Sermon for June 3

First Reading 1 Samuel 3:1-20

Second Reading Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Epistle Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Gospel Reading: Mark 2:23-3:6

Sermon: “A Voice in the Night ”

Today begins the long season of Ordinary time in the Christian Calendar. Our Old Testament readings this summer will trace the narrative from the end of the Judges through Saul, David and Solomon and the Gospel readings will follow along in the short, terse, Gospel of Mark. So, with the vast sweep of history that lays before us, I would like to take the opportunity this morning to pause and consider a story we usually reserve for the children – the story of Samuel’s early life. Its one of those classic Bible stories that we’ve all heard, but may not have stopped to consider what it might mean for us in modern times.

First the setting – its the time of the Judges in Israel. Not a particularly religious or prosperous time in Israel. It was before Israel had any Kings, there was no temple, no strong national leadership, war threatened most of the time, Idolatry and pagan worship was rampant. Once in a while, a hero would arise at the call of God (like Gideon, Ehud, Deborah or Samson) and things would get better for a few years and then things would slid into chaos again. The refrain of the times was well put at the very end of the Book of Judges: (Judges 21:25 NLT) In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. Even the priesthood had severe problems. Eli was the high priest at the time. Though he seemed sincere, his sons, who also served in the temple were sorry cases. They embezzled offerings from the people, got drunk and even seduced women at the entrance to the tabernacle tent were the ark of the covenant was kept. Prophesies and prophets were very rare in those days. God seemed distant and easily ignored.

In that respect, it was perhaps similar to our own times. The days of institutional Christianity are past for now. No longer can it be simply assumed that Christian traditions will be honored by the culture. It seems daily that some new scandal erupts – greed, sexual sins, severe lack of compassion and bigotry abound, sometimes even within supposedly sacred circles. In just the last weeks, a seminary president was asked to resign and an evangelist started a new fund raising campaign for a new luxury Jet – his 4th! My point is not to whine “ain’t it awful”. No, this story today is meant for us too. As we will see, God was still very much at work in that time – Calling, molding and shaping. God is still at work for those willing to see and to listen.

In that time, there were yet devout people, doing the best they could to honor God according to the best they knew, just like today. Hannah, for instance, was the favorite wife of Elkannah. Hannah was barren, she could not have children. Yet the family went to the tabernacle at Shiloh regularly to offer the ritual sacrifices and worship. Right there, we know to expect trouble. And sure enough, Peninnah, Elkannah’s second wife would invariably make fun of Hannah every time. In the long tradition of the Old Testament stories – Multiple wives might have been common, but it was almost always trouble. Nevertheless, God seems to have a special place in his heart for the downcast and the persecuted. So she prayed earnestly that God would let her have a son – if so, she would even give the child up to the Lord – take him to live at the tabernacle. Hannah prays passionately, but silently – the old priest Eli thought she was drunk, and came up to rebuke her. Instead, he finds her imploring the Lord for a son and Eli reassures her that God will hear her prayer. Sure enough, She does conceive a little boy, whom she names Samuel – it means “God Hears”. Her song of joy os recorded for us in 1 Samuel chapter 2 and it will set the pattern centuries later for Mary’s song of Joy at being chosen as the mother of the Son of God.

Now, true to her word, after Samuel is weaned – likely about 3-4 years old in those days long before refrigeration, She brought little Samuel to the tabernacle at Shiloh and there he grew up with Eli, the old Priest. Apparently he even slept in the outer room of the tabernacle tent! That’s where our reading begins. With a young boy – Josephus, the Jewish historian, says he was 12 years old, wakened in the early hours by a voice calling his name – “Samuel”. Naturally, the boy assumed it must be Eli in his nearby residence and so he hurries over, only to find that it wasn’t him. Following the classic pattern, this happens three times before Eli finally catches on that it is God calling the boy. So as scripture tells us (1 Samuel 3:8-10 NLT)1 Samuel 3:8 NLT

[8] So the LORD called a third time, and once more Samuel got up and went to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?” Then Eli realized it was the LORD who was calling the boy. [9] So he said to Samuel, “Go and lie down again, and if someone calls again, say, ‘Speak, LORD, your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went back to bed. [10] And the LORD came and called as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel replied, “Speak, your servant is listening.”

Samuel did not live in a golden age, not at all. That first message he received from the Lord was not an easy one either. It was a prophesy of judgement against his foster family, Eli and his wayward sons. Samuel faithfully delivered the message and many others as the years went on. He became the last of the Judges of Israel, a Priest and God’s chief Prophet of the times. Of course that young boy didn’t know any of that at the time. He only knew that he needed to respond to that insistent voice in the night. God was about to move in a new direction and Samuel was to be his chosen instrument.

Scripture tells us of many such people, called by God in ordinary circumstances to obedient service and sometime to extraordinary things.

Look with me a moment at a passage from our reading in PS139 today. The Psalmist sings out in wonder and thankful praise: (Psalm 139:15-18 NLT)

[15] You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. [16] You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. [17] How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! [18] I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me!

Here is precious truth about our lives – we are fearfully and wonderfully made – known intimately by the God who loves us. We were made to be in relationship – in fellowship with God. Not only that, but God has a plan for each of us – tasks and moments appointed for us as God uniquely ordains. He calls and we are to answer. God answered Hannah’s prayer, but not merely to satisfy her against her rival. No, God had a plan for that child and a job for him to do. Now there is a lot of confusing stuff tossed around about discovering the purpose that God has for you – Many writers and would be evangelists and hucksters alike. How are we to know? Do we expect a literal voice in the night like Samuel? Possibly, but not likely. The Holy Spirit works within and throughout many ways. There are ways both ancient and modern intended to help, but it is primarily a conversation between you and God. Though God frequently speaks through the community of faith and the individual voices of brothers and sisters in the faith as well. Its an exercise in grace and listening and practice.

Discerning ones calling, ones true vocation usually takes a while. What is a vocation?Its the kind of things that God put you here to do, things that suit you uniquely well and bring you closer to your God and to those who need God. It may or may not be what you do for a living. Its a thing of joy to find yourself doing what just you know you should be doing – when your heart, your soul, your mind and your hands work in harmony with their creator. There’s just nothing better. So here is a question: How is vocation different from mere ambition? My understanding is that Ambition normally deals with satisfying needs and desires: food, shelter, position, power, security and such while vocation has more to essential identity and innate drives in response to whatever settings or circumstances that present themselves. It may or may not have much to do with how I earn a living, but it heavily influences how I approach challenges and to which situations I am drawn and which ones I avoid or attempt escape from.

For some, the journey of finding ones vocation is painful fo all the false starts and mistakes made along the Journey. I have been blessed to have a much simpler journey than many, though one that is still very much “a work in progress”. I had a successful career as a process development engineer with a large oil company. That is how I earned my living and enabled a reasonably comfortable retirement. But all through my professional tasks, I was always finding my self teaching, training others, seeking out things I needed to know from other people and stored knowledge and then bringing that back to others. It is the same in my church life as well. When I am not teaching, I soon am driven to start some new opportunity. I find its “something I can’t not do”. So this is what I understand as my vocation: teacher, though my diplomas and professional license say Chemical Engineer.

The hymn we are about to sing was written by a man who had a much tougher road. We are going to study it at much greater depth on Wednesday night, but here is the story in brief: For many years he was the captain of a slave ship, a trade that commonly involved cruel mistreatment of African men and women and resulted in many of their deaths. But on March 10, 1748, his ship experienced a frightening storm. At the time, he was reading the Christian classic Imitation of Christ, by Thomas á Kempis. The influence of the book and the terrifying storm led Newton to accept Christ as his Savior.

John Newton was his name and he actually continued to work in the slave trade for several more years. He improved conditions on his own ship and even held services for the crew, but eventually became convicted of the inhumane work and became a crusader against slavery. Later in life he joined William Wilberforce to fight for the abolition of the slave trade in England, which became a reality in 1807, the year of his death. Leaving the life of a sea captain, Newton settled down, married, and felt the call to enter the ministry. He was ordained into the Anglican Church at age 39 and served a church in Olney, England, for the next 15 years. Newton often preached in his own church and in other services in the area about the grace he had experienced from God in spite of his checkered past. Large crowds gathered to hear the “Old Converted Sea Captain.” Instead of the customary Psalter hymns, Newton liked to incorporate simple heartfelt songs into his services. Along with his friend, William Cowper, he began to write hymns. In 1779 they produced the famous Olney Hymns hymnal, which includes the well-known “Amazing Grace.”

Lets stand and sing it together.