Epiphany 2 – Series B (January 14, 2018)
“Knowing the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:1-10)
Hannah was the childless wife of a man named whose other wife had children. Hannah was tormented because of her barren condition. Every year, she and her family would travel from their home in Ramah to Shiloh where the tabernacle was at the time. This was many years before David built his palace in Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple there. There, at Shiloh, Hannah and her husband would worship the Lord.
On one particular visit, she prayed to the Lord with such fervor and with such tears that Eli the priest thought she was drunk. He tried to shoo her away, but Hannah explained to him that she was “troubled in spirit” and was “pouring out [her] soul to the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:15). What she had been praying for was, of course, a child. Moreover, she promised the Lord that if she was given a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord’s service for the rest of his life. And that is exactly what happened. Hannah had a baby, and she named him Samuel. After he was weaned, she brought him back to Shiloh and gave him to Eli to raise in the Lord’s service. You may be wondering, “Didn’t Samuel need a mothering hand, too, rather than just an old priest?” There were probably other women who served at the tabernacle who helped take care of Samuel, perhaps Eli’s own wife. But Hannah also returned every year to visit and to give Samuel a new robe which she had lovingly made. And the Lord continued to bless Hannah. In 1 Samuel 2, we are informed that, “the Lord visited Hannah, and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. And the young man Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord.”
Yet, in our text today it says, “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” How was this possible? We just heard that he was “in the presence of the Lord.” He lived with Eli the priest. The first verse of our text says that Samuel “was ministering to the Lord.” That probably means he performed some service in the tabernacle, perhaps like acolytes today or altar guild members. He helped Eli with his priestly duties. We also learn that he slept in the tabernacle itself, near the ark of God (3:3), where God promised his very presence would dwell. Chapter 1 of 1 Samuel even says, “He worshiped the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:28). With all this contact with the things of God, how is it possible that Samuel “did not yet know the Lord”?
It appears that Samuel served as Eli’s “eyes” in his old age, since the text mentions Eli’s eyesight that had “begun to grow dim.” Perhaps that’s why Samuel thought that it was Eli who was calling him. Eli probably often called to Samuel for his assistance getting around and taking care of things in the tabernacle. But Eli’s failing eyesight points us to something else. There was also a failure of spiritual sight, since there was “no frequent vision” from the Lord. This is reflected in the way that Eli failed to rein in his sons. The previous chapter of 1 Samuel tells us how sinful they were: they misused the offerings that people brought to the Lord. They slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tabernacle. Eli’s sons certainly “did not know that Lord,” and that is the way they are described (1 Sam. 2:12). How, then, can the same thing be said about Samuel?
What does it mean here to “know the Lord”? For Samuel, it meant that God’s Word had come to him in a personal way, and he responded to it in faith and trust. Before God had revealed himself, Samuel might have been like those people who have a mild familiarity with the way things operate in church, but only have a surface relationship with God. They come to church every Sunday, but they still don’t know the Lord the way he wants to be known. They hear God’s Word, but it goes in one ear and out the other. They sing the liturgy, but their hearts and minds are not in it. They come to the Lord’s Table, but they still hold deep-seated, hateful grudges in their heart against someone. They come to the Lord’s Table, which is meant to forgive us and strengthen us, but they really don’t intend to amend their sinful life. They return home on Sunday afternoon and things go on just as they always have.
“Knowing the Lord” is more than just knowing ABOUT him. It’s more than just acknowledging that he is there. “Knowing the Lord” is to be in a daily, penitent, prayerful relationship with him. “Knowing the Lord” is to submit to his claims on our life. It is a heartfelt trust and a desire to draw closer to him through his Word.
There is a danger in thinking we are so near, yet so far away from him. Unless we hear and answer his call, like Samuel … and the disciples, in today’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus comes to them and says, “Follow me,” then we are no more alive than the walls of this building upon which God’s Word echoes. We are spiritually dead and deserve nothing but God’s wrath over our sin. We don’t really “know the Lord.”
And in fact, we can’t know the Lord unless He reveals himself to us first. But our God is gracious and forgiving to call us in the first place. He doesn’t have to call us to faith through water and the Word. He is under no obligation to call us to be his followers. He could just let us go off in our sin and self-satisfaction. But he loves us so much that he doesn’t leave us to our own devices. He knew us first, just like he knew Nathanael. Nathanael asked Jesus, “How do you know me?” Jesus replied, “Before Phillip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Just like he came to Philip and Nathanael and called them by name, Jesus comes to us personally in Holy Baptism and calls us by name. Jesus comes to us through his Word … in the Bible, on the lips of your pastor, on the lips of whoever has told you about Jesus. Jesus comes to you through his Word and says, “I love you. I died for you sins. I am alive forever. Now come, follow me. Be my disciple. Be a life-long learner from me and my Word. And I don’t just want to be a casual acquaintance of yours, someone about whom who you think only once a week on Sunday morning at 8 or 10:45. I want to be close to you. And the way that happens is for you to be in my Word all week long.”
You can hear the voice of Jesus calling you in His Word. You don’t have to wait for “frequent vision” from the Lord, that which was lacking prior to the Lord calling Samuel to be a prophet. We hear God’s voice, not in dreams, not in visions, but in the voice of Jesus. Hebrews 1:1 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” We hear the voice of Jesus in the apostolic testimony given to us in Holy Scripture. In the Bible, we hear his call, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.” Our hearts have been opened to hear God’s Word, to listen to it carefully, to meditate on it.
Samuel came to know the Lord in a way that Eli’s sons never did. In fact, the Lord graciously revealed himself to Samuel in a way he never did to Eli. Note that the last time God called Samuel, our text says, “the Lord came and stood.” This seems to be another one of those moments in the Old Testament where the Son of God appeared visibly, even before his incarnation … another “theophany.” God personally appeared to Samuel like he did to Moses in the burning bush. He called Samuel for a specific purpose … to be his prophet to carry his word to the people, to be God’s authoritative representative.
Even more so, the disciples came to know the Lord in way that even Samuel didn’t. They saw him in the incarnate flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ and Savior of the world. He called the disciples for a specific purpose…to be eyewitnesses of his resurrection and to preach the Gospel to all nations as his authoritative representatives.
And that is what he calls his Church to do today … to carry the apostolic testimony of the Crucified and Risen Savior to the nations … by mouth, by supporting mission work with our prayers and with our pocketbook, by supporting the work of our seminaries to send laborers into the harvest, by encouraging the young men and young women in our congregations to consider entering into full-time church work … so that many more people in this dying world might come to “know the Lord” … knowing him as the one who bought them with a price … the price of the precious blood of the Son of God … the very same price with which he bought you.