Unexpected Calls

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Ordinary Time 2
January 17, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

Summary: Over half the calls that Americans now receive are unsolicited messages from spammers and scammers. But such annoyances should not prevent us from answering the call of God.

You've received the call, no doubt, from someone wanting to talk with you about your car warranty. Or offering you a government grant. Or saying that you owe money to the IRS. Or even speaking to you in Chinese. All these calls are unexpected, and many are annoying or even malicious. In fact, over half the calls Americans now receive are the unsolicited messages called "spam."

A company called Roboshield recently surveyed 1,000 Americans about their experiences with unwanted cell phone calls. The company wanted to determine how many calls people received on their phones each week, and the number of these that were spam calls or scam calls. On average, 54 percent of the calls that people received per week were unwanted. People ages 50 and older received the most unwanted calls, 13 per week.

Sadly, 10 percent of the people in the survey admitted to falling for a phone scam. Half of the people had received calls from scammers claiming to be from the government, while 25 percent had received calls from scammers requesting their health insurance information. The lesson: If scammers or spammers are suspected, don't answer the call.1

Surprising calls

In the third chapter of the first book of Samuel, a boy named Samuel is serving God under a priest named Eli. "The word of the LORD was rare in those days," says the book, describing a time very much like our own; "visions were not widespread."2 But one day, when Eli is lying down in his room and Samuel is lying down in the temple, the LORD calls, "Samuel! Samuel!" and the boy says, "Here I am!" The call comes as a surprise to Samuel, and he doesn't immediately know what is going on, but he supposes he is being summoned by Eli.

We know about surprising calls, don't we? They aren't necessarily malicious, but they do catch us off guard. You know: The call of the alarm clock to get out of bed. The call of children for help and attention, especially as you are trying to get ready for work. The calls that come to your desk at the office, throwing your schedule into chaos. The evening calls of elderly parents needing assistance, lonely friends needing to talk, church committees needing your efforts. And if you are the parent of a young child, the midnight call of a little one needing a glass of water, another kiss or a line of defense against monsters.

Unanticipated calls are really not a surprise to us. In fact, they are a big part of everyday life, and our lives are so cluttered with calls that it would be wrong to describe them as unexpected. But the question remains: In the middle of this cacophony of calls, how can we hear the call of God?

Lie down again!

God's calling of the prophet Samuel occurs in a funny and mixed-up way, one that will make perfect sense to a parent or grandparent who has had to repeatedly instruct a child to go back to bed. As the story begins, everyone is napping. Eli is lying down in his room and Samuel is lying down in the temple of the LORD, near the ark of God. Suddenly the LORD calls "Samuel! Samuel!" and he says, "Here I am!" Thinking that Eli has called him, Samuel runs to the priest and says, "Here I am, for you called me." But Eli, just barely awake, says, "I did not call; lie down again."

Samuel tiptoes back to the temple, lies down, but then jumps up when he hears the LORD call, "Samuel!" Again he goes to Eli, and Eli says groggily, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." If you've ever been awakened by a child from a beautiful nap, you can imagine how annoyed Eli is getting. Samuel returns to his place, only to be called by the LORD a third time. Again, he goes to Eli, not knowing if the priest has called him or not, and not knowing if he'll be thanked or spanked. Samuel says, "Here I am, for you called me." He waits, probably trembling, for the priest's response.

But Eli does not get angry. He is awake by now and perceives that the LORD has been calling the boy. He says, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel goes, lies down, and when the LORD calls he responds as Eli has instructed him to do. From this point on, God is with him and Samuel speaks and acts as a trustworthy prophet of the LORD. As the book says, God "let none of his words fall to the ground."

Be prepared and share

What can we learn from this unexpected call from God? First, notice that it comes when people are not prepared for it, at naptime. It doesn't come in a worship service, on a high holy day or during a Christian service project. It comes while everyone is snoozing. Of course, we should be aware that God loves to place surprise calls: God called Rebekah while she was drawing water at a city well, Amos while he was picking fruit, Paul while he was on the road to Damascus, Martin Luther while he was in the bathroom (yes, really, the bathroom), John Wesley while he was listening to a lay person read the Scriptures, T.S. Eliot while he was working in a bank and C.S. Lewis while he was riding in the side-car of his brother's bike. God could speak to you while you are doing any of these things, or any other thing that you do on a daily basis. So be prepared to listen.

A second lesson from this story of Samuel's call is that none of us can grasp the full significance of God's word by ourselves. Samuel listened and heard God's call at an unexpected time, but he didn't know what he was hearing until he got some help from Eli. As important as it is to listen for God's word, we must also be willing to discuss what we hear with others, so that we can receive help in figuring out the message God has for us. It is good to read the Bible alone, but even better to study it with others. It is important to listen for what God is saying through current events, but far more helpful to talk about our insights with others.

We just finished a year that included a pandemic and a presidential campaign, and through it all we were bombarded by messages and images from television and the internet. In the face of so much stress and upheaval, it is certainly good to think and pray and seek God's guidance. But it is equally important that we share insights with each other, through open and honest conversations, so that we can receive the help we need to plot a faithful Christian course in the world. Samuel listens when God calls and then shares what he hears with Eli. We should do the same.

Stay open

A final message of this story is to stay open to what God is doing in the world. We learned earlier that the word of the LORD was rare in those days, and Eli's "eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see."3 We wouldn't blame old Eli if he lost interest in his work as a priest and began to tune out the call of God, like people who use the "do not disturb" mode on their iPhones to reduce unwanted calls. Perhaps Eli would even stop answering the call of God because he was tired of getting surprises. Researchers have found that more than three in four people say that they answer the phone less often than they did five years ago. They are just sick and tired of unexpected calls.

But give Eli credit: He kept his ears open for what God was saying, and after three visits from Samuel he "perceived that the LORD was calling the boy." He discovered that God was doing a new thing through Samuel, and this gave him the insight he needed to instruct Samuel to give God the response, "Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening." This enabled Samuel to enter a relationship with God that lasted a lifetime and had a powerful and positive impact on the people of Israel.

People today are advised to respond to unexpected calls by saying, "I'm in a bad signal area," and then end the call and immediately block the number. Or they can add their own number to the National Do Not Call Registry. Both are good strategies for dealing with spammers and scammers, but not with God. When the LORD makes an expected call, the best approach is to be prepared to listen, to share with others and to stay open to what God is doing in the world. When we do this, we find that we continue to grow in faith and understanding, as Samuel did, and that the LORD stays with us.