Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister



Sermon Series: Is it I, Lord? Stories of following God's lead

“Samuel: A Voice in the Night”

Sunday, May 2, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

We are looking right now at stories in the Bible about God guiding people’s lives, God calling people. This is not a systematic study. I selected six stories out of many possibilities. I selected these particular six stories because they involved people of different ages and genders and life situations and because they were in the Old Testament and the New. But there are other such stories.

What we are doing is looking at these particular six stories to see what we can observe about each one.

Today we are looking at the story of Samuel.

The stories of the call of Abraham and Sarah and Moses were stories about people God called in the second half or last third of their lives. It is interesting that there are call stories in the Bible about younger people and older people but there are lots of call stories about older people.

Samuel is a call story about a young person.

So let’s review the story and then see what we can discover in the story.

Hannah thought she was not able to have children and very much wanted to be a mother. She promised God that if she could have a son she would dedicate him to God’s service. She became pregnant and had a son she named Samuel, which means “God heard.”

When Hannah had weaned Samuel she took him up the Temple at Shiloh and gave him to the high priest Eli to be a servant in the Temple. We don’t know when mothers weaned their children then; some say it would have been when Samuel was three.

So Samuel grew up in the Temple from a very young age. He lived in the Temple, slept in the Temple, and helped the high priest Eli take care of the Temple. He was like a full-time altar boy.

His call happened, according to the third chapter of 1st Samuel when he was—the Hebrew word is נַעַר   na`ar {nah'-ar) which the New Revised Standard Version translates—a “child.”

I was curious as to how old Samuel might have been so I did a word study in my new Bible software and it told me that נַעַר   is translated as “child” 44 times but it is translated “young man” 76 times. So perhaps the more likely translation is that Samuel was a young man rather than a child when his call happened. Translation is an art, not a science.  

Samuel was, I believe, a young man.

One night sometime before dawn Samuel heard someone call his name. “Samuel, Samuel,” so he got up and ran to Eli, the high priest, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”

Eli said he hadn’t called him and told him to go back to bed.

The same thing happened a second time and a third time.

Then Eli told Samuel the next time it happened to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

This is what Samuel did and then God spoke to Samuel in the night.

Now, here is what I find interesting in the story.

Samuel grew up in the Temple. He was a full-time altar boy. Yet when God spoke to him he did not recognize God’s voice.

The Bible says Samuel slept in the same room as the ark of God… the ark of the covenant.  The very same ark of the covenant that Indiana Jones saved from the Nazis.

Really, the Indiana Jones movie was not far off from the biblical description of the power of the ark of the covenant. The ark of the covenant was where the power of God was most present, according to the biblical story. It was powerful. When the Israelites had it they could not lose battles. Touching it could kill people. It was where the power of God was most present in the world.  

Samuel slept in the same room as the ark of the covenant but he was not able to recognize the voice of God when God called him.

In fact, 1 Samuel 3:7 says: “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

Growing up in church doesn’t necessarily mean we can recognize the voice of God when God calls us.   

Samuel slept in the same room as the ark of the covenant and he couldn’t recognize the voice of God when Gods called him. Growing up in church doesn’t mean we can recognize God’s call when God calls us.

In fact, growing up in church may be a liability. Because one of the functions of religion is to help people get within the vicinity of the fire without getting burned. One of the functions of organized religion is to make the holy and numinous safe.

I love Annie Dillard. I love most of all her book Teaching a Stone to Talk. In Teaching a Stone to Talk, I love most of all the essay “An Expedition to the Pole.” You must read it.

 “People in churches,” she writes, “seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute.”

She writes: “On the whole I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely evoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

I’m telling you, Indiana Jones knew.

Isn’t my job here to sort of explain the great Mysteries of life – which if we faced them squarely would be terrifying? Isn’t Dee’s job to make sure Communion is comforting and reassuring when it really is eating the body and drinking the blood of a crucified god?

Samuel grew up sleeping in the same room as the ark of the covenant and could not recognize the voice of God when God called him. Boy, isn’t that some of our stories here? We grew up in church and it’s been almost impossible to hear the voice of God ever since.

When I was a young minister, the person who helped me figure out ministry maybe more than anyone else was James Glasse. He was president of Lancaster Theological Seminary at the time. I heard him say once that it was very difficult for clergy to keep from becoming cynical because they saw all the clutter hidden under the Communion table. They know how the hocus pocus is done. So it is very hard work for clergy to remain authentically spiritual people.

Look at it this way, he said. Does being a lawyer automatically make you honest? No, in fact, the great temptation of being a lawyer is that you learn all the good ways of appearing to be honest without really being honest.

He said: Does being a physician necessarily make you healthy? No, in fact, physicians know better than anyone else how to keep themselves going without really leading healthy lives.

Clergy know how to maintain a vague sense of spiritual presence without letting the profound spookiness of the realm of the divine get out of hand because otherwise it would scare the bejesus out of all of us.

Having grown up in church is not necessarily an advantage when it comes to recognizing the voice of God.

I don’t know how many people I’ve spoken to over the years who could not hear the voice of God because of what they had been taught in church growing up.

The church told them it couldn’t be the voice of God because they were a woman and God doesn’t call women. The church told them it couldn’t be the voice of God because they were gay and God doesn’t call gay people until they stop being gay. The church told them it couldn’t be the voice of God because they were intellectually curious and God doesn’t call people unless they have absolute faith without asking questions. The church told them it couldn’t be the voice of God because they were in a wheelchair and if they had enough faith they’d get up out of the chair and walk, so it couldn’t be God speaking to them.

I tell you, we sometimes here at Foundry get very close to piercing the veil between this world and the realm of the divine. We try not to let it happen too often. It spooks me. I don’t like it. But is sometimes happens.

The reason it sometimes happens here is because we are not very dogmatic. We have lots of questions.

Be very careful. The more dogmatic the church… the less likely you are going to encounter the holy there. The more the church has all the answers for you with all the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted, the less likely you will actually hear the voice of God there.

You’ll hear the voice of the priest or preacher or the denomination or the seminary. Notice how Samuel got the voice of the preacher and the voice of God confused with each other. He confused the voice of the God and the voice of the clergy. Do not confuse the voice of the preacher with the voice of God.

Let me say one more thing about the story of Samuel. It is about generations. There was only one thing that Eli, the older generation, could do for Samuel, the younger generation. The only thing Eli could do was to encourage Samuel to listen to the voice of God for himself and then to respect what Samuel said God told him. Peter DeGroote has helped me understand this better.

Our ministry to children and youth is very important here at Foundry. We take it very seriously. We want to pass on to our children and youth the stories of scripture, the ideas we struggle with in our lifetime, but what we finally want to say to our children and youth is to listen to the voice of God for themselves and to respect what they tell us God is saying to them.

As I was preparing for these sermons I happened upon an essay in the 2010 Pushcart Prize anthology of literature form small presses. I read a quote from it a few weeks ago. I want to read it again. It is written by Spencer Reese who has decided to become a priest. He writes:

I have been called. That sounds arrogant, unstable even, I know. But that is not how I mean it. I mean to express obedience and transformation. No cell-phone, answering machine or labyrinthine voicemail system reached me. I got quiet. Through silent retreats, spiritual direction from nuns, Hospice courses, volunteering, and simply aging, I began to listen… There was a tentative quality to what I heard. I think sometimes Jesus is tentative… He commanded me in a gentle, invisible, determined way… There are those who have been put into locked cages for hearing voices; conversely, the voice I heard gave me the keys… Perhaps you know of what I speak? For this is a long legacy of one whisper that came down from a horrible day on a hill.

He got quiet. He began to listen. This is our encouragement to you. Next time you think you might have heard a voice, just say: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper and Row, 1988), 40-1.

Spencer Reese, “Two Hospice Essays,” 2010 Pushcart Prize XXXIV Best of the Small Presses (Pushcart Press), 35.