As we celebrate Dr. King last week and today, let’s remember that, like Samuel, he too experienced God’s call in the night. It has much to teach us about our own call from God.
2nd Sunday after Epiphany (Year B) – January 18, 2015 – 1 Samuel 3:1-20
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“Calling In the Night” – Pastor Evan Davis
It’s funny how God comes to you in the middle of the night. When you’re gazing up at the stars. When you’re lying in bed and you can’t sleep. When a ringing telephone suddenly wakes you, and you answer, your heart pounding. We heard a story today about God coming to a teenage boy named Samuel, a boy who had literally been set aside before his birth to be a servant of God. But he didn’t know yet what exactly that meant, nor where it would take him. We don’t either.
This part was without a manuscript. I focused on:
Those whom God calls, God equips
“The call is in the gifts”1
God calls and equips unlikely people, like Samuel
Samuel’s call was difficult – tell his boss, his mentor, Eli, that his house would be overthrown. Fortunately for Samuel, God had previously revealed this to Eli through a different “man of God.” Eli helped Samuel recognize God’s voice and made his first prophetic job a little bit easier by accepting God’s will.
Like Samuel, sometimes we need someone to help us hear the voice of God.
We’ll sing here in a little bit, “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.” The song makes it sound so easy. Sometimes, thankfully, it is. But all too often, when the call is to oppose the true powers of fear, hatred, injustice, and violence in this world, when the call is to change something about our lives that we don’t really want to change, that we don’t even want to admit is wrong, the call is not easy at all.
There’s one modern-day prophet, modern-day Samuel we’re celebrating this week, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His birthday and feast day was last Thursday the 15th, and tomorrow our wider society will recognize him. We celebrate him because he had the courage to speak the truth, to act upon the truth in which he believed. The power of how he spoke and lived with truth and integrity, even up to the point when it cost him his life, is why our society changed for the better. It’s why we remember him, even as, if we’re honest, we realize that his work of turning fear and hatred into trust and love is far from over. You may disagree with me on details and how to respond, but we must accept the fact that the experience of people of color in this society is different from the experience of white people like me. If you don’t believe me, listen to the stories of people whose lives are different than yours.
Sometimes we just need to listen. One thing you might not know about Dr. King was that he too had a Samuel moment, when God called him in the night. I’m going to share with you his story, in his own words, from a sermon he preached on August 27, 1967, in Chicago. I share his words, with the utmost respect (I hope) for the fact that this is his story, not mine. I have never even come close to experiencing what he has…so I will not try to tell it the way he did. I share his words because we need to hear his story. So let’s just simply hear Dr. King – not just put him on a pedestal, but actually listen to what he has to say. He’s just mentioned the Montgomery Bus Boycott and he continues:2
…And then we started our struggle together. (Yeah)
Things were going well for the first few days, but then about ten or fifteen days later, after the white people in Montgomery knew that we meant business, they started doing some nasty things. (Yes) They started making nasty telephone calls, and it came to the point that some days more than forty telephone calls would come in, threatening my life, the life of my family, the life of my children. I took it for a while in a strong manner.
But I never will forget one night very late. It was around midnight. And you can have some strange experiences at midnight. (Yes, sir) I had been out meeting with the steering committee all that night. And I came home, and my wife was in the bed and I immediately crawled into bed to get some rest to get up early the next morning to try to keep things going. And immediately the telephone started ringing and I picked it up. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” (Lord Jesus)
I’d heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. (Yes) I was frustrated, bewildered. And then I got up and went back to the kitchen and I started warming some coffee, thinking that coffee would give me a little relief. And then I started thinking about many things. I pulled back on the theology and philosophy that I had just studied in the universities, trying to give philosophical and theological reasons for the existence and the reality of sin and evil, but the answer didn’t quite come there. I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born about a month earlier. We have four children now, but we only had one then. She was the darling of my life. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. (Go ahead) And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife who was over there asleep. (Yes) And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer; I was weak. (Yes)
Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. (Yes) You can’t even call on Mama now. (My Lord) You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about. (Yes) That power that can make a way out of no way. (Yes) And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself. (Yes, sir) And I bowed down over that cup of coffee—I never will forget it. (Yes, sir) And oh yes, I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. (Yes) I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. (Yes) I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. (Yes) But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. (Yes) And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.” (Yes) I wanted tomorrow morning to be able to go before the executive board with a smile on my face.
And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, (Yes) “Martin Luther, (Yes) stand up for righteousness, (Yes) stand up for justice, (Yes) stand up for truth. (Yes) And lo I will be with you, (Yes) even until the end of the world.”
And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, (Never) never to leave me alone.
Dr. King said, “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”
I pray you never have to hear that kind of a call in the night. Because these aren’t easy words to pray. And we can never pray them on our own. It’s not as if Dr. King was a perfect person. He was simply someone who trusted that God wanted to use him, and that God would sustain him and give him the strength and ability he needed. And God did. The Spirit gave him that voice and that strength at the right time. We are weak, our strength will falter, whether we face a nasty voice on the other end of the phone, or whether we face the brokenness present in our institutions, our systems, and in our own hearts. The Spirit will give you what you need at the right moment.
Maybe you have heard God calling in the night. Maybe you will. When God calls, only God can give us the faith to reply, “Here I am, Lord; speak, for your servant is listening.”3 God will be with you. We will stand alongside each other. And together we can listen to Jesus who both calls and empowers us to speak and act for love in a world that needs so much of it. Amen.
1From a sermon by Dr. John Largen, at that time of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (January 2010).
2The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool,” Sermon preached at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on August 27, 1967. As recorded by The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/why_jesus_called_a_man_a_fool/ (accessed January 17, 2015).
3Emphasis on this point from Roger Nam, Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10[11-20], https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2305 (accessed January 17, 2015).