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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

January 18, 2015

 When God Calls

1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

              I love the story of the elderly couple, married for just over sixty years, rocking on the front porch of their mountain home, looking out over the beautiful colors of the trees that were changing.  And as they were rocking she looked with great love at her husband and said, “Honey, I’m proud of you.”  And he said, “Well, I’m tired of you, too!” 

             It is easy sometimes not to listen, or not to listen carefully, at least.  And today we have the story of two call stories of people that come in the Scriptures, that remind us of many, many things that are worthwhile for us to consider.  First of all, let’s consider how God uses Eli to speak his word to Samuel.  There was a theologian who wrote a book many years ago called, The Meaning of Revelation.  The theologian was H. Richard Niebuhr, the younger and less famous brother of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose prayer you all know: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  In The Meaning of Revelation, that is, how God is revealed to us, Niebuhr makes the point that faith in Jesus Christ, Christian faith, is always triadic.  By that he means God always comes to us through the mediation of another person, or of a larger community of faith.  Even if you meet God through reading the Bible, sitting by yourself, the Bible comes to you through the community of faith, through some other believer to whom God revealed this word so that it was written.  Think about your own faith journey and faith story.  Who here could tell their story of how they came to this point in their journey without talking about other people, other people who played a key role in mediating Christian faith to you?  This is why Church Father Cyprian said, “You cannot have God for your Father if you will not take the Church as your mother.”

             I love the phrase, “Faith in Jesus isn’t so much taught as it is caught.”  Of course, it is both.  But Samuel comes into existence, you will recall, because Hannah, his mother, was barren, and prayed to God out of her barrenness.  Have you ever noticed how often this theme repeats itself throughout the Bible?  So much so that Walter Brueggemann at one point says, “It’s usually out of some barrenness that God comes to His people.”  Hannah prays in her barrenness, and God grants her a boy, and she agrees ahead of time, “If you give me the son of my prayers, I will dedicate him to you.”  His name is Samuel, which means “asked of the Lord,” or perhaps means, “the Lord has heard my prayers.”  But Hannah follows through on her promise, and Samuel her son is being raised as a little boy in the Temple, near the Ark of the Covenant when they are in Shiloh.  And one night, in the dark of the night, Samuel hears his name being called, and the boy rises, and assumes it must be Eli the priest.  “Here I am,” he says, eager to obey.  And Eli, of course, says, “No, I wasn’t calling you.  Go back to bed.”  That moment occurs three more times, and three different times this scene is repeated in the call of Samuel.  Note how persistent God is when God is intent upon calling us!

             Finally, Eli the priest, the great symbol of the old order which is about to pass away, realizes this must be the Lord calling the boy Samuel.  So Eli says to him, “Samuel, the next time you hear this voice, rise and say, ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant is listening.’”  Eli is part of the old order.  His sons have become so corrupt that God is ready to do something new because frankly, the old order is not working.  And yet, without Eli, the boy Samuel would never have heard the call of God.  Faith is always mediated to us through the community of faith.  No Eli, no call from God that comes to Samuel.  We all have our Eli’s, voices that enabled us to hear the voice of God.

             Note secondly, who it is that God calls.  Not the priest, not the professional holy person.  (I probably should hate this story, and if it were not so powerfully true, I might!)  Rather God calls a boy, a boy born to a weeping, agonizing woman named Hannah.  Note where Jesus the Messiah is from in John’s Gospel.  Not Jerusalem, not the center of religious power and authority and influence, but instead from the no-count town of Nazareth, a town so insignificant it is not mentioned once in the Old Testament.  So that when Nathaniel hears that this is one who comes as Moses came, one who comes as Messiah, Nathaniel says to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  (It might be like someone from Nashville saying, “Can anything good come out of Knoxville or Memphis?”)  It is a term of derision and disrespect.  And yet God acts differently in calling than we ourselves would act.  I love, by the way, Philip’s simple response to this word by Nathaniel, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  He says, simply, “Come, and see.”  He invites this questioning Nathaniel to come and to see who Jesus is. 

             The Bible is full of accounts in which God calls regular, almost unlikely men and women to do marvelous and amazing things.  I think there is a reason for this.  I think the Biblical writers wanted us to know that if God could call the boy Samuel to be a source of something new, something so new that it would make the ears of everyone who heard it tingle, why maybe then God could call the likes of you and me as well!  This is a call, as far as I am concerned, that puts us all on alert, and ought to make us all aware that God calls those whom God creates, and that God can call anyone to anything at any time.  The power of God’s call is God’s and not in us.

             And before we are done with this incredible account, let’s make note of the response of Samuel.  The old man Eli is now almost blind, but he has enough insight to realize that it is the Lord God who is calling Samuel by name.  And he says, “If he calls again, go lie down and say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’“

             Are you listening?  Are you paying attention to your life, to the people that God has placed in your life?  Or are you too busy, too caught up in your own anxiety, your own anger, to hear a word from the Lord.  Are you making space in your life for God to speak?  I think this passage raises some powerful questions.  What does it mean to listen to God?  Clearly it means to listen to other people.  It is one of the most important things that human beings are given the responsibility to do.  You have heard it before.  It is why we are given two ears and one mouth, because what we listen to may be twice as important as what we have to say.  Think about how crucial listening is.  If you are a husband or a wife, it is life itself to listen, really to listen to your partner.  Think about being a parent or a child, how incredibly important it is to listen.  I have learned over the years that my son, Josh, doesn’t ask a whole lot of me, but every now and then, I can tell by the tone of his voice when he calls, that he has something he needs to say.  And I am so aware that one of my most important roles that I play as father to Josh and to Sarah, to Miller and Turner is to listen, really to listen like I care about what they say.  Think how friendship is enriched by genuine, empathic, concerned, listening!

             And secondly, if you are going to hear God’s word, you have to listen to the Scriptures.  Every time Jesus ever heard a word spoken to Him from heaven by his Heavenly Father, it was not accidental that those words came from the Scriptures of Israel, the Bible that Jesus knew.  The Bible is the greatest story of humankind that has ever been told.  And it is a story that is full of hope because on every page of the book, God is alive and God is the most important reality.  It is hard to find places in this culture today where God is actually taken seriously!  People can talk on for hours about the world as if God has nothing to do with the calculus of human history and human events.  “The Word of the Lord was rare” in the day of the boy Samuel.  How much rarer is the Word of the Lord in our day and our time?!  This is why we need so desperately to listen to what the Scriptures are saying to us. 

             And finally, and maybe most importantly, we have the opportunity, not just the privilege, but the responsibility to listen to God in prayer.  For a long time the growing edge, the deep end of my prayer life, has been more in listening than in informing God about what God needs to know from me about how God should be running the world. 

             1998 was a really momentous year for me in many ways.  It was the summer I climbed, with a group of dear friends from the church where I served, on a mission trip, Mount Kilimanjaro.  I did not know it at the time, but it was the year in which I ran the two best marathons I would ever run in my life – how pitiful to know I peaked in 1998 as a marathoner!  Those things were fun, but not all that important.  But that summer was also the year in which my mother got sick.  It started with very routine minor surgery, and yet something changed in her after that surgery.  Looking back, now I can see that nothing else was ever quite the same.  Her doctor, a lovely Irishman on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh’s Medical School, a very fine internist, knew from moment one that she was suffering from some serious form of cancer.  But such diagnoses can sometimes, in some people, be mystifying and unable to pin down precisely.  So I talked to my Mom on the phone almost every night, and I could hear the anxiety in her voice.  And I sat as I often do in church, as I sat in the Chapel in Spartanburg, I prayed, silently, and I listened.  And one day when I was praying, “What can I do, what can you do?  Lord, can you heal my mother?”  I heard, not out loud, but I heard, as loud and clear as I have ever heard anything, “You could go and visit her.”  And I dropped everything else that I had on my schedule.  And for the next four days, as she was in Shadyside Hospital, near the University of Pittsburgh, I spent those days completely in my mother’s company.  I saw her many times after that; she died the next February from ovarian cancer.  But I look back on those four days as maybe four of the finest days God has ever given me as a son to spend honoring this woman who gave me life.  And all of that happened because I was praying.  I was making room in silence for God to speak to me.

             God still speaks, dear friends.  God still calls out to people whom God intends to use.  The question is: Are you listening?  Are you alert and awake to the people who matter most to you, to the Word that is life itself, and to the Spirit that speaks when we are listening?  Are you listening?  “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  I pray to God that you are!



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