Change in the Wind
(1 Samuel 3:1-20)
This sermon is based on the Revised Common
Lectionary Old Testament reading for Year B,
Epiphany 2 and Proper 4
I grew up in western Oklahoma. I spent several years early in life on
a farm. My dad was a farmer. Born in 1900, he was really the last
generation of frontier farmers.
Dad had an uncanny sense about the weather. He could look at the sky
and the clouds and tell what kind of weather was coming. That’s
important for a farmer, because it sometimes means the difference
between making a crop and going under. And it’s quite an accomplishment
living in Oklahoma!
Perhaps it was a gift. I can even recall much later after leaving the
farm when I was in High School, that dad would challenge the TV weather
forecast. He would make some comment about how absurd a certain forecast
was, and then give his own prediction. And he was right more often than
I don’t really know how, but I picked up that gift from my dad. Maybe
it’s not really a gift. Maybe it’s just training oneself to be observant
and connecting all the pieces of information together from years of
experience. Maybe it’s just living in a certain place for a long time
and learning the rhythms of the land.
I don’t really know how, but many times I can tell just by looking at
the sky and feeling the wind what is coming. Of course there are other
times that most anyone can do that. Have you ever been outside and you
just knew a storm was coming? The way the air hangs heavy. The color of
the sky. The way the clouds are moving. Sometimes you can actually feel
the air pressure falling if you stand still long enough.
Sometimes the same is true for desperately needed rain. One of the
sweetest smells that I can remember comes from that heritage on the
farm. There is nothing to compare to it. After a long, hot, and dry
Oklahoma summer, when it hasn’t rained for three months, it is the smell
of rain drifting in on the southwest wind on a hot August afternoon.
When you smell that rain you know that the drought will soon be over.
There will be refreshing showers that will make you want to run into the
yard and see what rain feels like after so long without it.
I think that the same may be true of other things as well. I’m no
prophet. And I’m not sure I want to be one. Prophets tend to get killed.
But as I contemplate where the church is in this post-modern culture,
and where it needs to be going, I feel a change in the air. I sense a
new wind blowing through the church. I am not smart enough to know what
all that means or to be able to predict the future. But the signs are
there. And my spiritual senses tell me that a change in the spiritual
climate is coming.
I’m not yet sure whether this is a storm or the just the rains after
a drought. But I suspect that it may be the wind of opportunity that
promises a new beginning that I hear blowing. It may just be the fresh
winds of the Spirit that will bring the “showers of blessing” that holiness folks used to sing about.
Our world and our culture are changing rapidly all around us. With
new communication technology and increasing global interaction, we face
a world that will be radically different from the one in which we have
lived for so long. And our own society is changing. There are new ways
of thinking and new ways of doing things.
The year 2,000 was just a date on a calendar. Yet that date caused us
to take a long look at where we have been and where we are going. And
when we looked closely, the changes unfolding all around us have
surprised us. And in the years since those changes have continued at a
rapidly increasing pace.
Of course, some want to see the changes, any changes, as threatening.
And so they move into a doomsday mode and adopt a negative view (see
The Jonah Syndrome). They
decry most any change as a change for the worse. There are things
to be concerned about in some changes. But where some people see only
problems, others see opportunities.
Change can be threatening. But people who study such things tell us
that times of change are the best opportunities for people to respond to
God. The uncertainty that any major change brings opens the door to
reevaluate one’s life and ask questions of purpose and meaning.
If that is true in individuals, I suspect it is also true of society.
And it is true of the church. Statistics show that there is more
interest in religion and spirituality in the US now than there has been
in the last half-century. Of course, some of that spirituality is of the
weird kind, and certainly not Christian. But that also tells us that
there are opportunities to proclaim the Gospel.
Frankly, I’m not sure what all that means for the church. I think
that is probably the greatest challenge we face in the coming years as
people of God, to find out how to proclaim our testimony to the grace of
God in a rapidly changing world. The message has not changed, and the
truth has not changed. But the world has. And how we speak the truth
will need to change in order to speak to that world.
Perhaps there is something in our Scripture for today that will help
us think about this issue. I will propose no grand solutions. But
perhaps God will help us learn if we are willing to listen to his word.
2. Story of Samuel
The Old Testament reading for this morning is the story of God’s call to
the young man Samuel and his commissioning as a prophet to Israel. In
many ways, this young man Samuel represents the turning of history for
3:1 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. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so
that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 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.
4 Then the LORD called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said,
"Here I am!" 5 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.
6 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." 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the
word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8 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. 9 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. 10 Now the LORD
came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel
said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
11 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. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have
spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 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. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of
Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever."
15 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. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, "Samuel, my son." He said, "Here
I am." 17 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." 18 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." 19 As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his
words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew
that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.
The setting for this story is the period of the Judges. Judges were
local tribal leaders whom God raised up to meet specific crises facing
the people of God. Israel had been settled in the land now some 200
years. They had entered the land with great expectations, glorious
promises, and a bright future. What else could the future be but bright
for a group of people who had been in slavery for nearly 500 years?
God had heard their cries as oppressed slaves and entered history to
bring them freedom from the tyranny of Pharaoh. After escape from Egypt,
God had met with them in the desert and made them his people. They had
entered into covenant with God and promised to love and serve him in
response to his gracious acts of deliverance. And God had promised them
a land in which they could be his people, a place where they could be a
light to world.
When they entered the land of Canaan, they built altars and
sanctuaries in which to worship and began living as God’s people. But
the years passed. They had settled into the land and become comfortable.
The fervor with which they celebrated their deliverance faded as they
struggled to create a new life in the land.
The priests continued to worship and maintain the sanctuaries
throughout the land. They tried to keep the spiritual vitality alive.
But the people could see little advantage in serving God. They became
preoccupied with their own interests and their commitment to God grew
dim. They encountered the fertility religions of Canaan and were lured
into the worship of other gods. They never totally abandoned the worship
of the God who brought them out of Egypt. They simply added all the
other gods to that worship.
And so gradually they began to forget who they were as God’s people
and what their mission was in the world. A few of the older people
remembered how it had been and tried to keep the worship of God alive.
But the new generation of children that were growing up had finally
abandoned God for pursuit of their own pleasure.
And so the Book of Judges ends with one of the most chilling verses
in the Bible. "Everyone did as they wanted to do."
It is against that background that the young man Samuel enters
The first chapters of 1 Samuel tell us of the miraculous birth of
Samuel. You know the story. It begins with a woman who was barren,
unable to have children. Hannah was taunted and ridiculed by a rival
wife who did have children, and so she went to the sanctuary at Shiloh
to cry out to God.
Here we need to note that this is not just a biological problem. In
the ancient world children were a way to talk about the future. They
were a symbol of hope and newness, of the possibilities that existed for
renewal and stability in an otherwise unstable world. Children were the
promise and hope of tomorrow. Perhaps that is why Jesus made such a
point of valuing children.
So the lack of children was a way to talk about endings, about the
loss of hope, about the freighting possibility that there would be no
future. With no children, there was no future. It is no accident that at
key places throughout the biblical story, at significant turning points
of history, the story is told of terms of a woman with no children.
But we are not told of barren women just to lament their plight. We
are always told of childless women in order to hear about the power of
God that comes into impossible situations. It seems that God does some
of his best work with impossible situations! And so when Hannah prayed
and asked for a son, she was really praying for a future, for the
possibility of something beyond the present ending of barrenness.
As we hear Hannah’s story and listen to her pray, we realize that
this is not just a story about Hannah and her desire to have a child. We
realize that this is a story about Israel. Israel, God’s people, have
come to an ending. They have all but abandoned God and have gone their
own way. Yet, without God, they have no future.
Hannah’s prayer is for a future, not just for herself, but for
Israel. Oh, she may not have realized that. But the narrator of the
story certainly does. As we listen, we know there is more at stake here
than just a child.
God heard and answered her prayer. As soon as we hear of the birth of
this child, we know that there is hope for Israel. We know that there is
indeed a future and possibility simply because God has brought it. But
change does not always come easily, and we do not yet know the shape of
Hannah had promised to dedicate her son back to the Lord. And so as
soon as he was old enough, she took him back to the sanctuary and placed
him in the service of God at Shiloh.
And so the stage is set for the text in chapter three that we have heard
3. Dynamic of the Story: A Voice in the Darkness
Even before we look more closely at this story, we need to note that
there are three characters in the story: the old priest Eli, the young
man Samuel, and God. Too often we focus on Samuel and forget about Eli.
But if we listen carefully to the story, we realize that Eli has a
significant role in the story. It will take all three of these figures
in the story for Israel to have a future.
Eli by this time was an old man, nearly blind. He was priest at the
sanctuary at Shiloh, and likely had been all his life. He had probably
inherited the position from his father. And he would pass it on to his
But in the previous chapter (2), we are told that Eli’s two sons were
worthless fellows who despised the things of God. They had violated the
very sanctuary of God by having sex with the women attendants of the
sanctuary. Eli had tried to persuade them to change but they would not
listen to him. They embody the dead end that Israel had reached as God’s
At the beginning of this story we are told some significant details
that serve more as theological comments about what will unfold. First,
we are told in verse 2 that: "The word of the LORD was rare in those
days; visions were not common." This reflects the situation at the end
of the book of Judges. What a sad commentary about God’s people.
Second, in verse 2 we are told about Eli's failing eyesight. While it
might not be politically correct to do so today, in Scripture blindness
was often a metaphor for lack of spiritual sight. It is even used that
way in the New Testament especially. Recall that Saul was struck with
blindness on the road to Damascus, a way to symbolize his lack of
Here we have to slow down and begin hearing this story as theological
commentary rather than just a nice story about a boy who has a spiritual
experience. Eli represents Israel and the path that she has taken in
allowing the things of God to grow dim. Eli represents the old ways that
Israel had been following now for 200 years, paths that have led to
spiritual blindness and a deafness to the voice of God.
Yet there is a glimmer of hope here. We are also told in verse 3 that
"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." It is no accident that
this story takes place at night. The darkness represents the same thing
that Eli’s blindness represents: the lack of spiritual vision and the
failure to be God’s people.
The lamp of God and the ark both symbolized the presence of God in
the sanctuary. In this story they represent the presence of God in the
darkness into which Israel’s spiritual blindness has led them. In the
midst of the darkness of failing vision and the night that has descended
over Israel, the flame of God’s presence is still burning. God had not
abandoned these people. If there is anything that we need to hear today,
it is that the flame of God’s presence among his people has not gone
And in the darkness there is Samuel, the miracle child! The child
born to a barren woman! In the darkness lies the future, just waiting
for God’s presence to fan it into a new flame!
We must be careful here that we do not romanticize Samuel and make
him the hero here. The story is not about Samuel. But he is the
instrument of God's work.
We all know the story of God's call to Samuel. God called to him. He
heard God’s voice, but did not understand. He was only a boy and had not
yet learned to distinguish the voice of God. But it is interesting that
even though the word of the Lord was rare in those days, the boy Samuel
heard it even though he did not recognize what he heard!
He went and asked Eli if he had called. Eli told him to go back to
bed. Twice more this happened. Finally, the third time Eli began to
understand what was happening. He explained what Samuel should do and
how he should respond.
The fourth time Samuel responded to God's call, and was given the
prophetic message from God. It was a message about change, about the
ending of the old ways of doing things in Israel. The message was that
God would not allow Eli's sons to lead Israel. Eli's priestly family
would be removed and replaced. God did not tell Samuel at this point
what newness would come, only about the changes that would sweep away
the old ways.
Samuel was afraid to tell Eli about God’s message. Finally, almost
under threat, he told Eli the sad news. We might have expected Eli to be
angry, which is probably why Samuel was afraid to tell him. Or we might
have expected a cynical or hurt reaction. But Eli's response is
unexpected, probably because we have misjudged Eli. He simply said, "It
is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him."
Perhaps it had been so long since he had heard from God that he was
shocked. Or perhaps he was still enough of a man of faith to recognize
God’s work in the world. Even as the old ways are passing away, they
convey truth to us.
The last verse of our reading, verse 20, completes the transition from
Eli to Samuel. Samuel emerges as a new leader in Israel at the same time
that Eli and his sons disappear from Israel’s history.
4. The role of Eli
I want to look closer at Eli, and what he actually did here. I said
earlier that the story is not about Samuel. Actually, the story is about
God and how he works in and even brings the changes that Israel
experienced. But the story is as much about Eli as it is about Samuel.
Of course, Samuel is the one God called and he became the new spiritual
leader of Israel.
But let’s look again at Eli’s role. Yes, his spiritual eyes were dim,
and he had not heard the word of the Lord in a long time. And he did not
recognize it at first when he did hear it. But he did finally recognize
it. And when the young boy Samuel sought answers to his questions, Eli
was there to guide him in the right direction. Even amid all the changes
that were unfolding here for the nation, the new leader born and called
by God to bring new light to the people needed the guidance of the blind
Eli to know how to respond and what to do. Even though the old ways were
dying, they still had a role in guiding the new generation into their
calling as God’s people.
Eli does not emerge as a hero in this story. He fights no great
battles, brings no new victories, leads no great building projects,
becomes no great champion of justice, preaches no great sermons, builds
no new altars. He has failed to teach his sons the way of God, and so
loses his heritage. We are so accustomed to looking for heroes that we
can easily scorn Eli as a pitiful old man with no purpose but to get out
of the way and let the new ways come.
And yet, Eli enables the young Samuel to be the newness that the
people so desperately need. And in Eli's quiet acceptance of the new
word of God, we see a gentleness and a piety, a commitment to God, that
will allow God to work beyond himself.
Eli may not be a hero, but his role was to facilitate and enable the
change that God was bringing. He was the transition figure between the
past and the future, the cutting edge over which the old became new.
I think Eli served God well. Not as a hero, but as an ordinary person
with all the frailties of being human, yet one who knew enough about God
to guide a young boy who was seeking answers to his questions about God.
Perhaps we need more people like Eli, who are less concerned with
being the hero today, and yet who can guide the leaders of tomorrow.
And what of Samuel? Does he become the hero? Perhaps. But if we look
later at Samuel, even after being the prophet of God for many years, he
had sons of his own. And his sons were worthless fellows, just like the
sons of Eli. Eventually, Samuel himself came to the position of Eli, and
faced the judgment of God on his own family and his heritage.
Samuel filled the same role as Eli, as he presided over yet another
change in Israel’s history. Samuel was commissioned by God to anoint
first Saul and then David as king, an act that would bring his own
leadership of Israel to an end. Finally, Samuel’s role was identical to
Eli’s, to facilitate the transition from the past into a new future of
God’s work. By the time Samuel anointed David as king, it was again the
old man who represented the past passing the future to a young boy who
represented the new future that God would bring.
I am always fearful that sometimes when preachers try to make
applications of a biblical story, they hinder what God wants to say to
some people. They replace the living and active word of God with their
own words. This may be one of those biblical stories in which the Lord
can speak in different ways to different people far better than anything
I can say.
So I’m not going to tell you what this text means for today. I will
just share with you some of the ways this story has spoken to me, as you
listen for God to apply this to your own life.
I could not help but think of the changes emerging in our society,
our culture, and our church as I heard this story again. And the
question that kept returning was, how do we meet the challenges of that
change? How can we be faithful to our heritage and yet speak to a world
that increasingly does not want to hear what we have to say? How can we
listen and see what God is doing, and how can we be a part of it? How
can we rekindle that flickering flame of God’s presence into a light
that will be a light to world?
I think that perhaps we need to realize that some things are ending.
I’m not sure we have to see the church in the metaphor of a blind old
man who is ready to die. But we do have to recognize that what has been
will not be again. The stability and power of our Faith is not in all
the trappings of our religion, but in the living God in our midst. We
can easily disrupt the new work of God in the world if we try only to
hang onto what has always been. Not everything needs to change, or
should. But then, not everything can remain the same.
Maybe our task, maybe my task, is not to be Samuel, not to be the
future, but to be Eli, to make sure that the future knows how to find
the answers it needs. Maybe in our desire either to be spiritual
ourselves or to be a great church or people, we have overlooked the
crucial task of enabling others to be spiritual or to enable them to be
the one to build a great church.
My home town church in Weatherford, Oklahoma was never a great
church. Attendance never ran much over 60, and often nearer 30. Yet in
the four years I was in High School that small church produced four
preachers. Over the years that church ministered to dozens of college
students at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. I still run into
some of those students who talk about their time in college and
attending that little church, and the spiritual stability they found
among people who cared for them and prayed with them as they were
searching for answers.
There were no great heroes in that church. A mechanic. A rural mail
carrier. A plumbers’ wife. A retired school teacher. A farmer.
Housewives. Grandmothers. But they knew God. Even when I was there in
the 60s, they were in many ways the last of a past that would never
return. And yet they invested in the future by loving and nurturing the
young people of that church.
Do you realize how many young people, college students, this church
has nurtured in the past few years? They did not just come here to
church and sit in the pews. They grew and became stable in their faith
because the pastor and the people cared for them and gave them room to
grow. They aren’t here this morning. They are pastoring churches in
Arkansas and Kansas and Texas. They are teaching in Korea and holding
services on military bases in Texas and Colorado. They are faithful lay
men and women serving God in churches large and small all over the
country. They are Youth
pastors and Preachers and Evangelists all over the church.
Maybe that is as important a task as we have as God’s people, to make
sure that the young Samuel’s know how to respond to God. Maybe heritage
is not really lost that is transformed into a new generation.
And we never know. In any one of those college students, or in any
one of the young people that come to our church to play basketball
during the week, there may really be a Samuel that will change the
church and the world. What greater opportunity can we have than that?
And maybe some of the young Samuels need to realize that they do
not always know how to recognize the voice of God. Maybe the Eli’s of our
church have more to teach us than we might think. It is easy to despise
the past as we are looking toward the future. We should never give up
looking to the future. But in our zeal to move into the future, let us
not forget who taught us to do so. And let us not assume that we know
the way on our own.
I suspect that the greatest power that the church can muster is to
have God in our midst doing new things as the Samuels and the Eli’s of
the church both hear the voice of God and see his new work in the world.
It may actually take those two generations from Eli to Samuel to
David before there is the golden age of the church for which we dream.
But if we only dream of the golden age of either the past or the future,
we may not be able to hear the Samuels of our day asking for our
I’m not sure what this means for us today at any particular local church
or in our particular denomination. But I do know this. Any renewal that
comes in the church, or in the lives of individuals, will come because
of God’s presence in our midst. And it will come because we have heard
the voice of God calling us to newness.
But it is not enough to hear. We must respond. Whether it is Eli or
Samuel, we are all a part of that new future that God is bringing. New winds are blowing. The spiritual climate is changing. The smell
of fresh breezes and fresh showers are in the air.
Yet there is risk. For some, there is risk that the newness that God
brings will also bring an ending to their way of doing things, an ending
of the security of the past. For others there is risk that they will be
the ones called to forge into new territory in the power of the Spirit,
to announce and help build the newness that God is bringing.
But one thing is certain. There will be no status quo. There will be
no going on as usual. The changes that are already in process in our
culture and church will not allow it. As Jim Cymbala writes in Fresh
Wind, Fresh Fire, "You and I will never know our potential under God
until we step out and take risks . . .to establish his kingdom."
We can’t do that just because we decide it should be so. But we can
do it as God calls to us and reveals to us where he is working in the
world. And we can do it as we listen, hear, and respond to that call, as
God enables us. And sometimes he uses the Eli’s around us to help us
understand how we should respond.
I don’t know about you. But I'm going to be watching closely for the
changes in the spiritual weather. And I will be listening carefully lest
I miss the voice of God in the darkness. And if someone asks me about a
voice they have heard calling their name in the night, I will be ready
to tell them to say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."