'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.' (1 Samuel, 3.10). The story of Samuel, and that night when the Lord spoke to him, in such a real way that he thought it was his guardian Eli who spoke, is well known and loved. What is perhaps not so well remembered is the terrible news that Samuel was asked to reveal to his aged friend. Eli already knew about God's plans for his two corrupt sons, who took meat due for sacrifice and made the most of the position of responsibility into which they had been born in order to live in luxury and decadence. His own failure to restrain them from what he saw they were doing was to lead to disgrace for himself and death for his sons.
Eli's sons had lost sight of the central focus, the true reason for worship. Animal sacrifice and complicated rituals were meaningless unless sincere. Instead of following the word of God in order to praise him, the sons of Eli saw opportunity after opportunity to exploit the religious convictions of those who trusted them, and line their own pockets. Eli failed to correct his sons and had even shared in food meant for sacrifice.
If only they had had the insight of the Psalmist, realising that their every move, their every thought, was known by God before it had even started. (Psalm 139.1) They assumed that if no one caught them at it, or at least no one whom they considered important, then they would get away with it. They had lost sight of the nature of God. All seeing, understanding our thoughts, our motivations, and having known us from the minute we began to develop in our mother's womb. A frightening thought for us too!
Our knowledge of what God wants for us, understanding just what we should do to please him, even our own knowledge of ourselves, can never come close to the way God understands us. As the Psalmist writes, 'Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is so high I cannot attain to it.' (Psalm 139.5) Which rather puts us in the same position as Eli's sons. Maybe we are not quite so blatant, maybe we don't go out of our way to cheat people or live immorally, but we know that our understanding of God can only be partial, and we know we can all think of moments when we have failed to keep God as the centre of our lives. None of us can live a perfect life; we are, after all, human.
St John the Divine, felt this only too clearly in the passage from Revelation. (5.1-10). Opening the scroll, symbolic of gaining that true understanding of the nature and purpose of God, was beyond his capability. In fact we read that no one in the history and geography of the entire world, was worthy to open that document. Perhaps we should not then be quite so hard on ourselves.
In the Gospel reading we hear of the call of Nathanael. Jesus shows a glimpse of God's individual and personal knowledge of all people in his creation. Nathanael himself is quite sceptical about Jesus. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" A Nazarene was someone to be despised. Nathanael was allowing his perception of Christ to be coloured by shallow prejudice. Nevertheless despite this fault Jesus' summing up of the character of Nathaniel is warm and positive. "Here is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false." Following their meeting Nathaniel was not too proud to cast aside his initial impressions as he realised that here was someone unique and very special. Jesus recognised in Nathanael that even though he showed human faults, he was willing to look for a God centred focus with which to steer his life.
Eli, sinner that he was, realised what God had planned for Samuel and was able to urge him to listen to God. He knew that simply by following the established church they were losing sight of the thirst for understanding of God that should have made worship in that temple community relevant and sincere. God couldn't let this happen. As it says 'The Lamp of God had not yet gone out' (1 Samuel 3.3) and although the faith of the Israelites was dwindling with its flame, he called Samuel to rekindle their search for God and inspire them once more to live up to their position as the people of God. He could do this because he put God first. Often it appears today as if the lamp of God is once more in trouble, with allegedly thousands of people deciding to leave our churches each week. Like Philip, who had said to Nathanael "Come and see!" and Eli, who encouraged Samuel, we need to encourage people to seek God for themselves. Keeping Christ at the centre of our focus, and not disputes over forms of worship or ritual, we must strive, like Samuel to spread the thirst for understanding of God. Christ, the lamb, the root of David, Lion of Judah, he who was worthy to open the scroll, is the one person uniquely capable of leading us closer to the time when, like Nathanael we "shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."