Our first reading today is a story of call: the call of the boy Samuel. The son of Hannah and Elkanah, Samuel had been pledged from before his birth to the service of God at the shrine in Shiloh. As a young person, he was no doubt given humble tasks: keeping the sacrificial fires kindled, maybe, or fetching water from the creek. The priest Eli and his sons had the more glamorous tasks of presiding at the sacred rites for the worship of YHWH, or pronouncing the word of the Lord. I suspect that visitors to the shrine didn’t give two thoughts to Samuel, if they noticed him at all.
Yet God speaks to Samuel, on this particular evening, calling him to his service. God is about to intervene in the life of the People of Israel, with judgment against Eli and his family. The priests at Shiloh are to be caught up in a national catastrophe that will lead to shame and defeat, and the ending of their own lives. God calls Samuel to deliver the message. He chooses Samuel as his prophet, and continues to speak through him. Though the People are headed toward disaster, Samuel becomes an instrument of national renewal. Through him, God raises up the House of David, from which comes the Messiah. It all begins with this call.
We hear this story at a particularly important time in the life of our own nation. It’s the Martin Luther King weekend: a time for recalling the struggle for civil rights in our country; also, the week that we inaugurate a president, and a new administration in Washington begins. We continue to deal with the effects of a pandemic that have challenged our country, and the world, and touched each one of us. Economic and social upheaval, as well as civil unrest, have marked this time. Events of disruption and displacement, even in the country’s capital itself, have jarred and unsettled our nation.
It says in our reading, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Sam. 3:1). By contrast, in our own day it seems like visions are hardly scarce but have instead run amok: strange visions of conspiracy, baseless rumor, and ill will. The multiplication of these visions through social media has created false realities that distort our life. Visions may abound in our day, to the detriment of our national life, but the word of the Lord itself remains rare.
Just as Samuel was called at a time of crisis in the life of the People, so we too are called as Christians at a time of challenge. We’re called, like Samuel, to bring a message to the People, but what might that message be? We know what the challenges are (those are obvious), but what might the word of the Lord be in response?
Well, we know that the word of the Lord “will stand forever” (Is. 40:8): that’s the prophet Isaiah. God speaks in this moment as he has spoken before. The enduring character of the message is a sign of God’s enduring character. God is almighty, and all times and seasons are in his hand, including ours. Our God is trustworthy and reliable, now and forever. That’s the first part of the message. Jesus is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, as it says in Revelation (Rev. 22:12). God’s not going anywhere, in spite of our best efforts to dismiss him.
Second, it says in the psalms, “Why are the nations in an uproar? Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?” (Ps. 2:1). This is exactly what nations do, then and now: they chitter and chirp, fume and fuss. In spite of all this, as St. Paul writes in Philippians, God has “highly exalted” Jesus and given him a name above all other names, so that every knee shall bend and every tongue confess (Phil. 2:9-11). Our Lord Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and been enthroned in heaven, above every power and authority, as Paul says in Ephesians (Eph. 1:20-21). Simply put, our God reigns.
Third, the struggle in Samuel’s day was against the Philistines and their gods, their idols. We still contend with idolatry in our own day, only now our idols are political ones, graven images that we have made for ourselves. Part of Samuel’s story is that, in the end, the idols could not compete with the true God. The God of Israel was more powerful, more true, more real, than the gods of the nations. They turned out to be false gods, the product of people’s imaginations. The true God demanded the ultimate loyalty of his followers; as it says in the commandments, “you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).
God is calling us, in this day and time, to be his followers. Jesus called the twelve to follow him, and he’s calling us. God is giving us a message, just as he gave a message to Samuel. Like Samuel, we need to be attentive and listening, and ready to do the will of God.