Good morning, Friends! Thank you so much for being here today.
This morning I want to start a fresh series of sermons. If you’ve been here recently, we’ve just spent most of the summer in the New Testament, in the gospel of John.
Today I want to start telling you some stories, about people from the Old Testament instead. You might have learned some of these stories years ago, or they might be new to you. But these are people who are role models. And they’re people who had experiences that we can all identify with.
The one I want to read together with you today is a boy named Samuel. He grew up to be one of the most famous people in the Bible. But this is a story about when he was just a young person.
When Samuel was a boy, Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli, [an old man who was a priest.] In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.
One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
Then the Lord called, “Samuel!”
Samuel answered, “Here I am.” Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
“Son,” Eli said, “I didn’t call; go back and lie down.”
Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”i Samuel 3:1-10
Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
This story is important for all of us. But it’s especially important for Quakers, because we believe that hearing God calling is one of the most important things in our lives.
There is no movement, no reform, no gathering of people, no great change, that doesn’t begin, one way or another, without a call from God. That’s the heart of what I want to say today. Nothing begins without a call from God.
In the story we just read together, Samuel was called. There’s a lot of details in that story which are striking, and there are some things we need to study carefully.
It says, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. . .”
We tend to think of the people in the Bible in the old days as talking all the time with God. I mean, that’s what they did, right?
But here it would seem that Israel was starved for vision. The nation was wasting away because nobody seemed to be in touch with God any more. Sounds kind of familiar.
Samuel was pretty young at the time. It doesn’t tell us how old he was, though there’s a Jewish tradition that says he was in his early teens.
You know, a lot of the prophets have been young people. George Fox and most of the early Quaker leaders were in their early twenties when they got started. I don’t know how many of our young Quakers today are encouraged to be serious enough about their faith, that they would recognize a call when they had it.
It says that the Lord came and called Samuel several times before Samuel realized what was happening, and before Samuel answered.
I’ll be getting back to that point in a few minutes – that a call is something that doesn’t let you go. It bothers you. It comes back, again and again. God calls, and keeps calling. God knocks, and keeps knocking. That’s one of the ways you know that it’s God. God won’t leave us alone.
The Lord called Samuel by name. That’s characteristic of the way God works. God puts the finger on us, with a call that only we can answer, right in that moment. It might not be a voice actually saying, “Samuel! Samuel!” What matters is that God reaches out to us, personally, and says, “This is what I, the Lord, want you to do.”
We can make this story a bit richer, if we understand a little more of the background to the story.
The two chapters before today’s reading talk about how Samuel’s parents were childless. This was a disaster in Bible times, and it’s still a great pain for many couples today. Samuel’s parents, and especially his mom, prayed to God for a child, and they promised to dedicate the baby to God’s service. It’s a really touching story, about the faith they had. But look how it affects the rest of the story.
Samuel was called, not just in the story we read today. He was called from before he was born. That’s a theme we get all through the Bible.
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” God says to Jeremiah. “And before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations. . .”
You get language like that all through the Bible – the idea that God creates us for a purpose. We may or may not accept it. We may or may not go along with God’s call. But we are created for a purpose.
We aren’t just here to please ourselves. We’re not just here to do whatever we want. We have a purpose and a call, a call addressed just to us.
If you read on, past this morning’s reading, you find out what the rest of Samuel’s call was. You all want to know the rest of the story?
The first job God gave Samuel was for him to take some bad news to someone Samuel loved, and to predict disaster for his people.
That’s one of the hardest things that a prophet has to do – to bring the hard word, and to tell people that they’re headed for a train wreck. And in the Bible, the prophets don’t enjoy doing that. They feel ripped apart themselves by it. They weep for the loss of lives of their people.
Now, Samuel had a long and stormy career, answering the call of God. I’m not going to try and tell his whole story here.
But over and over, it says that Samuel was called by God. It was a repeated call, and it was a personal call. There was absolutely no doubt in his mind, who it was, that was calling him by name.
It’s interesting, when you read the Bible, to learn about the different places that people are called. It says today that Samuel was up in the mountains, in the hill country, at an ancient Jewish sanctuary place called Shiloh.
It was where they kept the ark of the covenant, the special holy box that God told Moses to make. Inside the ark were the stone tablets where God had written the Ten Commandments, the commandments which God said were life or death to his people.
“Do these and live,” God said. “Don’t do these, and you’ll die!”
Also inside the ark of the covenant was a sample of the manna that God sent when they were all starving in the desert, the bread from heaven that saved their lives and fed them for forty years.
And also kept inside the ark of the covenant was the staff that Moses and Aaron carried, that turned the water into blood, and that parted the Red Sea.
Every night, Samuel got to lie down in the tent where the ark of the covenant was kept. He was one of its keepers, and the ark was a place where God came down and listened, and where God answered prayers.
But there are lots of other places in the Bible where God called people.
God called Samuel at the tent of worship. But God called Isaiah, years later, in the temple in Jerusalem. Isaiah had a vision of the holiness and glory of God, and he said, “Woe is me! I’m lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Isaiah saw himself, and he saw his generation, and he was filled with terror and dread, because they didn’t know that God was actually real.
God sent an angel with a burning coal, who touched Isaiah’s lips with it. What an image of searing pain! The angel said, “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.”
And then the Lord said, “Who shall I send? Who will go?”
And the answer Isaiah gave to God was the same answer that Samuel gave – “Here I am. . .”
When you look at the call of Moses, you get the same pattern. God calls to Moses, up in the hills, out in the desert where he was keeping sheep. And God calls out, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses answers, “Here am I.”
God called Ezekiel, who fell on his face, because he couldn’t bear the sight of God’s glory. And God said to Ezekiel, “Stand up on your feet! I’m going to talk with you!”
God called Elijah, in a story we’re going to read together a few weeks from now. You know the story. A hurricane came and tore the mountains apart – but God wasn’t in the wind. An earthquake came, and broke the rocks in pieces – but God wasn’t the earthquake. Then a wild fire came, but that wasn’t God, either. Finally, Elijah listened very carefully, and there was a still, small voice. And that was the voice of God, calling to him.
Remember what I said: nothing great happens, without a call. But when God calls people, great things happen. When people listen, there’s no limit to what God can do.
When we turn to the New Testament, it’s remarkable how ordinary the people were, and how unexpected some of the choices were, of people who got called.
Peter and Andrew and James and John were minding their own business, fishing, when Jesus came along and said, “Follow me!”
Levi, who was one of the last people in Israel you’d pick for a leader, because he was a tax collector for the Romans, a traitor to his own people – Jesus called him, and he became Matthew, a writer of one of the gospels.
Bartimaeus was a blind beggar by the side of the road when he was called.
Mary Magdalene may have been working at a place like the Tiki Club. It doesn’t say where and when she was called, but she was the one, in all four gospels, who found the empty tomb. She was the first witness to the Resurrection.
Zaccheus, the short guy, another tax collector, was up a tree, trying to get a better view when Jesus came along and called him by name. Zaccheus was so surprised that he practically fell out of the tree. And Jesus came and had supper at his house that day.
Saul, who we’ve been talking about for several weeks in our weekly Bible study – Saul was bouncing along on his donkey, on the road to Damascus, rubbing his hands at the thought of arresting some of those hated Christians. God called him by name, and blinded Saul with his glory and threw him to the ground.
Do you see what I’m saying? These aren’t isolated stories. This is a pattern in in the Bible. This is the way God works.
These people were called – from ordinary belief to a much deeper belief. They went from minding their own business, to being part of God’s business, from doing their own thing to becoming messengers and ministers for God.
We talk a lot about the Holy Spirit, and feeling the Spirit and being more spiritual. But “living in the Spirit” also means “living up to what God has called you do.”
The call of God is a call to enter into something larger, something deeper, something much bigger and more active than where we are now. God’s call is a vision of what could be, if only we are faithful.
One of the earliest words for “church” is the Greek word ekklesia. It literally means, “those who have been called.” The word “church” literally says that God is calling all of us, every one, and that we’d better be listening and ready.
We’ve been talking as if a call from God were always something like Samuel’s voice in the night, or like Saul’s lightning bolt on the road to Damascus. And a lot of people feel that just because they haven’t heard voices or been zapped, that they haven’t been called.
But the world isn’t divided into two categories, the people who’ve been called and the people who haven’t. It’s just that, in the Bible, if you want to make a big point, you use a big example. You pick dramatic stories of calling, or you talk about people who were really unlikely candidates for it. But everybody is called by God. God calls all of us, one way or another.
There’s a line in the book of Revelation, where Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you will dine with me. . .Whoever has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to everyone who is being called.” (Revelation 3:20,22)
God’s voice can be loud, or it can be soft. It can be familiar, or it can be strange and unexpected. God calls us all in different ways.
Our job is to listen. And our job is to be ready to answer: “Speak, Lord; your servant is listening. . .”