As I have reflected on my call to ministry, and in particular a calling to ordained ministry within The United Methodist Church, there is one constant theme – the prayers of my grandfather. When I was young my grandfather, Buell Bingham – a pastor, would take me on his knee and we would read through the bible together in his study. He would pray for me and my journey with Jesus Christ and tell me that God had a great purpose for me. It was all a little overwhelming … especially for a five or six-year old. My grandfather died when I was still in college completing my engineering degree and more than once I have told others: "My granddad had to die so that I could distinguish God's voice from my granddad's. Up until then, those voices were confused in my head."
In the season after the Baptism of Jesus, we pay attention in the lectionary readings from scripture to how God calls servants into ministry. Today we will talk about Samuel responding to a voice in the night. But first, we need to tell the beginning of the story.
Hannah and Elkanah from Ramah had no children, so Hannah traveled to the tabernacle in Shiloh to pray for a child. Eli, whose name means "my God," noticed Hannah's lips moving while she prayed, but no sound emerging from her mouth. For whatever reason he supposed her to be drunk and proceeded to throw her out of the tabernacle. We need to know that the drunken folks in the tabernacle were mostly Eli's own sons, who never received the treatment that Hannah was getting (much to God's disappointment). Hannah told Eli that she was not drunk, she only wanted a son. She then invited Eli to pray with her and made a promise. When my son is born I will bring him to you to raise as a servant of the most high God (perhaps she noticed how sorry Eli's sons were, but giving up your first-born child is no small sacrifice). And so it came to be that Samuel came to live with Eli. Here is how scripture tells the next step in the story:
3 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!”a 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,b 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.”
1 Samuel 3:1-18, The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).
What can we learn from Samuel's encounter with things that go bump in the night?
When God calls it helps to have an experience person to help you learn to respond, "speak Lord, your servant is listening." It can even be a person who's own listening skills seemed to have diminished across the years.
When God speaks to us, the voice usually invites us to take on a great challenge (even offending the mentor who is teaching you a way of life).
The best way to sharpen one's hearing is to respond in obedience to God's call. Samuel is just beginning to walk with God. Later he would identify Saul and David as Israel's first two kings at God's insistence, counsel when to make military moves, and speak the truth to power in saying to king David, "You are the man."