The Ark of the Covenant rested at Shiloh, the worship sight where, in the tent where old Eli slept and Samuel served. That almost takes my breath away. We’ve all seen the Indiana Jones movie where the search is for the lost Ark. And here this old priest sleeps next to it and yet is unable to bring order into the religious chaos caused by his sons. Can you imagine? The original ten commandments given by God to Moses rested in that box next to which the old priest slept.
Our Old Testament reading, 1st Samuel 3, was chosen to complement the New Testament story of Philip and Nathaniel in John 1: 43-51. In that story, Jesus first met Philip and in turn, it occurs to Philip that Nathaniel would be interested in meeting Jesus and went and found him. Initially Nathaniel was skeptical. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? He asked. In John Wesley’s study notes he warns his readers that we should cautiously guard against popular prejudices. Such led Nathaniel to suspect Jesus for an impostor, because he had been brought up in Nazareth a city of dubious character. And maybe on this Sunday that the life and work of Martin Luther King, jr. is considered, it is important to acknowledge that Nathaniel’s integrity prevailed over his bias.
The story tells us that Jesus told Nathaniel that he was under his fig tree when he first came to Jesus’ attention. By the way, under a fig tree is a really nice place to be on a hot day. Early in my life this was explained to me that along with other super human talents Jesus was also clairvoyant. I think to better understand what is at work here requires that we not miss the symbolic nature of the fig tree in Jewish lore. In the Song of Songs, figs were a metaphor for the Jewish people. Moses was said to be the one who guarded the fig tree and the words of Torah were likened to the fig tree for every time you handle it, you find more ripe fruits and a new flavor.
This citation from the prophet Micha 4: helps us make the connection as well. “The mountain of the House of the L-rd will be established in the top of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and people will flow to it. Many nations will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the L-rd and to the house of the G-d of Jacob, and (there) He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths; for Torah will go forth from Zion, and the word of the L-rd from Jerusalem … They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war any more. But they will sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none will make them afraid; for the mouth of the L-rd of hosts has spoken it.
The fig tree is connected with God’s salvation. And to be under one’s fig tree is to cherish thoughts of how God was to work out that salvation.
We ourselves also dream of that moment and ask G-d Almighty for it to come upon us today! Jesus knew Nathaniel to be a dreamer, one who was anticipating God’s Great Redemption.
Before we go much further with Nathaniel and Jesus, I want to explore how this story of the boy Samuel and Eli the old priest begins.
3Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
If you read the material in 1st Samuel that precedes this you learn of the sad state of affairs in the country and in the religious community, especially the escapades of Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s two scoundrel sons. Religion was is disrepute in general and the only word for the behavior of the people including that of the religious leaders was wicked. God has spoken to Eli and warned him that punishment was going to come on his family as a consequence.
4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
It seems reasonable to suggest that the reason for the rareness of the Lord’s word and the lack of widespread visions was that few were open to hear the word of the Lord and would be shocked and surprised if they would have a spiritual vision.
11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” 15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”
To get the context straight, the temple referred to in this passage is not the great Temple in Jerusalem. That wouldn’t be built for another hundred years or so. The temple where they were was a shrine on the top of a holy mountain. According to the Jewish Law, the tribe of Levi was to be the priests; this tribe lived among the other tribes of Israel. Various places of worship were established among the tribes. While David sought unsuccessfully to consolidate the cult it would be 350-400 years later before King Hezekiah limited sacrifice worship to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Ark of the Covenant rested at Shiloh, the worship sight where, in the tent where old Eli slept and Samuel served. That almost takes my breath away. We’ve all seen the Indiana Jones movie where the search is for the lost Ark. And here this old priest sleeps next to it and yet is unable to bring order into the religious chaos caused by his sons. Can you imagine, the original ten commandments given by God to Moses rested in that box next to which the old priest slept.
In the passage what we can’t miss is that Samuel didn’t seek God’s voice, matter of fact he confused the voice of God with that of Eli’s. The passage emphasizes God’s initiative. Samuel is seeking God through his service, but only God can cause the encounter to occur. How many times have we tried to mature spiritually, only to be set back by God and told: “Wait and listen!”
Finally, it is the elder Eli who concludes that it is God’s voice calling his apprentice. While God was not pleased with Eli and his sons, the wisdom of his old age shines through. The role of a spiritual guide is to facilitate the student’s experience of God and knowledge of his will.
 Up to this point, Samuel was unable to grasp the idea of the presence of the Lord, because he was not aware. His training was all about how to do religion. Now, God reveals himself to Samuel because he was ready. What was thought to be God ‘s unwillingness to talk: “in those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions” was more a function of God’s people not prepared to be able to hear God speak.
The silence of God and the absence of visions he described were not just a subjective feeling, a poetic anthropomorphism, or a human projection onto their image of God. Rather, Samuel accurately described an objective state of affairs. His day was a period of political anarchy in Israel’s history when “every person did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 = 21:25), when the two sons of the priest Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were “wicked men; they had no regard for the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:12). People were not listening. God was not speaking. He was silent. Visions were rare. Having left their traditional ways God was silent.
It is a chilling thought to imagine that God might grant humanity’s request for autonomy, that He could honor our insistence that He leave us alone, or that He would stop speaking as a consequence of our not listening. But a single person can make a difference. Samuel proved to be the exception in this story. Dedicated to the Lord by his mother Hannah at an early age, he “continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men” (1 Samuel 2:26). In contrast to the silence that had fallen upon the land, God spoke to him three times as a little boy and he responded with his famous words, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” The nation recognized him as a prophet who heard from and spoke for God. Samuel eventually crowned Israel’s first king, Saul, but not before warning the nation about the oppression inherent in political power (1 Samuel 8). By himself, Samuel ended the drought of divine silence in Israel, for “Samuel’s words came to all Israel” (1 Samuel 3:19, 21).
The story of Samuel and the silence of God reminds me of a “saying” from the early desert fathers in Egypt that emphasizes this decisive link between divine speech and human attention, between His call and our response, between word and obedience.
“Some brothers went to see Abba Felix and they begged him to say a word to them. But the old man kept silence. After they had asked for a long time he said to them, ‘You wish to hear a word?’ They said, ‘Yes, abba.’ Then the old man said to them, ‘There are no more words nowadays. When the brothers used to consult the old men and when they did what was said to them, God showed them how to speak. But now, since they ask without doing that which they hear, God has withdrawn the grace of the word from the old men and they do not find anything to say, because there are no longer any who carry their words out.’ Hearing this, the brothers groaned, saying, ‘Pray for us, abba.'”
If there are “no more words nowadays” from God, if He has “withdrawn the grace of His word,” that might have more to do with our human refusal to listen than with any divine reluctance to speak.
That leaves things pretty bleak. I can’t leave us there. I have to return to the story of Philip and Nathaniel; because some of us do have a dream of a restored world. It is the dream of Nathaniel under his fig tree. And some of us may be less the dreamer and more the messenger to shake the dreamer from his fond notions and introduces him to Jesus. But the good news in all this is that God speaks, continues to speak and the call on us is to listen and respond, to hear and obey.