1 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. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the 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. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”and 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. The 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.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The 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. Therefore 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. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
This sermon is not just a chance to talk about my dog but I’m going to start by talking about my dog. As many of you know, Maggie and I adopted a German Shepherd named Abe about six weeks ago, but that wasn’t his name when we got him. Abe came with the name Sarge, because the people at the rescue didn’t like Baruka, which was his original family’s name for him. So the rescue put a picture of him on facebook and essentially had a caption contest to determine his new name: the winner was Sarge. Now what you have to understand is that Abe looks terrifying. People cross the street when they see us coming. He’s a Western Lines German Shepherd and bred for police work, so the name Sarge LOOKS like it fits. It doesn’t. This dog was scared by a rabbit the other night. I’ve never heard him bark, except when he’s dreaming. All he wants is to hold hands, or sit on your feet and lean against you. He loves children, but is not great with shadows and loud noises. In short, he’s a lovable dweeb. An Abe, not a Sarge.
But the people who just saw his picture online couldn’t know that. They couldn’t really give him a name because they didn’t know him. Name, identity and relationship are all connected, and in this story today of God calling Samuel by his name we can see some of those same connections.
We all really like our names and care when people get them wrong. Savvy marketers and waiters try to manipulate us by auto-populating our names or reading our name off our credit cards and saying them back to us when they bring the bill. Manipulation aside though, one of the first things we learn about someone is their name, and if we don’t know their name it’s clear we don’t really know them.
In the Old Testament names were even more intimate and powerful than they are today. When something important happens to someone in the Old Testament they often get a new name: Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, Naomi says to call her Mara after her sons die, Jacob becomes Israel.
But we never really know God’s name. There’s a sense that to know God’s name would be to get too cozy, like an extreme version of calling your professor by their first name. The closest we have, YHWH, is simply an approximation pronunciation-wise, and even so many Jews say “ha Shem” which means “the name” because YHWH is too holy. All the things we call God, with the exception of Jesus as part of the Trinity and perhaps YHWH, are titles or metaphors, not names. We don’t really know God like that.
But God does know us. It says here in 1st Samuel that Samuel didn’t know God yet, but God knew Samuel. And in the Psalm that goes with this reading for today it says,
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
139:2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
139:3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
139:4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.”
These are meant to be comforting things. I think sometimes God’s knowledge of us has been used as a threat, and there is some caution in that, but that’s not the context of these scriptures: God knows us from our names to our thoughts to the tips of our ears, and knowing all of that does not give up on us.
God calls to Samuel four different times in this story, patiently waiting for him to realize it’s not Eli’s voice. And I think it’s important that God calls Samuel by his name, unlike from the whirlwind or earthquake or fire that marks the appearance God other places in the Old Testament. Instead God called Samuel’s name in a voice that sounded so familiar, Samuel was positive it was Eli in the next room. And of course it was Eli that figured out who the voice was.
It’s often the Elis in our lives who point out the things that aren’t clear to us about ourselves and where God may be calling us. We all need people we trust who can see and hear the things about ourselves that we get confused. Sometimes it’s our Elis more than anything else that point to where God is calling us. Sometimes we hear the voice of God more directly in prayer or meditation, or indirectly in a series of strange coincidences or an idea that just won’t leave us alone. But we know a call by what Howard Thurman calls “the sound of the genuine” that echoes with something deep in ourselves. We might not know why exactly but just that this thing is real and right for us. Almost as if someone had called your name and said “Pay attention to this!” As if someone who knows you is persistently directing you back to where you should engage right now.
But it’s okay if it takes a while. If you’re unclear or if you head off in another direction, God isn’t going anywhere. God knows your name and God knows you.
Sometimes we hear the voice of God ourselves, sometimes we need the Elis in our lives to let us know what they perceive about us, and sometimes it feels like we’re just kind of like Samuel lying on the floor in the dark, wondering if the voice will call our names again. But God always does. Knowing you and knowing your name, God is not going to give up on you.
The things that you are called to do are often not easy. Samuel became a beloved and powerful prophet, but his very first job was to go and tell Eli that Eli’s own biological sons, who were horribly corrupt priests, were going to die. God rarely pushes people towards a super easy life. Instead God calls our names and points us to engage with what is complex and sometimes painful in ourselves and the world around us.
In the Lutheran ordination rite, after the new pastor has made lots of impossible promises about following God’s call, the bishop says to them, “May God who has given you the will to do these things, graciously give you the strength and power to attain them.” The promise that comes with all difficult calls is that we are not alone, we will have both God and a community beside us, and we will be given strength.
God knows your name, and God knows and cares for you. Wherever you are in your own heart and your own life, God is not going to give up on you.