When I was a child, and my mother was helping me learn how to swim, she would put me in the shallow end, step back a few paces and call for me to swim to her. As I swam to her, she would step further back. This was very frustrating to me at the time. I would complain that she kept moving further away. Now, as an adult, I know exactly what she was doing. She was stepping further away so that I would swim further and become stronger.
We don’t hit the water swimming. We have to learn. We don’t hit the ground running, we have to learn to walk first. We also don’t respond to God completely and perfectly. We have to grow and learn.
This morning we have a clear example of this in the story of Samuel’s first experience of God. Samuel was a young man in today’s story, perhaps not yet even a teenager. Jewish tradition maintains that he was 12 years old at the time of this story.
Samuel had been the answer to the grief and heartfelt prayers of his mother, Hannah. In response, Hannah dedicated her son to God and, after he was weaned, brought him to be a servant in the Temple.
Samuel was a faithful and attentive servant. Notice that he responds quickly and humbly to Eli, the priest he served. In our reading God chooses young Samuel to deliver a dour prophecy. Samuel’s faithfulness to Eli was just a hint of his faithfulness to God. He would serve as a great prophet of God. Samuel was considered to be on a par with even Moses. He was the last pre-monarchic prophet of Israel. He would anoint and crown both Saul and David as king and served as a critical check to their powerful reigns.
But there is something very curious about Samuel noted in this passage. Among this warm and tender story of Samuel’s call we hear these startling words:
Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.
This phrase, in the midst of this long narrative, may be easily missed. But it offers us an important insight and great hope.
The insight it offers us is that even though Samuel had no intimate knowledge of God, he was still chosen by God as a prophet.
Samuel may be like many of us. Let us compare ourselves a bit:
• Samuel tends to the house of the Lord: many of us are deeply involved in the life of this church.
• Samuel worships God faithfully: many of us attend worship services regularly and faithfully.
• Samuel kept the commands of God: many of us try to live righteous and moral lives.
• Samuel is confused when God first speaks to him: many of us struggle to discern the reality of God in our lives.
• Samuel did not know God, though God knew him: who of us can say we know God as well as God knows us?
Therein, frankly is our hope.
God does not wait for us to reach a certain level of insight before we are saved. God does not wait until our knowledge of him is like that of a mystic saint before he shares his grace and presence in our lives. God does not wait for us to have a clear and distinct sense of our vocations before he calls us and uses us for his purposes.
Are you waiting to attain a certain insight or level of wisdom or perfection before you think God can save you, call you, gift you and use you for his glory? Then, quite frankly, you are wasting your time, and God's.
God does not wait for our perfection. God offers us his perfection instead. We simply respond to God, just like Samuel. Samuel responded, though he could not have understood. Samuel followed, though he could not have known what led him. Samuel approached God and God certainly stepped backward, just like my mother did when I was learning to swim.