January 15th: “Perceiving God”

God does a new thing awakening faith when spiritual eyes have grown dim, using even obtuse people. What might we do for the Kingdom of God even when our gifts are failing?

I. Establish the text

A. Select the Pericope: First Reading 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

C. Other texts for Year B for Sunday, January 15th in Ordinary Time

D. Brainstorm: What questions/thoughts come to mind?

1 How old was Samuel? Old enough to assist with worship, but still a “boy.”

1 Was there ever a time when divine visions were frequent?

2 Cataracts, Presbyopia? So Eli would be at least 40 perhaps 50 years old. Old age for the time. Was his physical blindness a metaphor for lack of spiritual sight?

3 A third metaphor paralleling the lack of divine visions.

4 – 6 When do we not recognize God calling to us or to those near us?

7 Does this imply that Samuel was not yet reading from the scrolls or perhaps even being allowed to hear the word of the LORD being read? At what age do we become aware of more than the form of religion?

8-9 How would others view us if we continually pointed out when might be speaking to us/others?

10 Here is the essence of prayer: “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” Since God already knows what is on our hearts we need not tell him of our joys and concerns.

11 If divine visions were frequent, would we become enured to God’s word?

E. Reconsider where the text begins and ends: What got chopped out?

  • Preceded by description of the deceitful nature of Eli’s sons and Eli failing to heed prior warnings from God.
  • The Revised Common Lectionary chops off specific prophecies against Eli for the sins of his sons, perhaps giving reason for the dimness of Eli’s spiritual vision, and Samuel’s reluctance for sharing this vision with Eli.
  • Followed by the defeat of Israel under the spiritual leadership of Eli’s sons, including the capture of the Ark of the Covenant, which the Philistines send back to rid themselves of God’s wrath.

II. Literary Study.

B. What parallel passages exist? How do they differ? How does this author’s intent differ from other authors? Is the text used elsewhere?

  • There are other instances of the prophetic call type-scene, although most of these occur between only the prophet and God or an angel. The call of Elisha differs in that although Elijah also suffered a lapse of spiritual sight, Elijah remained true to the LORD and was carried directly into heaven, unlike Eli.

D. What is the literary style of the text? And how does it affect the reading? What does a poetic form do to the meaning? Lament/Praise/Petition? Any subtle variations in the repetitions? What is emphasized/minimized by the repetition?

  • The three-fold motif of few visions, weak eyes, dim illumination is paralleled three times with a three-fold failed call of a prophet type-scene (verses 4, 6, and 8). Verse 7 reprises the weak vision motif and is followed by the resolution of the call type-scene. The weak vision motif is resolved in verse 15 when Samuel opens the doors and he tells Eli the vision. Finally, verse 21 establishes Samuel as a prophet with a clear vision of God.
  • Verse 19 strays from the vision motif adding a new metaphor: “he let none his words fall to the ground.” Why not: “He let none of his words darken”?

III. Question the text.

B. Are there any unusual details? Un-named characters? ‘Pointless’ description? Meanings of names of characters? What does a literal meaning of natural metaphors imply?

Lamp of God: Exodus 27:20-21 mandates keeping a lamp lit in the Temple from dust to dawn. Thus “the lamp of God had not yet gone out” may indicate a time near dawn; another image to illustrate the dawning of a new era.

C. What is the center of gravity of the text? Where was the author heading? What question did the author intend to answer? What is the emotional center of the text? What music would it call for?

  • COG: Demonstrate that God has called and can call prophets with clear sight even among people with dim vision.
  • Music: “Open My Eyes That I May See”

D. Look for conflict: stated or implied.

  • Although Eli’s eyes are failing and he does not hear God’s voice, he correctly perceives that the LORD might be calling Samuel. What might we do for the Kingdom of God even when our gifts are failing?

F. How will this text be heard by individuals in the congregation, including the preacher?

  • This passage requires a clear illustration to open it to today’s reader, lest it remain a nice story about distant characters.

IV. What do the commentaries have to say about the text?

Bruce C. Birch (The New Interpreter’s Bible, “The First and Second Books of Samuel”. Abingdon, 1998.) describes this passage as a theophany rather than God calling a prophet, since it does not include many of the characteristics of a call type-scene. He reflects that the typical use by the church as calling Samuel ignores the fact that God’s call came at a time of extraordinary dimness of vision. He affirms the need of community in discerning and mediating the word of God.

James D. Newsome, Jr. (Knox Preaching Guides: 1 Samuel / 2 Samuel. John Knox Press, 1982) laments that more attention is given to Samuel’s tender experience rather than to the content of God’s harsh revelation. He notices God’s grace comes before judgment is delivered upon Eli and his sons.

Carol M. Bechtel (Presbyterians Today, September 1998, “God’s Version of ‘Call Waiting’ 1 Samuel 3:1-20”) likens Samuel’s behavior to bedtime rituals of small children and tired parents. She asks us to pay attention to the interruptions in life as possible calls from God.

V. With respect to the hearers (including the preacher), What does this text want to say and do?

Those times when my sermons were best received,
when parishioners came up and said: “I felt you were preaching directly to me,”
were those times when I was preaching to myself. — Rabbi Chet Diamond

A. What is the theological meaning of the verses?

God does a new thing awakening faith when spiritual eyes have grown dim, using even obtuse people.

C. Function Statement: What change in the hearer?

How has the light faded in our community? Do we expect God to inject himself into our lives?

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