Installation of Pastor Sherry Billberg
September 14, 2008
First Lutheran Church, Alexandria
I Samuel 3:1-10
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’* and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
You’d think that being called by God wouldn’t be so hard. Hearing the voice of God speak—that should be easy, shouldn’t it? If God can’t communicate clearly—who can? If you and I can’t hear God talking to us—who will we hear?
And yet, it seems, hearing God is anything but easy. For all sorts of reasons, picking up the phone when God decides to call is fraught with difficulty.
Take young Samuel in our Old Testament lesson for this afternoon. Young Samuel has at least three strikes against him when God comes a calling.
First, the timing is all wrong. When Samuel is trying to go to sleep in the temple where he’d been serving under the elderly priest, Eli…..when Samuel was first called by God, Samuel had nothing to compare that with. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1).
The timing was all wrong for Samuel to “get it.” God came calling in the midst of a veritable drought—a long dry spell when no one was hearing God speak with any degree of frequency or familiarity. No wonder Samuel missed his cue; no one was expecting God to speak—folks maybe even thought that sort of business was a thing of the past, never to be repeated again.
Second, Samuel himself wasn’t exactly well-suited for hearing God. Our text says that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”(v. 7) Samuel was just a boy, after all. He brought no seasoned wisdom, no depth of spiritual experience, no training in recognizing the things of God. The conventional wisdom of that time was that God didn’t bother with one so young—God did vital business with elders, those long past their salad days.
The timing was wrong….and the recipient of God’s call was most unexpected….
And then, to make matters worse, Samuel’s guide, old Eli was over the hill, way past his period of useful service to God. Eli was on the way out—God was removing from him the mantle of leadership. Eli’s days were numbered—his sins of omission, his failure to deal with his two rascally sons, were catching up with him.
And yet this flawed vessel Eli was the only one available to coach young Samuel in the ways of God. It had been a while, a long while, since Eli transacted business with the Almighty One…..and yet even the passage of years, maybe decades hadn’t totally dimmed Eli’s recollection of what to do.
Slowly it came back to Eli what was happening here. Gradually, gradually it dawned on Eli what was transpiring with the nocturnal pesterings of his young apprentice.
Eli—flawed vessel that he was!—Eli was the only one who could help Samuel—help him hear the rare and precious Word of the Lord. So Eli coached Samuel, giving him the words, the formula to utter next time he heard the voice that was disturbing his fitful slumber: Next time you hear him calling say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (v. 10)
Amazing. You’d think hearing God call you would be easy as pie—like falling off a log. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The timing: all wrong. The hearer: way too young and untested. The guide, the coach: a has-been, a leader in the process of losing his position, “for cause” no less.
All wrong—all of it wrong—but still God’s voice gets through.
And isn’t that, dear friends, how it always turns out to be?
Hearing God call, perceiving God’s intervention, receiving God’s invitation—it’s always fraught with difficulty…..which (when you think about it)makes God’s call all the more astounding, all the more precious.
Somehow, somehow God gets through to us…..and when we think about it, when we look back on it, we’re glad, really, and thankful that it came through some struggle.
Sherry, you have been listening long and hard for the call of God in your life. You have pondered for many years what God has wanted you to do, where God has wanted you to be. These last few years, in particular, have been filled with testing and waiting and wondering about where God might be leading you.
I know—in the midst of all that—that one of your gifts, a gift that has served you well, is the gift of patience, monitoring your natural anxiety, giving space and time for God to get you where God has wanted you.
Sherry, the struggles you have known in hearing God call you, listening to God speak to you—those very struggles are a wonderful, equipping gift for the ministry that is now yours here at First Lutheran….a ministry of creating the spaces, the times and the conditions for letting God speak to his people in this congregation. You have been called to a wonderful, yet challenging ministry of helping others listen for God’s insistent voice, a ministry of assisting folks to discern the claims God is making on them.
None of that comes easily or automatically. At times, everything seems to be wrong—the timing, the hearer, the guide….none of them are what we were expecting them to be.
And yet maybe, just maybe, those times—when everything seems to be wrong—will be when God speaks most clearly and insistently. That should, by rights, not surprise us. For we follow and belong to the God whose presence and identification with us came through most memorably in that cry of divine absence, our Lord Jesus on the cross, crying out to the heavens: “My God, my God where are you? Why have you abandoned me?”
God is faithful, and God will get through to us. Of that we can be sure.
The God who visited young Samuel in the Temple, the God who visited this world decisively in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the God who called you in your baptism and who keeps calling us in all the circumstances of life…
This same God has called you here and now, to bear his Word and help others hear it. The timing will not always be perfect. The hearers of the Word will often be distracted. And you, Sherry, would-be guide that you are, you are better than Eli….but even you are not perfect….
And that will be fine, because what we’re counting on is that nothing, nothing will ever stop God from doing vital business with us, cleaning the earwax out of our ears, naming and claiming us in Christ, and calling us to be and to go where God wants us to.
In the name of Jesus.