How do you know when God is trying to get your attention?
How can you tell when God is calling you to do or to be something? And if you’re asking God for guidance about some-thing, how do you know what the answer is? I’m going to ask you to be open, as you listen to my words, to remembering a time that you felt that God was speaking to you. At the end, you can share your story if you want to. As I wrote this sermon, I was very aware of the power of story – the biblical stories, as well as my own and those of others. And I thought how powerful it would be to hear about the reality of God’s call in the lives of our friends and neighbors.
How do we know when God is speaking?
As much as we would like to get a message in skywriting or in an email with an attachment with a very clear, detailed plan, that’s not how it works. But how does it? Well, our first stop in our search is to see how it’s happened for others, beginning with people in the Bible. We have two of them today: Samuel and Nathanael. Their stories illustrate both the confusion and the illumination of our own questions.
You might remember Samuel as the prophet who chose and anointed David as king over Israel. But that was in his old age. Our story today is from his youth. Samuel was the son of Elkanah and Hannah. Hannah had been childless before Samuel’s birth, which caused her great distress. She prayed for a child and vowed that if she became pregnant she would dedicate the child to God. She did become pregnant. Her song of praise in the first book of Samuel is similar in many ways to the Magnificat of Mary at the angel Gabriel’s announcement of her impending pregnancy. Hannah remembered her vow and did take him to the temple and into the care of Eli, the high priest. And that’s where we find him today, maybe around 12 years old, as the priest’s apprentice who sleeps in the temple near the “ark of God,” the most sacred object of all in Israelite worship.
His call story is almost like a comedy routine. God keeps speaking and Samuel keeps going and waking up Eli. Until the dime finally drops for Eli and he tells Samuel what to do – just say, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” So Samuel did and God spoke. The next verse in I Samuel is: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”
Under the fig tree
Nathanael, in the Gospel of John, is introduced to us as a friend of Philip. Philip, who was already a follower of Jesus, reaches out to his friend to tell him all about it. Again, what follows is comical. Nathanael hears only that Jesus is from Nazareth and quips, “Can anything good come out of there?” Was his response sarcasm, snarkiness, or just plain doubt? Either way, I think we can relate to his skepticism. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. And he was right to be skeptical – as are we. Now, as then, many people claim to be the messiah and their followers often discover tragically their mistake. Think of Jim Jones, David Koresh, and other cult leaders. Careful listening for God’s voice is crucial.
Thankfully, Nathanael does accept Philip’s invitation to “come and see” and Jesus finds him sitting under a fig tree. “Sitting under a fig tree” is a Jewish figure of speech, referring to studying the Torah. In his study of God’s Word and his experience of Jesus, he recognizes the truth of what Philip had told him.
So here we have two examples of being spoken to by God, of being called by God. But they’re not the only ones. Samuel’s call story is different from the one Moses experienced, beginning with a burning bush. Nathanael’s call story is different from that of the other apostles, the ones we usually think of, when Jesus says. Follow me” and they immediately drop what they’re doing and go. So if we learn nothing else from these stories, we see that hearing a word from God can take different forms.
If you ask any pastor how they knew they were called, you’ll get a different answer each time. Not that this is about just the call to ordained ministry. God speaks to each and every one of us and calls each and every one of us to some kind of service to the world. But we still have questions: how do we hear and follow God’s call? If we do sense a prompting, an encouragement, or a tug from a particular direction, how do we know that it’s God doing the tugging?
Well, from Samuel’s story we can see that one mark of a divine communication is repetition, even if it’s not a voice we literally hear. So we might ask: Does this prompting or tugging persist or was it a fleeting idea? While many pastors will tell you that they always felt called to ordained ministry and followed that path without hesitation, many others will confess that even though they felt a calling, they avoided it until it just couldn’t be denied anymore. God can be very persistent.
Another clue is in Eli’s advice to be still and deliberately, thoughtfully listen, making time and space for reflection. The slogan of the United Church of Christ is “God is Still Speaking,” but I’m told that in UCC circles the response to that is often, “Yes, but is anybody listening?” Granted, it is not always easy for us to find that quiet time for thoughtful listening and even when we have the time we tend to fill it up with other distractions. But listening is the best way to hear what God is saying.
Another potential sign is those “tingling ears” that God told Samuel about. Now what does it mean to have tingling ears? It sounds like one of the side effects of the ubiquitous drug commercials on TV. But I don’t think that’s what’s intended here. Tingling ears is the effect of the Holy Spirit working in us, challenging us and stirring us. It might actually be an uncomfortable sensation, but paying attention to it could mean that we’re listening and moving down the road God is calling us to follow.
I don’t know if this is an example of tingling ears, but back in 2000-2001 I was becoming more and more aware that my time at my congregation in Buffalo, NY was coming to an end. I knew it was time for change, but I didn’t have any idea of what it would be. I kept telling people (kind of jokingly), “I’m waiting for a word from the Lord.” But to my dismay and frustration no word seemed to be forthcoming. In the meantime, I was getting more and more involved in interfaith activities. One afternoon, as I was talking with my spiritual director, out of the blue she said, “I think you need to go back to school and get a degree in something to do with interfaith.”
To my everlasting chagrin, I immediately said, “I can’t do that” and started listing all the reasons that was a bad idea. It was the end of our session, and I left. As soon as I got into my car, I burst out in tears. And I said to myself, “I’m going back to school.” And you know the tears weren’t tears of sorrow; they were tears of something like relief – at last, an answer. One that I almost disregarded. Now I can recognize that my ears had been tingling for quite a while, like when the bishop asked me to represent him in interfaith forums, committees, and activities. They were tingling when I was asked to co-chair the interfaith women’s initiative as part of the year-long celebration of the centennial of the Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo in 1901. Tingling as part of an interfaith response after 9/11. Until finally, the road ahead became clear.
Like Eli with Samuel, my spiritual director got before I did that God was speaking. Sometimes, we need to hear it from someone else – although that doesn’t mean we follow blindly what they say. We still have to listen in the quiet of our own hearts, and possibly with trusted friends and spiritual directors.
Now with Nathanael’s story, we see another truth – God’s calling meets us where we are. While other disciples were on board with Jesus right away, Nathanael engages in skeptical debate. In other words, there’s no one right way to respond to God’s call. And it’s ok to question and debate. In fact, it’s in the wrestling with our calling that we can find the place we’re supposed to be.
Where you belong
As I was thinking about our seminarian who will be joining us soon, I was remembering Nick. Nick was the first student I supervised from PLTS. He was great, very good at planning and leading worship. But as we came to the end of the semester, he informed me of his decision to leave seminary – he was feeling that it was not his path. In the years since, I’ve kept up with Nick and his family. I knew that he had become a nurse, and when I checked his Facebook page to make sure that was still true, I saw that it was. And on the banner of the website where he works it says #whereyoubelong.
O God, please send someone else!
There’s a much-loved definition of vocation by the writer Frederick Buechner that says: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That is a lovely definition, and sometimes it does work that way. But sometimes it doesn’t seem to fit. Moses, for example, didn’t demonstrate “deep gladness” when God called him at the burning bush. His response to his call was, “O my God, please send someone else!”
And Samuel wanted nothing to do with the difficult news of impending judgment that God called him to deliver to Eli and his sons. In the Gospels, too, the disciples eventually experience their calling as leading them into struggle, not away from it. In the end, Buechner’s definition is still a valuable discernment tool: what is your deep gladness; where do you see the world’s deep hunger? But its opposite can be used as well: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep discomfort and the world’s deep blessings meet.” The longer I look at those four categories (deep gladness, deep hunger, deep discomfort, deep blessings), the more I believe that they could be a powerful way to connect with the mind of God in discerning our calling.
Come and see
Finally, the words of Jesus (and then Philip’s echo of them) — “Come and see” — really stand out this week. Up to now, we’ve been thinking about only our auditory sense – how we listen for and how we hear God speaking. But for Nathanael, and for many others, seeing is believing. We want to see for ourselves. But as we know, the likelihood of skywriting or a personal email from God isn’t very high. In John’s gospel, the primary mode of spreading the good news and growing the community of disciples is to offer the invitation to “come and see.” So actually you are the embodiment of a sign from God – or you can be. Your invitation might be just the thing someone was waiting for.
And that started me wondering: if I were to invite a friend to experience the best of our congregation’s life and use this simple, three-word invitation, to what specifically would I invite them? If you were to invite someone to come and see, to experience the best of what Good Shepherd has to offer, to what specifically would you invite them? Where and when do we most vividly, experientially embody the Gospel we proclaim?
These are a lot of questions, I know. And we’re not going to answer them within the 15 minutes of sermon time. My hope is that they can seep into our consciousness and keep on prompting, encouraging, and tugging on us – maybe even tingling our ears.
And now, I think I’m just going to stop and see if anyone has a story to share of a time you felt God speaking to you and or calling you to some kind of action.
1 SAMUEL 3:1-10
Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. In those days, God’s voice was rarely heard – prophecy was uncommon. One night Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak that he could no longer see, was sleeping in his bed. The lamp of God had not gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tent of Meeting, near the Ark of the Covenant. Then the Lord called to Samuel.
Samuel answered, and ran to Eli saying, “Here I am! You called. Here I am!”
“I didn’t call you. Now go back to sleep.”
Samuel went back to sleep.
A second time, the Lord called Samuel, and he got up and went to Eli.
“Here I am. You called me.”
“I did not call you. Go back to sleep.”
Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him. A third time the Lord called Samuel, and he got up and went to Eli,
“Here I am. You called me.”
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy.
“Go back and go to sleep, and if you are called, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
And the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!”
And Samuel replied, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
The next day, after Jesus had decided to leave for Galilee, he met Philip and said, “Follow me.”
Philip came from Bethsaida, the same town as Andrew and Peter. Philip sought out Nathanael and said to him, “We’ve found the One that Moses spoke of in the Law, the One about whom the prophets wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph.”
“From Nazareth?” Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
“Come and see.”
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming near, he said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile.”
“How do you know me?”
“Before Philip even went to call you, while you were sitting under the fig tree, I saw you.”
“Rabbi, you’re God’s Own; you’re the ruler of Israel!”
“Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You’ll see much greater things than that. The truth of the matter is, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the chosen One.”