Monday, January 16, 2012
Here I Am: I Samuel 3: 1-10
*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church on the second Sunday of Epiphany, January 15, 2012.
There you are in bed. The alarm clock is set. The red numbers glow in the dark room. All is quiet. Your pillow is fluffed just right. You curl up in your favorite position. But, in a few moments, you know this is going to be a night of tossing and turning. You can't sleep. A voice is stirring a pot full of questions in your head. The voice is relentless. Should I take that new job or not? It's a promotion. The salary and benefits are better. But, do I have what it takes? It will mean taking the kids out of school. Losing friends. Finding a new church. Starting all over. What's best for me, my wife, and my kids? Most importantly, what does God want me to do? A quick glance at the clock and it's 2:00 a.m. You long for some clear vision of what to do. You ache for a clear word.
Most of us would be envious of the clarity of the call of Samuel. We would like to hear the voice of God with the clarity of a phone call on Verizon. Can you hear me now? But, remember, Samuel's call was exceptional. The phone line from heaven was not ringing off the hook then, any more than it is in our day. As the text says: "For the word of the Lord was rare in those days." Not every Tom, Dick, and Harriet got a call from God.
Samuel's unusual call happened something like this. The near blind temple priest Eli was sleeping as snug as a bug on a rug. The temple lamp gave off a dull yellow glow causing shadows to dance like spirits in the room. The wind softly breathed through gaps in the curtains. Young Samuel had lain down near the Ark of the Covenant. The golden cherubim on the ark spread their protecting wings over him like a mother hen. From out of the silence came a whisper as soft as the desert wind. Samuel. One eyelid opened, looked around, and then closed. Samuel. "Here I am," Samuel mumbled, half-asleep. Then both eyes shot open and young Samuel sprang to his feet like a soldier caught sleeping on duty. He ran to the commanding officer, Eli and shook him. "Here I am. You called me?" said Samuel reporting for duty. "I didn't call you. Go back to bed," Eli groaned rolling over and pulling the covers up under his bearded chin. Samuel made his way back to his pallet and went quickly back to sleep. From within the hushed temple the voice came again. Samuel. "Here I am,” Samuel once again spoke back to the darkness. Once again he shook a grouchy Eli, who told him to go back to bed. And once again Samuel lay back down to a troubled sleep.
A third time Samuel heard the mysterious voice calling him. But this time Eli figured out that something unusual must be going on. It must have been the Lord calling him. So he told Samuel to go lay down, and if he heard the voice again he was to respond with words that sounded like a set formula: Speak, Lord, for your servant hears. So, the next time the Lord spoke Samuel heard the message as clear as a church bell.
We would like to hear such a clear and unambiguous voice. We debate with ourselves and struggle with decisions like what vocation should I pursue; should I take that new job offer; should I marry this person; should I go back to school. We systematically weigh the advantages and disadvantages on the scales of our mind. We flip through our busy calendar and logically examine our responsibilities. We have an inner dialogue about our gifts and abilities and try to imagine the risks and sacrifices required before making such decisions. We may even pray. But no answer seems to come from on high.
Most of us don't live in the temple of the Lord. We find it hard enough to just simply cast aside our nets and follow the call of Christ. We have competing loyalties. Job, school, marriage, family, social life, kids sports, enjoying retirement. So, when an invitation comes to teach a Sunday School class, serve as an elder, take a position in church, or the need arises for a new ministry, we look at our time schedule and our divided energies, question our abilities, get anxious, feel guilty, wonder whether it is simply the church that is calling us because it needs workers or is the voice of Christ calling us. And then, we pray that God will just tell us what to do. Speak, Lord, for your servant needs an answer, yesterday. We may toss and turn on our beds of indecision wishing that we would be given a sure word from the Lord. But, it seems like we are living in the days of Samuel, when the word of the Lord is rare.
Hearing and responding to God's call is never a simple affair. At first, Samuel thought it was Eli's voice that he heard calling him. I thought it was my own voice that was speaking to me when I was called to the ministry. The call came at a turning point in my life. Or maybe the call was a turning point in my life. Nevertheless, as a student preparing to graduate from junior college, I was planning on going to art school to be an illustrator, something I had dreamed about since I was Samuel's age. In those days I found myself constantly in "the temple of the Lord" enjoying my involvement with the youth group at my church; voraciously studying the Bible, teaching a youth class, playing drums in the youth choir band. But, when the thought came to me of the possibility of "entering the ministry," I immediately dismissed the thought as my own inner voice.
The only similarity that I have with Samuel's call is that it was repetitive. From the first time the thought of becoming a pastor entered my mind, there wasn't a day that passed that this thought did not spring to the surface of my mind like a beach ball pushed under the water. But this was not just---three times, “speak Lord,” and “I read you loud and clear.” I had this inner dialogue every day for over a month. It was a painful, daily struggle of discernment; talking with a number of pastors about what was going on, constant prayer, wrestling with these daily thoughts, doubting, questioning, self-examination, and in the end, still believing that it was only my own voice. Really, I wanted to become an artist. Deep down I think I knew that I was not the minister-type. And if I did become a minister, it was not going to be based upon personal interest. It had to be the voice of God calling me. By the end of this time I was practically worn out by what I thought was my own nagging inner voice. If I had gone to a therapist at the time I would probably have been diagnosed with Vocational Anxiety Syndrome or some such neurosis.
One night, while driving on the freeway to visit a relative with Iris, that beach ball thought of becoming a pastor surfaced again. I was tired of pushing it back under. So, I missed my turn off and kept driving, knowing I had to make up my mind whether this was my voice or the voice of God. I had never had such an experience before, and have not had one since. I began questioning why my own inner voice would put me through such a struggle and over such a long period of time. Now, I doubted whether it was really my voice. So, a few miles down the road, I finally had to admit to myself that this must be God calling me. When I made that resolution it was like a weight was lifted from off my shoulders and I knew at that instant that my future vocational direction would change and my life would never be the same. A strange additional note: I hadn't mentioned to Iris a thing about my wrestling with this calling. When I told her about it that night on the freeway, intuitively, mysteriously, somehow she already knew that I was struggling with a call to the ministry and had told her mother so that she would have verification when I finally told her about it! God moves in mysterious ways!
God's call is not always that dramatic, nor is it always clear and unambiguous. God's voice may sound like Eli's, or our own, or the wind blowing through the curtains of your mind. Have any of you ever had the thought enter your mind of entering pastoral ministry, teaching theology, or doing missionary work? Most of you would probably quickly consider the pay, the hours, the stress, the responsibility, and immediately respond to the thought, "No way!" Some Mondays I have had that same thought!
But if that thought has ever entered your mind, it is a thought that I would listen to and dialogue with in fear and trembling. I would not quickly dismiss it as my own voice and rollover and go back to sleep. Nor would I jump into such a calling without a great deal of discernment. It is not a commitment one takes lightly. As a matter of fact, I agree with the advice Alan Jones gave in a wonderful book he has written on the call of the ordained ministry. He said, "When someone comes to me for advice about ordination I suggest that he or she avoid it if at all possible! Ordination should be the last resort, the final response to a lover who will not let go." A vocation, a call to the ministry of the Word will in the end, if it is a call from God, be a compelling call, even if it is not always a clear and unambiguous call.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today, had a call to ministry that came almost as a natural part of his life, though his call to be a leader of the Southern Freedom Movement came in quite a different way. King said:
My father was a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher and my great-grandfather was preacher. My only brother is a preacher and my father’s brother was preacher. I guess I didn’t have much choice but to be a preacher. I grew up in the church and it was good to me, but one day I realized it was inherited religion. I had never had an experience with God that you must have if you are to walk the lonely paths of this life.
Then as a young pastor I was called to serve a church in Montgomery Alabama, where a woman named Rosa Parks was a member. She decided she was tired of being tired and would no longer sit at the back of bus. I didn’t know what to do but I knew what Jesus wanted me to do. So we stopped riding that bus. For 381 days, we walked.
Then one night at around midnight, when the house was quiet; and King’s wife and baby girl were asleep, he got a telephone call. And it wasn’t a midnight call from God! On the other end was a vicious voice saying mean and hateful things; finally the voice said, “N…r” if you don’t get out of town we will blow your brains out and burn your house down.” Then the caller hung up. King goes on to say:
I couldn’t sleep. All I could think about was my precious baby and my wife. I went to the kitchen thinking a little coffee might help me, then I brought to mind all my recent philosophy and theology, but that didn’t help. I realized I couldn’t call upon my Daddy, 180 miles away in Atlanta. I realized I couldn’t rely on the experience of others with God. I had to call upon God myself. I said, ‘God I am trying to do what is right in your sight, but I am weak and tired.’ Around midnight I heard God say, ‘Martin stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for Jesus. I will never leave you alone.’
King’s call to ministry came as a part of his family heritage, his involvement in church, his own experience of God beyond “inherited religion,” a congregational invitation, a social context of racism and segregation, a woman tired of discrimination, and his personal experience of God’s voice. King heard God’s voice in the night, like Samuel, but as you look at his whole life it seems as if his vocation chose him.
In the real sense of the word , you do not choose a vocation. A vocation, literally, “a calling,” chooses you. This not only applies to a call to vocational ministry like a pastor, but applies to other vocations, as well as to church leadership. God may call us; choose us, through the voice of our own giftedness. God has planted within each of us our own uniqueness, our own personality, and bank of experiences that lend themselves to certain outlets, expressions, vocations, ministries. Sometimes it takes the mysterious wind of God's breath to blow on those embers within us, to fan the flames of our gifts of service. Then it is a matter of discerning how and where our giftedness, or calling, is given concrete expression.
At other times the voice of God may sound as human as Eli's or the voice of someone from our church's Nominating Committee over the phone or the Educational chairperson after church or the pastor from the pulpit. From one who has struggled to discern God's call, I would not assume that you should immediately say "yes" to any and every invitation to serve, nor to believe that every voice that calls you to leadership or ministry is God's call to you. Neither would I respond upon the basis of guilt, arm twisting, nor because you think that nobody else will do it. I would advise that you look within, listen and pray and examine yourself and your gifts. I would advise that you look at your other obligations, your available time and energy and how it is being used, your other responsibilities to family, friends, job, and community, and your responsibility to nurture yourself.
But, the best advice that I could give to you concerning the discernment of God's call to leadership or service, in whatever form it may take, would be the advice that Eli gave to Samuel. When you want to know if it is God who is calling you, seek solitude or go within yourself for a while and talk to God. And simply say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant listens." I don't guarantee that you will hear a clear, audible voice, like Martin or Samuel saying, "Do this or that or go here or there." But, I honestly believe that God will speak to you somehow, someway. Exactly how or when, I cannot say. But, in the end, through the silence, the struggle of listening, and the ambiguities of discernment, you will know if it is God who is calling you. And once that becomes clear, the real question then becomes "How will you answer?"