

The stories in today's scripture about listening and responding to God describe very unusual forms of communication.

In 1 Samuel, we would expect God to communicate through his Temple and the priest, but instead, four times that night God went of his way not to communicate through the priest so he could give an earthshaking prophecy to a half-asleep young boy.  In the New Testament, God still isn't talking to priests, but instead reaches across a daisy-chain of semi-connected nobodies hanging around a seaside in the boondocks to rope in the skeptical Nathaniel using deliberately obscure language and a peculiar vision of a fig tree. 

So for all of you who have never gotten a clear message from God about anything and feel inferior to all those people who seem to know exactly what God wants them to do, these stories are for you.  

God doesn't communicate in ways that fit neatly into the gridlines inside our brains, and how could it be otherwise?  Your dog or cat probably understand about the same amount of what goes on in your mind as you do of God's, and for the same reason.  Even the giants of faith in the Bible had very dodgy communication links with heaven.

Take Samuel's world, for instance.  With the benefit of scriptural hindsight, Samuel's prophecy about malfeasance in the Temple might seem perfectly rational and straightforward to you and me, but guess again.  Put yourself in the place of those people, and you will see how very nearly impossible it was for them to hear a profoundly disturbing message from God about the misbehavior of their priest's sons.

Think about the implication of the fact that everybody knew what was going on.  Israel had no king at this time, only local tribal chiefs.  The high priest was the only "national" leader, as powerful in Israel as the President of the United States.  His sons were the Dick Cheney's, Donald Rumsfeld's and Tom Delay's of their day. Whatever blasphemies they had committed were top-of-the-scroll daily news in the Jerusalem Post. 

Now, think about the way Eli's sons affected people.   Think about the people who were scared to death of upsetting these very powerful men.  Think about the loudmouth, swaggering types who took their cue from Eli's sons and launched into aggressive blasphemies of their own.  Think about the people who did business with those sons and needed to cozy up to them.   Think about the people who just wanted to close their eyes and see none of it.

The point is that everybody knew what was going on but nobody wanted to hear about what it meant.  They wanted to stuff their fingers in their ears and sing, "La la la la la," because facing the situation meant that they would have had to do something about it.   Nobody wanted to tangle with the sons of the high priest.  So they made their peace and worked out their rationalizations.  They didn't want to think about it any more. 

No wonder "the word of God was scarce in those days." No wonder the word of God, when it came, made everybody's ears tingle.

Now think about why God picked a mere child to confront this community with its denial of responsibility.

Samuel lived at the Temple, so he saw and heard and took in everything because who, after all, cared what a mere child heard or thought.  Since he was too young to matter in the world of Eli's sons, he lacked the baggage with them that adults all carried.  He was a child, with a child's sense of what's right and fair, and a child's lack of those adult experiences that discourage asking the simple question and speaking the simple truth.

One can imagine how his disturbance over all he heard and saw must have moved very deeply in him.  So deeply, in fact, that in the middle of the night he is seized by the dreadful truth that the community is losing its soul because the evil that is being done has damaged everybody.  So he speaks the truth that everybody knows but nobody wants to hear.  He speaks the truth that will set things right, remove the pollution that is damaging everybody's integrity, and reopen the channels to God. 

The word of God comes through such devious means when the facts are obvious to all, but nobody wants to hear the truth.

Yet the most dicey question of all remains unanswered:  Why did Eli and the others listen to a child?  His youth had made him invisible.  What had changed so suddenly and dramatically that they now think he speaks with the authority of God?

Surely it wasn't that Samuel had disturbed Eli's sleep four times during the night.  That only made the boy a nuisance and a candidate for being sent back to live with his mother.  I doubt that you or I would have been as patient as Eli with a child who kept waking us up.

Yet these awakenings do provide the vital clue.  The truth is that Eli's sleep has been disturbed by God for a long time.  Doubtless, the antics of his sons have left him tossing and turning, trying to switch off his anxious inner dialogue so sleep would come, followed by disturbed dreaming.  Samuel, no doubt, merely brings the latest and final chapter to a long running malaise.

The weariness in Eli's voice is tangible as he pronounces his final take on Samuel's prophecy:  "Let [the Lord] do what seems good to him." It's as though Eli is saying, simply, "I've had it.  Do what you want, God."  With Eli's consent to Samuel's witness, Israelites will wake up from their own disturbed spiritual sleep.

The key fact in this entire drama is revealed by Eli's own words.  When Eli says, "It is the Lord," he reveals the secret of Samuel's testimony.  It is, quite simply, that Eli and the rest of Israel believe in the existence of God, and they believe that the truth to set things right in troubled times will come from God.

This truth is one that we need to hear.  We need to hear it because so much of our modern sense of salvation is based on the work of another son of Israel who closely tracks this entire story except for Eli's final conclusion.

Sigmund Freud's entire theory of psychoanalysis is an effort to heal people who know deeper truths but are driven to stick their fingers in their ears and sing, "La la la la la."  Freud, too, believes that the sins of the sons are rooted in the negligence of the parent.  Freud, too, believes that healing will come from discovery of that suppressed truth.  Freud, too, believes that knowledge of truth will come from dream, trance, disturbed sleep.  Why else put the client on a reclining couch?

Even though Freud is no longer in vogue, we still believe in the magic of his most basic tenet:  If the patient can just gain insight into the truth, the disorder will be healed and go away.  The truth will set you free. 

Movie after movie has been made to celebrate precisely this form of magical thinking.  A few of you will remember Ordinary People, a celebrated novel and movie from the year 1980.  It's about a manifestly dysfunctional family with a mother from hell played by Mary Tyler Moore who mercilessly punishes and belittles her high school age son.  The movie focuses on the son who is miserably unhappy, unable to succeed at much anything, and deep in psychoanalysis. 

We sense that there is some deep truth in this family that nobody wants to face.  It takes a long time to find out that there had once been two sons.  These two sons went boating on a lake a few years earlier when a storm came up and sank the boat.  The other son drowned, and he had been the one mom really loved.  So she dealt with her grief by dedicated herself to relentlessly punishing the son who survived and failed to save her favorite from drowning.

At the dramatic climax of the movie, the psychotherapist elicits this insight from the young man who is suddenly healed.  The modern myth of salvation is upheld.  We leave the theater feeling we can breathe easier about life.

But is it true?  Is insight into truth enough?  Is it enough for the son to know that mom has it wrong and blames him unfairly? 

I can tell you from thirty years of pastoral care that the truth is essential, but often this truth does not have the power by itself to heal.  I can't tell you how many times I've offered my brilliant insights to people who just nodded and said, "Uh huh" because the truth came only from me.  I've even seen people have moments of searing, healing insight, only to watch it recede from their lives without changing anything. 

We need psychoanalysis and clergy and friends who tell the truth and all the other forces that disturb our sleep.  We must know the truth, but simply knowing the truth isn't enough.  But we need something more. 

We need to know what Eli knows when he says, however wearily, "It is the Lord." 


Eli knew the truth.  Come on.  He knew his sons were screwing up.  It was only when the truth had disturbed his sleep enough that he knew it was God's truth that he set Israel on a course toward healing. 

Is the son in Ordinary People really a substantial enough person to stand up against his own mother's condemnation just because he's figured out the truth that she blames him for her favorite son's death?  Can he just stand up, dust himself off, feel sorry for mom who can't see the truth and stop taking her criticism to heart?

In the real world, I don't think so.  In my experience, it is rarely enough simply to gain insight into the truth when an extremely forceful, credible and disordered people push hard craziness on us.

It takes the testimony of somebody more powerful than the sons of Eli and all they represent.  It takes believing in the existence of God, and believing that the truth that heals comes from God.  Only God is stronger than the disorder of a condemning parent or any other potent authority over our lives.  Only God is strong enough to overcome our ego's resistance to its own healing as we try and try again to heal ourselves by our own strength of will. 

In the New Testament, Jesus says that "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." The truth the gospel speaks of is not any insight into the truth of our past or our situation in the world.  The truth is the truth of God's existence.  The truth that heals comes with the power of God delivering it. 


The Rev. David Hoster
Rector, St. George's Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas
E-Mail: david.w.hoster@gmail.com