You can’t help picking favorites. When I was a kid, I was so in love with The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien that I read it more than once a year, from third to ninth grade. My mom always tried to get my family to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas, and though that didn’t work, I know that some people do that. I have a friend who reads a Neil Gaiman book each year; another who reads a Jane Austen book. It’s easy to pick a favorite book or movie, to have something you pick up every year and read or watch. We have a whole group of food that people call “comfort food” for this very reason – it brings comfort, peace, stability, reminds us of good times, helps us connect with who we are and where we come from.
Well, of course, preachers are no different in what they like to preach about. Today, we’ve arrived at one of those “comfort food” passages for me in our reading from 1 Samuel. It’s not, perhaps, the best-known passage, but it is an important one. You may be familiar with it by now, if you weren’t before I came to Marion, because I’ve used it a lot of times. I know I preached on it three years ago, have done a Bible study on it, and it was a topic at a 3F night. So it’s definitely one that’s a go-to for me.
I guess the reason it’s such a powerful passage for me is that I think its lessons are so universal and so important. But before we get into all that, I want to set the stage a little, because the book of 1 Samuel takes place in a time of serious transition for the Israelites. And while I think the lessons of the passage are universal, the setting of the story is absurdly specific.
As you may know from your Bible, or from Sunday school classes sometime in your life, the Israelites were different than the other tribes around them. This was true for a long time, but it was especially true in the time of today’s passage from 1 Samuel.
In the ancient Middle East, there were dozens of groups of people congregated in the same area, but all of them had a king. That was simply how the world worked. In fact, with a very small number of exceptions, that was true for the whole world through the middle of the 1800s… which doesn’t sound that long ago, when you think about it. Anyway, the Israelites worked a little differently. They didn’t need a king, because they had God. And they knew God’s will be consulting the religious leaders of their day, known as the Judges.
The Judges weren’t appointed or elected, they just sort of popped up. I have described it before as what usually happens in a group of friends. You’re trying to decide where to go or what to do; who’s the person that you look to in order to make the final decision? Whoever that person is, is the leader. The Judges kind of worked like that – people weren’t voted on or chosen by a superior; it was simply obvious to anyone who saw them.
Anyway, in this time of Judges, a mother named Hannah, who had been infertile, desperately wanted a child. She prayed and prayed and prayed, and she promised God that, if she were to have a child, she would make sure that her son served God; she would offer him up as a living sacrifice to God’s glory, if she could just be given the gift of motherhood. Well, she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. And, in order to symbolize his devotion to God, he would never cut his hair, and he would never drink alcohol. When he was old enough, she took him to Eli, the chief priest, and gave Samuel to him to raise in the Temple, so that Samuel might be made an apprentice to the priesthood – learning about the religious life, making sacrifices, and spending long hours in prayer. His entire life of service in the Temple was laid out from a very young age – certainly less than five years old. That was going to be his lot. It was, of course, an honor to serve God – it still is – but his course was charted as a worker in the Temple. His life didn’t hold any spectacular promise; his miracle had been his birth, after all.
As a very brief aside, we learn at the beginning of the passage we read today that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” I think it is, in many ways, comforting to read something like that in the Bible. I have heard people ask, “Why aren’t things like how they were in the Bible, with miracles left and right?” I think we miss something there; while there are a lot of miracles in the Bible, the Bible covers a lot of time. There are more “dull” stretches in the Bible than we think about. This may be the only place in Scripture that actually addresses that specifically and using words, but it’s nice to hear. It’s also comforting to know that God’s special interaction in the world, whether by word or work, is never completely absent; just “rarer” in some times than others. That’s probably a reminder we all need, from time to time: God isn’t gone, but we can’t go around expecting miracles. After all, if they happened constantly, they wouldn’t be miracles, now would they?
Anyway, into this time of rare words from God, Samuel serves. And he’s doing fine. He does his duties in the Temple. So one night, he lies down to sleep, and that’s when something extraordinary happens. He hears a voice saying, “Samuel, Samuel!” Like any logical person, he runs to the only other dude he knows is there, Eli. “Here I am,” he says. Eli, not having called the boy, is confused, and sends him back to sleep. I’m quite familiar with a voice breaking into my sleep and crying; but never had my son actually accused me of calling out to him. So I can only imagine how Eli felt at this accusation.
So Samuel goes back down… only, the same thing happens again. “Samuel, Samuel!” he hears. And again, he goes to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.” “Still wasn’t me, Samuel. Go back to bed,” Eli tells him. When it happens a third time, Eli realizes that this might not be the fever-dream of a young man. This is God. So he says to Samuel, “Seriously, go back to bed. But if it happens again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
Sure enough, time #4 comes. Samuel is again called by God, and he answers as Eli instructed him. We stopped the reading there, but what happens is this: God reveals a vision to Samuel about the future of Israel. And from that point on, Samuel is God’s special servant. He becomes one of the Judges – the final one, in fact, as he is the person who anoints the first (and also the second) king of Israel.
Now, I said that this was a favorite passage of mine because it was so universal. Listening to that story, I think it would be easy to say, “No, David, you are completely wrong; that story is insanely specific.” And yes, it is specifically what happened to Samuel. But it’s universal, not because everyone has the exact experience of trying to go to sleep in church only to be woken up by God; rather, it’s universal because, even when we perceive God as silent, God is active. Even when we feel like our work is one thing, God comes along and gets ready to shake us up. Even when we feel like we’re never going to see the big picture, God shows us that the ‘big picture’ was even bigger than we imagined. In short, this is what we all live for as Christians.
God is calling us to do things all the time. If we’re young, we may be called to be kind to a person we see sitting alone, or to play with a classmate who gets ignored by other students, or to be spiritual leaders by inspiring our parents to do more prayer or Bible time in the house; if we’re older, we may feel inspired to invite someone to church, or to make our job a better expression of our faith, or to make God a bigger presence in our home life; if we’re older yet, we may feel led to find a way to give more of our time back to our church, or to connect better to the youngest generation around, or to learn something new even though we’ve already learned a lot in life. And any one of us, regardless of age, might feel the need to get in touch with a long-neglected relative or friend, or to change a destructive personal habit, or to meet new people, or to increase our time in prayer and devotion.
God calls us to many things, but just like Samuel did, we may not know where they come from. We may not know what to do. We may choose to ignore them. Hopefully, like Samuel, you have in your life an Eli. This person doesn’t need to be older or more experienced. In fact, while Eli is older than Samuel, you’ll notice from the clues we’re given in the passage that Eli has probably never had an experience like the one Samuel is having. Yet, he’s able to coach and encourage Samuel throughout his own process. These coaches we meet, who help nurture our development, are wonderful people and should be thanked, and perhaps God may ask you to do just that – to thank someone who’s been taking care of you.
In the New Testament passage that we read first, from the life of Jesus, we see a similar case of God’s calling. Jesus simply walks up to a guy (Philip) and says, “Follow me.” Philip does, and he brings along his friend Nathanael. Wouldn’t it be nice if all our attempts to follow God were as simple as being able to recognize God right in front of us and simply answering with an “okay” and following along?
Unfortunately, we live in a much different time. We don’t see Jesus walking down the street. Instead, we hear his voice in our gut. We hear it in the prayers and the hymns at church. We hear it in the voices of the people who love us. We hear the voice of God all the time, calling us softly to what we’re supposed to do next.
Sometimes, when I’m overwhelmed, when I need to remember what God’s love is like, I ponder how big the universe is. It’s unimaginably big; billions of stars stretching untold lightyears of distance. It’s impossible to picture just how big all of creation is… and yet, God loves me. God loves you. God cares about the choices we make. Isn’t that amazing? Everything is so big that it almost seems enough to glorify God. But if I made something that big, I don’t know how concerned I would be about a couple of people here and there. Yet, God does care.
God cares enough to interrupt our lives, repeating our name, and calling us to something new. No matter where we are in life, God cares and calls us forward. That’s the lesson of our story. It’s our job to listen; it’s our job to seek out the people who can help us figure out what’s next. Most of all, it’s our job to honor God’s love and care for us by living for Jesus, who calls us to his service anew every day. So speak, Lord; your servants are listening! Amen.