When the Lord Speaks, Listen!
Today’s story from the Old Testament (1 Samuel 3:1-10) is one of those masterful stories of our faith! It is the Lord’s call to the boy, Samuel! Many of you remember this story from your own childhood. The little boy Samuel, living with the old priest Eli.
Samuel had a very unusual upbringing. When he was just an infant, his mother, Hannah, dedicated him to the Lord’s service. That meant that she gave, actually gave him, to the priest to raise and to teach. Her own contentment was found in her annual visits to the Lord’s shrine at Shiloh when she brought Samuel new clothes. This happened every year as he was growing up
So, instead of living with his parents in a typical home, he grew up under the care and tutelage of the high priest, an old man named Eli.
Eli, the high priest, was going blind. And Samuel, the young boy, was something like a professional acolyte or a live-in altar boy. It would have been impossible for anyone to grow up in a more holy environment. Samuel actually slept next to the Ark of the Covenant, the holiest place in all of Israel. His assignment was to tend the sacred flame and to guard the ark!
Now, scripture tells us that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days! And visions were not widespread.” That comment almost makes us laugh in recognition as the story of our own age grows clearer!
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days, visions were not widespread” (I Sam 3:1). Now, many of us would say that we have had life-changing, maybe even mystical experiences! Yet many of us would also say that we have never told anyone about them. When asked why most of us would reply that people would think they were crazy. Could that be the reason why it seems that the word of the Lord is rare in these days, too? Because we rarely share our experiences . . . because, in this day and age of reason, people would think that we are crazy!
I wonder! Just, as in little Samuel’s day, is the word of the Lord truly rare, and are visions not widespread? Or have we modern folk simply lost the ability to see and to hear when there is a word or a vision from the Lord. Is it because a word or a vision from the Lord would seem so out of place?
We don’t expect God to speak! And more importantly, we don’t expect God to speak to us! Going about our day-to-day business, as much as we can during these days; it seems that the word of the Lord is rare in our days! There is no frequent vision. Or so it would seem.
But note the nature of the vision that comes to little Samuel. Not some dramatic, mountaintop experience! Not some weird, mystical moment. It comes to him in the still of the night – when all of the world is at rest.
At first, when Samuel hears his name called, he thinks it is old Eli who calls him. In a wonderful scene, three times Samuel runs to Eli, thinking that the old man has called. The story says that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord,” which, I suppose, is much like many of us.
We hear our name called by a cacophony of voices, all appealing to us — do this, buy that. Eat this or that. So, it’s only natural, that when God calls us, we fail to hear the call at first. Just like Samuel!
Now, when the voice begins to speak to little Samuel, having at last gotten his attention, we find another reason why he had trouble hearing – you see, what the voice has to say is difficult to hear. For, if we read the next 10 verses, we hear the voice tell Samuel that Eli and his family will suffer a great calamity. Terrible things will happen to Eli’s house.
In an old hymn we sing, “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling.” That hymn is not singing about this call of God for the voice on this occasion is neither soft nor tender.
And yet, be it soft or harsh, Samuel listens, and says, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
You and I listen to this story. We treasure this story. As Christians, it is our story, too, yours and mine. And this little story is meant to keep us listening, listening for the call of God upon our lives, listening in the good times of life as well as the bad, listening when we are busy at work, listening when we are silent at night, uneasy in the silence.
Martin Luther once confronted his congregation in a sermon when they complained that they never heard God’s call. Luther urged them to look at the most common instruments of their labors and there they would hear a “call.” Luther chided them saying, “Look at your tools, your needle, your thimble, your beer barrel, . . . your scales, your measures, and you will find this 1saying written on them . . . None of the things that you deal with daily are too trifling to tell you this incessantly if you are but willing to hear . . .!” He goes on to say that . . . “there is no lack of preaching, for you have as many preachers as there are transactions, commodities, tools, and other implements in your house and estate, and they shout this to your face: ‘My dear, use me toward your neighbor as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his’” (Quoted in Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957. P. 72).
And so, a faithful little assistant at the temple, the little boy asleep on his bunk, Samuel heard God’s call, he heard God tell him that God was about to use him to accomplish the divine work.
And, now, I wonder, could God be calling us? This story keeps that question before us as we go back into the weekly world, even as we are socially distanced at home or at work or school. Could God be calling us?
After this story of the call of Samuel, we can never again say things like, “I’m just a layperson,” or “I’m no expert on the Bible.” When tempted to do so, I encourage you to think of Samuel.
Yes, this wonderful story has many an implication for our lives and for us. A few of them are these:
First, God will probably call us when we least expect it, at the least opportune time, in some unlikely situation.
Second, God may have to call us more than once before God gets our attention. Remember, God had to call Samuel three times before he started listening. God’s voice is rarely anything but direct, but there are so many other voices speaking to us, we usually need our name called a number of times before it finally starts to sink in that God wants our attention.
Third, when God calls, God calls us by our own name, not somebody else’s. And not everybody is called in the same way. In other words, there is no one way to receive God’s call!
Fourth, no one is too small, too inexperienced, too unimportant to be used by God for big and important work. In fact, judging from the many call stories in the Bible, God appears to take particular delight in calling the “little people” of this world to do big things for God. Think of the “little people,” the ordinary tax collectors, fishermen, and others whom Jesus called to be his disciples – to mention just a few!
I have more than a good hunch, in fact, I have it on very good authority, that you have been called . . . by name . . . right where you live . . . to serve God.
Yes, we all love this story of little Samuel because it’s our story, too! It’s your story. It’s my story. It is the story of each of us who, through baptism, in our own bumbling, stumbling way, have said, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”