THE WORD IN THE NIGHT
How does it all start, with God?
Few people experience Saul’s kind of calling, on the road to Damascus. This was a kind of extraordinary rendition, where the person is snatched off the street and bundled into the back of a van which speeds off to an unknown destination. More people find Samuel’s calling to be nearer the mark in the first Book of Samuel.
Samuel was devoted to the Lord as a boy, in the temple at Shiloh. It was an unpromising moment in Israel’s history. The writer says: ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread’. The priest Eli and his two wayward sons had abused their status: the sons in their trashing of the office of priest and Eli in his half-hearted attempts to discipline them.
It is against this barren landscape that Samuel is called personally by God. He was a boy, naïve and innocent in a corrupted culture. And he was called at night. God has a tendency to speak with people when they are least expecting it; often when they are tired and dead to the world. We put ourselves in a quiet armchair and a nice view out of the window and think it’s the right spot for God to whisper in our ear; but he often chooses the moments of frailty or irritation; when we are under-rested or over-stimulated.
When we speak with royalty, it’s usually the royal who decides when we will meet with them, not the other way round. And night time is a special favourite for God, as the moment when the clutter of our minds is being re-assembled by our subconscious, allowing room for something new.
Samuel was not used to God’s voice and he mistook it for Eli’s. He gets it wrong three times and each time God shows patience and persistence in reaching him. God knew Samuel was a novice and needed encouragement, not criticism. Samuel would grow to become one of Israel’s finest prophets, its leading judge, a man finely attuned to the ways of the Lord. If he had been squashed by God in that first encounter, it’s unlikely he would have recovered.
It is notable too, that Eli shows forbearance with Samuel. Three times he is woken up from his sleep by Samuel, who was convinced Eli was calling out his name. How relaxed and forgiving would we have felt being shaken awake in bed three times in the same night? And there’s something more. It say the word of God was rare at that time; and Eli was the priest employed to hear it. But he resisted the temptation to say to Samuel: ‘thank you, I’ll take it from here’, as most adults would do when a child comes to them with important, adult-shaped information. Instead he uses his own experience of God to tell Samuel to go back to his place and wait for the voice to come again. God’s voice may have been rare, but this adult wasn’t going to steal the limelight, and allows Samuel to take the floor.
This enabling of the child by the adult, this privileging of the younger person over the older, set in motion a calling that blazed a trail in spiritual history. How often, I wonder, have young people been lastingly inhibited by adults in their quest for God, because the adult thought they knew better?
And mature Christians can be slow when God speaks. Most of us will have experienced an occasion when we think we are hearing a dictionary word for the first time, but then proceed to hear it again and again in a short period of time. We marvel at the coincidence of hearing a new word several times over. But it’s more likely we had simply ignored that word before until we understood it and are now more open to its use. The same may be true of the calling of God. We are unaware of the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit, repeating words to us, until the penny drops and we wonder how we didn’t hear him in the first place.
When he goes back, Samuel waits. And when the voice comes again, he follows Eli’s advice to the letter in telling God he is listening. When in doubt about our next steps, we should vocally express our openness to the word of God like Samuel did. We have many unconscious inhibitions and we need the Spirit to work on these, smoothing out the edges in our lives like a carpenter working at a lathe, making us ready for God’s use.
The song ‘I, the Lord of Sea and Sky’ celebrates the calling of Samuel. It encourages is to believe God will call us by name too. And with good reason. In Isaiah 43:1 it says:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
The maker of this ridiculously big universe can put a name to our face, and he makes a call on our life. Figuring this out is the most important thing we will ever do. Some people are very rational, piecing the evidence together and making a logical deduction over how God is leading them. Others are more poetic, looking for the unusual, the imaginative, and create a life out of it. We have different personalities, and God takes each kind patiently and draws them out, like he did with Samuel.
And yet as we sing ‘I, the Lord of Sea and Sky’ we usually overlook the dark shadow in the calling of Samuel. You would think that God’s first words to a boy would be nurturing. That Samuel could share those words with adults and maybe get a slightly patronising round of applause for his efforts. Instead, in a sobering example of how God throws some people in at the deep end, Samuel is told to pass judgment on the family of Eli, the very man who was acting as his surrogate father.
When you have a difficult message to share, it pays to be able to share it quickly and ease the mounting stress. Samuel got his tough message in the depth of the night. The Bible says: ‘Samuel lay there until morning’. Not half he would have. Imagine trying to sleep after hearing you were to pass judgment on the adults in the morning.
It is to Eli’s reduced credit that he insisted Samuel share the whole story and not to gloss over it. Perhaps he suspected what he would hear, but many other adults would have refused to hear or talked over Samuel or down to him - anything to drown out the words you do not want to hear. It’s a task so easily done with a child. Samuel was not the promising future of Israel at that moment, he was its testing present. God was using a child to judge Israel and usher in a new era. And it was a defining, formative moment in the boy’s life.
Sometimes we face an early challenge in our own calling which asks of us the kind of integrity and honesty that must shape all we do in years to come. And it can easily be flunked. But the moral of this story is that the test can come much earlier in life than we imagine. When we minimise the worries of a child or young person because they don’t have the perspective of an adult, we risk missing an encounter they are having with God. And one they will never forget.
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