Bursting Forth

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Written by Levi Jones – Associate Discipleship Pastor, Victory Hills, Church of the Nazarene, Kansas City, Kansas, USA

1 Samuel 3:1-21

That deep ache begins in the pit of the stomach. It is an ache that bread cannot fill, a thirst which water cannot quench. Gnawing emptiness. Like dusty bones covered in a flesh sack… on the outside signs of life… on the inside quiet death. A walking grave, devoid of breath. Inky blackness, deafening silence. Barren womb, lifeless tomb.

In the days of the Judges, this is a pretty apt description for God’s people. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25). Perhaps postmodern relativism and individualism isn’t as novel of a problem as we might like to think. This has always been a temptation for humanity: live by their own rules, live as if we are kings, and live as if God does not exist or is merely a spectator. Perhaps the context of Samuel’s story isn’t so different from our setting. There is something to be gleaned here.

God’s people had been delivered by God from the hand of Egypt. They were freed from Pharaoh’s bondage. In the Exodus, God created a people that were intended to be a light to the nations. They were given the Law, so that they might live within the God-ordained boundaries of covenant relationship. Their very lives were to glorify God, testify to God’s goodness, and embody the very character and nature of God back into the world. God never intended for Israel to become another Egypt. In fact, to prevent any confusion, God tells them, “Don’t be like Egypt!” Freedom and salvation were never about Israel’s glory… it was about God’s glory.

Unfortunately, the story of the book of Judges, leading into the time of Eli the priest, shows every effort by God’s people to live their own way, without any reference to God… except, of course, when they found themselves in trouble. Israel didn’t heed God’s warning not to become another Egypt. Instead, they became ravenous wolves devouring the poor and the weak. They fed on each other and were never satisfied. Justice was deemed as looking out for your own good, rather than upholding the good of others. Mercy was something practiced if it could benefit the one extending mercy. ‘Love of self’ prevailed over loving God and neighbor. They raped and violated the defenseless… that’s not a metaphor. Everybody did what was right in their own eyes… barren wombs, empty tombs.

Eli is the head priest during this time. He is thoroughly deaf: perhaps because the hair that once covered the top of his head now grows from his ears; maybe it’s because he’s had to listen to so many complaints over the years; he has learned the art of selective hearing. Not to mention, he’s becoming as blind as a bat. We begin to wonder if this is simply a description concerning the hazards of old age, or metaphors pointing to a more disturbing reality.

Hannah had come to the House of the Lord with her husband to offer sacrifices. Her heart wasn’t in it… burdened by the fact that she was barren, unable to bear a child. She is subjected to ridicule, she aches for a child, her economic welfare depends on having a son. There is a lot riding on this prayer, as she whispers – pleads – for God to help her. She is pouring her heart out before God when, suddenly, she is interrupted.

Eli sees her kneeling, lips moving, no sound coming from her mouth. He strains his ears and his eyes… they widen in disgust. Suddenly, he is standing over her, sternly reprimanding her, “Get out of here, you drunk!”

Hannah is surprised by the attack. Stumbling over her words, she explains that she was praying to God to give her a child. She is sincere, that much is apparent. Eli’s ego is in jeopardy, embarrassed that he had not seen correctly. He quickly, half-heartedly blesses Hannah and dismisses her: “Go, let it be done as you asked.” Blind and deaf… barren womb, lifeless tomb.

God does something astounding. Hannah’s dead, barren womb is opened up by God. Where there had been no hope of life, God opens up a new way for life to be birthed. Samuel is born, a son of promise to Hannah. Then, Hannah does the most unthinkable thing. She dedicates Samuel to the Lord and after weaning him, she takes him to serve under Eli the priest… not exactly a promising role model for ministry.

Like Hannah’s womb, Israel has become barren. There is no life. It is a dire situation. Eli’s priestly household is notorious for their greed. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing: using their positions of authority to fulfill their desires. They had managed to make “virgins at the tent of meeting” a rather ironic term… you can guess why. Not to mention, Hophni and Phineas used their positions of power to “fatten themselves on the choice parts of every offering made by the people of Israel” (1 Sam. 2:29).

Despite complaints from the people and warnings from a man of God, Eli continued to allow his sons to ruthlessly oppress and take advantage of the people they were intended to serve. Those intended to represent God’s presence in the community only serve to muddy God’s holy name. Blind and deaf… barren wombs, lifeless tombs.

We shift scenes – now watching Eli in the House of the Lord. It is night, darkness enveloping Eli. His eyesight is failing. Light no longer can penetrate the veil that covers his eyes. It is deeper than physical blindness… Eli’s spiritual leadership is blind… inept. Stumbling about in the darkness. Eli laid down in his usual spot. He settled outside the light’s edge shining from the lamp of God’s presence. Darkness.

Every night, exhausted from the demands and the new complaints that each day held, Eli would retire to his usual spot. That spot was just outside of the place where the Ark of the Covenant rested, where the light from the lamp of God burned. The familiar darkness would sweep over him like rolling waves washing him away. Everything was dim, dark, empty. He had resigned himself to the void… after all, who can give sight to failing eyes?

We hear those heart wrenching words: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” (I Samuel 3:1) We might possibly wonder if God has decided to go on vacation or is simply giving God’s people the silent treatment. Perhaps God is aloof, far off, and doesn’t really care. We have observed that for God’s people in those days, seeing and hearing weren’t really a priority for them. However, one does not get a sense that God has stopped speaking… only that we have tuned God out. It is all the people – it’s not merely a lay people issue… it’s a clergy problem as well.

As we peer closer, we spot Samuel curled up next to the ark of the covenant, in the sphere of light flickering from the lamp. Samuel is in the inner chamber, surrounded by the things that represent God’s presence; he is resting. God begins to call: “Samuel” Samuel responds by jumping up and running to Eli.

Samuel’s voice suddenly speaks over Eli, waking him. “Here I am?”

Eli cracks an eye, a bit discombobulated, and says, “My son, I did not call you, go back and lie down.”

Samuel lies down. God calls him again.

Samuel returns to Eli, saying, “Here I am?”

Eli said, “My son, I did not call you, go back and lie down.”

“Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord : The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7).

God calls Samuel a third time.

Again, Samuel goes to Eli and asks, “You called?”

Eli responded, “Idiot boy!” Actually, that’s how I imagine myself responding to being woken up three times in the same night – for the same reason. Yet, finally, it is at this point that Eli comprehends God is calling Samuel So, he instructs the boy to go lay back down and when God calls, respond by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Perhaps Eli had been slow in connecting the dots because: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions” (1 Samuel 3:1). Maybe the lack of seeing and hearing God was symptomatic of the spiritual bankruptcy of God’s people and their leaders, rather than a lack of effort on God’s part. Everyone doing what was right in their own eyes has left them blind and deaf… barren wombs, lifeless tombs.

God comes and stands there and calls to Samuel as before. In that moment, God tells Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.” (1 Samuel 3:11) Closed ears will once again hear what God is saying. What will be heard and seen will be judgment upon the house of Eli due to their lack of obedience.

After receiving this word from God, Samuel lays down until morning. As dawn is piercing the veil of night, Samuel bursts out of the doors of the house of the Lord. It’s birthing language! Even as Hannah’s barren womb was opened and new life came forth, God is giving new birth to a barren people. No longer blind and deaf – but seeing and hearing. No longer a barren womb and lifeless tomb – but a birthing womb that brings life from death! The word of the Lord will not remain hidden and unheard!

Eli calls for Samuel to learn what God has said. Role reversal! The young acolyte, who had been dependent upon Eli, is now the one that Eli depends upon to hear from God! Now, although Eli learns about God’s judgment upon his household, there is an odd, and very flippant response: “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes” (1 Samuel 3:18). No remorse, no reversal, no repentance. Religious language – empty of conviction.

We learn that:

“The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word” (1 Samuel 3:19-21).

God restores sight to the blind and makes the deaf to hear.

Isn’t it interesting that two people can be in the house of the Lord, surrounded by all the things that represent God’s presence, and yet have two very different outcomes? One ends in death and destruction; one experiences new life. Perhaps it’s not very surprising… but it is sobering! Proximity to holy things does not automatically result in acquiring holiness.

How easy it is for us to become deaf and dull of sight. Leaders without light. We handle the sacred, we study and converse. Our very lives are wrapped up in the rites and rituals of the holy. Prayer here. Scripture there. Singing familiar tunes without reflection. Wash, rinse, repeat. It is a cycle that can quietly become ingrained in our rhythms… yet escape rooting in our hearts. The focus shifts slightly from God to us – OUR needs, OUR wants, OUR desires. Sensitivity to God’s light in our lives is dulled… our hearing becomes selective, at best.

Jaroslav Pelikan, a Lutheran scholar and pastor, states: Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”[1] Our religious rituals can become hollow rather than giving voice to the Holy. Eli, Hophni, and Phineas are not exceptions to the rule. We can all recount stories about ourselves and others having fallen into the trap of subverting worship for our own gain rather than proclaiming God’s glory. There must be something deeper that empowers our worship and ministry. That something can only be – an encounter with the living God… the One who opens blind eyes and deaf ears. Then, that word received must ultimately go out into the community as Good News that shares that new life.

A story I recently read cut me to the heart – because it demonstrates what is really at stake here.

“William had just recently moved into the town. “Sadly, William’s elderly mother had died the very day his family moved into the community. William, knowing his mother loved sacred music, began coming to this church composed of people from forty different nations, people who bodied forth difference.

Initially, he also sat near the front of the congregation, not far from Miss Ida [who sat straight-backed and still near the front of the congregation, lips pursed, hands folded neatly in her lap]… [William was] clicking his recorder on and off, rewinding, fast-forwarding, sometimes mumbling, and all the while rocking back and forth, back and forth. After a few Sundays, someone told William he was making too much noise. If he insisted on bringing the recorder and pushing the buttons, he would need to sit in the [lobby] and listen to the service over the speakers. That is what William did… for three Sundays.

“On the fourth Sunday, Miss Ida arrived uncharacteristically late and asked William why he was sitting in the [lobby] and not in the church. William told her: ‘the people in there said I was making too much noise. I have to sit out here.’ In a quiet act of compassionate dissent she sat with him. He rocked and she was still. The next Sunday, five others joined them. On the following Sunday, thirty people sat in the [lobby].

Today, William sits with the choir. He is the ‘assistant sound man.’ Every Sunday he records the service, clicking his buttons, mumbling and rocking. After each service, William walks several miles to the cemetery and leaves the cassette on his mother’s grave with these simple words, ‘Here’s church, Mama.’ William understood communion: his ministry was to help others understand.”[2]

Surrounded by all the symbols of the sacred… someone in this congregation had become deaf and blind to the ways that God might be moving and speaking. Like Eli and sons, this person perceived the Church to center on their needs and wants. They used their power to push William out… much as Hophni and Phineas misused their power. Blind. Deaf. Dead.

Miss Ida proved to be a person that was listening, watching, waiting. She responded to God’s call, able to offer new life to a very barren situation. An act of faith that shone God’s light and presence… bursting forth for both William and this congregation: new life! Miss Ida, like Samuel, responded in obedience… and it made all the difference.

How might God be speaking to us today, calling us to faithful obedience? What new thing is God doing that might make our ears tingle? The Lord has come and is standing, calling each of us by name. Let us respond by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening!”


Hauerwas, Stanley, and Samuel Wells. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

«Quote by Jaroslav Pelikan: Tradition is the living faith of the dead, trad….» http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/78936-tradition-is-the-living-faith-of-the-dead-traditionalism-is (accessed April 1, 2013).

[1]«Quote by Jaroslav Pelikan: Tradition is the living faith of the dead, trad….» http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/78936-tradition-is-the-living-faith-of-the-dead-traditionalism-is (accessed April 1, 2013).

[2]Hauerwas, Stanley, and Samuel Wells. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004, 384.

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