[This sermon was given on January 14, 2018, at Parkminster Church, Rochester NY. The text is 1 Samuel 3:1-10, for the second Sunday of Epiphany, and the day before Martin Luther King, Junior’s birthday.]
Voices in the night. Do you ever hear voices in the night? I am sound sleeper. When I dream, the dream is often forgotten by morning, though not always. Being a pastor has an on-call component to it. Emergencies don’t keep office hours. Once in my time of pastoring in Brunswick, a phone call came in the wee hours of the morning. I was sound asleep. My wife is not as sound a sleeper, so the phone was on her side of the bed. She answered this call in the night, then roused me and handed me the phone. Someone in the congregation had just been taken to the emergency room of a hospital. Could I be there shortly to meet the family? Yes, of course. I threw on some clothes and asked Rachel, what hospital? She had handed the phone to me; how would she know? I didn’t know. Memory is fuzzy at this point, but I think I started calling the area hospitals (or had Rachel do so), starting with the closest one, and asking something like, “Do you have someone in the ER that is waiting for me?” Somehow I managed to find out the right hospital and get there to see the family. The person survived the night and, perhaps more miraculously, my pastoral credibility survived.
God sometimes speaks to us in the night, even in our sleep. I have learned to pay attention to the dreams I do remember in the morning. I have learned to count on my wife to orient me at times of calls in the night. If God really wants my attention, I humbly suggest that God call me in the daytime, preferably during office hours.
We have just completed our annual Christmas season, that season of angelic visits with pregnant messages. At least one came in the night, through a dream, to Joseph: “Don’t be afraid Joseph. The Holy Spirit is at work in all this. Stay with Mary and the child she will bear.” I expect that Joseph was more attentive to the details of that message than I have been to voices in my nights.
A young boy hears a voice in the night. The backdrop to that night is fascinating. Elkanah had two wives. One bore children; the other, Hannah, was barren. That was a heavy burden for a married woman back then, a matter of public disgrace. She earnestly and desperately sought God for a child. The high priest serving at the holy place was Eli. He was a godly old man, now failing of eyesight. He had two sons and both were wicked. They will follow their father as priests, but they are immoral and unethical. Meanwhile Eli sees Hannah praying and his heart is moved.
In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions. I can’t describe it more vividly than that. It was a time of moral darkness. Eli is nearing the end of his days and knows that his sons are corrupt. Eli offers a blessing to Hannah: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
God granted that prayer as Hannah desired. She bore a son and immediately dedicated him to God. Hannah responds with a song of praise that will one day inspire a young woman named Mary when an angel visits her with earth-shaking news.
This setting sounds like the Temple, but it is before the Temple. Likely it was the Tabernacle, which preceded the Temple. Young Samuel hangs out there, the way some kids hang out at the mall or the gym or video game shops. His mother has instilled in him a sense of calling, of belonging to God in an uncommon way.
The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel. The lamp here is both literal and figurative. The law given through Moses called for a lamp to burn continuously in this holy place. People would bring oil to keep it burning. It is burning low. Eli’s sons are gone, causing him shame and heartbreak.
In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions…. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.
What follows would make good TV comedy viewing. God speaks to Samuel. Samuel thinks it must be Eli and goes and wakes him and says, Here I am. Eli says go back to sleep, boy. God speaks to Samuel. Samuel thinks its Eli and goes and wakes him and says, Here I am. Eli says to go back to sleep and let this old man sleep in peace.
Then comes this surprise: Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. How do we understand that? Samuel is doing everything right in honoring the commitment his mother made of his young life. He is at the right place and he is saying and doing the right things. Except he doesn’t understand it yet. This is prevenient grace at work. Prevenient grace is one of my favorite understandings of God’s ways. This simply means that God is working before we know it. Before we can acknowledge God, God is working in us. God was working in Samuel before Samuel knew it.
And yet a third time the Lord speaks to Samuel in the night. And yet a third time Samuel goes and wakes us old Eli. Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Samuel’s responsiveness revives Eli’s soul and he speaks a word of wisdom,
Two irresistible prayers emerge from this night of voices and confusion. The first is addressed to Eli, but perhaps through Eli to the Lord: Here I am. That is not a prayer of location but of vocation. God knows exactly where Samuel is. God’s positioning system, GPS, was working just fine. But Samuel must identify himself to God in availability. This is a prayer than occurs many times in the Bible.
- Abraham prays it to God in Genesis 22:1 and to the Lord’s angel in 22:11. Here I am.
- Jacob prays it after a long night of wrestling with God’s messenger in Genesis 31:11. Here I am.
- Isaiah prays it after receiving a stunning vision of God’s glory in Isaiah 6. Here I am.
- When God was converting Saul the persecutor of Christians into Paul the Apostle of Good News, God called on Ananias of Damascus to bring God’s word to Saul becoming Paul, and Ananias said, Here I am.
- Mary prays it when the angel told her that she, a virgin, would bear a son, the Messiah, Here I am.
This is one of those prayers that is always appropriate. Before we roll out of bed in the morning, we might simply pray: Here I am, Lord. That is not a prayer of location but of vocation. God knows exactly where we are. The original GPS was in place and working, the God positioning system. But we must identify ourselves to God in availability.
The second prayer follows: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ Eli, again, shares God’s wisdom with young Samuel. In the biblical languages, listening equals obeying. We have created gaps in our time and in our language. We can listen and not hear. We can hear and not obey. We can listen and hear and still not obey. The biblical understanding is that listening is hearing and hearing is obeying.
In a time when the word of the Lord was rare, when there were not many visions, when the lamp of God was flickering, God raises up a boy named Samuel. He prays two simple prayers and goes on to become one of the giants of the Old Testament. He becomes a prophet and more. While not officially a priest, he serves in priestly ways. While not a king, he serves in political leadership. He serves as a judge. He serves as a sage. No one in the Old Testament serves God in more ways than Samuel. And it all started with two simple prayers: “Here I am… Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
When Jesus calls people to become his disciples, he doesn’t give elaborate plans and projections. More commonly, he simply says, “Follow me.” That is how he calls Philip. In turn, Philip tells Nathanael about Jesus. When Nathanael hears that Jesus is from Nazareth, a backwater town in a backwater region, he exclaims, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” You’d think he may have been talking about some holler in Appalachia or Haiti or some poor African country. And before the day is over, Nathanael is following Jesus.
This weekend we remember the birth and prophetic ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a newly installed pastor of the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery AL when Rosa Parks got on a public bus after a hard day’s work. She sat toward the front. When more whites got on the bus, she refused to yield her seat and go to the back of the bus, the section reserved for non-whites. The Negro community joined together to start a boycott of the buses. Young pastor King was chosen to the speak for the black pastors. Two months later, On January 30, 1956, while King was speaking at a bus boycott rally, a bomb was detonated under the front porch of his home, while his wife, Coretta Scoot King, and young children were home. (No one was ever charged for that horrendous crime, to this day.) No harm was done to them, but that made Martin think about the cost of leading the civil rights movement. Shortly after, he had a voice in the night experience while sitting alone in his kitchen. He answered the voice in the night, “Here I am… Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And the movement went forward. Martin is gone, but the movement continues, as needed today as it was then.
Two irresistible prayers and an irresistible command: “Here I am… Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” “Follow me.” And how the world keeps changing.