Old Testament Lesson: 1 Samuel 3:1-20 (NRSV)
1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 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. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 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. 9 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.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 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. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
The power of storytelling never fails to amaze me. Often, we can think that we know a story from beginning to end, and yet, when we hear it told again,we discover something new that had previously eluded us. I had this experience in the last week as I read a story that was being shared through social media.
In an article published by online sports magazine “The Cauldron”, writer Shawn Krest tells the story of a rather bizarre press conference by Gregg Nibert, coach of the men’s basketball team at Presbyterian College.[i] The conference came just after the PC Blue Hose had lost 113-44 to Duke in the Blue Devils’ 2014 season opener. As Krest describes it, the PC Blue Hose were nothing more than “cannon fodder” put in the line of fire so that the nation could get its first look at the all-star lineup Duke would field this year.
And so, after he had praised the effort of his Blue Hose team and remarked on what an unforgettable night this would be, Coach Nibert collected his things and yielded the floor so that Coach K could take his podium. But just outside the media room, it occurred to him that this here was the largest audience that he would have the opportunity to address this season. And so, Coach Nibert turned around and walked back in, announcing to the reporters, “I have something to say.”
Coach Nibert addressed the problem of child abuse. He pleaded for people to speak out for “voiceless” children for whom there are not enough advocates. He decried a justice system that fails to prosecute abusers. And he called for social service reforms that would stop returning victims to the homes where they had been hurt.
Coach Nibert’s words came from a very personal place. Over the past eight years, he and his wife Peggy have repeatedly served as foster parents for thirty-seven babies, several of whom had been the victims of serious abuse. Time and again they have received these children into their home, often straight from the hospital. They come broken and battered, having been abused by the people who should have protected them from all harm. Often, the babies they welcome have health problems or developmental issues. And yet, no matter what their condition, Peggy and Gregg have repeatedly been there to receive these children with loving, open arms.
I’ve known this part of the story for quite some time. The Niberts are two of the most loving, caring, and dedicated Christian servants that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, so it was no surprise to learn that they had answered God’s call to give refuge to these children in their time of greatest need.
What I didn’t know about was the struggle that the Niberts had gone through in answering this call. According to Krest, Peggy in particular had wrestled with the idea for almost six years. “Finally,” she said, “[God] was kind of beating me over the head with the idea.” Peggy’s experience speaks to the persistence of God, when calling us to serve.
It’s the same sort of persistence that the Lord demonstrates in our Old Testament Lesson this morning. As Samuel struggles to understand who is calling to him, God relentlessly comes to the boy until at last, with the guidance of Eli, he is able to answer the mysterious call being issued. And as we reflect on the unlikely encounter between God and the boy Samuel, we might also think about the way that we meet the mystery of God, as we are called to service.
To begin, we may recognize that God often calls the most unlikely of people. This is to say that God recognizes strengths for service that we tend to overlook in others. Many might look at Samuel and discount him for his youth and inexperience, but God sees a servant dedicated to his work. Many might look at the Niberts and think that the hectic life of a coaching family would make them unlikely foster parents, but God looked at Gregg and Peggy and saw two servants whose hearts were big enough to take on the additional challenge.
We even do this with ourselves. When met with the mystery of God’s call, we question whether this voice could truly be directed at us. We ask, “Why would God call me?” And then, we fixate on all the things that we think make us unworthy. Surely, God’s call is for someone who is more righteous, more dedicated, more learned. But as we focus on all the reasons we think we shouldn’t be called, the Lord sees in us all of the reasons that we are perfect for the job. We have but only to stop making excuses for why we are the wrong person, so that we can hear the voice of the Lord assuring us that we are indeed exactly the ones whom God is seeking.
Of course, the moments that God calls to us are rarely the quiet ones that we imagine. Samuel at least hears the voice of the Lord calling to him in the stillness of the night. But as Peggy shared in Krest’s article, her own experience was quite different. As she was hearing God’s call for her to receive foster children, she struggled to discern God’s voice in the midst of other life events. Was God truly calling her to take on this new challenge, just as her own sons were about to leave home?
Like Peggy, we, too, can find that God seems to come to us at the most unlikely of times. This is certainly nothing new either. Think about the manner in which Jesus called several of his disciples.[ii] As he walks along the shoreline, he doesn’t wait for them until the end of their shifts. In the moment, Jesus calls them, saying, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people!” And they respond by dropping their nets and leaving their boats behind.
As we meet with the mysterious God, we often struggle to understand why the Lord doesn’t call upon us at a more convenient time. Now just isn’t good for us. Maybe we can be God’s faithful servants a little later. But such thinking forgets that we are called to serve, not according to our time, but according to God’s. And while the reasoning for God’s timing may remain a mystery, we trust that God does call to us in this moment so that each of us might serve a particular role in the work of the Lord in the world.
We also find that God calls to us in the most unlikely of ways. If only it were always so easy to discern God’s will by looking for the burning bush that came to Moses or the talking donkey, such as the one who spoke to Balaam. We might even settle for a mysterious voice calling to us over and over in the stillness of the night. And yet, God’s call often requires dedicated discernment.
In Peggy’s case, it took years of focused prayer. Time and again, she asked God for clarity and trusted that the Lord’s will would ultimately be revealed to her. And though the answer did not come quickly, Peggy did eventually gain such great understanding that she had no doubt about the work that God had planned for her and her family.
One of the truths about meeting with the mystery of God is that the encounter more often than not happens in rather ordinary ways. Because we tend to remember those experiences like that of Paul on the Road to Damascus, we set ourselves up to expect that we will encounter God through an unmistakable blinding light and booming voice. But if Scripture witnesses to anything, it is the truth that God speaks to the faithful through myriad ways. And more often than not, God’s will is not made known through clashing thunder or violent wind; it is experienced in the course of a lifetime relationship one builds with the Lord.
As I think about the ways in which we meet God, it occurs to me that the greatest mystery that remains is not in the Lord’s call, but in our response. As people of faith, we should gladly answer God just as Samuel does, saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And some of us have. But today, there are many of us who ask, “Could You maybe look for someone else, Lord?” “Could You maybe call me at a more convenient time?” “Could You maybe make the call a little flashier?”
The Good News today is that even as we struggle to meet the mystery of God, the Lord is undeterred in calling. God is calling you and me to listen closely to discern the places where we are called to be in service. In our homes, in this church, and in our whole lives, God is calling each of us to live lives of discipleship, serving as Christ served.
And let me be clear: the future life of this congregation is dependent upon whether or not you all step forward to say, “Here I am.” Don’t expect the church to attract new members when you aren’t going out and sharing the Good News and calling people to live into that Good News in the life of this congregation. Don’t expect people to bring their children here to be nurtured, when you don’t show up for Sunday School and when nobody can be found to teach classes. Don’t expect this church to have the funds to support any sort of meaningful ministry if you aren’t willing to make a true sacrifice from your own wallet or purse.
I pray that not one person will leave this sanctuary today without understanding that we face real challenges and that we are called to make true commitments if we wish to answer those challenges. We must stop looking around, expecting that God will find someone else, or some better time to ask us. If you haven’t yet, go and listen for the voice of God calling. God is calling each of us to answer this day with a determined response. And as we answer individually, I pray that as the whole church, we will be able to lift up a unified voice to God, saying, “Here I am!”
“To the LORD who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever.” Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)
[i] The details of Peggy and Gregg’s story are taken from Shawn Krest’s article, “Open House”. Updated January 14, 2015. https://medium.com/the-cauldron/open-house-100e414fac0e
[ii] Matthew 4:18-22
This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 18, 2015 (The Second Sunday after Epiphany). The NCAA also has a video that shares the Niberts’ story as a foster family.