Now the boy Samuel was serving the LORD under Eli. The LORD ’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the LORD's temple, where God’s chest was.
The LORD called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.
Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.
Again the LORD called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” “I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”
(Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)
A third time the LORD called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” Then Eli realized that it was the LORD who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say ‘Speak, LORD. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.
Then the LORD came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”
Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
- 1 Samuel 3:1-10, Common English Bible
The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter.
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”
Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
Philip said, “Come and see.”
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?”
Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel.”
Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One."
- John 1:43-51, Common English Bible
Giving all glory and honour to God.
We have two stories today about call: God calls Samuel, and Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael. My childhood Bible had a coloured picture of Samuel looking up and saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
Today I’m thinking of a little illustration from Søren Kierkegaard. He lived in Denmark about 170 years ago, and is one of my favourite thinkers. Actually, at first I thought he was the Danish guy who wrote the story about the ugly duckling who turns into a swan, but that turned out to be Hans Christian Andersen.
Kierkegaard had some great little illustrations for what he was saying about God, and Christ, and the Christian life. I thought of one of them when we were at Upper Canada Village for Alight at Night. We rode on the big wagon, but you could also book a carriage with just one horse and driver, with lanterns on each side. It looked very nice on the dark village streets. Kierkegaard lived when people did travel like this, and he used this in one of his word pictures, one very appropriate for Epiphany, this season of light.
When the prosperous man on a dark but star-lit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him, and it is not dark close around him. But because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason he cannot see the stars, for his lights obscure the stars, which the poor farmer driving without lights can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So many people are among the deceived ones; either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to see the view of the stars, or in their prosperity, it is as if they have lanterns lighted, and close around them everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable – but the view is lacking, and they cannot see the stars.
This story comes from Kierkegaard's The Gospel of Suffering, quoted in Vernand Eller, The Simple Life, Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973.
We can be like the rich man in that antique carriage, comfortable, safe with the lanterns lit. And then we miss the stars: the stars God made, these balls of gas thousands and millions of light years away – I was reading the other day that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has over 100 billion stars. We can see only a few of them. And we can miss them if we don’t look, or we don’t go outside, or our view is limited by lights around us. To use another example, if you live east of Ingleside and all the lights are turned on where they’re building that new solar farm, you miss the stars because the whole sky is lit up.
Just as we can miss the stars in the night sky with our eyes, we can miss God’s call with our senses and our minds. Samuel hears God calling to him, calling over and over, but assumes it’s Eli. Philip goes to his friend Nathanael to tell him that Jesus has called him and told him to follow, and he says to Nathanael, “We have found the one written about in the Bible, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” And Nathanael is a typical young guy who just snorts and blows Philip off, dismissing him by saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael is from a different town, and he rejects anyone or anything that is from anywhere else. It’s like a Montreal Canadiens fan dissing a new player for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
God called Samuel to be a prophet. Jesus called Philip and Nathanael to be his followers, to travel with him and learn his message and bring it to the world. We talk about call in these Bible stories, and when we call a minister. But we can’t hem in God’s call to a few people long ago and ministers today.
God calls all of us. Our Psalm today, Psalm 139, says that God has a destiny for us, known to God since before we were created. God may be calling us to a new ministry here in our congregation or our community or the wider church, or a new or renewed focus in what we’re already doing. God may be calling us to leadership in a church committee, in a role where we touch the lives of many people, or God may be calling us to make a difference in one person’s life. God may be calling us to use our talents in a role we are good at and experienced in, or God may be calling us to discover a gift we did not know we had. God may be calling us to step back and spend less time acting and more time reflecting. God may be calling us over and over, to different things or the same thing. Sometimes God calls in one sudden, dramatic moment, sometimes God’s Spirit whispers to us and pushes us over a long period of time.
Just like Samuel and Philip and Nathanael, we have to figure out God’s call to us. And we can’t always predict what that call will mean for our lives. Philip couldn’t have predicted on the day he met Jesus that in a few years he would be traveling and baptizing. We just have to follow and let God use us, as Philip and Nathanael and Samuel did. That God calls us can be a source of strength, and it can be scary.
Right now, we have to discern God’s call to us, as individuals and as a congregation, to what we were meant to do and be. In November we voted on whether to engage in conversations with other congregations on possible cooperation in a cluster arrangement sharing ministries together, and the Holy Spirit moved in here, and we believed that we were called to say yes to dialogue. In some other congregations people felt that the Spirit was prodding them to vote no, and that’s how they felt called. And then it was the season of Advent, and then Christmas, and then the new year. And now we are called to decide on how to move, and how soon, and who to talk with.
Some congregations have come back and said, we’re waiting for the Presbytery to tell us what to do, but this process can’t work that way. The Presbytery and ministers are just resources, helping to facilitate conversations. If this comes from the top down, instead of from the grassroots, it won’t work because it won’t be of the people. It’s up to you to settle on the way to act on your vote, how to respond to invitations to talk, how to approach others, who to ask. It’s a bit like dating; you can’t rely on your best friend to ask girls or guys out for you. Well, you might, but it’s not a recipe for success.
So it’s up to you. And as I’m not the leader in this process, I don’t know if any overtures have been received, or any talks have taken place already. A response to God’s call may be already going on.
As always, we may be tempted to ignore the call. We may be like the prosperous man Kierkegaard talked about, in his carriage with the warm lantern light, comfortable and safe, but unable to see the stars. We block them out. God may be calling our name, just as God called "Samuel, Samuel," and we can’t decide that it is God’s call. God has a purpose for us, as there was a purpose for Nathanael, but just like him who didn’t think anything good could come from Nazareth, we’re too caught up in our preconceived ideas and prejudices to acknowledge it. And even though we voted yes to talking with other congregations, we may be thinking now, well, that was then, this is now, things still seem fine, we’re good as we are, we’re going to postpone this dialogue about new ways to be church, new ways to serve God and our neighbours, new ways to live out God’s call.
We need to be less like the rich man, happy and secure but unable to see beyond a little distance around him, and more like the poor farmer who may be less at ease and taking more of a risk, yet can see the entire night sky. We need to get that big picture so we can recognize and respond to God’s call, whatever that call may be, however many times it comes, whichever way it comes, in the surprising ways God works. And as we hear, as we see, as we discern, God who called us remains with us in the Spirit, guiding, strengthening, comforting, loving. Speak, God, for your servants are listening.