1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalms 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51 January 17, 2021 – 2ND Sunday after the Epiphany
There are many call stories in the Bible and with one exception the call from God provoked questions from the one who was called. Jesus is the exception …but even his mother Mary asked Gabriel…how it could be that God had picked her.
Moses was probably the most stubborn holdout, pushing back against God with excuse after excuse. Isaiah, too, needed reassurance…because he was so young…only a boy…but the angel touched his lips and made them clean.
And God told all of them that they would not be alone in their calling. The Lord would be with them…and that would be enough. Have faith and you will overcome.
Samuel is a little different. He doesn’t say, “No,” but he doesn’t realize it is God’s voice calling to him. He keeps running to Eli until Eli understands what is happening.
Then, with Eli’s support, he is able to listen and hear. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Eli has told him that every word is important.
Then, when he comes back, Eli instructs him to say every word…add nothing…leave nothing out. He opens his heart as well as his ears and faithfully delivers a hard message back to Eli…teaching our earliest prophet that if he will speak truth to power… the whole nation might be saved from our spiritual blindness.
With Eli’s fearlessness and gentle coaxing, then, the prophet completes his first official task…not just in good faith…but in all faith.
He will be called to anoint Israel’s first king, Saul, as well as it’s second, David. He is one who can hear God’s voice and he will convey God’s words and God’s will to the people of his day… without regard for his own safety.
He comes at a very special time. Israel is growing from a collection of tribes being harassed on their frontiers into a nation capable of defending itself. That is why Israel cried out for a king.
He comes from a very special promise to God. His mother was unable to conceive and so she went to Shiloh, the place of worship…asked to bear a child …and promised God to give the child to be raised by the priest Eli…to serve the priest Eli…when he came.
The child came and Hannah was good to her word. That is perhaps the tenderest part of Samuel’s story… that his mother kept her word by giving up the love she had begged from God. We come into the story today after Samuel has been with Eli for some time.
We also read that it was one of those times when the Word was rare, and people were believing what they wanted to believe and doing what they wanted to do. Eli’s sons are part of that corruption, and Eli knows it.
An innocent child is dedicated to God’s work and surprising things flow from Hannah’s honest and profound act of grateful faith…done simply as someone who asked for God’s help and received it.
It reminds me of a couple of important leaders in what we call the modern world who came into their own, on their own terms.
A caution: we are now in the post-modern world. I speak now of a world before the present age.
Both of these leaders arrived just at a time that needed their insights and could put up with their blind spots.
Winston Churchill was destined to be Prime Minister. His father was, too, until health issues shortened his career. So when Winston got elected to Parliament and became a prominent MP, people thought he was on his way.
Some people thought that was a good thing. Some were alarmed at the prospect.
He held many cabinet posts, including First Lord of the Admiralty and Chancellor of the Exchequer, but he spent many of the years between the world wars in the political wilderness …without office or any leadership role …with few friends but many allies.
It was only when all of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement efforts with Hitler failed and Chamberlain resigned that his time came. He was the only reasonable choice at the time, but he had a reputation for being a maverick…just as his father had…and even King George VI had doubts.
Churchill wrote in his diary that he could look back at all the scrapes and troubles he had been in…which were great disappointments at the time…and see that they had all been preparation for this terrible moment…when his nation had no chance of prevailing… but was still undefeated.
He wrote in his journal, at 3:00 in the morning after he had been invited by King George VI to form a government, that it was “as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but preparation for this hour.”
This passage struck especially deeply with me when I read it because I had a very similar thought in my head when I lay down to go to sleep the night I had been asked to lead worship and help out at Huntley…my first charge as a pastor.
Samuel arrived at the threshold of his calling at a much younger age… Churchill was 65…but it was as sudden a calling and as surprising…not because he was too old, but because he was so young.
But the call was as clear as it could be and we read at the conclusion of the chapter we begin to read today, “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground.”
I would love a blessing like that…that none of my words would fall on the ground…and I might be willing to accept the hard life of a prophet if such a blessing were to come to me.
We see here a pattern of the call coming as a surprise…but looking back, it came in the fullness of time, just as the skills of the one who was called began to bloom, and just at the time was at hand that those skills were most needed.
Both of these people…Churchill no less than Samuel…had to humble themselves…be ready, even, to sacrifice themselves…when the call came…but they had already been given …in a way…to the destiny that then chose them.
We can see the same pattern in the rise of Theodore Roosevelt, a prominent young politician from a prominent New York family in the late 1800s. He was born into privilege but made his name fighting corruption in a number of posts.
He took a couple of New York Times reporters, Lincoln Steffens and Theodore Riis with him when he went out at night as a Police Commissioner in New York to find police officers who were sleeping on duty…or otherwise failing to do the duty they had sworn to perform for the public.
When he became President of the Commission Steffens and Riis started calling him “Mr. President.” One day they thought they would surprise him and they burst into his office to ask him if he wanted to be President some day.
They got a very surprising answer: He jumped to his feet and came around from behind his desk with his fists clenched and his teeth bared. He looked so angry that they both stepped back.
“Don’t you dare ask me that! Don’t you put such ideas into my head. No friend of mine would ever say a thing like that.”
Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Many people would have been flattered by it, but not Roosevelt. He had studied the classics and he already knew the grief by then of having his mother and his wife die in his house on the same night.
He had been tempered by hardship and didn’t seek the easy way. So he went on to explain to Steffens and Riis: “Never, never, you must neither of you ever remind a man at work on a political job that he may be President.
“It almost always kills him politically… I am going to do great things here, hard things that require all the courage, ability, work that I am capable of…but if I get to thinking what it might lead to, I will begin to work for it. I’ll be careful, calculating, cautious in word and act, and so – I’ll beat myself. See?”
That sounds to me this morning like the conversation Eli and Samuel had the night God called Samuel…from his rest…to be a prophet.
Both Churchill and Roosevelt wanted to get to where they ended up, but they did not become chameleons or wall flowers…blame anyone else for their problems…or do anything except what they saw as their duty…to get there.
The world would see this fidelity to duty in Samuel, too, who was taught by Eli to deliver God’s message as God intended it…even when it meant that God was going to punish Eli because Eli knew his sons had blasphemed God and did not discipline them for it.
So, we see Samuel, who is obedient, rewarded, and Eli, who was willing to use his position of authority for himself or allow his family to do so, was punished.
Paul would say. “Keep your eye on the prize.” Today I hear people say, “Remember to keep the main thing the main thing.”
For almost a year now we have worked under the adversity of a pandemic. We seem to be making some progress from time to time, then adversity flares up again…the virus mutates…the logistics of delivering the vaccine bog down.
We have not stopped worshipping God in Jesus Christ in all this time. We have turned our church into a television station of sorts. We have closed in person worship, reopened it, worn masks, hummed hymns, closed worship again and met outdoors.
We call each other much more intentionally to be with each other in word as well as in deed…and to let those we call know that we think of them…love them…and are as sure that God still calls them into ministry as surely as we have been called.
We are blessed when we receive those calls and we are twice blessed when we make them. To call with the intention that we can help a friend is an acknowledgement that that friend is a source of strength to us, too.
Through it all we have not forgotten to keep the main thing the main thing, or to listen for the call of God in the midst of all that is going on around us. We cannot arrive at the other side of our troubles if we do not…or it will take a lot longer to get there…and far fewer of us will arrive on that ever-distant shore.
Like Paul’s letter to us today, we are reminded that we are free to make our own choices…all things are lawful… but that same freedom can keep us from making bad choices…so long as we see what is there in front of us and hear God’s call to love and repentance when it right there in front of us…to love both God and our neighbor.
Doing both of those today…to hear God’s call and reach out in love to remain in community with our neighbor…is completely different today than it was a year ago. I confess that fact.
We yearn to get back to where we once belonged. You and I and all of us want to return to the way things used to be but it keeps slipping farther into the future.
So we seek some outlet for our frustration. We want things to be the way we want them to be…or else. Or else what?
That is the mistake Eli’s sons made, and the punishment fell upon them and their father…upon their whole house.
The good news is that there is much good work we can do…as much as there was for Samuel…much we can do…and much we are doing. The even better news is that by doing that hard work now…the work we have been doing…we remain true to our call and shorten the wait for a better day.
Jesus calls us to be among his disciples today. He has been calling us for a long time. He has seen what we can do. He knows that all that has gone before has just been preparing us for what comes next.
He knows we will see greater things if we will ask him help us to see things more clearly. He wants to show us how to follow him more nearly. He offers us the safe harbor of simply loving him more dearly…day by day.
“Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us…through me …this day? Amen.