1 Samuel 3:1-10
Called by God in the name of love. We have several people in the Bible and in history and in our own times that would fit that description.
Take Samuel. What we read earlier is just part of the story of how he was called by God. Actually, Samuel’s call, started before he was born, before he was even conceived. His mother, Hannah, prayed to God for a son. She was at the temple after a festival and Eli — the same priest that is in the story we read today — mistook her silent mumblings for drunkenness. When she protested and explained she was praying, Eli replied with a non-commital blessing, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
Hannah promised that if she conceived and bore a son, she would dedicate him to the service of God. And when he was still a small child, she made good her promise, taking him to serve with Eli, the same man that first doubted her prayer and then sent her away with a lukewarm blessing.
I look at Hannah’s gift with new eyes, now that I am grandmother of two boys. Oh how the entire family rejoiced when they were born. How sweet they were as babies and toddlers. Jake is 4 and Denny is 5 and they’re both unique packages of sweetness and energy. I cannot imagine taking either of them when they were still preschoolers to a mostly clueless man like Eli and saying, “Here, he’s dedicated to God for life.”
But Hannah did so, to keep a promise, made in the name of love. Her song of gratitude and praise for God is very similar to the magnificat that Mary sang when she learned she was to be the mother of Jesus. It begins, “My heart rejoices in the LORD.”
You could wonder who did the calling — did Hannah call upon God, or did God call upon Hannah? — but the result is the same. Samuel was born and set apart as special, called by God. It’s obvious he didn’t know what that meant. Well apparently nobody did. Scripture tells us that In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.”
I’ll give Eli credit. He eventually figured out who was calling Samuel. Eli wasn’t a bad guy, just not very effective. He had tried, maybe a little half-heartedly, to correct his sons and urge them to take their priestly duties seriously and quit swindling people who came to make sacrifices to God. He warned them that if they sinned against another person, they could expect a mediator to help them (maybe their father?). But if they sinned against God, which he said they were doing, nobody could help them.
So it seems that Eli might have known something was up, when God started calling the boy Samuel. Again, Eli did the right thing. He asked Samuel to tell him everything. And Samuel did. It was a hard truth — his sons would die before him, and he would have no descendants to carry on the priestly call in Shiloh. Samuel would be groomed to take over instead.
It was a revolutionary message, delivered by the child Samuel in the name of love. I would say that Samuel’s first response to God’s call came in two parts. First, he listened to God and then he delivered God’s message.
The Old Testament writer tells us that “The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and God let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD.”
Samuel went on delivering tough-love messages from God, first calling and anointing Saul as the first king of Israel, and then calling and anointing David to be the second king of Israel after Saul didn’t work out. Hmm. I wonder, did God keep changing the divine mind about the leaders God chose, or were Eli and his sons and then Saul simply the inevitable demonstrations of how some folks called by God can end up disappointing instead of serving God? I think it’s the latter.
Even if the messages to Eli and to Saul were not something they wanted to hear, however, Samuel delivered the bad news: God is going to make a change. Hard words, but said in the name of love.
Other prophets and leaders in the bible struggled more with their call than Samuel. Moses tried to argue his way out of serving God on several occasions. Jonah went in the opposite direction when told to prophesy to Ninevah and didn’t accept the call until he was in the belly of a “big fish.” The Psalms are full of people who doubted their call or were afraid of what their enemies would do to them while they were following God.
Nathaniel is our next example in today’s scripture of a man who at first was reluctant to respond to the call by God.
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
The story about how Nathaniel was called to be a follower of Jesus is not nearly as well known as the story of Peter, Andrew, James and John being called to be “fishers of people.” That’s next week’s passage, by the way.
No this call story of Nathaniel’s is an odd little incident, isn’t it? When Jesus says, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” you kind of get the feeling that Jesus heard what Nathaniel said about his home town, don’t you?
Nathaniel sounds a little cynical for someone that you’d expect Jesus to call to be among his closest followers. Someone who is skeptical and has his prejudices — for instance, against anyone from that down-at-the-heels village in Galilee, Nazareth.
But Nathaniel’s prejudices don’t appear to be deep-seated. Jesus mentions he saw Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree before Philip called him to ‘come and see’ Jesus, and Nathaniel does a complete about-face. He drops the skepticism and declares Jesus to be the Son of God and the King of Israel. You have to figure there was more to the discussion than this. It cries out for a Paul Harvey-type treatment — “And now for the rest of the story…”
But we don’t see Nathaniel in scripture again until John’s story about the resurrected Jesus appearing to the Galilean disciples — who were Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples. They were on the beach, and Jesus appeared and gave them breakfast and asked Peter to “feed my sheep.” Nathaniel didn’t get any lines in that scene, just a walk-on part. At least he was named, unlike the “two other disciples.”
Nathaniel’s story is growing on me. I like it because it’s very hard to smooth it over and make it sound sweet. It’s Nathaniel’s 15 minutes of fame as an ordinary guy who didn’t appear to be anyone special — either good or bad — but was open to transformation by following Jesus. He was remembered by name by the folks who recounted stories of Jesus in the decades after the resurrection and before the gospel writers wrote them down.
All that survived of Nathaniel’s particular life story is his slam against Nazareth and the fig tree. But he was one of the close disciples who was there at the beginning, before Jesus performed his first miracle, and there at the end, when Jesus appeared to his close followers before going away to heaven.
Nathaniel’s call story gives us the bare bones of the typical — if there is such a thing — call by God. Someone invited him — in this case, Philip, who suggested he ‘come and see.’ Philip saw something in him worthy of God’s call. So, evidently, did Jesus, who gave him that odd compliment about having no deceit.
Nathaniel had his moment of resistence, and abruptly, he answered the summons. This same gospel writer told us that it took Andrew an entire afternoon of sitting at the master’s feet before he told his brother, Peter, “We have found the Messiah.”
Even Jesus seemed a bit surprised that Nathaniel was so easy to convince. “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree,” Jesus said.
You will see greater things than that.”
The writer of the gospel of John describes a Jesus sure of his call. In a bit of foreshadowing John quotes Jesus — well before the first miracle signals the start of his ministry — saying to Nathaniel and Philip and others, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”
But even on Jesus, the call of God did not always rest comfortably. None of the gospel writers quote Jesus as saying he was the Son of God or the Christ, the anointed one. Other people — like Philip and Nathaniel — give him those titles. But Jesus calls himself the ‘Son of Man,’ a reference from scripture that sort of describes an ordinary mortal called to lead the people in a time of cataclysmic change.
We know Jesus had moments of doubt and fear. We know this very human, very divine person responded to the very real threats against him with courage in the name of love. And he called on everyone else to respond to life with love. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said.
We have no better modern example of responding to God’s call with love than Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate today. Many people (including me) believe he was a modern-day prophet, delivering God’s message of change and speaking in the name of love.
Like Samuel, Dr. King was designated for the Lord’s service early in his life. His grandfather and father were both ministers, both leaders in the Black Christian community in Atlanta. Like Samuel, King dedicated his youth and young adulthood to study in the service of God.
King was well into his first pastorate when he realized the extent of God’s call. I’m going to read the summary presented by John Dear, a Jesuit, scholar of Dr. King and follower in his footsteps, having been arrested dozens of times for demonstrating for civil rights and peace issues. Here’s what Father Dear wrote in, a column titled, “The God at Dr. King’s Kitchen Table,” in the January 16, 2007 National Catholic Reporter:
It was the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks had just been hauled to the police precinct for her audacity on the bus. And amid the electricity in the air, Dr. King emerged — the man of the hour, a confident new leader who would take on racism and injustice and violence, and surprisingly, in a spirit of confident, public nonviolence.
At least by the outward look of things. Privately, however, he started out as a reluctant prophet. By all means, he would help advance nonviolent change. But to be thrust in the spotlight of national leadership — that was another matter indeed.
On the other hand, an assumption mitigated the pressure. The boycott, assumed everyone — including King — would last but a few days. Symbolic victory achieved, and in short order things put back to normal. The days, however, lengthened out and passed over into weeks and months, and white Montgomery rightly discerned a bona fide economic threat. That’s when the death threats began. Chilling and cutting to the chase: “Call off the boycott or die.” Towards the end, as many as forty such phone calls came in every day. And on one occasion, when the police had hauled him into jail for speeding, in the clutches of the police at last, he imagined himself on the threshold of being lynched. Fear descended like a fog.
It reached an apex late Friday night, January 27, 1956. King slumped home, another long strategy session under his belt, and found Coretta asleep. He paced and knocked about, his nerves still on edge. And presently the phone rang, a sneering voice on the other end: “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” King’s fear surged; he hung up the phone, walked to his kitchen, and with trembling hands, put on a pot of coffee and sank into a chair at his kitchen table.
Here was the prelude to King’s most profound spiritual experience. He describes it in his book “Stride Toward Freedom.”
“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.”
“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.'”
“At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
[That ends the quote from Dr. King and I resume Father Dear’s account.]
Three days later a bomb blasted his house, and his family escaped harm by a hairsbreadth. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
News of the bombing drew a crowd. A mob formed within the hour, all clenched jaws and closed fists. And they pressed up against the shattered house and shouted for vengeance. King mounted the broken porch and raised his hands. “We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop because God is with this movement. Go home with this glorious faith and radiant assurance.” And thus the mob dissipated, their mood disarmed and their ears ringing with the message of gospel nonviolence.
Some eleven years later, King spoke before an audience of his epiphany in the kitchen. “It seemed at that moment, I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
God strengthened Martin and in turn, Martin strengthens us. “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth, stand up for peace. And I will be at your side forever” — the message spoken to Martin but a message intended, [John Dear said he believes], for all of us. Dr. King staked his life on it and we can too. We can confidently embrace it as God’s leading of you and me toward prophetic work, a message uttered to all as to one, [Dear said].
Martin Luther King, John Dear and Bono, the leader of U2 and writer of the song featured in the prelude today — they have heard and answered a call of God, “in the name of love.”
“What more in the name of love” Bono asks.
What more? Shall we speak truth to power, like Samuel and Martin Luther King? Shall we witness to the greatness of others called by God, like Philip, Nathaniel and John Dear?
For we are all called, are we not? We are all called by God in the name of love.
Praise God. Amen.