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On Humor, Discomfort & Listening for God



A sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-20. For can audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash.


I can still remember the sermon that my childhood pastor preached on the story of Samuel’s call.

This is less astounding than it sounds, because I actually heard the sermon a bunch of times.

My Dad was the sound-guy for our church, so he had the recordings of all the sermons, and I used to listen to those tapes as a way to help my brain wind down at bed time.

(What can I say… I have always been a church nerd. NO ONE in my life was surprised when I announced in my late 30s that I wanted to become a pastor, unless it was surprise that it had taken me so long).

So, anyhow, I listened to sermons at bedtime when I was a little girl, but – being, like 8 years old – they didn’t all connect. I definitely had my favorites. And the sermon on 1 Samuel chapter 3 was one of the greatest hits.

It was just so funny!

I can literally still hear the inflection in Pastor’s Dan’s voice as he was recounting the story of this strange, late-night exchange between the young boy, Samuel, and the High Priest Eli.

It starts with the boy, with all the energy of youth and sweet eagerness to please. He hears the call and runs to respond:

“Here I am!”

But then, we get the mumbling confusion of the older man.

“Samuel… what? No. Just… just go back to sleep.”

(the sermon tape sounded like it had a laugh track at this point, from all the parents of young kids in the congregation groaning and chuckling in sympathy).

Back to Samuel, who hears the call again and is still happy to help, but also getting confused:

“Here. I’m here, Eli. You called me.”

And now the priest is getting a bit irritable because he keeps getting woken from sleep.

“Samuel. Please! It’s the middle of the night. I didn’t call you. Go back to sleep!”

And then we’re back to poor, confused, Samuel: hearing the voice calling his name and getting up a third time, on the verge of tears because he doesn’t understand why his beloved mentor is messing with him.

 “Here I am, Eli. For you… you called me.”

It is so pathetically dear… and also, just… so funny.

Like a slapstick routine where the characters are getting more and more confused while the audience laughs at them because WE know what’s causing the confusion.

And, even as an eight-year-old, I laughed along. Because I understood that we were supposed to laugh.

What I didn’t quite understand at that age was why.

I understood what made the scene funny. But I didn’t understand… I didn’t think to ask… why the author who recorded the scene would write it in an intentionally funny way.

I didn’t understand the way that humor can be used to cut the tension in what is – otherwise – a profoundly disturbing scene. 

Because that’s what this is.

A young boy is woken in the middle of the night by the voice of God, and – once he understands what is happening – he is called not only to become a prophet (a vocation that will dictate the shape of the rest of his life), but he is called to begin this work by delivering a devastating message to the man who has served as his father-figure since he was just two- or three-years old.

Can you even imagine what that must have been like for Samuel?

Can you imagine the hours that he lay there in his bed after hearing the voice of God and finally understanding what it meant, wondering how he will deliver a message of unavoidable judgment?

And can you imagine how it must have been for Eli the next morning?

Can you imagine hearing from the mouth of a young boy you have raised God’s message of condemnation of your actions as a father and promise that this sin will never be wiped out?

I, for one, imagine that both Samuel and Eli might have wished they were still confused about the sleep-disturbing voice.

The humor that starts the scene softens the discomfort for us… setting up God’s message as a resolution of the confusion, and giving us a bit of distance from the more disturbing emotional consequences of the story… because we already have the distance of being the “all-knowing” observers, chucking at the bumbling confusion of the slapstick act.

But, I can’t help but wonder if we should be at all suspicious of that distance?

In a wonderful leadership development program I did several years ago, one of the guidelines for the group was to “track the interventions”:

to take note whenever anyone in the group did something (like interjecting humor) to relieve the emotional weight of a given conversation.

When we track the interventions, we give ourselves a chance to notice any reactions or instincts that might be guiding us from beneath the surface of our conscious thoughts. 

And in this story from 1 Samuel, I wonder if the unspoken instinct is to hold onto the confused, tired, old man image of Eli for the whole scene – even after he proves himself to be anything BUT that – because it makes the judgment that falls on him feel less uncomfortable to us.

If Eli is a slightly ridiculous character, then we can more easily release him into his prophesied punishment for derelict parenting without too much thought, and instead turn our attention (as the book of 1 Samuel does) to the new prophet, who trustingly responds to God’s call with the words “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

I know that all of the sermons I have heard on this text (not just that first one from my childhood) focus in on Samuel and his response to God’s call.

The story is written to direct our attention that way.

But I think we miss something powerful if we turn away from Eli and just dismiss him as a lost cause.

In fact, I think Eli might be one of the most impressive characters in all of scripture.

He’s not perfect, by any means. (I wouldn’t like him so much if he were.)

He’s a bit too ready to jump to conclusions (as we see when he sends Samuel back to bed twice, and a few chapters earlier when he assumes Hannah is drunk in the temple, when she is actually mouthing an impassioned prayer to God).

Also – clearly – Eli has made some pretty profound mistakes as a father, given the misdeeds and unrepentant attitude of his sons.

But it is also clear – if we don’t let the humor distract us – that Eli has learned something since his sons were young.

His response to Samuel in this scene is not the behavior of an ineffective or permissive father. It is the guidance of a wise and empowering mentor.

Despite the middle-of-the-night grogginess, once Eli realizes what is actually going on he does something astounding: he immediately shifts from silencing and shushing to giving Samuel the tools he needs to hear from God.

This is astounding because of what it means for Eli.

According to Jewish tradition, Eli was both High Priest and Judge, meaning that he was the highest representative of God’s authority to the people.

Thus, anyone getting a word from God was an implicit challenge to Eli’s status.

What is more, earlier in 1 Samuel, a prophet came to Eli with a version of the same rebuke and judgment that Samuel delivers here, but with an added element: the prophesy that God would establish “a trustworthy priest” (1 Sam. 2:35) to serve God in Eli’s place.

And here he is, in the Temple of the Lord, with the boy he has raised since his weaning as a child dedicated to God, recognizing that God is speaking to the boy.

Eli knew what was coming. He knew, and his response was to tell Samuel what to do in order to be ready to receive the word that would seal Eli’s fate.

Just in case this story was not powerful enough, the lectionary decision-makers give us this story in the just second week of Epiphany… just a few weeks after we have heard the story of King Herod.

King Herod was a leader of God’s people as well, although one without any explicit reason to fear the security of his position.

Yet, when he received news of a new king, born to the Jews, his response was to send his soldiers to murder every boy in the city who could possibly be the child threatening his reign.

Just based on a rumor and star.

Whereas Eli had received a prophesy spoken directly to him, and was there – in real time – as his replacement was being called… and Eli mentored him in what to do:

“when you hear the voice, say ‘speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

And when Samuel was reluctant to deliver the message, Eli wouldn’t let him stay silent.

And when the word was spoken, Eli modeled one last time for Samuel what it was to be a man of God: “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.”

I don’t know if I could do it. I don’t know if I could put my own anxiety aside to be there for the one God was calling to lead in my place.

But I do know, that of the options given for how to respond to a word that makes us uncomfortable or anxious, I admire Eli’s the most.

He doesn’t respond with violence and an effort to retain control like King Herod.

Nor does he deflect with humor and distancing like this author of 1 Samuel.

Instead, he sees a difficult situation and he asks himself what he can do to help… not himself, but the person he has been charged with guiding.

And THAT, rather than the humor of the first scene of the story, is what I hope YOU all remember from this sermon:

That whatever challenges, or discomforts, or fears we face… we always have the choice to look for the ways that we can help. Because sometimes, empowering others is the call God places on us.

Thanks be to God.

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