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Change in the Wind
(1 Samuel 3:1-20)

Dennis Bratcher

This sermon is based on the Revised Common Lectionary Old Testament reading for Year B, Epiphany 2 and Proper 4: 1 Samuel 3:1-20.

1. Introduction

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 the weatherman.

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 Israel.

1 Sam 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 Israel’s history.

Samuel’s birth

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 that future.

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 this morning.

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 sons.

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 people.

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 spiritual vision.

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 out!

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.

5. Implications

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 pastors of 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 guidance.

6. Response

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."

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2019, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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