No media available


1 Samuel 3.1-20


Janet Hunt recounts a recurring dream she had some years ago:

It was always in those first moments after I had drifted off to sleep.  I would awake with a start, disoriented and convinced that I had a guest in my home.  Only I was not prepared.  For you see, I did not have guests often. And so my guest room was used as 'storage' --- things were almost always piled on the single bed in there.

So there I would lie in my confusion, trying to sort out who it was who was there and as a result of my lack of hospitality, had no place to sleep.  Eventually I would wake up enough to realize that it was, in fact, only a 'dream.'

This happened more than once.  It happened so many times, in fact that finally I began to share it with friends, who, though patient enough to hear me out as I described my 'dream,' could only shake their heads, as unable as I was to make sense of it.

This had been going on for some time before one friend suggested that I take it to my spiritual director. And so one Friday morning I did --- describing once more this dream and my reaction to it. I can still see Sister Audrey leaning forward, listening intently.  When I was finished she paused and said, "Well, I can't say for sure, of course, but I can't help but wonder if your guest is Jesus." []

Hunt was surprised by the suggestion but also thought it was correct. She was a bit embarrassed to think that God was speaking to her about her spiritual readiness, and she did not realize it. But in truth we often need the help and wisdom of others to discern God’s voice.

Such was the case for Samuel. As he lay one night by the Ark of the Covenant in the sanctuary at Shiloh, a voice called out his name: “Samuel! Samuel!” Waking with a start, he was sure it was the old priest Eli, his guardian and mentor. So he ran into Eli’s quarters only to be told that Eli had not called for him. Three times this happens and though we, the readers, are told at the beginning of the story that it is the Lord calling to the boy, Samuel himself does not know what is going on or who is speaking.

Why does he not recognize the voice of God? Well, what exactly does God sound like? There is not a formula for exactly how to recognize God’s voice nor is God limited to one or even just a few ways of communicating with us. The opening words of Hebrews affirm the diversity of God’s speech: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways…” [Heb 1.1]  And almost 18 centuries later the poet William Cowper confirmed the difficulty of perceiving God’s meaning: “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.” [“Light Shining Out of Darkness,” penned in 1773]

In Samuel’s case, the diverse speech and mysterious ways of God are made all the more difficult to recognize by their rarity and the limits of human comprehension.  We are told that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days [and] visions were not widespread.” Honestly, that sounds like it could describe today, or really any place and time in human history. It’s not that God is not present and at work, but that we have trouble hearing and recognizing God.

Maybe part of the problem for Samuel is the corruption around him. Eli’s sons have perverted religion, turning it from a means to connect with God into a tool for the fulfillment of their own greed and lust. They abuse their power: stealing from the offerings of worshipers and committing sexual misconduct, if not outright rape, against women serving at the holy sanctuary. Eli himself seems at first to have been blissfully ignorant, and then later, when he became aware, completely unable to stop them. In such a corrupt atmosphere, it was surely hard to hear God.

There is much today that distracts us from God’s presence and threatens to drown out God’s voice. Certainly, the materialism of our society is a great problem. We seek meaning and comfort in things rather than relationships with God and one another. Additionally, the great greed and sexual misdeeds of some prominent religious leaders has caused many folks to lose faith in not only Christianity, but in any form of religion.

However, it is most often everyday life that distracts us. Johanna van Wijk-Bos suggests that it was natural for Samuel to assume Eli was calling him. Eli was old and infirmed, nearly blind. Surely, Samuel was often called in the night to come and help Eli get a drink or even get up to relieve himself. So, Samuel responds as any of us would in such a situation. [Wijk-Bos, Reading Samuel, 44] It is often simply the everyday living of life that seems to muffle God’s voice and obscure God’s presence. We simply are busy doing the things that need to be done, so focused on what is going on around us and what we feel we must do that we are unable to hear or recognize God calling our names.

And yet, more often than not, this is exactly when God speaks to us, in the midst of everyday life, not in some dramatic vision or event, like Isaiah in the Temple or Paul on the road to Damascus, but instead in a still small voice, a dream, an intuition, a feeling, the words of a friend or a pang of compassion. And so, sometimes, like Janet Hunt, we need help. Eli, despite his faults, was that help for Samuel. The priest realized what was happening and knew it must be God calling the lad. So, he told Samuel who the voice belonged to and how to respond: attentively, with an open mind and ready hands. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Here we see the importance of community. We need each other. We need the wisdom of others to help us recognize the voice of God. I’m thinking, for example, of a child coming to her mother and telling of a new kid at school, picked on and shunned. Mom asks, “What do you think Jesus would want you to do?” After a moment’s thought, the girl says, “Be the new kid’s friend.” She has heard the voice of God with the help of another. She has heard Jesus calling her embody God’s love through the voice of her mother.

I also remember my own experience of wrestling with whether or not to go to seminary. One night, sitting with my friends and fellow students at a Baptist Student Union event, as we were in the midst of a discussion about something else, one of those friends, Kris Pratt—the now college professor, not the actor—happened to observe, “Sometimes we simply need to trust God and step out on faith.” Though he did not know it, or intend it, I heard the voice of God in Kris’ words. And so, I stopped waiting or a clear sign, for a Damascus Road experience, and instead stepped out on faith by beginning to seriously investigate seminaries. Over time, things began to fall into place and it became increasingly clear that I should go to seminary.  

Of course, it’s not easy to respond to God’s voice, to follow the call. Debie Thomas admits that she heard this story many, many times growing up, but it always scared her a little. She writes, “I…knew myself.  I was a high-strung kid with a radar for creepy things, and I actively feared the night.  I knew that if I heard a strange voice calling my name in the darkness, I wouldn't be able to speak a word for terror.  I would bolt out of bed, run to my parents' room, crawl into bed between them, and refuse to budge till morning.” [“The Outsider Prophet,”]  I wonder if it wasn’t just the idea of a strange disembodied voice in the night, but also the prospect of encountering God, the possibility of God speaking to her that was intimidating for Debie Thomas. If so, I can’t blame her. It is no small matter to encounter the Creator and Source of all things, to be confronted by the Holy One of Israel.  As if the encounter is not intimidating enough, there’s also the matter of the content of the summons: to be called by God is to be invited into the risks and sacrifices of obedience and love. That girl who hears the call to befriend the new kid, she risks the disapproval of her friends. Indeed, she risks possibly losing some of them, risks being picked on and shunned himself.

For Samuel, there is risk because of the content of the message he is told to deliver. He is afraid to tell Eli the bad news he has received (well, bad news for Eli but good for the people of Israel). How will his mentor react? What could the repercussions be for Samuel? Once again, it is Eli himself who encourages the lad, who practically compels him to fulfill his calling and deliver the news. Like Eli, the community of faith both enables us to hear God and encourages us to respond with faith and courage.

Though it is often hard to hear God and frequently just as hard to say yes to God’s call, there is good news in our scripture. Janet Hunt says that her initial embarrassment at not being prepared to welcome Jesus has, over time, given way to wonder at God’s persistence. The dream came over and over to her until she at last understood it and was able to respond, just as God called again and again to Samuel until he responded. Often, I have heard of persons who resisted God’s call for years, be it a call to a specific ministry or even a call to belief and faith. But God keeps at it, calling again and again, often in unexpected ways and at unexpected times, until at last they stop and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

God is persistent and persistently gracious. And the God who calls us, is also the God who is always with us whether we walk in the sunshine of love or through the valley of the shadow of death. So let us listen for the voice of the God who is still speaking and still calling. Let us listen together and support one another that we may be like Samuel and respond with faith and courage to the call of God. Amen.