How is it that we hear the call of God?
My sermon in Truro Cathedral on Sunday, January 17, 2021.
1 Sam. 3:1-10; Ps. 139-1-9; Rev. 5:1-10; Jn 1:43-end
Speak, Lord, today for your servants are listening. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Speak Lord, for your servant is listening. To many of us with at least some passing knowledge of the Bible those words may well be familiar. I remember my brother and I had a little children’s book about the boy Samuel in the temple and I can still see in my mind’s eye the pictures of the little boy in the vast and dark temple and thinking how scary that must have been – leaving aside the strangeness of having God address you by name in that way.
Just how is it that we hear the call of God?
Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. Aside from any childhood memories we might have, just how is it that we hear the call of God? It wasn’t evidently a simple and straightforward thing for Samuel. So how is it that we hear the call of God today? What are we called to do? And who are we who are called? And indeed who is it exactly that is calling us? Our OT passage, and indeed the other readings set for today, all cause us to ask such questions and with the help of Samuel’s story I’m going to see if we might address them today. And I have five particular points to make – none of which will detain us overlong I assure you!
Here is the first. The call of God can come in the darkest of times [x2]. And Samuel’s times were dark indeed. The First Book of Samuel is preceded by the beautiful book of Ruth, but that book is really just a bright spot in an unremitting litany of awfulness. The Book of Judges describes a gradual, desperate process of decline both moral and spiritual, and ends with the stark judgment that, ‘In those days Israel has no king. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.’ The First Book of Samuel begins by describing the situation in the Temple, where the young Samuel lived, in no less negative terms. The two sons of Eli the priest are both financially and sexually rapacious, using their position of privilege in the temple entirely for their own benefit – and for which they will ultimately suffer the consequences. It’s hardly surprising that the writer of the book tells us at the start of our reading, that the word of the Lord was rare in those days.
And yet it is in precisely that context that Samuel hears the Lord calling him. In the darkest of times. And that is surely significant for us. At the start of this pandemic one of my episcopal colleagues said to me that we ought to expect an increase of people exploring ordination. I suspect the statistics will bear that out. And nor should that surprise us. It’s no coincidence that it is in a dark time that Samuel is called, because he’s called precisely to address the darkness of those times through his own ministry. Remember that it is through that ministry that, ultimately, David will be anointed King and will rescue the nation from its awful cycle of decline. It is no coincidence therefore that it is in the darkness that Samuel is called. He is called to address that darkness.
And so indeed in our day might we be. So indeed in our day might we be too.
The call of God can come in the darkest of times
The call of God can come in the darkest of times, but, secondly, it may not always be that easily discerned. The call of God may not always be that easily discerned. That is clearly the case for Samuel. Poor boy, he just doesn’t understand what is going on. He hears himself being called by name, but he remains unclear just who it is who is calling. Three times the Lord calls him, and each time he assumes it is Eli’s voice he hears.
Indeed Samuel needs Eli to tell him who it is that is calling him. Our passage tells us that Eli perceived it was the Lord who was calling the boy. It was Eli, not Samuel, who perceived that the Lord was calling him – and so he tells him to go and lie down again and wait and see if the call is repeated. And if it is, he even tells Samuel what to say. And so it is that our passage finishes with Samuel uttering those iconic words for himself: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
But remember that Samuel would not have known to whom he was responding nor indeed how he should respond without Eli’s help. The call of God may not always be that easily discerned, which is why so often we need other people to help us discern it. Many times in my ministry I’ve said to people, do you think God may be calling you to be ordained? I can’t say people have ever responded, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening, and nor should they – but it is a great privilege to ask that question, and a great joy to see a call responded to.
Of course as soon as I say that I have to say very clearly there are multiple calls of God and the call to ordained ministry is only one of them – but the point I’m seeking to make here is true I think of all calls. Very rarely is their discernment a solo activity. Indeed I’d be very suspicious of someone claiming to be called to something if there was no corroboration or confirmation of that call from others. And in the case of ordained ministry we always ensure, quite rightly, that call is indeed confirmed and corroborated by the wider church. The call of God may not always be that easily discerned, which is indeed why we need other people to help us discern it, confirm and corroborate it. And it’s why perhaps we shouldn’t be too slow to invite other people to consider just how they too might be called.
Thirdly the call of God can be highly disruptive. Samuel’s life, from conception onwards, even before he receives this call, is strange, living in the Temple from the moment he is weaned, far from his family. There’s something immensely tender and very sad in some words in the chapter before our reading when we read that Hannah, Samuel’s mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice.
And Samuel’s life and ministry after this moment was highly unusual too. He was recognised as a prophet, not least through conveying to Eli the judgement of the Lord concerning his sons and his dynasty. He led the people during a period of Philistine occupation and was the key figure in establishing the monarchy first under Saul and then when Saul proved himself not up to the task, through anointing David as king. All of that was dependent on God’s call. All of that followed from those simple words of response: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
What we see in Samuel’s life we see in the life of Jesus’ disciples too. In our gospel reading we heard about the calling of some of them as they responded to Jesus’ words, Follow me. And their lives of course were highly disrupted as a result – leading some of them to actions, events, and indeed deaths they could never have envisaged otherwise. The call of God can be highly disruptive. And yet the corollary is true too and is of even greater import: the call of God may be highly disruptive, but the ministry to which we are called is also highly disruptive, and it’s supposed to be so. It is no coincidence that Samuel is called in a dark time, for he is called to address that darkness. And so indeed in our day are we, for that is the work of the Kingdom of God, to establish it here on earth as it is in heaven. And that is a disruptive task.
Fourthly we are called by name. Samuel’s calling is intensely personal. This is not a general call but a very specific, and a very personal one. He is called by name. And he is called by name by the one who truly knows who he is. Psalm 139, our psalm for today, reminds us how truly, deeply and intimately we are known: O Lord you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar… For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Only each of us can do what we are each called to do
This intensely personal call is to do what each of us alone can do. That’s why Samuel is called by name. That’s why each of us is called. We are fearfully and wonderfully and uniquely made. Are there are things we alone can do, precisely because we are uniquely made. Only Samuel could do what Samuel was called to do. Only each of us can do what we are each called to do.
But this call is more than functional – to do something. It is also a call to be. We are called to be who we truly are by the one who knows us better that we know ourselves. That is why there is something truly fulfilling about answering the call of God, no matter how disruptive it may be, because by doing so we enter into not only what we have always been called to do, but into what we were always called to be. I remember after my ordination thinking, ‘Oh so this is what I’m supposed to be all about!’ And it was a deeply fulfilling realisation. And so it can be for all of us as we in our turn say, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
And finally the call to which Samuel responds comes from the God who holds all things, ourselves, included, in his hand. This is not ‘God’, in some vague abstract sense, who calls Samuel. It is ‘the Lord’, Yahweh, the one who makes covenant commitment with his people to fulfil his will through them. Transpose that, as it were, into a NT key, and into the highly pictorial language of Revelation and you come to the description of Jesus as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, who has conquered who can open the scroll and its seven seals – as a sign of his ultimate authority, as the one on whom all things depend. And this, note, is the one who has also ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nations and made them to be a kingdom and priests, serving our God: these are those he has called and to whom he has entrusted the disruptive ministry of the transformation of all things.
And the ministry to which the one who holds all things in his hands does indeed count for something. It makes a difference – because he holds all things in his hand. Samuel’s ministry led to the establishment of the Davidic monarchy, and ultimately to the messianic hope that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, who has conquered who can open the scroll and its seven seals. All ministry, our ministry, however small we may think it to be, does ultimately count for something in the fulfilling of the will of the one who holds all things in his hands.
So there are my five thoughts on Samuel’s ministry – and ours. The call of God can come in the darkest times – and is a call to transform the darkness. The call may not be easily discerned, so we may need the help of others to discern it, and we may need ourselves to help others to do so. The call of God can be highly disruptive – and is itself a call to be disruptive. We are called by name not only to do what we alone can do, but to be who we were always intended to be. And we are called by the one who holds all things in his hands, so that ultimately, our response to that call does indeed count for something. All of which I find very encouraging!
And here’s a final thought for us. The question is not, are we called – because we all are. The question is simply this: are we listening and are we responding? Are we listening and are we responding? And that we may do so, may these words always be upon our lips: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. Amen.