Surprising Voices

1 Samuel 3:1–20 | John 1:43–51

Ben Dillon

Here we find ourselves in the second week of Epiphany, as we continue to reflect together about the meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, the Christ, the one God anointed to restore God’s chosen people.

But as Jeremy reminded us last week, Epiphany is also marked by surprise. Our God, after all, is a God of surprises. And one great surprise of Epiphany is that this messiah turns out not to be just a prophet, or a priest, or a miracle-worker, or a teacher—though he is all of these things. This messiah, for whom Israel had waited for centuries, turns out to be the actual presence of God. This is not just God’s representative, who stands between us and God. No, this is God, the one who made the heavens and the earth, and Christmas means that this God is now living a completely human life as a first-century Palestinian Jew. Indeed, to Nathanael’s great surprise, as a Jew from Nazareth, of all places.[1]

The other surprise—though less paradoxical than the mysterious claim that this human being is at the same time God—is no less surprising. This is surprising news that Israel’s messiah comes not just to restore Israel’s covenantal relationship with God, but also invites the goyim, the Gentiles, into the same kind of relationship. Those who were far from Israel’s God are now invited to draw close.[2] Those who were no people are now God’s people.

For most of us here, this great surprise of Epiphany means that though we were not born into God’s covenant with Abraham’s descendants, we are nevertheless now reconciled with God in the new covenant of Jesus Christ. The division between Jew and Gentile has been abolished, and all are called to draw near to God.[3]

And in our attempt to figure out what it means for us today to experience this Epiphany—this greatest of all God’s surprises—we turn to stories from Israel’s history. Just as the magi in last week’s story—our fellow gentiles—had to go to Jerusalem to understand why the stars were leading them to Bethlehem, so we turn to Israel’s scriptures to understand what this God is like, how this God acts.[4] This God who consistently surprises us by showing up in unexpected ways.

The story of “the boy Samuel” begins with a stark claim that may surprise us: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” To this, the narrator adds: “There were not many visions” (3:1). Indeed, as we quickly discover, the Lord is about the last person anyone in this story—including Samuel—expects to hear from.

But this is a bit strange, right?  After all, Samuel is in the tabernacle, precisely where we should expect God’s voice to be heard. Where we’d expect people to recognize God when God speaks—to know what God sounds like. Remember that just 200 years earlier, God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and into the wilderness, where they wandered for 40 years before entering the promised land. There in the wilderness, God gave Moses detailed instructions for building the tabernacle—a tent that was to be God’s dwelling place on earth. “You shall make for me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among you. There I will meet with you…. I will speak with you about all that I command for the people of Israel.”[5]

When Moses died, Joshua led the people into the promised land, and brought the tabernacle, with the ark of the covenant inside, to a town called Shiloh. This was the center of Israelite religion in those days. This was where priests prayed on behalf of the people, where sacrifices were offered, where people went to be near God, to listen for God’s voice. And this is where we find Samuel. It’s surprising, then, that though Samuel finds himself at the very heart of the Israelite religion—sleeping next to the ark of the covenant itself—God remains a stranger to him. Samuel has surely heard about the Lord his entire life, but he’s never heard from the Lord (3:7).

But if you’ve read the preceding chapter, you might not be so surprised that God had become a stranger to the tabernacle. You see, there are four characters who live there. First, there is Eli, the elderly, mostly blind priest, the chief religious leader in Israel. Then there is Samuel, a young boy who was sent as a toddler by his mother Hannah to live in the tabernacle, and who now assists Eli in his work there. So far, so good. But there are also Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They are also priests. But the narrator describes them as scoundrels. Worthless men who paid no attention to the Lord.[6]

When God gave Moses instructions about the tabernacle, God also told the people to bring gifts and sacrifices—cakes, breads, and animals—on special occasions to demonstrate their gratitude or repentance. Many of these gifts were to be burnt up on the altar. God permitted the priests to eat some of the food, but only after it had been properly consecrated to God.[7] The point of the sacrifices, after all, wasn’t to honor the priests, but to honor God. The priests were simply fellow worshipers whose task it was to convey these gifts to God.

But Eli’s sons were stealing the gifts and sacrifices from the worshippers, refusing to put them on the altar. Instead, they took the best part of the sacrifices for themselves, and offered what was left over to God, thus robbing both the worshippers and God.[8] Instead of serving as mediators between their community and God, they became parasites, sticking themselves in between God and God’s people, sucking the life from that relationship, becoming rich and comfortable through the work of others. And as if that weren’t bad enough, they were widely known for abusing their power by pressuring the women who came there to worship into having sex with them.[9]

And Eli, though he was apparently not doing these things himself, was nonetheless culpable. He allowed this to happen by turning a blind eye to his sons’ behavior. He found it easier to look away than to face the difficult, painful task of confronting them. He cared more about his sons’ comfort than about the women he was supposed to protect.[10] Is it any wonder, then, that the word of the Lord was rare in those days?

In some ways, Samuel’s world feels exotic, a world of animal sacrifices and oil lamps,

a world in which mothers send away their firstborn toddlers to live in a giant tent, sleeping next to a wooden box containing the ten commandments, a staff that once turned into a snake, and a golden jar of manna.[11] No matter how strange your childhood might have been, this is surely stranger than that.

But in another sense, this sounds a lot like our world. A world dominated by corrupt religious leaders and institutions. A world where some pastors use their position to take advantage of vulnerable women, and who use their so-called ministry to gain riches, and to justify the lifestyles of their wealthy friends. A world where God seems to be silent in the face of all this, where God has been silent for so long that many of us doubt whether God really acts in the world, whether God even exists.

But at the center of this story is a moment in which God does speak. The lamp of God may be sputtering, on the verge of disappearing, but it has not yet gone out. God might seem to be asleep like Samuel, or blind like Eli. But as Samuel and Eli sleep, God is planning a big surprise.

Suddenly, Samuel wakes up to hear his voice being called. And there’s something about being called by name that grabs his attention, pulls him from sleep, and makes him answer. “Here I am,” he says (3:4). He responds before he has any idea whose voice this is that surprises him in the middle of the night.

There is something powerful, after all, about being called by name by a stranger.

During my first year of seminary, just two weeks into the first semester, a professor whose class I was not taking, and whom I’d never met, stopped me in the hall. “Ben Dillon?” He said.

I was startled. I knew who he was – there were, of course, far fewer teachers than students at the school, and in my excitement to begin graduate studies, I’d read all about my future teachers, the scholars I hoped to emulate. But how did he know my name? He said, “My name is John Collins, and I haven’t chance to meet you yet. I just wanted to introduce myself and welcome you to the school.” Later I learned that he took the time, each year, to carefully study the pictures of every new student, so he’d know their names. And in calling me by name, John grabbed my attention. In calling me by name, he showed me that he knew something about me. That I was more than just a stranger to him. That he cared enough about me to learn my name, so he could address me by it.

But being called by name by a stranger can also be unnerving. Now, for this next story to make sense, you should know that there are only two names I go by. To almost everyone in the world, I’m “Ben.” But to three little girls and a little boy in Kentucky, I’m “Uncle Ben.” In a sense, it’s the most intimate way to address me. Anyone can call me “Ben,” but only those four can call me “uncle.” Now, about 3 years ago, I was in my home state of Oklahoma, visiting family and friends the week after Christmas. One evening I found myself taking a route I’d never taken before, from Oklahoma City to Tulsa, about a hundred miles away.

Something you may know about Oklahoma, if you’ve ever driven through, is that there are a lot of tolls roads. Not just to drive over the bridges, like in many states, but just to take the highways. I first learned this was unusual when I moved to the east coast at age 18. When people learned I was from Oklahoma, a common response was: “Oklahoma! I hate that place. They charged me 12 bucks just to drive across their ugly state.”

Now, I’d been on plenty of toll roads before, but this night I was on a new one. As I entered the highway, I noticed my car had about 3 gallons of gas left. Not dangerously low, but I made a mental note to stop at the first gas station on the way.

An hour later, I was more than halfway to Tulsa, but hadn’t yet passed a station. As the fuel light came on, there was nowhere to stop in sight. What I’d forgotten is that because no one wants to pay an extra toll just to stop for gas there aren’t many gas stations on the toll roads, especially not in the middle of nowhere.

At this point, I’m driving about 40 mph to maximize fuel efficiency, and coasting in neutral whenever I’m going downhill. Doing anything to save gas.

Then, to my relief, I see a sign for gas at the next exit, just 3 miles away.

But sure enough, my engine begins to sputter, and I have to pull over to the shoulder. I had run out of gas. It was a cold December night, and though I was deep in the countryside, the moonlight was shining on the snow to light my path. I could tell from the map on my phone that I could cut a few minutes off my mile-long walk by cutting through a field, rather than walking the highway shoulder all the way through the tollgate to get to the station.

Cold, and now running quite late to dinner at my sister’s house, I was happy to save whatever time I could, so I began walking across a snowy field just outside Sapulpa, Oklahoma. So far, so good. And trudging through the snow was just enough work to keep me warm.

But then, as I reached the road parallel to the interstate, just a quarter mile from the gas station,

I saw a shadowy figure standing beside the road just 20 feet from me. I’ll admit I was spooked, but I kept on walking, probably a little faster than before.

Then the figure spoke, in a voice I’d never heard before: “Uncle Ben!”

Though my impulse was to keep going, I instinctively turned around to see who this could be. He had called me by name, after all.

I stopped for a second or two, baffled, wondering how to respond, when he repeated: “Uncle Ben! It’s me!”

How did this man, this creepy stranger lurking in the darkness, know to call me that?

Startled, I didn’t know what else to say, so I said: “I’ve got to get to the gas station right away, so I’m gonna keep walking right now.”

And I started walking as fast as I ever have in my life.

As I glanced repeatedly over my shoulder, I could see him following me, at a much slower pace, calling out in the darkness, “Uncle Ben! Uncle Ben!” This went on until I put enough distance between us that either his calls had stopped, or I simply couldn’t hear them anymore.

To this day, I’m haunted by this strange memory. Who was this man? How did he happen to call me by my name? What in the world would he have told me if I’d stopped to chat? This was a surprising voice that I was probably wise to ignore—but still I wonder.

Although Samuel doesn’t recognize the strange voice calling to him in the darkness, he makes his best guess. He hops out of bed, comes to Eli, and says, “You called me. Here I am” (3:5). Eli is undoubtedly annoyed at being woken up in the middle of the night. He says, “What are you talking about, kid? No one called you. Go back to sleep” (3:6).

But the voice doesn’t stop. Two more times, it calls Samuel by name. Two more times, Samuel goes to Eli. Two more times, Eli sends him back to bed, hoping to get just one more hour of sleep before the sun comes up and it’s time to go back to work (3:6–8a).

But after Samuel has woken him up a third time, Eli realizes the voice is not just the overactive imagination of a lonely little boy. Something is happening here (3:8b). Eli, a man well into his 80s, who has spent his entire life in the tabernacle, knows better than anyone else how the tabernacle works, he knows that God doesn’t just show up in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, Eli knows God well enough to remember that God is full of surprises. Perhaps he remembers what it was like when he himself used to hear from God. Perhaps God used to call the young Eli himself out of bed in the middle of the night. And though it’s been many years since he has heard God’s voice, Eli remembers how to respond. And he tells Samuel how to respond the next time the voice calls: “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening” (3:9). Samuel trusts this sage advice, responds with the very words Eli has given him, and it works. But what the Lord tells him is startling. It’s something “to make the ears tingle” (3:12). Eli’s sons have done so much wrong—and Eli has failed to protect those for whom he was responsible—that no religious ritual, no sacrifice, no offering, could ever expiate their sins (3:12–14).

What Samuel hears may be bad news for Eli and his sons—but it is good news for the people of Israel. Not only does this mean that Israel will be delivered from the oppressive corruption of Eli’s sons. It also means that God has not, in fact, turned a blind eye towards their evil, as Eli had done. God, it turns out, is not a powerful old man in the sky. God is not another patriarch, like Eli, content to preserve the status quo that keeps people like him in power. No, God is a God of justice, a God who cares for the oppressed, who stands against the oppressor in demanding justice for the oppressed.

A few years earlier, when Samuel’s mother Hannah, learned that God was to give her a child, she sang one of the most powerful songs in the bible. In it, she proclaims:

“Those who were full will now have to work for their bread.

But those who were hungry are hungry no more.

The Lord makes poor and makes rich.

He brings low, and he also exalts.

He raises up the poor from the dust

And lifts the needy from the ash heap.”[12]

The good news that Hannah anticipated is that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.[13] And while this comes as good news for women like Hannah who have always been last, it is a terrifying message to those like Hophni and Phinehas, and even Eli, who have always been first. And Samuel is understandably reluctant to share this message of doom with the man who has raised him. In fact, Eli has to plead with the boy to get him to repeat what he’s heard from the strange and surprising voice that called out in the night.

But God’s voice is not the only surprising one in this story. I’m also surprised by Eli’s voice. Now, it’s easy for us to see Eli as little more than the villain in this story, especially because we all know of people like Eli today. We’ve seen for ourselves the way powerful men protect their sons and their colleagues from the consequences of their wrongdoing, even at the cost of hurting others. We’ve seen the “old guard” in our churches persistently resist the movement of the Spirit because it frightens and threatens them.

But Eli’s role in this story is much more complex. Without Eli, Samuel wouldn’t know who was calling him. Samuel had to be taught by Eli that it was the Lord who was calling. Without Eli, he wouldn’t know how to respond rightly. Again, he had to be taught by Eli.

And so Eli, whose unfaithfulness Samuel has to condemn, is the very one who helps him to hear Go, to recognize God’s voice, to understand God. Samuel was willing to take that first step, and respond to the strange voice in the middle of the night, but he needed Eli’s help to take the second step, to know how to go on—even though what he does is tell Eli that it’s too late.

As we think today about how God is moving Grant Park Church, I wonder who our Elis might be. Who are those we are tempted to dismiss because they’re so slow to hear God’s voice? And I wonder, in dismissing them, are we missing something? We are messy people, after all, and because the Spirit chooses to work in us, the Spirit’s work is often messy.

But what these stories from Israel’s past show us is that God is always surprising us—that God’s voice comes when we least expect it, and from the places we least expect it. This does not mean we’re to avoid speaking harsh words to the oppressors and those who enable the oppressors. Such harsh words may, in fact, be an act of love. As Eli told Samuel, “Do not hide any of it.” “Tell all that the Lord told you.” And so, Holy Spirit, open our ears that we might hear your voice wherever it calls, open our mouths that we might speak it boldly, and open our hearts that we might do so with love. Amen.


[1] John 1:45–46.

[2] Ephesians 2:11–20.

[3] Galatians 3:27–29; Colossians 3:11; Ephesians 2:14–16.

[4] Matthew 2:1–5.

[5] Exodus 25:8.

[6] 1 Samuel 2:12.

[7] Leviticus 7:1–17, 28–36.

[8] 1 Samuel 2:13–17.

[9] 1 Samuel 2:22.

[10] In fact, a mysterious “man of God” rebukes Eli for this neglect in the immediately preceding scene (1 Samuel 2:27–34).

[11] See Hebrews 9:4.

[12] 1 Samuel 2:5, 7–8. Hannah’s song anticipates the similar song of Mary in Luke 1:46–55.

[13] Matthew 20:16.