The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE VOICE

Delivered 1/25/09
Text: I Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Someone has suggested that the title for a sermon about this incident in the life of Samuel should be "The Danger of Sleeping in Church." As you Bible scholars know there is another story in the New Testament which could be titled the same way.(1) Young Eutychus of Troas was at worship one Sunday evening, seated on the window sill. The apostle Paul was the visiting preacher, and he DID preach...and preach and preach and preach. He preached till midnight. Eutychus dozed...and crashed. He fell out the window, toes over teacups, three stories to the ground. Miraculously, he survived...the fall AND the preaching. "The Danger of Sleeping in Church."

There is an old, old story of a man who kept falling asleep during the sermon. His pastor was getting frustrated and, one Sunday, decided to teach the man a lesson. As was his practice, he started to preach slowly, almost in a monotone - sure enough the man soon fell into a deep sleep. So the pastor said to the congregation, "Everyone who wants to go to Heaven, stand up." Everyone stood...except, of course, the man who was fast asleep.

The pastor had everyone sit down. Then he gently said, "Everyone who wants to go to Hell," and with a bang on the pulpit and a rise in his voice, "STAND UP!"

The sleeping man snorted awake and jumped to his feet as everyone around started to snicker. The man looked at all the folks sitting around him, then looked at the pastor and said, "Preacher, I don't know what we're votin' on. But it looks like you and me are the only ones for it."

"The Danger of Sleeping in Church." Of course, young Samuel apparently was SUPPOSED to be sleeping. Some years before, his mother Hannah had brought him to Shiloh in fulfillment of a promise she had made to God before the boy was ever born - as a woman who had been unable to have children, she promised God that if she were to be granted that privilege, she would return the child to divine service. She was as good as her word - Samuel was born, and as soon as he was able to make it on his own, she brought the lad to the High Priest Eli. After all, he was only hers for a little while; he was on LOAN from the Lord.

It was not the best of times for the people of Israel, but not the worst either. There were no wars going on, no threats from hostile neighbors, although the Philistines were always looming near. The nation was not the unified whole it would come to be, but rather still a loose confederation of tribes. Religiously, no new ground was being broken. In fact, it seems that the faith that had sustained the people through centuries of slavery, the exodus from Egypt, a generation of wilderness wandering, and finally settlement in the promised homeland, was now reduced to the routine, and for some pious charlatans even an occasion for corruption. As the text has it, "The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread." Sounds unnervingly familiar, does it not?

Now we find Samuel. He is asleep in the sanctuary, apparently his assigned position near the Ark of the Covenant. A voice comes in the early morning darkness: "Samuel...Samuel."

The boy assumes it is Eli calling...no one else is there. Eli has called like this before - he is old, nearly blind; he needs help getting around. So, rubbing sleep from his eyes, the boy goes in to the old man and says, "Here am I. You called?"

Just as sleepily, the aging priest turns over on his palate and says, "No, I didn't. Go back to sleep."

So the boy turns, goes back through the curtain and lays down again. But now the call comes again: "Samuel!"

You can imagine the perplexed look that comes over the child's face. He comes back to Eli, not quite so sleepily now. He was still awake from the first visit. "You called?"

Eli was wide awake now himself. No doubt he wondered at Samuel's first visit. What was the voice the boy heard? Could he have just imagined it? Was it something he ate? Or was it something more? Could it have been the voice...of God? Possibly, but not likely. God's direct contact with human beings seemed to be a thing of the past. Oh, there was no doubt that God was involved with the lives of the people - Samuel's very existence was the answer to a most specific prayer. But now, with this second call, Eli wonders. Maybe...just maybe? "No, I didn't call. Go back to bed."

So a puzzled twelve-year-old(2) turns and goes out once more. But before he can get comfortable again, the voice returns: "Samuel."

WHAT IN THE WORLD? This is getting ridiculous - up again and back to the priest. "You called?" He must have thought Eli was playing a game with him, but it was certainly a strange time of the night for games.

But by now, Eli knows to whom the voice belongs. He turns that old grey head and those age-dimmed eyes to the boy and says, "No, I did not call. Go back and lie down. But if the voice comes again, say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'"

Now the boy's mind is racing a mile a minute. What could the Lord want with him? He had never heard of anyone else being called this way. So, with a little shrug of the shoulders, it is back to bed again. And sure enough, a fourth time it comes: "Samuel...Samuel!"

"Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." And the rest, as they say, is history. The young boy who met God in the sanctuary responded to the divine call and went on to become Yahweh's messenger to Israel...ranking in the eyes of the faithful with Moses and Abraham.

The New Testament lesson for this morning is another "call" story - Nathanael. The Gospel writer tells us of a Galilee day, Jesus' meeting with Philip, and the invitation to "Follow me." The story is obviously compressed because the very next thing we read is of Philip's search for his buddy from nearby Cana, Nathanael. "Yo, NATE...We have found the one we have been waiting for all our lives! The one the prophets predicted. The one Moses pointed to. He is Jesus of Nazareth!"

Then there was Nathanael's response: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" What was that all about? Was there some little backwater rivalry between two inconsequential towns that has been lost to history? Did Nazareth and Cana play each other in football every year? Would it be enough to allow Nathanael sufficient excuse not to bother? Perhaps.

But Philip gently persisted: "Come and see." Nathanael came. He listened. He heard a unique voice. He responded to the call, and it changed his life.

A few minutes ago I suggested the title for this sermon might be "The Danger of Sleeping in Church." Actually, a better title would be simply "The Danger of BEING in Church." Just like the boy Samuel, you or someone you have brought with you may hear the voice of God, and as with Nathanael and countless others through the centuries, that can change life forever.

A while back Will Willimon, now a United Methodist Bishop but formerly the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, got a call from an upset parent, a VERY upset parent.(3) "I hold you personally responsible for this," he said.

"Me?" Will asked.

The father was hot, upset because his graduate school bound daughter had just informed him that she was going to chuck it all ("throw it all away" was the way the father described it) and go do mission work with the Presbyterians in Haiti. "Isn't that absurd!" shouted the father. "A BS degree in mechanical engineering from Duke and she's going to dig ditches in Haiti."

"Well, I doubt that she's received much training in the Engineering Department here for that kind of work, but she's probably a fast learner and will probably get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months," Will said.

"Look," said the father, "this is no laughing matter. You are completely irresponsible to have encouraged her to do this. I hold you personally responsible," he said.

As the conversation went on, Dr. Willimon pointed out that the well-meaning but obviously unprepared parents were the ones who had started this ball rolling. THEY were the ones who had her baptized, read Bible stories to her, took her to Sunday School, let her go with the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship to ski in Vail. Will said, "You're the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me."

"But all we ever wanted her to be was a Presbyterian," said the father, meekly. Hmm.

Dr. Willimon writes,

Some of you have heard my theory of church design: I think the reason why we pad our pews, and bolt the furniture down to the floor, print up the service in a bulletin, and carefully, deliberately plod through the prescribed acts of worship is an inner fear. We tie everything down, we make church so predictable, so settled and fixed because, in our collective memories, we remember [these] stories...of ordinary people who have heard their names called. We know that the temple, or this church can be a risky, dangerous place, what with the living God roaming about.(4)

Are you ready to hear the voice of God? Do not answer too quickly. You might hear something that is not what you had in mind. What Samuel heard was not something warm and fuzzy - he heard a word of severe judgment. You are very liable

to hear something you do not want to hear,
calling you to do something you do not want to do,
and with people you had rather not be around.
Really listening can leave you really disturbed.

This past week the nation remembered the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. He had his own story to tell about listening to the voice. He had gone into the ministry mostly because his father was a pastor and he always did what Daddy King wanted him to do. Martin wanted a quiet life as a professor, possibly President of Morehouse College in Atlanta someday. He did not intend to be a national civil rights leader.

Through an odd turn of events, as a young pastor he was thrust into the forefront of the Montgomery bus boycott. He came home late one night, tired, frightened. The phone rang. An angry voice on the other end said, "We're gonna get you, Nigger!" Martin Luther King stood in his kitchen, frozen in fear.

He wanted to call Daddy King for reassurance and advice. But Daddy King was not there. Then he said it was like a voice. "Martin, you do what's right. You stand up for justice. You be my drum major for righteousness. I will be with you." He had heard his name called. He knew what God wanted. His life was forever changed and through his life, so was the world.(5) The voice. It could happen to you. Be careful.

Where are you most likely to hear the voice? It could be anywhere, but I will submit that the most likely place will be in the church, and the reason I say so is that the church is the most likely place for getting the help we need in hearing and understanding. Samuel needed Eli's help; Nathanael needed Philip's help. You and I need each other's help.

What a concept! I know we are always encouraged to invite our friends and neighbors to church. After all, this is the way the church grows. But what reasons do we give ourselves for extending the invitation? To hear marvelous music? To meet interesting people? To enjoy delightful fellowship? To listen to stimulating sermons? How about TO HEAR THE VOICE OF GOD! As I say, what a concept! To hear the voice of God! Invite someone to church this week.

We are living in a time much like that of the boy Samuel, a time when the "word of the Lord was rare." But the message of scripture is that God is not silent forever. One morning, as you prepare to begin the day, one night, when you are minding your own business trying to unwind, or one Sunday when you are sitting quietly (even sleepily) in church, there is THE VOICE - you hear your named called, and like little Samuel, your world changes. Are you ready? Are you?

Amen!


1. Acts 20:7-12

2. Tradition suggests that this is Samuel's age at the time of this incident, but we have no way of knowing for certain.

3. William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Sept 10, 1995

4. Will Willimon, sermon, "The Dangers of Going to Church," 1/19/97

5. ibid.

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