Here is a sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B:
A Call in the Night
A Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 with allusions to John 1:43-51
The problem wasn’t so much that the word of God was rare. The problem was that listeners were rare. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, are a case in point. Along with Eli, they were supposed to be serving as priests at Shiloh. But instead of serving and leading the people of God, Hophni and Phineas exploited them to serve their own appetites.
These were dark times in Israel. But the ark of the covenant containing God’s written word was still there, and the lamp on the lamp stand in the sanctuary still burned. That was where Eli’s helper, Samuel, slept every night.
It was night in Israel in more ways than one. Those who were supposed to be listening to God weren’t. And God was getting ready to speak and to act, to do something about it. In this sleeping youngster, God saw someone who would truly listen to him. “Samuel, Samuel!” God called.
At the sound of his name, Samuel was awake. It must be Eli. Eli was elderly. His eyesight had grown dim. He often needed Samuel’s help. Samuel hurried to his side. “Here I am,” he said. “You called me.”
Eli was surprised. “No, I didn’t, son. Go on back to bed.” Twice more this happened. Now even though Eli’s eyesight was dim, his insight wasn’t all gone. He discerned that the voice calling Samuel by name was God’s voice. “Samuel, it is the Lord calling you. Go back to bed. If the voice calls again, answer, and say, “Speak, Lord. I’m your servant, and I’m listening.” So Samuel went back to bed, and waited.
In many ways it is night now. Every day the numbers of the dead in the violence in Iraq grow, now to over 2,100 Americans and by an estimate President Bush cited on December 12, 30,000 Iraqis. (Note: this was preached in January 2006.) We are bound to remember them as well, for Christ calls us to love and pray for our enemies. Most of the Iraqi people are just trying to survive. The costs of war are always a nightmare. How can we describe this as anything other than night?
How can we describe it as anything other than night when there’s deep economic distress: layoffs abound along with the fear of layoffs, while top executives pull in hundreds of times more income than their employees. In some cases their lowest ranking employees have to depend on Medicaid. The state of our economy means suffering for many and hard, hard work for our friends on the front lines, at social services, trying to help. And they’re trying to help with fewer and fewer resources. You may disagree, but it seems to me that something’s out of whack when our representatives are cutting taxes on the wealthy who can afford to pay more, while cutting care for the elderly, poor and disabled, and meanwhile there’s an expensive war to pay for.
How can we describe it as anything other than night when self-centeredness seems to be the rule everywhere? Shadows of all kinds fall. Sorrow strikes everywhere. And need of all sorts is everywhere.
How much real listening is going on, real, attentive, earnest listening for God’s voice in all this? How much listening for the will of God with the intention of doing it? Yes, there are lots of people like Hophni and Phineas, not interested to listen, only interested in themselves. “what’s in it for us.”
But listening for God’s voice isn’t easy even for those who want to listen. Much can get in the way. First of all it can be hard to hear scripture, really hear it. Why? When you know scripture well, it is so easy to settle in, thinking you already know what it says and what it means.
Take a simple example, the Christmas story. Do you remember the year Mrs. Helen gave us a quiz to see how well we remembered the Christmas story? It was sort of like this: There are three wise men in the story. True or False. Answer: False. Scripture doesn’t tell us how many there were. Three gifts are named, but that doesn’t tell us how many wise men there were. There’s also no mention of an innkeeper, and it doesn’t say that angels sang. We don’t know if they sang or not. Scripture just says they praised God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest.”
Our attention wanders when we get too sure we know scripture. With our minds full of conclusions, how can God get a word in edgewise? Nobody can exhaust scripture. God still speaks anew through it. How can we afford to stop listening?
Preconceived notions about things can get in the way of hearing God. In today’s New Testament lesson, Nathanael is a case in point. “Nothing good comes out of Nazareth,” he exclaimed when Philip told him about Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael almost missed the boat. He could have stopped right there, sure that the Messiah couldn’t possibly come from Nazareth. But thank goodness he listened to Philip and went and actually saw the man from Nazareth.
Preconceived ideas and unquestioned assumptions can easily block our hearing of a fresh word from God. I am convinced that some of the pain that many churches are in right now is due to unquestioned assumptions about what a church really needs in order to be a church. I’ve read a number of interesting stories from small churches struggling to figure out what God’s will and way is for their congregations. One story concerned a small church who told their presbytery that they were ready to close. Eighteen months before, with high hopes they had tried a new form of mission in their community, but it didn’t succeed as they had hoped, and they were discouraged. “We’re exhausted,” they said. “We just don’t have the resources to do what we thought we could.”
Well guess what? The presbytery said, “No. You can’t close. Why? Because we believe your congregation is onto something.
Conventional wisdom would have said it’s time to pull the plug. But that wise presbytery knew that God doesn’t operate by conventional wisdom.
After the church got over the shock of not being allowed to close, they put their thinking caps on again and got to praying again: yes, praying. They kept their vision of ministry to the poor in their rural area. And here’s how their presbytery exec puts it: “They…learned unanticipated lessons about simplifying and focusing their efforts, about letting go of their church building, about developing lay leadership and worshiping in homes. For more than twenty years now that community has lived the way of healing love in a region of intense need” .
That church let go of conventional wisdom about what you gotta have to be a church, namely, buildings and lots of money, and listened for the voice of God. And God did speak to them and lead them.
Another small church got a most unexpected answer when they asked, “God, what is your call for us?” Their executive presbyter was skilled at helping them talk and pray together. At the end of a special weekend of prayer, that congregation heard God calling them to start a new church. Planting new churches had been an important part of their mission seventy years earlier, and they heard God calling them to reclaim that mission. As you might expect, folks on the floor of presbytery thought that idea was just ridiculous. “This is crazy,” the skeptics exclaimed. “How can they start a new church? They don’t even know how to grow their own church!” The executive presbyter responded, “Are you saying that in all their prayer, this congregation couldn’t possibly have heard God? ”
That church bravely moved forward to pursue the call. And as the new church grew, so did the original congregation. As our friend Billy Stone has so often said, “You just never know!”
Distractions, preoccupations and busy-ness of all kinds can make it hard to keep listening for God’s voice. Fear is yet another block to listening to God and acting on what we hear. Presbyterian pastor Ted Wardlaw vividly described what happened to him when God called him to become president of Austin Seminary. At first the possibility sounded really exciting. He even said yes. But then he began having second-thoughts big time. He grew downright scared. He didn’t think he was up to the task, and he became convinced that his answer should have been “no.” This couldn’t really be what God wanted.
Some of us know what second thoughts are like. Anxiety rises, and we start to think, “how can this really be a call from God if I’m—or we are—so scared about it?”
Ted called an elder on the search committee to say he was having grave doubts and thought he should probably back out. Here’s the elder’s answer, “I know just how you feel,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about how you must be feeling this way.” Then he talked about the nature of the call and what it is like to travel through times of uncertainty. The elder quoted Isaiah 40, about how those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.
Ted says that this elder was like Eli for him, directing his attention back to God, showing him that it was the Lord’s voice calling him to Austin .
“Son, go back to bed.” Said Eli to Samuel. “And when you hear your name being called, answer this way, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’”
Night is all around us. People are in pain, and shadows of many kinds fall across their lives. But God’s light still burns on the lamp stand, and God’s written word is still before us. And in the night God is calling us by name, “Morton Church! Morton Church!” And the way to respond is to come to attention, to willing, expectant attention like Samuel.
Now in that same presbytery as the little church that wanted to close, but wasn’t allowed to, there was another church that had severe problems. It was in crisis, some kind of conflict. One wintry night the presbytery executive met with their session. After the meeting, one of the elders stopped the exec in the parking lot and softly asked, “Can we find God’s way on this?” Her words floated in the cold night air.
The exec writes, [Now] “when some people ask, ‘Can we find God’s way on this?’ they really mean, ‘Can we find my way on this?”
But that obviously wasn’t the case with this sincere, searching elder. The two were quiet for a while. Then the elder said, “If we do find God’s way, it will, I know, take time”
Friends, do we think we can find God’s way for our ministry, and for this building, and for all that faces us? Yes, if we listen for God’s voice, listen for God’s will. Yes, if we pray and keep praying. Yes, if we’re truly willing to try to do God’s will. Yes, if we’re willing to come and see something unexpected, like Nathanael. Yes, if we’re willing to cope with the fear that almost always comes with a call. Yes, if we keep returning to scripture. Yes, if we let God set our priorities, if we let God show us what is needed in this community, if we let God show us what we need to let go of.
Morton Church! Morton Church! Here we are, Lord. We hear you calling us in the night. Speak, Lord, speak. We your Morton servants are listening.
In the name of Jesus.