"The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread."
Our story begins today in a temple to the Lord before the time of kings in Israel. Whenever I come back to this story of the young Samuel ministering to God during the priesthood of Eli, I am caught up short by that detail. I suppose I think of ancient Israel as a God-haunted time and place. I imagine the traffic between earth and heaven being crowded and even chaotic. I imagine the kind of world that historians of religion call enchanted: messages, visions, and miracles seeping through the membrane between the human world and the divine; offerings and prayers going back, being received and heard and answered - or rejected. I suppose I assume that people in the days of Samuel and Eli experienced God and the world much differently than I do.
Instead, we hear this poignant and sobering context: the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread. The Exodus from Egypt was long ago. The great stories were perhaps already fading into legend. The world was going on its way. The harvest needed to be brought in as always and the worship needed to be offered before the Ark of the Covenant, in the candlelit presence of a God who had fallen silent.
So, it is no surprise that the boy Samuel does not recognize the voice of God. "Samuel, Samuel," God says, and the boy assumes it is the voice of Eli. Again God calls, and again Samuel runs to Eli. Finally, Eli guesses that something else is going on here. He instructs his young charge to sit and await the message.
Do you think Eli felt a twinge of grief or resentment that the word, so scarce in these days, was not coming to him? Or perhaps he was relieved that God's silence was being broken, if not to Eli himself? Then again perhaps he is only concerned that Samuel not miss the chance. The word is rare and we can't simply assume that it will come back around to us. Of course, maybe he just wanted to go back to sleep.
Before we get to the message itself, I want to consider the meaning of God's prophetic word and vision being rare. We hear about this scarcity in the Hebrew Scriptures in other times as well. A few centuries later, the prophet Amos will warn of a famine not of bread or wine but of the hearing of the word of the Lord. The sages who compiled the Proverbs tell us, in the old translation, "Without vision, the people perish."
In my branch of Christianity, when we talk about prophecy and vision, we most often seem to mean something like calling for justice with or on behalf of the marginalized, the oppressed, or the overlooked. The church's prophetic role, as we put it, is to bring these demands for justice to public notice and to urge that wrongs be redressed. The vision we seek to show forth is of a beloved community, at peace with itself.
And this is true and good as far as it goes. There is always a need to speak for justice. But words and visions from God, in the way that Scripture speaks of them, are different. The Law and the Prophets, already revealed, give us everything we need to preach and seek justice. Jesus himself makes this quite clear, in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. In that story, Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers already have the law and the prophets; they don't need a messenger from heaven to warn them to do what is right. Neither do we.
So, I wonder if it could be said of our age that the word of the Lord was rare and visions scarce among us. We have the Law and the Prophets, not to mention the Gospel of Jesus. We preach and teach them as well as we can. We seek to embody them in our life and witness. But maybe the traffic between heaven and earth has been crammed into one lane and slowed to a crawl. Or maybe some of us - myself very much included - are simply not prepared to receive it.
So it happens that Eli does not hear this message directly. The message comes to the boy Samuel. And the message is that God will punish Eli for his failures and corruption as a priest. He and his sons abused their office, and now it will be taken from them.
It would have been nice if the God of the Covenant had chosen to break silence for a more cheerful message. But Samuel hears what he hears, and repeats it faithfully. Eli understands that God will do what God will do. The years have come and gone, the fields planted and harvested, the tithes brought in to the temple from generation to generation. But no more. At least, not for Eli. Things will change. And the people who have endured his misdeeds will be helped.
This is a difficult story. The wrongs done to the people through worship will be set right, but at a high cost to Eli and his sons. And it reminds us of one thing: God remains free to speak and to act in ways we do not expect.
We need to hear this today, amid a long winter of a stubborn pandemic, food insecurity, and power politics turning us into competing audiences divided by mutual suspicion and hostility. Our best efforts and intentions can feel so futile. We can take precautions. We can spend our money carefully and give our surplus generously. We speak as patiently and kindly as we are able. We can, and hopefully do, share that divine vision of a better world. But things seem to move as they will, with or without us.
God's unexpected word to Samuel shows us that even our world is not frozen in its patterns of conflict and suffering. The traffic between earth and heaven has not ceased for good. The first today will not always be first, and the last will not always be last. The wrongs done by the powerful will not endure forever. The assumptions we make about the world, and the things both good and bad we take for granted, are not permanent.
God did not withhold a word - or the power to hear it - from Samuel. God did not abandon the people to the corruption of their religious leadership. God did not refuse to speak even where God's words were not listened for, and God did not refuse to appear even where God's visions were not looked for.
A scarce word is an especially precious word. A scarce vision is an especially precious vision. If it can only be heard or seen by a young boy serving a failed priest, so much greater is its power.
So, God came to the help of God's people. So God will come, one way or another, to the help of God's people. It will be in a way we do not or cannot expect, from a voice we are not prepared to hear. But the help will come.
At the beginning of the story, we hear that words and visions from God were scarce. At the end we hear this: "As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground." The sacred and powerful words of prophecy would be heard, even now. If not because the people had ears to hear, then at least because they had hearts that yearned and loved and longed for good news.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we ask your blessing on all those who speak and hear your words this day and every day. We ask that you would open our hearts and minds to the words and visions you have for us. Make us eager both to listen and to proclaim. Help us to see beyond the limits of our own time and place. And grant us the assurance that you are present and faithful even when vision is scarce among us. Heal us, renew us, and lead us, for the sake of your unfailing mercy and love. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.