TEXT: I Samuel 3:1-10

1. If you have ever ignored a ringing phone because you knew who it was, sit down.
2. If you have ever picked up the phone and said something stupid because you thought you knew who it was, sit down.
3. If you've ever tried to imitate a bird call, sit down.
4. If you've ever lost your religion over the call of an umpire or referee, sit down.
5. If you've ever fallen or dropped something trying to get to a ringing phone, sit down.
6. If you've ever stayed home from someplace you really wanted to go because you were expecting an important call, sit down.
7. If you've ever sat by the phone waiting for someone to call, sit down.

I took you through that just as a reminder of the different kinds of calls that we hear, and just how important a call can be. We've all experienced one sort of call or another. Today I'm beginning a series on the most important call of all -- the call of God.

For those of us who choose to pay attention to our spiritual lives, we can often point to several "aha" moments on the spiritual journey. The initial one of those, the one that usually propels us to begin the spiritual walk in the first place, especially if we do that as an adult, is usually the realization that the existence of God is a very real possibility. Maybe we hadn't really considered that before, but something happens that makes us say there might actually be a God, in which case I had better pay attention. We might not be sure at that point. We might not know anything about the nature of that God. But God suddenly becomes real enough that we feel compelled to investigate further.

We usually move from there to a conviction that there is a God, and unfortunately a lot of people stop their spiritual journey right there. They figure that they've reached the destination of believing in God, they sit down on a bench by the side of the road, and they wonder what all the fuss is about. If you're there, I'm here to tell you that you haven't even left the spiritual driveway yet. If you'll pull out onto the road for just a minute, I'll tell you about the second "aha" moment in the spiritual journey. That moment is that the God that you just discovered is calling you, by name, your phone number, your address, specifically you. That's the place where I want to focus for this first sermon this morning. Next week we'll look at the ways that God heals us and equips us when we answer that call. After that we'll look at what God is preparing for us to do. But none of that will matter unless we first realize that God is calling us in the first place. So for today, the one realization that I want you to take home is, "God is calling me." It's not that God has put out a general call and I can respond if I please. It's not that God is calling a pay phone and whoever happens to walk by can answer it. God is calling you, personally, at home, on your unlisted number.

Often when we in the church talk about calling we tend to focus on the work that God calls us to do. In the ordained ministry especially, we are always talking about "my call," which is synonymous with talking about the particular work that I do, my vocation. Even the word "vocation" comes from the Latin word for "call." But calling is only secondarily about work and about vocation.

Calling is not so much about what you do as about who you do it for. Calling makes no sense without there first being a Caller. We are first and foremost called to be in relationship with God. If you want a business and work metaphor, you can say that calling is not about your job title. It's about your employer. Got is the employer who first and foremost wants to have you on the company team. God will provide all the training that you need. God will even start you out with a year or two of paid leave if you're having a personal or family crisis that prevents you from starting work right away. You can discuss your actual job duties later. God just wants to make you a lifetime partner in the firm. Guaranteed employment -- if it gets so that you can no longer do the first assignment, there'll be another one that better suits your circumstances. You will never be laid off, fired, or forced to retire. You're being called simply because God thinks you're great, and wants to have you around.

If we make the mistake of equating calling with a specific line of work, we run the risk of a huge loss of purpose and meaning if our circumstances change and we can no longer do that line of work. I often say I'm called to preach the Word of God. And it's true that being in the pulpit trying to make God's Word accessible to people is my current job assignment from God. I have no doubt of that whatsoever. But it's misleading to say that that is my calling. My calling is simply to say yes to God for relationship. Then across the course of my life to do whatever specific tasks God asks me to do at whatever time.

I can't think of a scripture passage that was more influential for me than those first ten verses of First Samuel 3. God calls the boy Samuel in the night, by name. Samuel is confused. He hasn't heard the voice of God before. He doesn't know who it is, and he keeps going back to Eli. Finally Eli recognizes what's happening and instructs the boy to go back, and when the voice comes this time to say, "Speak Lord, your servant is listening." I can't tell you as a kid how many nights I went to bed saying, Speak Lord, for your servant is listening," because I wanted to hear from God. I never heard the audible voice that Samuel heard. But by the time I was 14 I had heard from God enough in my own way, to know that ministry was the place where I needed to be and that God was the person who needed to guide my life. So it may have seemed strange that I was encouraging the children to listen for supernatural stuff. But I believe you get what you expect. As young children they can start expecting to hear from God even when the phone rings. When I talked about this at Trinity, somebody's cell phone rang during the service. And one of the little girls said, "It's God, it's God! I know it's God!" That's the kind of expectation that I would love every child to have. Because when they have it, when we all have it, even as adults, we'll end up knowing when the call from God finally does come.

There are a number of things that keep us from being able to respond to God's calling. They're represented in that story of Samuel, and also in the wonderful story of Jonah. The obstacle in Samuel is that Samuel doesn't recognize the voice of God. He doesn't have that experience. One of the most common questions that I get as a pastor is some form of, "How do I know that God is speaking?" Unfortunately, the only way to answer that is by getting to know God personally. There isn't an automatic caller ID on every message from God. We know it's God's voice because we have enough experience with God to recognize it. If I hear a voice in the hall, the only way I know who that voice is, is from past experience of hearing that voice enough that I've come to recognize it. But the first few times I might have to hear a voice, go out in the hall, and see who it is. I know when God is speaking to me because I recognize the voice from my experience.

When we're like Samuel, and are young either physically or in our faith, and don't have those kinds of experiences with God, remember the story of Samuel. Samuel goes to Eli for direction, to find out who the voice is. Wherever we are on the road, we all need those people who are further ahead than us. Wherever you are, there's always somebody behind you on the road and somebody ahead of you. There are times that I need to go to somebody ahead of me, and there are times when people not as far along the road as I am come to me. We all need to be both things for other people. No matter what stage we're at, whether we've just pulled out of the driveway or we're cruising down the interstate, we all need help and advice from those further along, and we all need to be available to help those who are not quite as far as we are. So if you haven't heard God's call on your life, it could just be because your antenna needs readjusting or putting up. Maybe God is calling and you're just not hearing. Talk to somebody who has some experience in hearing from God, to see the kinds of things that you should be listening for. You might be surprised at what you discover.

The second thing that often interferes with hearing God's call is an unwillingness to hear, rather than an inability to hear. Or sometimes more accurately, an unwillingness to respond. Sometimes we're unwilling to respond because we don't feel worthy or able to do what's asked, and we'll deal with that in the next sermon. But sometimes we're unwilling because we simply don't want to, or we think that what God is calling to us is going to be awful.

That's nowhere better illustrated, I think, than in the story of Jonah. If you've never read the Old Testament book of Jonah, it's only a few chapters long. It's a great story. If you were in Sunday School as a child, chances are you know the story about the guy who gets swallowed by a whale. If you didn't, you might get it confused with Pinocchio, where he also gets swallowed by a whale. Maybe when you think about that story, you find yourself getting caught up in worrying about whether it's scientifically possible for a grown man to get swallowed by a fish and coughed up whole three days later. Don't get stuck there. God made the entire universe out of nothing at all. If God wanted a man to get swallowed by a goldfish and kept there for a month, God can work that out. So get beyond the fishy part and see what this wonderful little story has to say about calling.

It starts out with God's call to Jonah. Not a general call. A specific call to Jonah. "Hello, Jonah, I want you to go to the city of Ninevah and straighten them out. Tell them to turn back to me or I'm going to wipe them out. I've had enough." Pretty simple. So what does Jonah do? Jonah boards a ship and sets sail in the exact opposite direction. Why? We learn later that Jonah doesn't like the people of Ninevah. Having God destroy the people of Ninevah has been at the top of Jonah's prayer list for some time now. For God to ask Jonah to save Ninevah would be like God asking Ken Starr to save Bill Clinton. He does not want to do this.

Now you would think that God would go to His little black book, put a big red X next to Jonah's name, and call somebody else to get the job done. You would expect that Jonah would then be un-called, both now and in the future, if he managed to have a future and to escape with his life, and that that calling would shift to somebody else. But it doesn't. If you'll pardon a fishing metaphor, Jonah is not off the hook. God follows after Jonah, sends a storm that threatens the ship, gets Jonah thrown overboard and swallowed by a giant fish, where he gets to think over his situation in the lovely atmosphere of a fish's gastric juices. After three days, even the fish finds Jonah repulsive and throws him up on the shore.

Now imagine that you're Jonah. Imagine what you feel like. Imagine what you smell like, as you lie in this disgusting mess on the beach. And what is the first thing that you hear, once you're out of this fish? God again. "Hello, Jonah, I want you to go to the city of Ninevah and straighten them out." Probably Jonah's first response here was censored. But with the memory of fish innards still very fresh, he decides this time maybe it's the better part of valor to go to Ninevah. He does what God asks and he calls for Ninevah to repent. They do, and the city is saved. Does Jonah rejoice? No. Jonah gets so mad at God that he wants to die. Because he still hates the people of Ninevah and comes back to God and says, "I told you that's what they'd do. That's why I didn't want to go there in the first place." He didn't want them to listen. He wanted them to remain opposed to God so God would wipe them out.

The next time God finds Jonah, he's in a funk because Ninevah got saved. Now surely you would think that Jonah's going to get fired. Who can possibly make use of this guy? He's rebellious, he has a bad attitude, and he could undermine the whole company. He objects to the company's mission statement and it should be the unemployment line for him. But God was the one who called, and God takes the time to teach Jonah why the people of Ninevah are important. God is patient with Jonah, and Jonah's calling is never revoked.

In the face of the story of Jonah, I hope you can see how useless are our objections to the call of God. We can go in the opposite direction if we want to. But at some point life is finally going to throw us back up on the shore, back where we started, and then we'll hear that the call has never gone away. It's still there waiting for us. We haven't escaped it after all. And if somehow we think that we're too useless or worthless to be used by God, we'll find out that God uses us anyway, despite ourselves. Jonah could have done what he did with joy or he could do it being miserable. The choice was up to him. But God used him either way.

God is calling you by name. Can you hear it? Will you hear it? It's the call that will change your life. It won't go away. If the line is busy, God will call back. If the phone is busy God will try the door or email. Have you ever really answered? Have you ever finally stopped and said, "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening?" Don't wait until you've been thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish. Answer now. Answer yes.


(c) 2000, Anne Robertson

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