Take a trip with me back through time, way back to ancient history…back to the days when we called landlines “phones” because there weren’t any other kind. Remember those days? Of course, some of you are too young to remember those days.
Here’s what it was like. If you wanted to talk to someone on the phone, you had to go inside a building and find a machine that was connected to a wall. And here’s the thing. If you knew someone was going to call you, you had to—I know this is shocking, but this is how we lived in the old days—if you knew someone was going to call you, you had to sit by the phone and wait. None of this taking the phone with you and doing whatever you want until the call comes. No, back in the old days, you had to prepare for incoming calls.
Of course, if it’s really important, I guess we still have to prepare for incoming calls. We make sure we’re not driving or in a noisy coffee shop when the call comes. Or in a worship service. We make sure we’re near a cell tower for our service provider. We make sure the phone is charged. Certainly, some calls come unexpectedly. We answer them if we can, especially if they’re on Caller ID. And if we know the caller. And if we like them. If we’re expecting a call, there’s a lot we can do to be prepared for the call when it comes.
How about incoming calls from God? Are you ready to receive a call from God? What does it take to prepare to receive a call from God? We can learn a lot about preparing to receive God’s call from Samuel, Nathanael, and our good friend Clarence Jordan.
We’ve heard Samuel’s story already. Dedicated to God at birth, he lived in theTempleas an assistant to the aging priest, Eli. Samuel didn’t choose to live at the temple; that decision was made for him. But look what happened! Because Samuel had been participating in the life of the faith community, because he’d been going through the motions of worship and learning about God, and because he had an elder in the faith to help him understand it, when God’s call came, Samuel was able to receive it and respond to it.
Samuel’s story teaches us two things about preparing to hear God’s call. First, the routine of participating in spiritual practices is a great way to prepare to hear God’s call. That’s why it’s so important to get our children into the routine of coming to church. They’re not going to get everything they hear here; they might not get much of anything for a long time. But one day, one day! It just might click for them. One day, that child might hear God’s call to them. The thing that will help them to understand that call will be what they learned at church…. or what they learned from the people they know at church.
We adults also will do well to hang out in a faith community on a regular basis. One of the big insights for me in praying with the nuns came from wondering why we had to pray three times a day, every day. At first, it seemed a little extreme, all that praying. It took so much time. And, to be honest, sometimes it was kind of boring.
But here’s what I’ve learned. The point of praying and worship isn’t to have a profound or exciting experience every time we do it. The point is getting into a routine or discipline of prayer and worship so that we’ll be ready for the profound experiences when they do come. That’s the beauty of attending worship regularly or having a regular time for personal prayer. It’s not that amazing things happen every time you pray or read your Bible. It’s that you’ve created a space and time where the amazing things can happen.
The second thing we learn from Samuel and Eli about preparing to hear God’s call is that they had to work it out together. Samuel heard the call, but didn’t know what was happening. Eli didn’t hear the call, but because of his own past experiences of hearing God’s call, he was able to help Samuel interpret it. If Samuel and Eli hadn’t been together in this scene, I’m not sure we’d even have a story…because alone, neither person was equipped to hear God’s call. Together, they heard.
Did you get that? Alone, we are not equipped to hear God’s call. Together, we are better able to hear.
How do we prepare to hear God’s call in our lives? From Samuel we learn the importance of getting into a regular routine of prayer and worship. We also learn how vital it is to have faithful friends around us to help us interpret the call when it comes.
What might we learn from Nathanael? Just before Nathanael’s call, Philip is called. Personally, I find Philip’s response to Jesus annoying. Jesus calls, Philip answers. No hemming or hawing or deciding or anything. No having to hear the call three times and talking it over with a teacher to understand it. No, Jesus calls; Philip answers. In fact, Philip answers Jesus’ call so quickly, the Gospel writer doesn’t even make a note of it; he just reports immediately that Philip finds Nathanael and shares the good news with him. It’s true that some people’s responses to God’s call are just that sudden, just that complete.
I’m guessing, though, that most of us respond a bit more like Nathanael…with scepticism, cynicism, and questions. When Philip tells his friend, “We have found the one! Jesus from Nazareth,” Nathanael responds with his first question, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Don’t you love that? His first response to news of the Messiah is a grumpy question! But even when the call proper comes from Jesus himself, Nathanael still has questions: “Where did you come to know me?” he sceptically asks. None of this “Nathanael left what he was doing and immediately followed Jesus.” No, Nathanael had questions that needed answers before he was going to respond to Jesus’ call. And the beautiful thing? Jesus answered. Jesus honored and answered Nathanael’s questions.
So…Samuel was prepared to receive God’s call through the routine of spiritual practices and connection with faithful friends. Nathanael was prepared to receive God’s call by honouring his questions, even his scepticism. What prepared Clarence Jordan to hear God’s call? Oddly enough, for Clarence, it was…hypocrisy.
Clarence grew up in a faithful Christian community in south Georgia in the early part of the 20th c. He grew up singing, “Jesus loves the little children…red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight…” but he didn’t see that love for people of all colors lived out in his community. The dichotomy between what the church taught and how church members lived became acutely real during Clarence’s twelfth summer.
“TheTalbotCountyjail was situated about 100 yards straight out behind theJordanhome, and a chain gang of convicted criminals was camped in the yard of the jailhouse most of the time. Clarence was fascinated by the rowdy, profane humanity of the men who lived out a portion of their lives there, and he began passing through the camp in the afternoons after school. He made friends with a number of the prisoners and with the cook, who gave him a slice of cornbread and fatback every afternoon.
“There he glimpsed again facts of life that seemed alien to what he was being taught in home and in church. He saw men with short chains locked between their feet to keep them from running, men bolted into the agonizing shame of primitive pillories, men beaten with whips or their bodies torn under the stress of the ‘stretcher’—a small frame structure in which a man could be placed with his feet fastened at the floor and his hands tied to ropes above him that extended out to a block and tackle on the outside. He saw that almost all these men were black.
“’This made tremendous, traumatic impressions on me,’ [Jordan] recalled. ‘It hit me the hardest a night or two after I joined the church during the August revival. I remember it was hot and I remember that the warden of the chain gang was singing bass in the choir. I’ll never forget how carried away he got singing ‘Love Lifted Me’ that night.
“But the next night I was awakened by agonizing groans from the direction of the chain gang camp. I was sure I could recognize who it was, and I was sure I knew what was happening. Ed Russell was in the stretcher. I knew not only who was in the stretcher, I knew who was pulling the rope. The same man who only hours before was so carried away singing ‘Love Lifted Me’ was now lifting that man’s body on the stretcher. That nearly tore me to pieces. I identified totally with that man in the stretcher. His agony was my agony. I got really mad with God. If He was love and the warden was an example of it, I didn’t want anything to do with Him.” (The Cotton patch Evidence, pp.8-9) It was living in the painful tension between Jesus’ gospel of love and the racial bigotry of the south that eventually led Clarence to hear God’s call to establish an interracial Christian community inSouth Georgia in the 1940s.
If Samuel was prepared to hear God’s call by participating in spiritual practices and faithful community, and if Nathanael was prepared to hear God’s call by asking questions, Clarence Jordan was prepared to hear God’s call by immersing himself both in Scripture and in the real life around him. In so doing, Clarence found a way through his understanding of Scripture to transform the world around him into a better place.
What will help you prepare to hear God’s call when it comes? Committing—or recommitting—yourself to a spiritual practice like prayer or worship? Committing—or recommitting–yourself to a faithful community? Acknowledging your scepticism and cynicism and getting answers to all your nagging questions? Recommitting yourself to living the Sermon on the Mount? Looking honestly and seriously at bigotry and injustice in the world?
What will help you prepare to hear God’s call when it comes? And here’s the really annoying question: Are you willing to do what it takes to prepare to hear God’s call? [Phone rings…]
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012
I Samuel 3:1-10 (NRSV)
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
John 1:43-51 (NRSV)
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”