Answering the Call

Rev. Caroline East
(1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51)

From our perspective, Samuel, from our Old Testaments reading, was a boy who should have been tuned in to God. Not like us, I mean, for goodness sakes, he lived in the temple!   Tradition holds that he was 12 or 13 when this story took place. Samuel served and studied under the old high priest, Eli, and even at 12 or 13 years old, Samuel had been at the temple for years.

Priests jobs were different. He didn’t have a “real job” like the rest of us to divide his time. He was just helping out the high priest and waiting on God’s revelation. He didn’t have to run from place to place, or meeting to meeting and get caught up in traffic and phone calls and daycare runs and doctor’s appointments. He didn’t have deadlines, or the stresses of our lives. To me it sounds idyllic, easy even. Sitting, praying, relaxing, waiting. How pleasant, to seek a word from God.

I don’t think it was how we imagine it though. I think it may have been a stressful time in the Temple. I’d ask you to think about living in days when the word of the Lord seemed rare,  but it’s the world I think you may already live in. Based on the things we’re seeing, hearing about in the world these days – the word of the Lord seems increasingly rare. Like Eli and Samuel did, we pray. Ardently. Desperately.

Samuel was actually born as the answer to a desperate prayer. As soon as he was weaned, if you can believe it, his mother gave him – for life – to the service of God in the temple. She had promised God that if she ever had a son – she would “lend him to the Lord.” Forever.

Hannah, his mother, has a story that is common in the Bible. She was one of two wives in a family, and though she was faithful to God, and was the favorite of her husband, she was unable to have children, which was a source of great shame.

Every year their family went up to Shiloh, where Eli and his sons were priests, and prayed and made sacrifices to God. Knowing what she was going to pray for, the other wife would always tease Hannah about her infertility until she cried. Nevertheless, Hannah always did pray to God, begging for a son. One year, Hannah ups the ante on her prayer: She promises to lend her son to God. After she had prayed this, Eli came upon her. And, at first he mistook her distress for drunkenness, and scolded her. But, when he realized he was wrong, I think he was embarrassed and so he gave her a blessing:   ‘May God give you what you’ve asked for.”

She did have a son, and Hannah followed through, and loaned Samuel to God. She even made him little, itty bitty robes, so he could look more like the other priests.

Now, names are important in the bible, and something we always need to pay attention to. The reason Hannah named her son Samuel, was because God had heard and answered her prayer. Samu-el means, “heard from God.” The first part of his name comes from the Hebrew word shema. It’s the same as the famous line from Deuteronomy – “Shema Israel … HEAR” O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” It means hear, or, really, more accurately, “Listen up!” And then El, in Hebrew means God. That’s why so many people’s names have El in them: their parents wanted their names to reflect what was important to them. There’s lots of El names: DaniEL, EzekiEL, GabriEL, IsraEL, ImmanuEL…

Samuel means “heard from God” and so we make an assumption: we think, of course he’s going to HEAR GOD, when God calls. With a name like that and a life dedicated to God, you’d have thought that Samuel would have known God’s voice when he heard it, but he didn’t. He absolutely did not. God called Samuel FOUR TIMES before he responded. FOUR TIMES!

I think Samuel’s experience with GOD’S CALL is pretty typical.

Samuel, the Bible tells us, lived when the word of the Lord was rare, and few people saw or heard from God. And as I hinted at before, I think we, too, live in a time when God’s word is perceived to be heard less often. Not like the days when God walked in the Garden of Eden, or spoke to Moses on the mountain top. Not like the days – like we heard about earlier – when Jesus strolled through town saying, to Philip and Nathaniel “follow me.”

These days at least, God isn’t known for giving information or directions that are unmistakable. While we have scripture to guide us, even it isn’t as ‘black and white’ as some of us would like. As people of faith, we struggle to figure out what God wants and what God is saying. We live in a world where things are more complicated than ever before, and the right answers – the faithful answers – aren’t always obvious. People of good faith and good intentions are often at odds with one another. Even the best among us aren’t sure exactly what it is that God wants.

And sometimes, even when God does call out to us, we miss it. We are like Samuel: confused about who we are listening to. Sometimes, God’s voice gets lost in the noise and the busyness, and all the voices that surround us day in and day out and God’s instructions get missed in the multitude of messages that we receive each day.

Sometimes we miss God’s call because God speaks in unexpected ways or at surprising times. God does not speak to us in ways that suit us, or in ways we’re looking for. A lot of times, God surprises us. God can talk through a smile, a word from a stranger, in an image or an idea. It can be daytime or nighttime, when we’ve got a million things going or when we are still and are trying to listen for God.

The good news for Samuel, though, is the good news for us: Even if we miss it – even if it takes us a few times, God is persistent! When God really wants to talk to us, God will. And God will keep on calling until we are able to listen. We may be like Samuel, where the first few times, we don’t get it. We don’t know who is calling and what they want. Maybe we should be impressed that it only took Samuel four times before he answered God. How many times does God have to call us?

Our God is a God of second calls, third calls, fourth calls. And our God is a God of undeserved second chances. When we, who were created in God’s own image rebelled against God – refusing – generation after generation to trust and obey, we were not rejected. Still, we were claimed as God’s own. God sent prophets to call us back, and even when they were ignored, God did not abandon us. Instead, revealing the depth of God’s love, Jesus came to live among us. Teaching those who would hear him, healing those who would believe, receiving all those who searched for him – and in his death and resurrection, lifting the burden of all of our sin. God doesn’t quit calling us, and God never gives up on us. Out of love, God keeps coming back, and keeps talking to us – until we understand.

There’s a story of a ship’s captain who looked out at night and saw lights in the distance. Fearing the possibility of a collision, he quickly told his signalman to send out a message: “Alter your course 10 degrees south.” Not much later, a return message came in: “Alter your course 10 degrees North.” Annoyed, he sent a second message: “Alter your course 10 degrees south – I am the captain!” A response came back: “Alter your course 10 degrees north – I am the keeper. Seeing red, the captain yelled at his signalman to send a third message… and knowing the fear it would evoke, he said to send out “Alter your course 10 degrees south – We are a fully operational battleship.” Almost immediately, a reply came: “Alter your course 10 degrees north – now! We are on shore.”

It took three tries for the lighthouse keeper to get the captain to actually hear what he was saying, to truly understand what was being communicated. The captain was too proud to hear what was being said to him, and it could have ended in disaster. No matter what it is that keeps us from really hearing God – pride, busyness, anger, shame – whatever—it cannot stand in God’s way forever. We can rest assured that God will keep trying to talk to us until we understand

We have a God who persists and calls, who is unrelenting in the pursuit of us. And as people of faith, we know, We have to stay alert, draw nearer to God, hone our listening skills, in any way we can: through prayer, scripture reading, meditating, fasting, welcoming, worshiping, giving- believing, loving, serving. AMEN.