I’ve been thinking recently about how we discover what we are to do in life. In theological language – I’ve been thinking about how we discern our calling. In my tradition, as well as others, calling is not just for clergy. Each of us is called to do something. Some people have certainty about this from an early age, others always wonder if they have made the right choice. It’s an odd thing, call and vocation.
The idea of calling is one of the big themes of the Bible. There are lots of stories about call. Sometimes people get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. This week’s Hebrew Bible lectionary reading is from 1 Samuel 3:1-20. It is a familiar story for me and probably for many of you, but even if you know it, please read it again, here.
Like most Bible stories, there is more than one way to approach and interpret this passage. We could study it historically, thinking about what the call of Samuel meant for Israel. We could think about the roles of priests and prophets and what that means. We can read it as a story of endings and beginnings. It is a peculiar story, strange and familiar all at the same time.
The story begins by telling us “the word of the Lord was rare” (v1). There is an unexpectedness to God’s activity in this story. God’s apparent preference for acting in unexpected ways is another common theme in the Bible and a topic for another day.
What I find interesting are the responses of Samuel and Eli. Samuel assumes Eli is calling him. That is a perfectly rational, logical response. Who else would be calling him? Samuel, of course, is wrong. Eli is not calling him. Nevertheless, Samuel keeps doing the reasonable but wrong thing. Three times, he goes to Eli,the logical but incorrect response. How frustrated do you think Samuel was becoming?
It takes Eli a couple of tries, as well, before he figures it out. Eli is the “professional” in the story. Eli is the one who should be able to recognize the voice of God. And he does. Eventually. After two false starts.
If you have ever had to get up multiple times in the same night, you can appreciate the humor in the story. Samuel keeps getting up; Eli keeps sending him back to bed. Every parent can relate.
Ultimately, it takes both Samuel and Eli to figure out what is going on. It takes Samuel’s persistence. He’s not quite right but he keeps trying. It takes the experience of Eli. Eli is the one who can recognize what’s happening and can give Samuel proper instructions.
The third character in the story is God. And like so many other Bible stories God acts in odd ways. On the one hand, God is persistent. God keeps coming back and calling Samuel. Re read verse 10, “Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before…” That is one Biblical picture of God. The One who persists. The One who calls. The One who doesn’t give up on us. This is also how God is depicted at the end of the story. “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground”.(v19).
On the other hand,this persistent God is also the God who pronounces and carries out judgment. My hunch is, Samuel didn’t like what he heard. He certainly didn’t want to tell Eli about it. So there it is, sometimes we answer the call, and it’s not what we wanted to hear.
This isn’t the only example in the Bible of how God calls humans. God’s call comes in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. But somehow there is something familiar about this story. Even though it is a story about particular people in a particular place, and few of us are called to be prophets, we can find ourselves in the story. It is real in a way that transcends historical fact. A story of the reasonable but wrong response. A story of persistence on the part of both God and humans. A story where it takes help to accurately hear God’s call. A story where, when we hear clearly, we don’t like the message. Yes, it is a familiar story.
I’d like to know, what do you think?