02/04/18 “Call and Response: Samuel”

1 Samuel 3:1-10

At Christmas, Mark and Colleen gave me a little book called Three Little Words by a man named Terry Ferguson. He wrote it to pass on to his daughter, Kristin.  Each page of the book has a three-word topic, followed by three short scripture passages related to that topic.  The topics range all over from “God Is Good” to “Fast and Pray” to “Do Not Oversleep.”  I think if he ever does a second edition, though, he should include this topic, drawn from our passage today: “Here I Am.”

For the past few weeks, we’ve been reading and reflecting on God’s call to some of the people in Scripture and how their responses can help us respond faithfully to our own calls.  First, we read about Philip and Nathanael—how Philip responded by going and finding Nathanael, and Nathanael responded first with doubt and then with great clarity about who Jesus is.  That led us to think about what we can expect when we tell others about Jesus. Then we read about Zebedee.  We speculated about whether Zebedee could have followed Jesus with his sons James and John but declined, and we thought about the reasons we or others might decide not to accept God’s call.

Last week we talked about that old scoundrel Jonah, and how in spite of all his efforts to avoid both his call and God, God continued to call him and have compassion for him.  From Jonah, we learned that even when we try to hide from God and God’s call to us, God continues to be present, God continues to believe in us, and God sees each of us as worthy of being saved.

Now we move to Samuel, and it’s quite a jump. We’ve jumped back in time, to the time of the judges in Israel. Samuel was probably born around the middle of the 11th century B.C., and he lived long enough to play a role in creating the kingdom of Saul and to anoint David as Saul’s successor.  But our story takes place in the earliest years of Samuel’s life, while he was living in the Lord’s temple at Shiloh under the care of Eli, so we’ve also made a jump from grown men to a child or teenager.

Samuel had ended up there because of a promise his mother Hannah had made.  She hadn’t been able to have children, and although that didn’t cause her husband to love her any less, his other wife made life miserable for Hannah.  So, on one of their yearly trips to worship in Shiloh, Hannah prayed that she would have a son.  She promised that if she did, she would give him back to God. Hannah prayed so passionately that Eli, the priest, thought she was drunk.  When he scolded her, she set him straight and told him what she was praying for.  Eli blessed her, saying “May the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked.”

Sure enough, Hannah had the son she had prayed so desperately for.  She told her husband that when Samuel was weaned, she would take him to the temple to live and serve, as she had promised.  She did, and each year after that, when Hannah and her husband would go to Shiloh to worship, Scripture tells us that she would take Samuel a little robe which she had made for him.

Our Bible version calls Samuel a boy at the time our story takes place. Hannah took Samuel to the temple after he was weaned, probably when he was around three years old. While Samuel was serving in the temple, Hannah went on to have three more sons and two daughters.  So, he could have been as old as in his teens. But he might also have been as young as twelve or so, since in ancient stories, twelve was often the age at which a young person’s destiny was revealed.  But no matter what age he was, the world Samuel lived in would have given him very little chance to recognize God at work.  Israel had forgotten its roots, and evil was wide-spread, even among the priests, including Eli’s sons.  Our passage tells us that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days, and visions were not widespread.”

So, Samuel can be forgiven when he doesn’t recognize God’s voice. The passage tells us that Samuel himself didn’t know the Lord, and that the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  Three times God calls; three times Samuel thinks it’s Eli (because, who else would it be?).  It’s Eli who figures it out, and he instructs Samuel in what to do: “Go, lie down, and if God calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Samuel did as he was told, and sure enough, as he was lying in bed, God not only spoke a fourth time but appeared to Samuel as well, calling him by name as before. And Samuel replied, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Some scholars say that this is not a true call story but rather a story about what’s called a “theophany”—an appearance of God. Call stories in the Bible usually follow a common pattern. God confronts a person during a crisis and gives them a mission, the person objects but is assured of God’s help, and after they consent, a sign of confirmation is given.  Samuel’s story includes none of that.  And since we’ve already learned that visions were uncommon, the fact that God appears to Samuel is important—a sign of the beginning of a new era in which visions and the word of God will again be front and center.  But whether Samuel’s story is a true story of call and response or not, we can learn something from it about how to hear and respond to God’s call to us.

First, this story reminds us that we can fail to recognize God’s call—not because we’re reluctant like Zebedee or rebellious like Jonah, but simply because we don’t recognize God’s voice. We’re not sure what God’s voice sounds like, especially when we hear it at unexpected times or in unexpected places, so we need some help in understanding what is happening.

I once knew a woman who was taking a Spiritual Gifts class with me.  She was a teacher of special needs children in the Toledo Schools, and she loved everything about her work.  She also felt God was calling her to greater work in the church, and she figured that must be teaching Sunday School. But, that work left her feeling nothing.  She was perplexed: how could responding to God’s call leave her feeling so empty? Our teacher was able to help her, as Eli did for Samuel.

Our teacher helped her to see that her call wasn’t to teaching.  Her call was to works of compassion.  Through her job teaching special needs children, she was able to fully express her gift, but Sunday School didn’t give her the same opportunity.  She shifted her focus to mission work, and she blossomed.  She had heard God calling, but she needed someone else to help her recognize her call.  We, too, may hear God’s call in our hearts, but we need someone else to help us decipher what it means and to advise us on how to respond.

Second, I think Samuel’s story tells us that we need to give God some quiet space to speak into.  God spoke to Samuel during the night, while the night lights in the temple were still burning.  Samuel was asleep in the temple, while Eli slept in his room.  It seems like God and God’s messengers often appear and speak at night. I’ve found that I often hear God most clearly in that time just between being sound asleep and being fully awake—when the room is dark and quiet, and I’m still wrapped in my warm cocoon of blankets, in that time before I begin to think about my long to-do list, the ranting voices on the news, or the mundane decisions of what to wear and what to make for dinner.

In those moments, the names of people who need prayer come to me—and sometimes I am surprised by whose names come.  A question I’ve been wrestling with for the sermon is answered.  An idea I’d never considered before occurs to me.  A song I haven’t thought of in months plays through my mind. So much of the time, we are so bombarded by noise from so many directions, from within and without, that God can hardly get a word in edgewise, even if we are discerning enough to recognize that word.  We need to give God some quiet space to work in if we are to hear and recognize God’s voice.

Finally, we need to learn how to say to God, “I am listening.”  We need to learn how to simply be present before God, with no words or agenda of our own.  That is so hard.  Our prayers are generally a litany of our praise and thanks and requests and needs.  When we pray, we are usually doing the talking; in fact, we may even be a little uncomfortable if we’re not talking.  It’s hard to empty our minds enough to allow God to fill them.

I’ve been thinking about how hard that is since my cousin Rachael had that fall I told you about.  Her doctor told her she probably had suffered a concussion and recommended limiting her mental activity to give her brain a chance to rest and heal—the usual prescription for treating concussions these days.  Rachael just laughed: she works full time, she’s studying for the bar exam, and she has four little boys under the age of thirteen.  Her chances of limiting her mental activity are zero to none.

It’s hard for any of us to even imagine not thinking or talking—emptying our minds of all our busy-ness and simply coming before God saying, “Speak to me, Lord, for I am listening.”  But, it’s important for us to nurture that ability.  We don’t know what God may have to say to us.  Yes, God may have a mission for us to undertake.  But God may also want to reveal something to us, as God reveals something to Samuel in the verses following ours.  Perhaps God wants to tell us how much we are loved and assure us of God’s presence.  Or, maybe God simply wants to sit with us in silent companionship, as two good friends can do, ready to speak but not needing to.

Between human friends, there are times when we can give no greater gift than to say, “I am listening.”  Our presence itself is a gift.  We don’t often think of saying “Here I am, and I’m ready to listen” as a gift we can give to God.  And yet, God wants to be heard and seen, as we see in God’s four calls to Samuel.  How many times does God have to call us before we are quiet enough, still enough, and open enough to see and hear?

The starting point for all of this—the gaining understanding through others, the carving out of quiet space and time, and quieting of our own minds and words—all begins with the willingness to say “Here I am.”  It begins with us being willing to present ourselves to the one who calls—to be present, to be open, to listen, with body, mind, heart, and soul.  It is that “Here I am” attitude that opens up all the other possibilities that come with God’s desire to be and speak with us.  Samuel spoke those words to Eli, not knowing that it was God who was calling.  We know who is calling, and so we have the privilege of speaking those words to God.  “Here I am, Lord.”  Do that, every day, and then “Go, lie down; and if God calls you, say ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant listening.’”  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young