The story of Samuel is the story of a transitional time in Israel’s history.
The nation, really a rag tag collection of people who share a common faith and identify, yearns for greatness. They yearn for glory. They want a king.
But David, the beloved soldier-King with his own human frailties, is yet to come. For now they will have to settle for a prophet who cleans up corruption in the temple only to fall into traps of his own later on.
It was typical for ancient peoples and nations to each have their own god. There was not yet a strong sense that we all worship the same God whose love crosses human boundaries.
When nations or tribes would go to war with each other, they would carry their god with them into battle. God would travel with them in a box. In our lineage that box was called the ark of the covenant.
Ancients believed that success in battle had to do with the strength of your God. People might shift gods if their God proved unable to adequately protect them.
It gives new meaning to putting God into a box, doesn’t it?
Even to this day — thousands and thousands of years later — many folks believe in a proprietary God.
We see this in the insistence, for example, that the one Muslims call Allah is not the same divine one we call God.
We see it in the God is on our side mentality of American exceptionalism when the drums beat for us to go to war.
We even experience it as UCCers in the scorn we receive from some who see us as not-Christian because of our more inclusive image of God and our justice stances.
We ourselves spread this our god/your god mentality when we doubt the sincerity of others who describe mystical experiences or speaking in tongues.
We are not quite so removed from our ancients as we might like to believe.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 1 Samuel 3:2-3 NRSV
Notice that while the priest Eli, who has cared for Samuel since he was weaned, was sleeping in his own room, the boy Samuel is sleeping inside the temple beside the ark of the covenant.
The writer of this pseudo-history tells us volumes in the choice of the physical location of the two humans in our reading today.
Though we’ll be told in verse seven that Samuel does not yet know the Lord, the setting of the story indicates he’s well on his way toward that end.
I like to think of Samuel as having an intuitive, just beneath consciousness, sense of God. As the story builds, we realize that God is calling Samuel to big things.
The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.
Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 1 Samuel 3:8-9 NRSV
Eventually, with the help of Eli, Samuel learns that it is God who is calling him in the night.
From this, we learn that God is persistent in God’s call to Samuel and, by extension, to us.
Though I think God will negotiate with us to a point — to a point — if God has God’s sights set on our doing something, divine persistence usually pays off.
Yes, we have free will but God has a way of being quite persuasive.
We also learn that Samuel and, by extension, we often do not recognize God calling us.
Though I cannot speak for Samuel, or you, for me I often don’t hear God speaking because I don’t like what God is saying.
Now there’s nothing wrong in arguing a bit with God — even Abraham did that — but things usually go better for all concerned when we respond to God’s call.
It’s not because God is a harsh parent. Rather it is because in this case, father really does know best.
One other thing we learn from the call story of Samuel is that others can help us to discern God calling us.
The boy Samuel and, by extension, we need outside eyes and the wisdom of others to help us recognize God’s voice calling in the night.
We need community. Though our culture idolizes rugged independence and individualism, not a one of us will get it right if we rely only on our own wisdom and knowledge.
Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 1 Samuel 3:11 NRSV
God is about to do something that will make the ears of people tingle! I love it, except I know what comes next.
So, I love the poetry of the language but not what is to come next.
The prophesy God gives to Samuel will not be an easy one to share. God will require Samuel to tell someone he loves things that will be hard for that someone to hear.
Though God provides each of us with the gifts and skills to respond with a resounding “Yes!” to God’s call, it may not be easy.
I dare say it often is not easy to do what God calls us to do. It can be filled with loneliness, or grief, or sadness, or loss of friends, or rejection.
Like Jesus who cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34b NRSV), when we strive to respond faithfully to God’s call the world of status quo will not always be happy with us.
But the Good News is this:
God will be pleased with us.
Our sense of well-being and purpose will grow as our lives become more in-tune with God’s dreams and desires for us.
The Good News is that when we say yes to God, God’s unfolding realm of love expands just a little bit more.