Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
January 19, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The Hebrew Scripture reading this morning comes from the book of 1 Samuel. I have a confession to make. Iíve never read the book of 1 Samuel (or 2 Samuel for that matter). Itís one of the historical books of the Bible. It tells the story first of the prophet Samuel who ruled Judea before the rise of the kings of that country and then of King David, the greatest of the Judean kings. Itís one of those Old Testament history books full of bloody battles and intrigue. Itís interesting enough I suppose, but despite my background in history Iíve never really been drawn to 1 and 2 Samuel or 1 and 2 Kings. For the most part, itís hard for me to make them function as Scripture rather than as a confusing combination of history and various strands of ancient Jewish political theology.
That being said, there are some things about this little story of God calling Samuel that I love. Samuel is of course the main character. He becomes the main character of the book 1 Samuel (although oddly he doesnít appear at all in 2 Samuel. If you care why ask me later.) But to get at something of the message to us in this little story that we heard this morning, letís take a closer look at whatís going on. Who are the players? Eli and Samuel. Eli was the chief priest in Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was located before King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem many years later. Samuel was essentially his protègè. Samuelís birth had been something of a miracle. His mother Hannah had been barren (the matriarchs of the Hebrews were frequently barren) until God granted her a son, namely Samuel. So she dedicated the boy to the service of the Lord and sent him to serve and learn under Eli.
Eli was old by this time. We are told that his eyesight was failing. He was in big trouble with God because his sons had perverted the worship of Yahweh. At 1 Samuel 2:12-13 we are told that Eliís sons were "scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people." On the particular night of our story, both Eli and Samuel are sleeping. Samuel hears someone calling him: "Samuel! Samuel!" Samuel thought: "That must be Eli. Who else could it be?" So he went to Eli. Well, Eli hadnít called him. Eli was asleep. So he told Samuel to go back to bed and stop pestering him. Samuel went, but again he heard someone calling him. Again he figured it had to be Eli so, no doubt to Eliís great annoyance, Samuel went back, again waking Eli up and claiming that he had called him. Well, again he hadnít. And again he told Samuel to go back to bed and leave him alone. Then, no doubt to Samuelís great annoyance, it happened again. "Samuel! Samuel!" Canít you just imagine Samuel thinking: "The old manís losing it! He keeps calling me, and every time I go to him he says he didnít. Is he becoming senile, or is he just jerking me around?" So a third time here comes Samuel, waking Eli up and claiming that he had called him, which again he hadnít. This time, however, Eli finally figures out whatís going on. "Oh, I get it. Itís the Lord calling Samuel, only Samuel doesnít know it." So he told Samuel to go back to bed, only this time, if the Lord calls again, Samuel is to answer Him. And this time, when the Lord calls, Samuel delivers his famous line: "Speak, for your servant is listening."
Itís not hard for us to identify with Samuel, is it? I mean, why didnít he recognize God when God called? Was God doing a particularly good impersonation of Eli, sort of like a cosmic Rich Little? I doubt it. Why would God do that? Even if God did that once, maybe so as not to frighten the boy, it would have been pretty clear after the first time that it didnít work. So why would God do it again? No, I donít think we can pin Samuelís failure to recognize the voice of the Lord on the Lord. It has to have had something to do with Samuel.
I think that what it had to do with Samuel is that Samuel just wasnít expecting God to be call him. Psychologists tell us that we perceive what we expect. We see what weíre looking for and hear what weíre listening for. Those of us who ride motorcycles know how dangerous that phenomenon is for us when car drivers are looking for and expecting to see other cars or trucks but not motorcycles. Because other drivers donít expect us, weíre invisible to them. Samuelís mother may have dedicated him to the service of the Lord, but as a practical matter to Samuel that meant service to Eli. Itís not hard to imagine that Samuel was quite used to Eli calling him to come do something for him, even in the middle of the night. So thatís what he was expecting. When he heard a voice, he heard it as Samuelís voice because he wasnít expecting anything else. He certainly wasnít expecting Yahweh, the only God of the Hebrew people, to come in the middle of the night calling his name. So he didnít hear when Yahweh did just that.
Itís the same way with us, isnít it? Or maybe I shouldnít speak for you. I know for certain that itís the same way with me. Who am I that the Lord, the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of all of creation, should call on me for anything? Nobody! It isnít supposed to work that way. God doesnít call the likes of me to do great things. God calls great people to do great things.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is a day in our national life when we pause to remember and celebrate the profound contributions Dr. King made to our nation and, indeed, to the world. He was the kind of person God calls to do great things. He had a deep and unshakable Christian faith. He had a brilliant mind that give him insight into the nature of his peopleís, and indeed of the nationís, plight that few others had. He was an inspirational preacher who could move a crowd with his oratory as few have ever done. He had personal courage at which we can only stand in awe. Thatís the kind of person we expect God to call to do great things.
But thereís something we, or at least I, always forget about Godís calling to great men and women. We forget that, as far as I know without exception, they were not great men and women before God called them. Samuel, to return to him for a moment, became the leader of Israel in response to Godís call; but when that call came he was just a youth doing menial service in ancient Israelís equivalent of a church. God didnít call him because he was great; he became great in response to and because of Godís call.
And who was Martin Luther King, Jr. before God called him to leadership of the civil rights movement? Nobody very special. The son of a preacher (OK, a fairly prominent preacher, but still...) from among a people who lived under conditions of despicable, sinful oppression and discrimination in a part of our country (or maybe I should just say in our country) where people of his race were held by the powers that be to be hardly even human and certainly not capable of anything momentous. He managed to receive a considerably better education than was available to most Black people in the South at that time, but when Godís call to leadership came to him he was nothing more than the pastor of a local church in Montgomery, Alabama, hardly a center of world culture or power. But God needed a person to lead the liberation struggle for Godís African American children, and God called Dr. King. Dr. King responded. The rest, as they say, is history.
So you see, God doesnít call the high and mighty. God doesnít call the great. Godís call makes people great when those who are called respond to that call in faith with courage and commitment. And still, we canít imagine that God would call us. Because we donít expect it, most of the time we donít listen for that call. Because we donít listen for it, weíre very likely to miss it when it comes. Maybe we donít hear it all. That, I think, is the most common thing. Or maybe, like Samuel, we mistake it for something other than what it really is. Or maybe we think what we hear must be directed to someone else, because surely God couldnít be calling us.
Maybe even Dr. King had moments when he thought that. If he did, he was wrong. God was calling him to greatness. God was calling him to faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the assertive, even aggressive, nonviolent opposition to evil that Jesus taught and that our country and the world needed so badly in his time and still need so badly in ours. Dr. King is gone. We canít change that fact, much as we would like to; but God doesnít stop calling people to faithful witness just because the powers that rule the world silence one of Godís prophets. God didnít even stop calling when the powers that rule the world silenced Godís own Son. God calls still. Calls whom? Could it just possibly be us?