When I graduated from college, I went right to work at Bell Labs; it took me about 10 seconds to realize that I was completely out of my league. Some days I was amazed at what the Bell Labs scientists and engineers could do, and other days I wasn’t smart enough to be amazed, I didn’t even understand that what they were doing was practically impossible. Despite some of the more incredible developments, I was always in awe that the old phone system, based on hardware switches and with the phones on the wall in the kitchen, worked 99.999% of the time. That means that the old system was available all but 5.26 minutes a year.1 Chances are, if you picked up the phone, there was never a time when you couldn’t reach out and touch someone, as they used to say.
Less reliable than Ma Bell was Eli and his sons. We just heard about Eli in the lesson from the book of the prophet Samuel. Samuel himself was born to a woman named Hannah, who had been unable, for all she and her husband Elkanah’s trying, to have a child. Hannah promised the Lord that if He granted her a male child, she would dedicate the child to the Lord, and so when Samuel was still rather young, Hannah dropped him off at the temple to be a servant of the Lord with Eli, the ruler of the temple. Hannah, by the way, then sings a song of joy that was certainly in the Virgin Mary’s head when she sang out the Magnificat.
And so, back to Eli and his sons, Hophni and Phineas. “Hophni and Phineas were dreadful lowlifes who mugged some of the people who came to worship God even as they raped others. Sometimes they stole the people’s offerings and other times they forced themselves on some of the lovelier young women who came to worship.
But Eli, for all his good points, also bore a striking resemblance to Milquetoast. Even as his sons carried on like some drunken sailors at Mardi Gras, the most their father could manage was to stand on the sidelines wringing his hands, shaking his head, and mumbling ineffectively, “Boys, stop. Please. Don’t do that!” Eli was eminently easy to ignore.
“In a way, Hophni and Phineas embodied everything that was wrong with Israel during the time of the judges. People were just generally running wild and running amok, doing what was right in their own eyes. Long ago Yahweh had given them a blueprint for living. Now people kept sketching their own plans for life, making up the rules as they went along.
“So as bad as Hophni and Phineas were, many of their compatriots were no better. To put it mildly, this was not what God had had in mind when he led the people out of Egypt and settled them in the Promised Land. If things did not turn around, Israel would become as thoroughly pagan and secular as Babylon, Egypt, or any other nation you could name. Samuel the man, and also the two biblical books that bear his name, represent the new thing God was about to do in order to bring about precisely the turn-around that Israel needed.”2
And so God reached out and touched someone. Even being young and having never heard God’s voice before, Samuel was reliable, maybe even 99.999% of the time; and, unlike Eli, Hophni and Phineas, Samuel was actually listening for God’s voice.
Samuel went on to be the last Judge in Israel’s age of Judges; he anointed Saul the first king of Israel, and when that didn’t go so hot, he searched and found a young man named David, who went on to be the ancestor of the Man this parish is named after. Samuel was so great that his life and teachings fill two books in the Bible, but he started out simply enough: the Lord came calling, and Samuel said, “Speak, for thy servant hears.”
I don’t have to recite what the world looks like on the other side of those doors; the horrors of this present time make Hophni and Phineas look like amateurs. But the good news this Epiphanytide is that the Lord has never stopped calling His people, calling them to righteousness and peace, to spread His really good news of Him being with us in Christ Jesus. God’s phone system is reliable 100% of the time, and so the only question is, are we listening?
1The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/business/09digi.html?_r=0
2Scott Hoezee, This Week.