Ordinarily when I preach from this text I include the second part of the chapter, where God tells Samuel the bad news about what's in store for Eli and how Samuel only tells the old man reluctantly. I think it's important for us to remember that when God sends a message to the people it's not always a sunshine rainbow-gram; sometimes it's a warning of consequences for actions taken.
But this time I felt drawn to one of the themes of the story that's set up in its first few verses, and that's the idea of vision, sight and understanding. "Visions were not widespread," we're told, and when we see God describe the leadership of Eli we can understand why. Remember when Hannah was first praying for a son Eli saw her and thought she was drunk. He's watched his sons use their priestly positions to enrich themselves and done nothing. Whatever you may think his role as chief priest was supposed to be, he wasn't doing it, and "the word of the Lord was rare in those days."
We can see this play out even more clearly when we see why Samuel didn't know who was calling him. In verse 7, we learn "Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him." We might gloss past this by thinking that Samuel was still a young boy, but let's step back and look more closely. The Hebrew people didn't have their Temple yet, but the shrine at Shiloh was the religious headquarters of the nation. The Ark of the Covenant was kept there. And that's where Samuel was working. He doesn't know the Lord, even though he's working in the midst of what's basically Yahweh Central!
Yes, he is just a boy, but how many children do you know in church who have some understanding of what's going on there, even if it's only on a childish level? I would wager it's more than a few, and remember, he's hanging around the major religious center of his people and watching its activity every day.
Lest you think I am blaming Samuel, I am not. I do recognize that he is a child, and I will point out something that you've probably already guessed about the kind of kids I've mentioned. Yes, there are children today who have some understanding of God and of their relationship with him, because they have adults who have taught them. If Samuel doesn't know God and the word has not yet been revealed to him, then the culprits if they exist are the adults who have failed to teach him while he is in the midst of a swirl of religious activity.
Now I admit you have to read between the lines, so to speak, to come up with this idea. It's also possible that he didn't yet know the word of God because God had not yet revealed himself to Samuel. That's a plain reading of the scripture and could very well be true. But when we look at those context-setting verses that we get in the beginning of the chapter and the stories about the corrupt sons of Eli in earlier chapters, we have to wonder if it's something more than that. Because the truth is that we adults are the ones who will help children know the voice of the Lord when it comes to them. And to his credit, Eli does eventually recognize what's going on with Samuel and gives him good instructions.
If we don't help young people know that God calls them to himself, they will still hear a call but they won't know who it's from. They'll think it's from the culture around them or from some other source and they will run to it as Samuel ran to Eli. They'll look to answer it but find no satisifaction or peace in doing so. It will be an empty call in the end, and they'll find out what they've pursued is empty of meaning or purpose.
Sure, letting them know about the call of God in their lives doesn't guarantee they will answer him. But not knowing about it is a great indicator that they won't know to answer him.
It works the same for those of us more advanced in years as well. The older I've gotten the more I'm convinced that almost every desire I have in life somehow represents something that God wants me to do or wants me to listen for. But when I see those desires in the context of the world and of the culture around me I get that call messed up and I pursue it in a direction God didn't want me to take. I too need to keep myself invested in the word of God so that when God calls me, I can recognize it and say "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."