The Call of God

A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-18

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

John 1:43-51

Had we decided to go with the Lectionary and omit the optional verses from the first reading – that from 1 Samuel 3 – we’d have a delightful story. The young boy Samuel is serving in the temple, helping the old priest Eli. Some time in the night he hears his name being called. Thinking Eli must be in trouble he rushes through to the old man. Three times this happens and each time the old priest says he did not call. Then understanding dawns and Eli instructs the boy how to respond. Once more Samuel returns to his bed where he hears his name: Samuel! Samuel! This time he knows what to do and say. “Speak, for your servant is listening.’ (1Sam3:10) And that’s where our reading could have ended and I could have preached a nice comfortable sermon about needing to hear the call, perhaps the need to have help in discerning who is calling and how to respond. Actually, that sermon need not necessarily be a comfortable one – so let’s see what might have come out of it before we move on to the rest of the reading.

I notice that Samuel is called in the night – the time of quietness and stillness. He is also called when he is in the presence of the holy things of God – the lamp, the temple and the ark. Our world is seldom quiet or still, and, unless we happen to be in a sacred place such as this lovely cathedral, there’s often not much that is holy around us. The distractions are many as we allow ourselves to be bombarded with noise of all kinds. I have consciously to stop myself opening Facebook or emails when my alarm goes off in the morning, or when I wake in the night. (Even as I wrote those words a text came through and, without thinking, I clicked to see who and what was being sent!)

Two examples come to mind. One of those wonderful people who sit at the end of the telephone ready to speak to desperate people once commented that that when someone calls for help there is almost always music or a TV show playing in the background. How difficult we find it to live into silence. Two people were walking along a busy city street when one stopped and said, Listen! Can you hear the cricket? Don’t be daft, said the other, there’s far too much street noise to hear a cricket. The first walked over to a window box and, sure enough, found the cricket.

What do we listen to? To whom are our ears attuned? Samuel heard his name called and responded to the one he thought was calling – but he hadn’t identified the voice calling him correctly. Perhaps he had never heard the voice of God – not altogether surprising really. Fortunately, old Eli was at hand. Even with his fading eyesight, possibly hearing going too, Eli eventually realised what was going on and could offer guidance to Samuel. A number of Cathedral people have entered the discernment process in our diocese. This means that they will spend time with wise people seeking to listen to God’s call. The fact that they are already studying theology does not mean that they will necessarily be ordained. Discernment is very much about doing just that – responding to a perceived call and trying, with the help of others, to discern who is calling and what the person is being called to. As the psalmist makes clear in today’s psalm (139) God is active in each and every one of us long before we ever begin to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives – assuming we ever do.

Tomorrow eighteen people leave Adelaide for Sevenhill in the Clare Valley, there to spend five days together living a Benedictine pattern of worship and prayer, reading and study, work and physical exercise. The balanced life advocated by St Benedict calls for plenty of silence so that the voice of God can be heard. The opening word of the Rule of Benedict is “Listen!” Listen for and to the voice of God. Samuel would have been very familiar with what Jews today call the Shema – words from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel…”

But I am moving away from our reading. Samuel has heard his name called, discerned who it is who is calling him and responded positively; “Speak, for your servant is listening!” Now comes the hard part. What is it Samuel must hear, what is he being told? Nothing less than that his master, the revered old man Eli, who has served God all his life, will be punished for the wickedness of his sons. They are harsh words of judgment. In the context of the Old Testament, they mark a major transition in the great story of God’s people. The old way of sacrifice and offerings in the temple are no longer enough to cover up wrong-doing. The new way will move towards justice and righteousness, honesty and truth. (In a different age it is the sort of thing that St Paul was explaining to the people of Corinth when he talked about their bodies being members of Christ. How that concept challenges much of what our contemporary way of life champions!)

It is to the great credit of Eli that he acknowledges the truth of what God has told Samuel. The first reading ends with the almost throw-away comment that ‘the Lord was with (Samuel)’ and that he was known as a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

It’s this trustworthy idea that intrigues me now and which we need to consider for a moment. For a proper response to the call of God is much more than simply paying lip service by saying, as Samuel did, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ It is more than an Isaiah responding to the incredible vision he was given with the words, “Here am I, send me!” It is more, even, than the disciples of Jesus, people like Nathanael and Philip, Simon Peter, or James and John being prepared to leave their nets, see the heavenly vision of angels ascending and descending, or making grand promises that even if everyone else does, they will never leave Jesus!

Back to St Benedict and his Rule. Listen! Listen to God’s call. Do something about it. For some sixteen centuries people who have been influenced by the teaching of Benedict have understood the close link between listening, being an audience, and obedience. Those two words share much in common. To listen, really listen to someone, especially God, is to obey, to act on what is heard.

And there’s another problem with being called and the need to discern carefully who is calling and what is being called for. I find it incredible that some of the people who stormed the Capitol in Washington a week or so ago are now using as an excuse that they were simply responding to a call from the highest authority in the land. Who is calling? What is being called for? How do we discern right from wrong? Who, ultimately, do we listen to, respond to, obey!

Psalm 139 offers some further insights. We often take great comfort from this psalm, and it is a popular one (rightly so) at funerals. There are some great words. “O Lord, you have searched me out and known me … there is not a word on my tongue … you have created my inmost parts … you knew my soul …” and so on. But there is a warning here too.  If God has created our inmost parts, knit me together in my mother’s womb, my bones not hidden from you … then nothing I try to do escapes the notice of God. The Collect for Purity, that wonderful yet disturbing prayer we pray at the start of every Eucharist, says much.  

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name…

Rosalind Brown, formerly of Durham Cathedral and who preached here a few yeas ago, wrote the words of one of the hymns we sing today. In the context of this great creator God, who knows our inwards parts (Psalm 139) and whose voice ‘outsings the stars of morning’ (Rosalind Brown), Rosalind poses two questions:

  1. How shall we live? and
  2. Can we reflect your grace?

I suspect our answers to those questions will depend on our response to recognising the identity of the caller as we hear our name being called – Samuel, Mary, Nathanael, Frank!