Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
This reading from the Old Testament book of 1st Samuel shows us the character who eventually became the namesake of the book itself, the great prophet Samuel, as a boy. In this passage we see him being spiritually mentored by Eli. God is actively calling Samuel, but Samuel isn’t able to imagine what’s going on. He tries to find a natural explanation – it must be the old man Eli calling him from the next room. And so not once, not twice, but three times, Samuel interprets God’s action as a natural human action, until finally Eli realizes that Samuel needs help understanding the reality of a God who speaks, who acts, who calls, who sends.
So we contemporary Western people are not alone in having a problem taking seriously the notion that God does speak, act, call and send, and that he could do those things to and for us. All we have to do is look around to see the effects of our not taking that seriously. We have the chance to listen to and learn from God as part of God’s community, and instead God gets co-opted as a symbol for already-held individual opinions, even opinions that directly contradict what God has revealed to his church or said in Scripture. More than once in history the name of Jesus has been invoked over nationalist or racial or religious violence, for example. We saw it in the Crusades, we saw it at the lynching tree, we saw it in the Rwandan genocide, and we saw it at the Capitol. There is a term for that in our tradition, and the term is blasphemy.
Blasphemy is showing contempt for what God is and treating him as secondary to something else. It always goes hand in hand with idolatry: if anything other than God holds ultimate title to who we are, our identity, where we get meaning and purpose, and then what we as a consequence do, we are in thrall to an idol. And the less we really know about who God is and what he has revealed, the more likely we are to let our thoughts and behaviors be determined by idols. The more likely we are to treat God as an adjunct, or to claim him for something he has already told us in Scripture he finds repugnant. But today’s reading reminds us, and our whole shared way of life as disciples reminds us, that it is possible in the community of Christ’s Body to know God, to learn who he is and what he has revealed, and to put that first in our actions.
This God who spoke three times to Samuel before being noticed as God is still revealing himself in community to people today. This God who acted in the lives of Mary and Moses and Lydia and Isaiah and Samuel and Eli is still acting today. This God who called Eli as a prophet and a mentor is still calling people today. This God who sent Mary Magdalene to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus to the apostles is still sending his church today. This God whom we see in the Old Testament is the same God whom we see in the New Testament who is the same God we see in the myriad communities who have followed Jesus since then, and the same God whom we see right now in our discipleship and our daily lives.
That is, unless we’ve remained unable to notice God. Unless we assume that any so called deity that was out there would so obviously have to be on our side that it isn’t even worth seeking God or studying his word to find out who he is and what he teaches and how we can live in him. See, when we do that together, we are going to find things we don’t already agree with. It’s inevitable, and it’s a good thing, to have your point of view corrected by your Creator. God is not you. God is not me. God is not a footnote to another agenda. God has revealed himself and we can learn to pay attention.
God reached out over and over to Samuel, trying to help him learn what relationship with God is like, but it took help from someone who had known God longer, from Eli, for Samuel to understand what was going on. It took learning to listen in community. Have you ever taken time, with someone like that, to learn how to notice God’s dealings with you? Have sisters or brothers in a Bible study, or perhaps one of your clergy, or a more mature Christian friend, listened to you as you talked about your moral decisions, or about an inexplicable moment of beauty at Communion, or about the sense of someone invisible standing by you at the hospital bed?
It’s so important, if you are not used to living as if we do have a God who speaks, acts, calls, and sends, to put moments like these into words with other people who know Jesus. To let others who are a bit further along in the journey teach you or remind you who God is and how he acts in our lives. Yes, we should also consult the primary sources in Scripture, and do that regularly all our life long, but we need mentors. We need reality checks.
If you are a baptized Christian, God is seeking to reveal himself in your life. God is acting in your life. God is calling you and sending you in his name. This is already happening; you may just not know how to perceive it. You may be like Samuel. You may need an Eli, a mentor in Christ, to talk with – most of us do. Who might that be? Are you aware of your need for a reality check? Are you aware that God may have already answered your question? And are you willing to treat God as God, and to say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”