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The Voice

Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit
Series VI, Cycle B
Someone has suggested that the title for a sermon about this incident in the life of Samuel should be "The Danger Of Sleeping In Church." As Bible scholars know, there is another story in the New Testament that could be titled the same way (Acts 20:7-12). Young Eutychus of Troas was at worship one Sunday evening, seated on the windowsill. The apostle Paul was the visiting preacher, and he did preach ... and preach and preach and preach. He preached until midnight. Then Eutychus dozed, and crashed. He fell out the window, toes over teacups, three stories to the ground. Miraculously, he survived, the fall and the preaching -- "The Danger Of Sleeping In Church."

There is an old, old story of a man who kept falling asleep during the sermon. His pastor was getting frustrated and, one Sunday, decided to teach the man a lesson. As was his practice, he started to preach slowly, almost in a monotone -- sure enough, the man soon fell into a deep sleep. The pastor then said to the congregation, "Everyone who wants to go to heaven, stand up." Everyone stood ... except, of course, the man who was fast asleep.

The pastor had everyone sit down. Then he gently said, "Everyone who wants to go to hell," and with a bang on the pulpit and a rise in his voice, "stand up!"

The sleeping man snorted awake and jumped to his feet as everyone around started to snicker. The man looked at all the people sitting around him, then looked at the pastor and said, "Preacher, I don't know what we're votin' on. But it looks like you and me are the only ones for it."

"The Danger Of Sleeping In Church" -- of course, young Samuel apparently was supposed to be sleeping. Some years before, his mother, Hannah, had brought him to Shiloh in fulfillment of a promise she had made to God before the boy was ever born -- as a woman who had been unable to have children, she promised God that if she were to be granted that privilege, she would return the child to divine service. She was as good as her word -- Samuel was born, and as soon as he was able to make it on his own, she brought the lad to the high priest Eli. After all, he was only hers for a little while; he was on loan from the Lord.

It was not the best of times for the people of Israel, but not the worst, either. There were no wars going on, no threats from hostile neighbors, although the Philistines were always looming near. The nation was not the unified whole it would come to be, but rather still a loose confederation of tribes. Religiously, no new ground was being broken. In fact, it seems the faith that had sustained the people through centuries of slavery, the exodus from Egypt, a generation of wilderness wandering, and finally settlement in the promised homeland, was now reduced to the routine, and for some pious charlatans even an occasion for corruption. As the text has it, "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread." Sounds unnervingly familiar, does it not?

Now we find Samuel. He is asleep in the sanctuary, apparently his assigned position near the Ark of the Covenant. A voice comes in the early morning darkness: "Samuel ... Samuel."

The boy assumes it is Eli calling ... no one else is there. Eli has called like this before -- he is old, nearly blind; he needs help getting around. So, rubbing sleep from his eyes, the boy goes in to the old man and says, "Here am I. You called?"

Just as sleepily, the aging priest turns over on his palate and says, "No, I didn't. Go back to sleep."

So the boy turns, goes back through the curtain and lays down again. But now the call comes again: "Samuel!"

You can imagine the perplexed look that comes over the child's face. He comes back to Eli, not quite so sleepily now. He was still awake from the first visit. "You called?"

Eli was wide awake now himself. No doubt he wondered at Samuel's first visit. What was the voice the boy heard? Could he have just imagined it? Was it something he ate? Or was it something more? Could it have been the voice of God? Possibly, but not likely. God's direct contact with human beings seemed to be a thing of the past. Oh, there was no doubt that God was involved with the lives of the people -- Samuel's very existence was the answer to a most specific prayer. But now, with this second call, Eli wonders. Maybe ... just maybe? "No, I didn't call. Go back to bed."

So a puzzled twelve-year-old1 turns and goes out once more. But before he can get comfortable again, the voice returns: "Samuel."

What in the world? This is getting ridiculous -- he was up again and back to the priest. "You called?" He must have thought Eli was playing a game with him, but it was certainly a strange time of the night for games.

But by now, Eli knows to whom the voice belongs. He turns that old gray head and those age-dimmed eyes to the boy and says, "No, I did not call. Go back and lie down. But if the voice comes again, say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.' "

Now the boy's mind is racing a mile a minute. What could the Lord want with him? He had never heard of anyone else being called this way. So, with a little shrug of the shoulders, it is back to bed again. And sure enough, a fourth time it comes: "Samuel ... Samuel!"

"Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." And the rest, as they say, is history. The young boy who met God in the sanctuary responded to the divine call and went on to become Yahweh's messenger to Israel, ranking in the eyes of the faithful with Moses and Abraham.

Earlier, I suggested the title for a sermon on this text might be "The Danger Of Sleeping In Church." Actually, a better title would be simply "The Danger Of Being In Church." Just like the boy Samuel, you or someone you have brought with you may hear the voice of God, and as with countless others through the centuries, that can change life, forever.

Are you ready to hear the voice of God? Do not answer too quickly. You might hear something that is not what you had in mind. What Samuel heard was not something warm and fuzzy -- he heard a word of severe judgment. You are very liable to hear something you do not want to hear, calling you to do something you do not want to do, and with people you WOULD rather not be around. Really listening can leave you very disturbed.

Where are you most likely to hear the voice? It could be anywhere, but I will submit that the most likely place will be in the church, and the reason I say so is that the church is the most likely place for getting the help we need in hearing and understanding. Samuel needed Eli's help. You and I need each other's help.

What a concept! I know we are always encouraged to invite our friends and neighbors to church. After all, this is the way the church grows. But what reasons do we give ourselves for extending the invitation? Is it to hear marvelous music -- to meet interesting people -- to enjoy delightful fellowship -- to listen to stimulating sermons? How about to hear the voice of God? As I say, what a concept! To hear the voice of God! Invite someone to church this week.

We are living in a time much like that of the boy, Samuel, a time when the "word of the Lord was rare." But the message of scripture is that God is not silent forever. One morning, as you prepare to begin the day, one night, when you are minding your own business trying to unwind, or one Sunday when you are sitting quietly (even sleepily) in church, there is the voice -- you hear your named called, and like little Samuel, your world changes. Are you ready? Are you?


1. Tradition suggests that this is Samuel's age at the time of this incident, but we have no way of knowing for certain.

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Psalm 62:5-12
* Psalm attributed to David which refers to God as Elohim. Expression of confidence in God's protection.
* Total dependence on God (v. 7). For life is but an instant (v. 9).

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