The story of the young Samuel being called by the Lord is an absolute classic. How wonderful it would be if God spoke to us by name and gave us clear instructions. When I think about my own calling I remember praying that God would speak to me clearly in words I could understand. At the time I had not yet learned how to hear God’s voice or how to listen and understand. I understand, now, that although the Lord called to Samuel in the middle of the night, this is not the only way God communicates. The readings we have today are about how God shows himself to each one of us.
The psalmist is full of wonder that God knows each person so intimately. For the writer of psalm 139, God is one who knows everything about everyone, their thoughts, their words, even when they intend to stand up or lie down. God has watched the formation of every human being – God has been involved with the making of each human being. It is as if God has carefully formed them in their mother’s womb, weaving their minds and bodies together in a wonderful and wise manner. The psalmist sees that all the future of the unborn child is in God’s hands. There are plans for each child’s growth that are known only to God. These plans are secret even from the person for whom those plans exist.
The psalmist is frightened by the thought, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, so high that I cannot endure it. How weighty are your thoughts O God! How vast is the sum of them.” Humans can never fully understand God. Humans can never fully understand themselves. It is a puzzle and a mystery. All the psalmist can say is that when the puzzling and searching has come to an end, God is still there with us.
Samuel’s experience was much more simple. Samuel was a young boy, serving in the Lord in the sanctuary. The story tells us that the word of the Lord was rare in those days and visions were not widespread. Even Eli, the old priest, was going blind and had no vision for the present or the future, and Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, were not faithful.
At this point Samuel is called. He actually hears God calling him by name. At first Samuel did not believe it, but eventually old Eli realised that God was calling the boy. So Eli advised Samuel to lie down again and listen carefully to what God would say. And Samuel did listen, and became a great prophet – the more he listened to God, the better he was able to put God’s will into words until the whole nation trusted Samuel as a true speaker of the word of God.
In the gospel, we hear of another meeting between God and humankind. Nathanael was a good man, a sincere and honest worshipper of God. He studied the Scriptures, gave to the poor, paid his temple tax and behaved as honestly as he knew how. Jesus knew this, for he had seen him under the fig tree where people often gathered in the cool shade to talk and to pray together. John the gospel writer gives Nathanael as an example of a sincere person of faith and wants us to understand that God knew this. God could see into the heart of Nathanael just as he could see into the heart of the psalmist or the boy Samuel, and just as God can see into our hearts as well. Our hearts are open to God, God knows our desires and all our secrets are obvious to God.
So God comes to us in ways that are right for us. To the child God comes as a voice in the night; to the poet, the psalmist, God comes with knowledge cloaked in mystery; to those of simple faith God comes simply, as Jesus met with Nathanael in the streets of Jerusalem.
For me, God came with a man carrying a box of prayer books in Port Moresby, and as an English priest from Wymondham Abbey. God comes to me as the faithful people of the parishes where I have worshipped and served; or as the people who knock on my door in the night time. God speaks to me through the voices of my family and friends, and through the stories of the Bible.
Everyone who listens can hear the voice of God. Sometimes it comes as a shock. St Paul, who writes letters with such power and zeal to the churches, first heard the true voice of God on the road to Damascus, when a blinding flash of insight knocked him to the ground. I guess that many people feel disappointed when God does not do the same for them, or does not call them as clearly as he called Samuel.
They shouldn’t be, because God speaks in many ways and through many different situations and people. God knows each one of us through and through and knows what lies in our heart of hearts. Maybe St Paul needed shouting at. Perhaps we should thank God that the voice of God for us is more like the still small voice that Elijah heard, or the voice that calls in the night that Samuel heard, or the voice that speaks in the mouths of friends and strangers.
Let us pray that we may have the ears to hear and the wisdom to listen; the heart to catch the true word of God and the determination to respond. God made of Samuel a great prophet. The psalmist was inspired to put the word of God to music. St Paul, although stubborn and rebellious at first became the greatest of the early missionaries. God alone knows what is planned for each of us. Nathanael was promised a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven and told that he would see great things through faith. Let us therefore be faithful, ready to hear and respond to the call of God and able to look ahead for the great things God has for us in our lives.