1 Samuel 3:1-12, 19-20; John 10:1-3
It was September 10th, 1946, when an Albanian nun heard Jesus’s voice while riding a train. Mother Teresa, who taught children at a convent school in India, heard Jesus command her to change her focus and serve people in a different way. “Carry me into the holes of the poor,” Jesus said to her. “Come be my light.”
It was the evening of September 1st, 1955, the day after Emmett Till’s lynched body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River. His mother, then known as Mamie Till-Bradley, sensed an indescribable presence in her bedroom and heard a voice speak to her, urging her to have courage and faith and saying, “There is a job for you to do now.”
It was the night of January 27th, 1956, over a month into the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Martin Luther King Jr. had just received one death threat too many. Stressed and thinking about withdrawing quietly from the public eye, the Rev. Dr. King paced and prayed for strength until he was overwhelmed by a sense of God’s presence. An inner voice urged him, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.”
You probably know where those three stories go next. I don’t pretend to understand the spiritual or psychological dynamics at play when people hear voices, especially a voice they believe to be divine. Obviously those experiences at specific times helped three modern-day prophets muster the courage and the love required to take very public stands for justice in very challenging circumstances. I’ve never heard God speak to me in a specifically audible or vocal way. That’s OK with me. But I know a few people who report—with great humility—that they have heard from God directly. I assure you there’s nothing strange about these people I have in mind. They are people whose names you don’t know. They’ve never been featured in the news. Their influence in churches and communities has been local and maybe small by most measures. They live faithfully, even without making a seismic impact. Nevertheless, scripture and the experiences of saints encourage us to expect God’s calling, directing us to step into the future with confidence, resolve, and fresh insight. That calling may come in a variety of venues or voices. There’s no single way. It doesn’t matter if the calling appears supernatural or monumental. It’s not about fame or success. The bigger story is that we believe in a God who calls. We believe, to some degree, that God has not finished with the world just yet, that God loves the world too much to leave us to our own devices. We believe that God continues to accompany us, whatever paths we follow. The callings we remember—the ones that find their way into books and history—are the ones when God shows up, precisely when the situation seems most urgent.
For our Orthodox and Roman Catholic siblings in the church, August 20th is the feast day of Samuel, who was a judge, priest, and prophet in ancient Israel. To appreciate Samuel and the significance of how God calls him into service, it helps to know something about the circumstances of his place in history.
Samuel stands at the cusp of significant change in Israel. The time when the people were ruled by judges is changing into the time of kings and the prophets who try to keep kings in line. It’s a tumultuous era. I mentioned the rulers of the former period, the ones the Bible calls the judges. Margaret Fox and I are putting together an exploration of the Older Testament, which will begin in September. We’re focusing on how the Older Testament’s portrayals of God continue to influence us, challenge us, and ground us. As Margaret and I were making the schedule and dividing responsibilities, I think we were each privately hoping that the biblical book about that period—it’s named Judges—would fall to the other person to teach. That book contains several of the Bible’s most troubling stories, but mostly it describes a gradual deterioration in the moral and spiritual life of God’s people. It’s an ugly story, overall. When the book ends, everything is a mess. The nation fragments. Society becomes predatory. The priesthood grows corrupt. The neighboring Philistines are gearing for battle. God seems to have given up on the nation. The people may be chosen, but they appear to have been left to fend for themselves.
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days,” our scripture reading says.Then God calls Samuel.
Samuel was the miracle child of his mother, Hanna, who suffered from infertility. Her prayer of praise and gratitude for Samuel became the inspiration for a more famous biblical prayer, the Magnificat of Jesus’s mother, Mary. Samuel’s first task as a young prophet, ironically enough, will be to announce that God has had it with the family of Eli, who is the priest who helps Samuel recognize God’s voice. Eli’s sons acted more like mob bosses than priests, and through Samuel God does away with all of them—a first step toward a better life for the people and a more trustworthy society. Samuel grows to be a successful leader and an inspiration for military victories. He warns the public about the dangers of their desire to crown a king to rule over them. Later he anoints first Saul and then David, the first two kings of Israel, with God’s blessing. He finds himself in risky politics. Samuel then plays an ongoing part in keeping the kings focused on God. That, also, makes for dangerous politics. But God calls prophets to work for change.
As we have read, when it all begins, when God first calls to Samuel, setting him on this path, Samuel is just a child. This is unusual, since children in the Bible are often not much more than props or trophies. But Samuel, in all of his youthful naïveté and energy, stands at the threshold of new realities that are about to emerge. Samuel’s calling is evidence that God has new possibilities in store for the people. When God awakens Samuel, God revives a slumbering world, calling us out of our nightmares and daring us to step into our dreams.
It’s easy to get sentimental about this story and its depiction of an unaware and innocent child getting caught up in something he doesn’t quite yet understand. It sounds too easy. Too safe. Likewise, anyone who believes that God continues to interact with us risks viewing prophecy and the life of faith in a romantic, idealistic way. It’s far from simple to expect that someone will accurately hear God’s voice. It’s far from safe. Taken as a whole, the Bible seems to warn against false prophecy and charlatans just as often as it urges readers to pay attention to authentic prophecy. Telling the difference is never simple. But it’s even riskier for us to stop listening altogether. We are rightly skeptical of individuals who anoint themselves as prophets, claiming themselves to be direct mouthpieces of God. Five minutes on the internet should convince anyone that self-proclaimed prophets create all sorts of trouble and erode the credibility of religious faith for all of us.
Biblical prophets, however, like Samuel, don’t seek out attention. As the Jewish thinker and civil-rights leader Abraham Joshua Heschel put it: Prophets do not seize the moment. They are seized by the moment. Samuel models a humble openness to God’s call. He doesn’t object to his calling. There’s no begging to God to “send someone else,” just Samuel’s willingness to respond with a listening heart. We’re often too preoccupied with the religious experience of individuals and we miss the ways in which biblical prophets often represent wider communities and speak through larger groups. In other words, we’re often mistaken to look for lone prophets and expect them to lead the charge against unrighteousness and offer an alternate vision for God’s world and its future.
The church of Jesus Christ understands itself as a prophetic community. What if God speaks, somehow, to all of us together? As a group? That’s not to say that majority rule equals the voice of God or that the durability of traditions—whether good or bad—is a sure sign of divine approval. It’s an encouragement to listen—to all voices. And to speak. To ponder. To encounter people outside our usual circles. To get involved in something new. To engage the community and programs and ministries of this congregation a little deeper. To lay out our dreams to one another and consider how we might be a part of making them happen. If God is still speaking, God calls believers to stand up for the public good. That’s one way we discern who’s really talking to us. God also calls the church to love and to trust even more extravagantly. Our readiness to hear and respond begins in how we interact with one another, in our own conversations and relationships, trying to cultivate the same openness Samuel displays, expecting to discern what kind of a future God might open up for us, in our own lives and in our common life as a congregation of this city.
We can learn from Eli, the senior priest who mentors the young Samuel. He recognizes that God is breaking into the moment. The cruel irony is that Samuel’s first prophecy will be to proclaim God’s judgment upon Eli and his sons, but Eli still has enough integrity left to identify God and validate Samuel’s experience.
It’s important to notice that Eli also provides guidance to Samuel in the way he introduces the young prophet to God. Repeatedly the biblical text refers to “the Lord” who calls Samuel. “The Lord called,” it says.“The Lord called again.” “The Lord called again, a third time.” But Samuel remains oblivious until Eli perceives who is speaking. Or as the text puts it, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” Samuel does not yet know what—or whom—to listen for. Eli directs Samuel to God—not simply an impersonal force—a god—who resides behind priestly rituals nor in a different dimension, but a divine knowable presence bent on establishing love, justice, holiness, and belonging. Eli steers Samuel from understanding his calling as just a reflection of his own politics or his own self-interest or his own ego. Eli says to Samuel, in effect, “This is the Lord.” That’s what the Lord sounds like. Listen. For everyone’s sake, listen.
All those occurrences of “the Lord” in English are places where the Hebrew biblical text uses the name of God. You can see it indicated if you’re looking at the passage in one of the pew Bibles, or if you noticed the way the call to worship is printed in the paper bulletins today here in the sanctuary, where the letters of the word “LORD” appear in small caps. It’s a marker in English translations of the Bible that the divine name, which really no one knows how to pronounce, resides in the Hebrew text. In this case, “the Lord” isn’t a title or a symbol of majesty; it’s an indicator of a personal, divine name. God—named the Lord—knows Samuel’s name. Samuel has yet to learn the name of this God—at least, Samuel has yet to encounter the Lord with the kind of intimacy and power that he will soon experience. Again, at the heart of this story about God raising up a prophet is not the specialness of Samuel himself. The heart of it is God’s commitment to God’s people in a time of crisis. That commitment has to do with more than defending people against the threatening Philistines or installing kings. First and foremost, God’s commitment is encapsulated in God’s knowledge of Samuel. We’re talking about a God who desires to be revealed. And desires to be known. Intimately. By name.
It’s the morning of August 20th, 2023, and here we are, aligned and gathered around places where we expect God to speak—the pulpit, directing us to God’s word, the communion table, and a baptismal font. Even the architecture of this room urges us to be attentive to God’s living presence. One audacious claim of our faith is that we’re asked to believe, somehow, that God has called us to these places of expectation. God has called us together. A God with a name. A God whose name we have been given. We baptize people explicitly in God’s name—or using just a few of the many names God has given us. Likewise, we don’t baptize people anonymously. In a few minutes, when Sydney is baptized here at the font, her name will be spoken aloud. When a baptizing pastor asks a person, their parent, or their sponsor, “What is your Christian name?” it’s not because they’ve forgotten it. Jesus refers to himself in John’s Gospel as “the good shepherd,” a leader and a caregiver who knows each of us by name. It’s part of what it means for us to experience Jesus as trustworthy, as interested in us. We’re not dissolved into some single-flavored melting pot of Christianity when we are baptized or when we commit to a congregation’s common life. Rather, Christ claims us and loves us in all of our individuality, all of our gifts, all of our insecurities, all of our identity, all of our ideas, and all of our confusion. The intimacy of Samuel’s calling, as he lies in bed as a child wondering what to do with the voices and promises swirling in the night air around him—that’s the same divine intimacy God invites us to enjoy, through Jesus Christ.
When you hear Sydney’s name spoken aloud, rejoice with her. And imagine your own name spoken, too. Let it remind you of God’s calling on your life. Or perhaps God is even calling you for the first time to join Jesus at the font yourself.
To that God be the glory. Amen.