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1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod.His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice.Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the Lord repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the Lord”; and then they would return to their home… Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.[1]

It seems the “lectionary selection committee”, as they are often inclined to do, have chosen this text for Christmastide 1 because of its parallels with the gospel lection of 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple. There are obvious connections between these two stories. Both Samuel and Jesus are young boys (Samuel is a na‘ar – a young lad, and Jesus is 12). Both are “left behind” by their parents, though for Samuel, this is an annual occurrence when his parents come to visit him. And of course, the words of verse 26 are clearly echoed in Luke 2:46, where we read that Jesus, just like Samuel before him, “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and [people].” [2]

However, the text we are given offers excellent homiletic opportunities in its own right, not simply for the way it finds a later echo in the story of Jesus. We must take the Old Testament seriously as Scripture. That means it is more than a word that only finds meaning in the New Testament story. The OT itself bears witness to the God of Israel who created this world and is intent on redeeming it through a people. Let’s look at two lines of inquiry that might reap homiletic insights for our current cultural context.

One approach that might prove promising from 1 Samuel 2 is to read this as a story of making and keeping promises. In light of our current political and cultural climate, filled with abandoned treaties, compromised commitments, and broken promises, the story of Hannah speaks an important countercultural word. A sermon on promise keeping might also be a helpful word at a time when people are making New Year’s resolutions, and as churches in our tradition are considering a Wesleyan Covenant Renewal Service.

To fully live into this theme of promise making and promise keeping, we need to read the text in its larger literary context. So let’s back up to chapter 1. Hannah is a barren woman in ancient Israel, and she is desperate for a son to keep the family name alive. Barrenness has been a recurring problem in this story – reaching all the way back to the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel – all barren mothers of Israel. The barrenness of Hannah is especially reminiscent of Rachel’s story – the favored second wife of a man, who cannot bear children, and whose “rival” provokes her in her barrenness.

In her desperation, Hannah makes a vow – a solemn promise: if God will give her a son, she will give (same verb) that boy back to the Lord. God honors her prayer and Hannah conceives and bears a son, Samuel, whose name means: “God has heard.” After the child is weaned, Hannah brings him to Eli the priest, to give him back to the LORD. Her words of dedication are powerful: “the LORD has granted me the petition that I made to him.Therefore I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he is given to the LORD.”[3]  Both highlighted verbs are forms of the Hebrew verb šāʾal – to ask. In the Hiphil and Qal Passive stems, this verb is typically translated as “lend” or “give” and seems to have the sense of returning a favor that has been asked. The connection is clear – Hannah asked the LORD for a son, and when her request was granted, she returned the favor, lending her son back to the LORD, but not in a temporary way – this is for “as long as he lives.”

Now let’s return to our text – 1 Samuel 2:18. Hannah and her husband, make an annual trek to offer the yearly sacrifice and visit their son. Each year, Eli would bless the couple and pray that God would grant more children in place of the “loaned-back request you asked for.” The lectionary interrupts the text at this point, skipping to verse 26. But verse 21 is instructive – the LORD took note of Hannah (attended to her, visited her – the Hebrew term is paqad, which speaks of God’s visitation and intervention, sometimes for judgment, and sometimes to help). Hannah’s promise-keeping is noted by the Almighty, who blesses her with five more children in place of the one she returned to the LORD.

A second interesting line of inquiry in this text would be a word study of the Hebrew term šārat, a verb that is usually translated “to minister.” In verse 20, we read that Samuel “was ministering (šārat) before the LORD.” This word, which occurs 96 times in the Hebrew Bible, primarily speaks of service in the tabernacle. The usual Hebrew term for service is ʿābad, which speaks of the humble service of slave to master. But “šārat is distinguished from the more common ʿābad (q.v.) in that šrt is generally a higher category of service, while ʿābad is often used of menial employment.”[4] This higher form of service is usually rendered to a royal person, or it describes the service of a priest.

Eli is apprenticing Samuel for a priestly ministry. We typically think of Samuel as a prophet, not a priest. In chapter 3, when Samuel receives the divine call, we are told that the word of the LORD was rare in Israel, and visions were infrequent. But God calls Samuel, who responds faithfully, “Speak, LORD, for your servant (ʿebed) is listening.” And God gives Samuel a message to proclaim. At the end of chapter 3 we read the following: “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD. The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.”[5]

The prophetic ministry is crucial for Israel – delivering God’s word to God’s people is both a huge honor and a serious burden. But Samuel is not only a prophet; he is also a priest – one who stands between God and humanity, speaking for both and to both. TWOT speaks of the priestly function in this way: “The special status of the priest was not merely one of ritual or ceremony. [The priest] had the grave responsibility of representing the people before God, and it was through [the priest’s] ministry that Israel had access to God. [The priest] also stood before the people as God’s official representative.”[6]  What an awesome calling, privilege, and responsibility!

Remember, it’s Christmastide 1, and we are just days away from Epiphany. This Sunday in the church year also falls on the last days of 2018, a most appropriate time for the church to consider her divine vocation! We are called to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6, 5:10)! This is God’s design for all God’s people! The prophet saw this clearly in the vision of Isaiah 61: “you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers (šārat) of our God.”[7]  Let the story of Samuel remind all of God’s people, even the young lads and lasses among us, that we all have a share in this priestly ministry. We are called to live and serve in-between, as Samuel and Jesus both did, offering ourselves for the sake of the world. [1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (1 Sa 2:18-20, 26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. [2] The New International Version. (2011). (Lk 2:52). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. [3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (1 Sa 1:27–28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. [4] Austel, H. J. (1999). 2472 שָׁרַת. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 958). Chicago: Moody Press. [5] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (1 Sa 3:19–4:1). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. [6] Austel, H. J. (1999). 2472 שָׁרַת. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 958). Chicago: Moody Press. [7] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Is 61:6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.