God at Work: God Calls

God at Work  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  24:44
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The New Revised Standard Version Samuel’s Calling and Prophetic Activity

Samuel’s Calling and Prophetic Activity

3 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the 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. 4 Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and 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. 6 The 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.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The 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. 9 Therefore 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.

10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Greetings once more on this Trinity Sunday! Today we celebrate that the Three in One God is at work in the world, creating, calling, and uniting God’s people to move and act for the restoration of all things. We have seen how God is at work in creation, hovering over the chaos of the the waters and calling forth abundant life. We have witnessed how the Spirit quickens the hearts of those who receive it, directing our loving action in the world and liberating the oppressed. Christ with us gives us hope for the renewal of our lives and our solidarity with all who still long for things to be made right.
These next few weeks, we’re going to look back into the Hebrew scriptures to see God at work among a messy group of people who are trying to find their way toward faithfulness and receive the presence of God that is promised to them as bearers of God’s Divine Image. The stories come from the book of Samuel, a two-part epic that traces the calling of the Prophet Samuel, the anointing of King David, and the wrestling of a people around lordship, monarchy, and faithful devotion to God.
Modern scholars argue for the book of Samuel to have been written in sections between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE. As is true with many ancient historical works, the story unfolded in forms of edits over time, telling pieces of the Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon stories, weaving a narrative of God’s action among the people of Israel as they settled into their dynastic era. It is advisable that we step back from the perception of this as direct history and look at it as a whole in a way of God’s story unfolding among this people and all of the struggles of human leaders to remain faithful while also court power and strength as military and kingly leaders.
These stories are messy. Even Samuel himself, who is often seen as the quintessential prophet-judge of the early Israelite dynasty, is a conflicted individual. There is great tension in these stories — is YHWH king or do the prophets and judges and kings of the world demand more loyalty?
It’s particularly interesting to start this sermon series over Memorial Day weekend. This weekend, we remember the sacrifices of so many people who served and fought for the freedoms and values of our nation. But we are acutely aware that those historical figures are imperfect people. The sacrifices of soldiers is the cost of war — how do we hold the tension of honoring their legacy while also being peacemakers? History tells us that war is messy, war is costly, war is often unjust and one-sided in the balance of power and privilege. We have to hold this tension as we also celebrate the lives lost in such conflicts for the good of those who they save.
I invite us to hold this nuanced approach as we venture into the stories of the book of Samuel.
The word of the Lord was rare in those days
Today, we begin our study by looking at how God calls Samuel. This is honestly one of my favorite stories from the Scriptures. There is something so identifiable about young Samuel and the confusion of who is calling him in the temple. We get it. We get what it’s like to wonder if God is truly calling to us or if it’s just a bit of indigestion.
We’re going to explore how God is at work in this messy rise of the Israelite dynasty. Because that’s the good news of it all — God is at work, amidst all that is conflicted and messy.
1 Samuel 3 opens by telling us that the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
This sets the stage for something remarkable. The author is telling us of how rare is is that God would speak to God’s people and therefore why this encounter is of such importance.
Samuel, the young temple acolyte, is learning how to be a servant of God in the temple. He is in training. I can imagine, with the opening word on God’s voice being rare, that Samuel was instructed by Eli on many ways to serve and support temple activity, but also given a sense of the reality that God oftentimes would feel absent. When God feels silent, it is helpful to have others to look to for clarity and support (that’s the positive way of dealing with this, the way of Samuel looking to Eli for instruction). There’s also a struggle here — if God is seemingly absent, who’s voice gets listened to in the void? Humanity’s? Eli’s? And is that a good thing?
We know from earlier chapters of 1 Samuel that while Eli tried to be faithful to his duties in the temple, he also had a really messy home life. His sons were punks. They were breaking standards in the temple, stealing food, enjoying the spoils of the people’s devotion for themselves. And while Eli had tried to set things right, God had made it clear that his line, as priests, was going to be overshadowed by another.
This is a theme throughout the Samuel narratives — the unfaithfulness of one line and God’s calling of another to step in and lead. This is what we see with King Saul, the first king of Israel, and his successor, King David. God moves with the messiness of one family and lifts up another — the brokenness of these people does not deter God’s action.
And so we find Samuel in the temple, learning from Eli, discovering how to listen for the voice of God as a trained prophet would do.
Here I am…to Eli
And we’ve heard the story. Three times Samuel hears a voice in the night, calling him “Samuel, Samuel.” Of course he expects it is Eli calling out. God isn’t speaking much these days and so of course he looks to his mentor as the first option.
I want to draw attention to God’s persistence in this story, as well as the struggle for clarity that both Samuel and Eli experience.
Samuel comes looking for Eli and Eli is confused — Go back to bed, he says. If you’ve ever woken at night and wondered if you heard a sound outside your home, you can resonate with this confusion. Did I hear something? Am I making it up? Or when a child comes into a parent’s room after a nightmare — was the fear real, or was it simply a fabrication of their mind. It’s very easy for us to expect that the voices we hear are simply in our heads or nothing to worry about. Go back to bed.
But as the story unfolds, we find that God is persistent. The call by God upon Samuel’s life is undeterred by the inability for the two people in the story to recognize it after repeated attempts.
Here friends, with the persistence of God, we see how God call and God is at work. God’s action is outside of our action. God’s voice is undeterred by our distractedness or inability to hear it for what it is. God’s call to Samuel doesn’t ever change — it is Samuel and Eli who do.
Realizing what is going on, Eli takes a risk. Remember, visions and the word of the Lord as it may have been received by the patriarchs of the Hebrew people, like Abraham and Moses, these encounters were rare to say the least. But because God is persistent, it gives the people in this story time to shift their attention and take the risk at wondering upon what God is up to.
I wonder how Eli felt as he shifted his instructions to Samuel that third time. Was it out of his own desire to go back to sleep that he offered a different response for Samuel? Did he think the boy was out of his mind? Did he feel the risk in himself to say, well, maybe this is the real deal? “Certainly, it won’t hurt anything if I tell the boy to go respond to the voice…at least I can go back to bed.”
I want to give Eli a bit more credit than that, though. Eli was already humbled by the reality that his sons were not faithful and that the priestly duties assigned to his family would be passed to another. I imagine him being downtrodden and at the same time hopeful that the young acolyte Samuel might be a hope for the people of Israel. And I wonder at Eli’s faith here — it seems like, when all else failed, that perhaps Eli was able to say “ok, maybe this really is God.”
This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ famous Liar, Lunatic, and Lord wager. Lewis posited that Jesus was either a liar, consumed with his own delusions of granduer and a charlatan who developed a following; or a lunatic, spreading the madness to the hungry crowds, a tyrant in the making; or, perhaps when those first two ideas seem to fall apart, perhaps Jesus was who he said he was — Lord. Perhaps he truly was Lord of life and called us all to that life ourselves. At the end of our ropes, when we just want to go back to bed, when all the other possibilities are exhausted, perhaps we can find there the truth that God is actually speaking.
Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening
There is a sense of yielding in this decision for Eli, to tell Samuel to go back and listen. Yielding to what might seem uncertain, yielding to the possibility that we could be wrong. Yielding to the hope that God is actually calling us, actually at work in our lives.
So Samuel returns to his bed in the temple and listens. We hears the call once more. And this time, he opens up to a different possibility — God may actually speak to him. God may actually have a call for his life.
God Calls
God calls us, each of us, to vital work in the world. To service, to action, to compassion, to justice, to empathy, to connection. God calls — not always in an audible voice, but through people like Eli, people who are also trying to be attentive to the voice of God’s utterances, the wind of God’s spirit blowing through our lives.
We are certainly imperfect in our ability to discern God’s call. At least a lot of the time. And when we do truly hear the whisper that says, “Samuel, Samuel” we are often doubtful of whether this is truly a voice to attend to or a bit of self-talk or distraction.
But when we can pause, when we can turn our hearts to this voice — we find meaning, purpose, and our humanity. We find our humanity. We find the thing that shows our belovedness, that shows how we bear the image of the divine as human
The invitation this morning is to become just a bit more expectant of that call from God. It’s not always going to be the first thing we hear. We need discernment and caution. But when the call persists, when we seemingly can’t go to sleep again without being awoken to the voice repeatedly, we are asked to shift our posture and listen. To attend to what the perhaps. To wonder at the possibility of God’s calling us.
Will you be open to this possibility today? Does the voice of God, visions and prophetic oracles, seem rare? Sure. But we can develop this posture of possibility that God is, in fact, up to something in our lives. We can become expectant that God will show up, God will speak. And we can be assured that God is persistent, pushing through our skepticism and fatigue to be heard. God does not stop speaking. Will we change our hearts to hear God’s call?
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