Ahh we’ve made it – the long weekend. How good it is in this world of worry and trouble to rest. After working so hard, pushing to get through, that weekend rest is so important. I’m glad that you’ve chosen to be here with me for your long weekend rest, but I know we’re all a little envious of those lucky people still up at the cottage for this last bit of summer. To make up for it, I’m probably going to head home after this service and take a wonderful Sunday afternoon nap. Sleeping is the best rest; cuddled up in warm blankets, sinking into the mattress, tense muscles soften, harried thoughts slow down into dreamland, the burdens of the past forgotten, and the worries of tomorrow still far away. That rare gentle peace, comfortable and at ease, safe from the worries of life’s troubles and responsibilities.
Samuel was sleeping soundly.
It’s tough work having a life dedicated to the service of the LORD. Daily rituals, managing the people, setting up the temple according to “scripture,” or something – and taking orders from the Big Wig religious leader, the Prophet Eli. But that’s the only thing Samuel had ever known. His mother had sent him to work under Eli as a young boy. Considering the political landscape of the time, it was a good gig. So, he did his work as he was asked to.
And that seemed to be enough. Everyone else seemed to do likewise. The religious leaders told people what to do, and they did it, (even if it sounded a bit nefarious). It was all part of a normal day; another check off the list. Faith was scheduled, predictable, perhaps slightly tedious, maybe culturally expected – regular, just regular life. This might sound closer to our view of the world rather than what we expect from the ‘always fantastical’ Old Testament. But according to this story, the WORD of God was rare in those days, visions were not widespread. God wasn’t speaking to anyone.
So, Samuel is sleeping in the temple. The light of God, which was a lamp that remained lit throughout the night, had not yet gone out, placing us just before dawn. Samuel was cuddled up, enjoying that peaceful sleep before his regular routine had to start all over again. Comfortable and at ease… SAMUEL! SAMMY!!
Shaking bone deep Samuel bolts upright in bed, and that sickly fear of having overslept grips him in the pit of his stomach. “Shoot, shoot, shoot, what did I miss?!” He tumbles out of bed and rushes half-asleep down the hall to Eli’s room. “Here I am! For you called me!”
A groggy Eli turns over and squints an eye open. “I didn’t call you, go back to bed.” Samuel looks up, and realizes that he’s just shouted his master awake for no reason at about 4 in the morning. Red-faced and muttering apologies, he retreats back under his covers. Maybe he can manage another hour or so of real sleep. His eyelids grow heavy, and he starts to drift… “SAMUEL!!!”
His bloodshot eyes pop open. OK, he definitely heard it that time. He sprints down the hall and this time says with confidence, “Here I am! For you called me.”
Now Eli is really annoyed, “I did not, go back to bed.” Samuel hesitates, is this a joke? If it is it’s a bad one. He eyes Eli carefully for a moment and then slowly walks down the hall back to his bed. He’s confused, suspicious, and a bit rattled. He’s so sure that he heard that voice.
But how could he have known what was going on? Samuel did not yet know the LORD, the Word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. All he could do was wander back to his bed. But after all that, there was no hope of finding that blissful peace again.
Just over a year ago a group of white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville Virginia for the Unite the Right Rally. It was a dark day full of hateful violence that left a young woman dead, and our grasp on a peaceful Western civilized life rattled. When I saw people boldly waving swastikas, as if that symbol of death and fear were their freedom, what I considered a fringe group suddenly leapt out of the margins and became frighteningly close to a real contender. Were we really dealing with the rise of the Nazi movement again? The same fear that lived in the hearts of people going through the second world war filled me. I didn’t sleep too well that week.
Usually the pain of the world stays pretty separate from us living in the West. We are blessed to live a life of health, wealth and safety compared to many. Canada is one of the best places to live in the world. We don’t have to worry about a lot of the world’s troubles, they don’t touch us. But we’re still deeply disturbed by stories of people fleeing violence, of environmental destruction, the oppressed and the voiceless. It’s not that we ignore. It’s just so much, and it’s so far. When the news stories and the statistics get to be too much, we take refuge in our orderly life; predictable and scheduled and safe. It’s tough work to care about the world. Every time we turn around there’s a new disaster, another crisis, another face staring at us through the screen with desperate eyes. It’s hard to look. I have a friend who posts something on Facebook every single day about the horrible situation in occupied Palestine; videos of children being arrested and people beaten and abused. I try to watch, to be present with them, but afterwards all I can do is keep scrolling, and shamefully hope for a cute dog video to help cut through the sadness. It’s so far away, what can I do? We need a breather, we need to sleep in peace and try again tomorrow. We need to just pull the blanket up over our eyes and escape for a while.
But it’s getting harder to stay under the blankets. The worries of the world are creeping closer and closer. Suddenly the van attack isn’t across the ocean, it’s on Yonge street, and the mass shooting isn’t another blot on the American record, it’s on the Danforth. Fires rage on the West Coast and the heat waves this summer have caused deaths on an alarming scale. We are still safe, we are still far from much of the world’s troubles, and we remind ourselves that we are still incredibly blessed. But in these dark moments, when the news story is on our doorstep, we get to have a taste of what the majority of the word’s people feel all the time – and it’s not fair. When we say that we are blessed, what does that mean for everyone else? Why do we keep getting the long straw? Why aren’t the peoples of the world as blessed as we are? Why aren’t they safe? Is that their lot in life, destined to always be the sad story, to never have that all-important rest from worry? Are they less deserving than we are?
The thought makes my blood boil, as I’m sure it does for you. We want to change the world - our hearts are there. We know we live in plenty, and we wish for everyone to have their needs met as well. This church has done so much good for so many people, and we continue to look for ways to better our world – but it’s so much, and it’s so far, what can we do? We’re trying to do the work of Jesus, we’re trying to save people. But we’re just human, we can’t do it all. So, as much as it hurts, as much as we hear the rest of God’s creation screaming out for justice, as much as we feel we’ve failed, we pull the covers up and try to get back to sleep.
No such luck for Samuel.
God calls again, “Samuel!”
This time Samuel is up in an instant, and he stalks down to Eli’s room.
“Alright that’s it, Here I am, for you definitely called me!” He’s not crazy, someone keeps calling him, and he wants some answers. Eli sees Samuel’s tight fists and wide eyes, and realizes that, as a prophet, he knows this feeling. There’s only one being who could unsettle someone like that. Eli knows that Samuel is about to go down a whole new path.
His eyes soften and he speaks carefully, “Samuel, the thing that’s waking you up and making you all upset, that’s God’s voice. What you’re going to do now, is lie down, and wait for God to call you again, but this time, you’re going to answer. You’re going to say, ‘speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
We like to think of God’s voice as something soft and quiet. A gentle loving nudge that can only make us feel joy. It can be that, but Samuel got another taste of God’s voice; a loud, clear call that roused and unsettled him. Imagine someone saying that to you – this voice you’ve been hearing, this thing that has been keeping you awake at night, that’s God’s voice. Now that you know that God is the one who has been calling, you are to answer, so that you can listen to all God needs to tell you. And you can be sure that God does not waste time with idle conversation. That’s big stuff.
So, Samuel goes back to his bed, lays down, stares into the darkness of the night, and waits for God. Fear and anticipation runs through his veins, tensing up his muscles. His breath comes in shallow gasps, and sweat forms on his brow. He can’t run, he can’t hide. His blanket will do nothing to stop the awesome divine power that’s coming to wake him up and put him to work. What can he do?
And then God does something Samuel doesn’t expect. God comes, and stands there. The same God that Moses had to have his back to because he could not bear to look directly. The same God that the Israelites rightly feared at Mount Sinai because being in God’s presence would surely kill them. The same God that created the heavens and the earth and every living thing, came and stood in the room.
And God calls again, “Samuel! Samuel!”
He sees, dimly, God revealed. He feels God’s presence right next to him, can feel God’s power radiating. This is the God of his ancestors, the Creator of all things, and this power stands next to him and calls him by his name.
This God isn’t a far off ghostly whisper, this God knows us by name and stands with us with full presence. That same God, whose power terrified the Israelites at Mount Sinai, also came to us in the WORD made flesh, in Jesus our brother, teacher and friend. This is a God of relationship, who desires our trust as well as our participation in God’s mission on earth. This isn’t something we’re supposed to do on our own with whatever human powers we have, God calls us to act with God by our side.
There are two things to learn here, one is that the first step to participating in God’s mission is to allow God to be revealed to us. Our desire for the world to be better, for everyone to have enough, for love and compassion to conquer fear and greed, that God’s Spirit speaking in us. We read the stories of Jesus and learn of the character of God, of true divine power that brings itself low and suffers with rather than dominates over. We see the divine nature in all living things and we know that no one is more worthy of God’s love than another. God is revealing Godself to us all the time. The second thing is that once we embrace this revealed God, we need to answer back, because to participate in God’s mission, we need to listen to what God is saying. “Speak, for your servant is listening,” we rely on God’s direction and guidance. Even the great prophet Eli had become corrupt and his eyesight had grown dim. He couldn’t see God’s path anymore. We can’t rely solely on our human wisdom and power to fix things, it’s too much and it’s too far for us, but not for God. We don’t have to take the burdens of the world on our shoulders and fall exhausted under the weight of them, because this is God’s mission, this is God’s weight, we are here to work with God leading the way.
What can we do? How about, what can we do God? This doesn’t have to be a defeated sigh, this is a prayer. God is calling us to something big. It’s not regular life, it’s something beyond wonderful. It’s not predictable, it’s wild and incredible. When we say this prayer, we should be ready for a wild ride.
I’m reminded of Peter’s words at Pentecost,
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
These things that keep us up, they’re not nightmares, God is calling.
When you feel that need to do the right thing, even if it is as small as saying ‘no’ to a take-out cup or a plastic straw, or as big as standing up and challenging the powers that be; that is God’s mission for you, and God will not leave you alone in that work. We see our plenty, and we feel blessed, but we also feel called to make sure our blessings flow, to take care of our world and its people. Jesus changed the world by loving so deeply that not even death could stop him. May we let God’s love sit so deeply in us that we never pull the blanket over our eyes again. God’s power goes with us and makes the seemingly impossible, possible, and then some.
When God calls you with that loud and insistent voice that wakes you up in the middle of the night, don’t go back to sleep, don’t hide under the covers even though the power and magnitude shakes you down to your core. Know that you are being called by God who know you, and loves you, for something more important than you can know. Take a deep breath, and say “Speak, for your servant is listening.”