Hearing God’s call

Sunday 17th Jan 21 by Revd Sue McCoan


Bible reading: 1 Sam 3:1-10

The boy Samuel was dedicated to God before he was even born. You remember his mother Hannah, praying so fervently for a child that the old priest Eli thought she was drunk, promising that if she had a boy, she would give him to God. She kept her promise; as soon as the child was weaned she brought him to Eli, to serve in the Temple. She came back every year with new clothes because he’d grown. And God blessed her with other children.

I don’t know at what age children were weaned then, but he’s very little, too young to know that this life is anything unusual. He grows up in the Temple, and it’s the only life he knows. Eli the priest is his guardian and teacher. So naturally, when he hears a voice calling him at night, he goes through to see what Eli wants. You can picture their mutual bafflement – Eli thinking, why has he woken me up?, and Samuel thinking, why call if you didn’t want me?

It takes 3 goes before Eli twigs what’s going on. Samuel is hearing the voice of God, but doesn’t know what it is. Eli doesn’t come out well in this story – he is old, and tired, and has become a bit lazy; his sons are greedy and not fit to take over. But this one thing is to Eli’s credit: he tells Samuel to go back to bed and be ready for God to speak again.

We would see, if we read on, that Samuel’s first words of prophecy, first time of speaking God’s truth, is when he goes back in the morning to tell Eli that God is going to bring punishment to him and his sons.

There are 2 things we can draw from this. First, it often takes another person, or more, to help us hear God’s call. Sometimes other people can see things we can’t, or have a wider understanding; and it’s always good, if we do think we’ve been prompted by God, to check it out with someone else first.

The second thing is that we often think of ‘call’ as being to some major new role, as it was for the first disciples. But in Samuel’s case, the call wasn’t to a new role. He carried on as before, living in the Temple, serving God and the priests. Samuel’s call from God was to awaken the gift within him, the gift of prophecy; to show him that he was someone who could hear God’s voice and speak God’s truth. It’s not a dramatic change; it would have been easy to miss. But Samuel went on to do great things. At the end of the chapter we read, ‘As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his word fall to the ground. And all Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.’

We move on now, from the call of Samuel to the call of some of the disciples of Jesus. Let’s hear our second Bible reading.

Bible reading: John 1:43-51

There’s a brief mention here of the call of Philip – Jesus ‘found’ him and said ‘Follow’, and he did. The story here is the call of Nathanael.

There was Nathanael, sitting under a fig tree, minding his own business, when suddenly his friend Philip turns up and starts babbling on about finding the one promised by the Law and the prophets. Nathanael is unimpressed. And when Philip says who it is, that turns to outright scorn. How can the Messiah be from Nazareth, of all places? Philip, and therefore probably also Nathanael, is from Bethsaida – a city. Nazareth is nowhere – barely a town.

Nevertheless, to humour his friend – who does seem quite excited – Nathanael goes to look: if only to satisfy himself that this is a waste of time. He is ready to be cynical, but is instead completely unnerved – before Philip has introduced him, Jesus not only knows who he is but praises him for his honesty. How does he know? How does he know what I‘m thinking?

Jesus knows a good man when he sees one. And Nathanael is completely won over.

A few things from this.

First, there is nothing wrong with honest doubt. God’s call needs to be tested, to be questioned.

Second, and perhaps the main thing here, is that the call to Nathanael is indirect. It comes through his friend Philip. We don’t have to hear a voice from heaven to know that God is speaking to us. We don’t even need to receive a message in a dream, though that sometimes happens. God can speak to us through our friends, our colleagues, even our ministers, perhaps saying, ‘you might like to think about this’.

Philip’s approach to Nathanael was very deliberate – he wanted a response. But often, God speaks to us in ways that are not targeted, or even intended. A friend might say something that triggers a thought in our minds that they had no idea about. We might read something, in the Bible, maybe, but equally in a novel, a newspaper column, a social media feed, an advert, and again, it sparks off an idea. The Holy Spirit makes connections for us, joining the dots, sometimes over a period of time, as we take in the message God wants to communicate. I have found, several times, that when I’m going through a troubled time, a song will pop into my head, not one I’ve heard recently, and the words of the song will be words I need to hear.

And this leads on to another thought, that comes from both our readings. Both  Samuel and Nathanael were surprised by God – they weren’t expecting to hear anything. But they were both people who were already attuned to God. Samuel was serving in the Temple, even if he didn’t quite understand what it was all about. Nathanael was seen, Jesus says, under the fig tree. The fig tree, in Rabbinic literature, symbolises the place where you study the Torah, the teachings. Jesus saw Nathanael as somebody who knew his scriptures, and knew God. In their different ways, both Samuel and Nathanael were available to God, and so ready to hear the call when it came.

At St Andrew’s, in the last few weeks when we were meeting in church, we were experimenting with connecting to Zoom in the service, so that people could join in from home. Peter, who has guided us through the technology of all this – many thanks – brought in a microphone to attach to the laptop, giving a much better sound than the built-in microphone. One week when Peter wasn’t there, I attempted to set up the mic myself. It’s really easy – you just need to change a setting within the computer – and you can test it in Zoom. You speak into it, and after a short pause, Zoom will play back what you’ve just said. So I tested it – and nothing happened. Not a thing. I unplugged it, plugged it in again, tried all the tricks, but still nothing, and I led the service with just the inbuilt mic. It was only afterwards that I thought: I had turned down the sound that comes out of my laptop, so that I wasn’t distracted by hearing anyone else. The microphone had picked up my test words fine, and Zoom had played them back – but because I had my sound turned down, I couldn’t hear it.

Maybe sometimes, God speaks to us, but we have our sound turned down.

God is still speaking. God may be calling us to a major change of career, or to discovering a gift within ourselves, or simply to being kind to a neighbour. God’s call may come to us in a whole variety of ways, sometimes the ones we least expect. What we need to do is to be ready to hear, and we do that by being attentive – to prayer, to our bible reading, to worship, to the presence of God that we already know.

Let me end with a prayer.

God who speaks, who calls, who draws us close,

Give us the ears to hear.

Help us to tune out the background noise of everyday,

Turn up the volume of our hearts,

And give us the stillness to listen.

We take a short time of silence.