When God Calls

January 14, 2018/I Samuel 3:1-20


The Bible is full of “call” stories – accounts of God’s claim on various people, God’s appointing of prophets and priests.  One of the earliest is that of Moses.  His story is epic and startling and lends itself to dramatic representation in art or movies.  You’ve got the simple shepherd Moses, a bush bursting into flames, and the timbrous voice of God Almighty.  It’s a great story.

Jeremiah also boasts a powerful call story.  As a young boy, the word of the Lord comes to him.  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” the LORD tells Jeremiah.  Jeremiah’s story continues with visions and direction from God, another call story made for the movies.

My all-time favorite call story is that of the prophet Isaiah.  Seemingly out of the blue, Isaiah finds himself gazing upon the Lord seated on a throne.  Surrounding him are seraphs – creatures with six wings whose voices rings out: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!”  Isaiah is filled with fear: “Woe is me!” he cries out.  “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  Suddenly one of the seraph lifts a live coal from the altar and touches it to his lips, erasing his guilt.  Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Isaiah finds he must respond.  “Here am I,” he declares.  “Send me!”

Poor little Samuel.  His call story doesn’t make quite so dramatic an impression.  He truly is but a boy, and he does not yet know God.  When he awakes to a voice calling out to him, “Samuel!  Samuel!” he assumes it is the elderly priest Eli.  He runs into Eli’s room, waking the old man from a sound sleep.  “I didn’t call you, Samuel,” he tells the boy.  “Go back to bed.”  Three times Samuel hears the voice.  “Samuel!  Samuel!”  Three times he goes into Eli’s room and awakens him.  But the third time, Eli wakes up enough to recognize that something important is happening.  The LORD is calling Samuel, so he instructs the boy to respond.

The fourth time, Samuel has a conversation with the LORD, who is not at all happy with the way things have been going with Eli’s sons.  While Eli has been a faithful priest, his sons are pretty despicable people – and Eli has done nothing to correct them.  God has had enough, and now, Samuel learns, Eli will be punished – he will be removed from the priesthood.  Samuel is reluctant to tell Eli about his conversation with God.  In fact, he is afraid.  But in a step that reveals the depth and compassion the priest Eli once had, he encourages Samuel to tell him all that God has said.  Even when he hears the harsh message, he does not turn on Samuel in anger, but rather accepts the LORD’s will.

Compared with the call stories of Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, Samuel’s story seems rather bland.  But his story offers us some important messages.  Eli may represent a failed priesthood that has lost its way, a feeble old man who has given in to the sordid living his sons have enjoyed, but he also is a man “who submits to the word of Yahweh, even though that word means his own death.”[1]  Eli’s response to God’s words “is marked by deep faith with the grace of nobility: ‘It is Yahweh.’”[2]

The opening verses seem to speak directly to us, in our modern, technology-driven, rapid-communication society.  “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1).  Eli and Samuel live in a time that seems to be past the age of miracles – and that sounds like our age, too.  But we also read that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out” (v. 3).  Hope remained for a word from the Lord – and in fact, that word came to Samuel.  We are reminded that, “although visions may be rare in the modern world, they can still happen; God only seems to be sleeping.  Indeed, while Samuel sleeps, God turns out to be delightfully awake.”[3]

Finally, Samuel’s story reminds us that “to be called by God is an act of spiritual intimacy and divine urgency.  To be called by God means that God knows one’s name and, in knowing one’s name, exercises a powerful influence on the person.”[4]  It is to be reminded that, in the words of the psalmist, God has “searched me and known me’ (Psalm 139:1).  Unlike Genesis, where the words of the Lord launch creation, now God’s words “are given to a human being to open his mouth and speak in turn.”  Now God calls on human beings to “speak truth to power … to unleash God’s power into the affairs of rulers and nations. … Human speaking and hearing now become one of the main means by which the light of God’s revelation breaks into the affairs of this world.”[5]

Who are we in this story?  “Are we Samuel?  Are we Eli?  Can we really be sure which?  And what shall we do if the living God comes into our troubled temple?  It is Eli, ironically enough, who tells us what to say: ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”[6]

[1] Brueggemann, et. al., Texts for Preaching/Year B, 107

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lawrence Wood, Feasting on the Word B/1, 243

[4] Joseph L. Price, Feasting on the Word B/1, 244

[5] Richard Boyce, Feasting on the Word B/1, 245, 247

[6] Wood, 247

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