1 Samuel 3:1-10, The call of Samuel
‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’
I love this story. Samuel is a young boy, left in the care of the elderly priest Eli at the temple. These were dark days for Israel, still a tribe without a king, pummelled and subdued by the surrounding kingdoms. We read that, ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days’ (1). We may feel a bit like that ourselves. These are dark days for our country, for the world. And we may feel that the word of the Lord is rare. At bedtime in the temple, Eli, nearly blind, goes to lie down in his room, and Samuel in his. It says, ‘the lamp of God had not yet gone out’ (3). Literally, the lamp or perhaps candles on the altar were still burning; meaning, God was still present, not deserted them yet. And then Samuel hears his name called: Samuel, Samuel! The boy jumps up, runs to Eli, who tells him, it wasn’t me, go back to bed. A bit later, again, Samuel, Samuel! The third time Samuel is called, Eli realises it is the Lord who is calling him and tells him, when it happens again, say, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. And it does happen again. For the fourth time, God calls Samuel. And God speaks with him, and calls him to speak for him to Eli. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
Throughout the Bible we read of a God who speaks and calls. Right there in the third verse of the entire Bible, in Genesis 1, God speaks a word to the formless creation – Let there be light! And there is light, it is summoned out of darkness. God speaks with the mythical figures of Adam and Eve in the Garden: Adam and Eve, who stand for all humanity, including for us (PS, by ‘mythical’, I don’t mean ‘not true’, I mean ‘always true’! Whether or not Adam and Eve actually existed as two individual human beings many thousands of years ago is beside the point. What that story tells us about God, the world and humanity is always true! God wants a relationship with us, and has something to say). God calls Abraham, Moses in the burning bush, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and so on and so on – there is a long list. Last week in the gospel we read of the calling of Jesus at his baptism, when God called him to be his beloved son and gave the rest of us the task of listening to him; we can think too of his word to Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, father of John; and of Jesus himself, as God in human flesh, calling his disciples: Simon, called to become Peter; Philip and Nathanael in today’s gospel; and after Jesus’ resurrection, the call of Saul the Pharisee who became the beloved apostle Paul, called to deliver the gospel to the gentiles, to kings and to Israel. Jesus himself is identified by John in the first verse of his gospel as ‘The Word’. God is a God who speaks. The Psalmist writes: ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.’ (Psalm 19:1-4). Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
Does he still speak? If so, how can we hear that voice? If it is true that God is a God who speaks, how do I hear him? I am reminded of a lovely prayer of St Ignatius: he invites us to ‘ask of our Lord the grace not to be deaf to His call’. It starts here with this gentle prayer: give me the grace not to be deaf.
I invite you this morning to let your imagination run riot. Let go. Imagine that God fills the whole universe (because he does!). Allow the thought in that it’s an enchanted universe, crammed with the presence of the divine. Dream that He has been present in every moment of your life up until now, that he is present now, and that he will continue to be so until your death, and that afterwards you will enter into a more profound knowledge of that. Imagine that he is present when you take a walk, in every tree and plant and bird, in the supermarket, in your home, in your Zoom meetings, in the day, and in the night. Imagine that God isn’t confined to church or home group or your prayer time (thank goodness!). But don’t let this scare you. For he is always full of love, of grace, of acceptance towards you, not of stern judgement or condemnation. Doesn’t the scripture tell us that, ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’? (Romans 8:1). And imagine, if you can, that in all of this, God is gently speaking, nudging you towards His purposes for you. Lord, grant me the grace not to be deaf to your call. How do you feel as you contemplate that? Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
Ignatius, who was a 16th century Spanish spiritual teacher, teaches that often it is especially those times when we are moved, when we are touched, when our spirits are stirred that God breaks in because our defences are down and if we look, we might find a message, an invitation. They are not always the good moments, either. I was privileged to be with Hamish as he lay dying, along with Christine Bainbridge. Christine anointed him and we both prayed for him, for the next stage of his journey. That moment for me was crowded with the felt presence of God. I experienced sadness, but also hope and faith. There were many tears. Afterwards I reflected on it, and asked myself, what was the invitation in that moment? I think for me, it was, do not fear death.
Usually, when God speaks, it’s a ‘still small voice’, to recall how God spoke to Elijah. Ignatius gave us a tool to discern this. We have talked about it before here at St John’s, but it fits so well with today’s theme that I unashamedly go for a bit of recycling. It’s called the Review of the day, or the Examen prayer. Ignatius said that if your day was so busy that you had no time for any other prayer, make sure you do this one.
It goes like this. You begin with stillness – you might be sitting comfortably at home or out on a walk. Take a few deep, slow breaths, then turn to God and thank him for his presence and love, and ask him to be with you as you review the last 24 hour period. As him that you will not be deaf to his call. Then gently allow the events of the last day to replay – from waking right through to dropping off again at night. As you replay, notice if any of them move you or stir your spirits – either up or down. There might be joy or despondency, peace or anger, tears of sadness or happiness. There are other ways of finding out where you were touched. When did I feel most loved or able to give love? And least loved or able to give love? What did I do, or hear, or experience, that gave me life? What was it that sucked life out of me? When did I feel most grateful? When did I feel least grateful? What was the best moment of the day? What was the worst? Was it when I was talking with someone and they said something significant? Was it while you were out walking? Or watching a film? Reading scripture? Of course, probably most of the day you were just coasting along, getting on with what my daughter calls ‘life admin’, in neutral gear almost. But if you look carefully, you will notice that there were moments when your spirits rose or fell. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
If you can, pick one of the good moments and one of the not-so-good ones. There’s no judgement in any of this, we just accept each of these moments as they are, because God was present in both of them. Now gently begin to unpick them, one at a time. What was it that moved you? Why were you moved? And then go on to this: imagine for a moment that there’s a message contained within that event. What was the message? You may need to stay with that moment for some time, or even come back to it, or talk about it with someone. Somewhere there was something for you. Another way I like to consider these moments is to ask, what is the invitation? Be careful when you come to the not-so-good moment because, as fallen human beings, we have a tendency towards judging ourselves or others, to do ourselves down. But the no-so-good moment, the one that diminished me a bit, that sucked some life from me will also contain a message. It also may contain an invitation. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
Let me come back to Samuel. To begin with, when he heard his name called, he thought it was Eli – reasonable enough. He had never heard the Lord speak to him before. In order to understand it was God that was calling him, not Eli, he had to let go of Eli. He had to let go of the familiar, of his attachment to his father-figure and reach beyond him to enable him to receive God’s call. Samuel was deaf to God until Eli realised it was God calling him and told him what to do. I wonder if there is anything we need to let go of in order to hear God? Perhaps to let go of anxiety, of busyness which stops you finding time to pray, of the thought that God has nothing to say to me?
There is a lot written about the Examen. If you would like to know more, I would recommend the little book ‘Sleeping with bread’ by the Linns; or there is a very good post on the Ignatian Spirituality website here: https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray/
Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening