“Mr. Watson, come here—I want to see you.”
Those are the famous first words ever transmitted by telephone, spoken by Alexander Graham Bell March 10, 1876, into an early telephone prototype and heard by his assistant, Thomas Watson, in their Boston laboratory.
And we’ve been making calls ever since, and some have been just memorable. Like…
The call astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong took on the moon from President Nixon.
Frank Wills called the D.C. police about a possible break-in at the Watergate Hotel—that was also connected to President Nixon.
Al Cowlings called the LAPD regarding his friend, former football star O.J. Simpson.
A congratulatory call from President Obama to the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team, after winning the World Cup.
All the calls from the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
Most of the calls we take, however, are often about mundane matters. But still, many transmit useful information that keeps our schedules ticking, or updates us on family news, or just puts us in touch with friends.
Of course nowadays, we’d rather read a text message than answer a phone call. Who here, when their phone ring says, “Who the heck is calling me?!”
And then there are times when we probably shouldn’t take a call, but we do anyway—like taking a call in a movie theater, during a worship service or even during a funeral.
All of this leads us to the story of young Samuel, asleep in the worship center at Shiloh, when he heard his name called. He took the call, but assumed the caller was the elderly priest Eli. When he went to Eli, the old man said it wasn’t him who called. After this happened three times, Eli finally realized it must be God summoning the lad, so he instructed Samuel to take the call—which Samuel did. And so began Samuel’s role as a prophet of for God. He got a call from God. Answered it, and was never the same again.
Now in terms of the Bible’s timeline—the period when the priest Eli and his two no-good sons were priests of the Lord—judges ruled the land, and, as the book of Judges notes: “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (21:25). And of course, what many decided was “right in their own eyes” was nowhere close to what was right in the eyes of God.
In such times, it’s quite possible that even those working in the world of religion aren’t all that tuned into the possibility of God speaking.
Notice that it wasn’t until Samuel had run to Eli three times it occurred to Eli that it was God summoning the boy. Which speaks to one of the biggest problems regarding the call of God. And that is uncertainty. Because it’s not that we’re unwilling to take the call, but that we’re often not sure it’s our spiritual phone that’s ringing.
And, even if it is, we are uncertain the voice we’re hearing is the voice of God or just an idea that popped into our head out of nowhere.
Consider the case of E. Stanley Jones, an American Christian who was a missionary. When he was 23, a college president asked him to teach at the college. The president told him, “It is the will of the student body, the will of the townspeople, the will of the faculty and we believe it is the will of God for you to teach in this college.”
At the same time, however, a friend wrote to him saying, “I believe it is the will of God for you to go into evangelistic work here in America.”
During the same period, Jones also received a letter from his denomination’s mission board saying, “It is our will to send you to India.”
And if all of that were not enough, he suspected God’s will for him was to go as a missionary to Africa.
Jones described this as a “traffic jam of wills.”
In the end, after much prayer, he became convinced he should go to India, which he did, and where he ministered faithfully until his death. But at the time of the competing calls, he had no foolproof way to be sure which, if any, was God’s will.
All of this—Samuel and Jones—tells us that even in times when the world around us is not tuned in, God does still speak and God does still call. But we have to listen carefully, despite disbelief, despite our notion to decide what is right in our eyes. And then, like Watson and Samuel, we have to respond.
So how can we tell when God is calling? It’s not like we have a photo icon that appears when we get an incoming call on our smartphones.
To consider this let me share with you the story of a 19th-century Methodist Bishop.
He was John Seybert, first bishop of the Evangelical Association Church, one of the forerunner denominations that later came together to form the United Methodist Church. Seybert’s Evangelical Association denomination specialized in ministry to the German-speaking immigrants on the American frontier.
In 1820 at age 29, Seybert entered the ministry. In 1839 he reluctantly became a bishop in the church—reluctant because he didn’t think he was worthy.
Seybert never married, devoting his life to the church, traveling constantly to begin new congregations and minister to people on the frontier. From his journals, we know he logged some 175,000 miles by horse and wagon, preached almost ten thousand sermons, made 46,000 pastoral calls, held 8,000 prayer meetings and helped establish congregations throughout the Midwest.
For all this, he received a salary of $100 per year, out of which he paid all his expenses. Nobody get any ideas!
Bishop Seybert was moved by human need. He frequently gave people money out of his own pocket. In his travels, Seybert became concerned about the scarcity of good Christian literature on the American frontier, so he brought a cargo of such books over the mountains from Pennsylvania for distribution to folks in Ohio and the Midwest. He paid for these books out of his own pocket.
But here’s my reason for telling you about him: Before entering the ministry, Seybert was a cooper— a barrel maker—working in a cooperage—where he made a decent living at that trade. But all the while he thought he was feeling the call of God to do something else. He wasn’t sure, however, so he delayed answering the call because he was uncertain whether God was truly calling him. But here’s what he wrote in his journal:
“I have determined, if it be God’s will, to labor in His vineyard with my Evangelical brethren, I should go. I would have gone sooner, had I been certain the Lord wanted me to go. However, I had no rest at my cooperage, and concluded that the only way to get into the clear concerning this matter was to make an effort. If the Lord blesses my labor with the awakening and conversion of sinners, and the edification and encouragement of saints, I shall determine to serve Him in this way with all my ability, wherever I might have to go, whatever crosses I might have to bear, and however long the task might last. If my labor is not blessed, then I shall have my answer.”
This journal entry describes what you might call the “Seybert method,” a way of determining if it’s God on the line. Seybert wasn’t sure, and so he decided to just go in the direction that seemed right—to try and see what happened.
He felt that if it wasn’t God’s will, he would soon find out by making a start. “If the Lord blesses my labor …” Seybert wrote, then he’d know. And if God didn’t, then he’d know that too.
Sometimes that’s the only way we can determine the right thing to do—make a start at it. Making a start is an act of faithfulness and it’s an act of hope.
Faithfulness because we are responding to God—or at least we are willing to find out if it is God. And hope because starting is always a sign of hope. Making a beginning is a statement of faith in—or at least hope for—a good and Godly outcome.
Like Bell to Watson…calls are made and received every day.
Like Samuel from God…God calls every day.
God calls on God’s people to start something new so that the will of God is lived out in faithful response to God, so that the ways of God are shared, so that the Kingdom of God is on earth as it is in heaven.
God is calling you. In some way, in some manner, God is calling you.
No matter your age, no matter where you are in life, no matter your ability or how unworthy you believe yourself to be…God is calling you.
So I wonder…What is waiting for a start in your life?
Is there anything about which you wonder if it could be God giving you a nudge…a call?
Is it possible God is calling you to get training for something? To start something? To begin something in faith?
Or maybe there is something you have sensed God is calling you to do in the Church—this church perhaps.
Bottom line… God is calling you.
Which means we have a choice. Will we answer? Will we respond? Will we listen and consider?
Like Mr. Watson and like Samuel, we are getting a call from God, calling your name, followed by “Come here. I want to see you.” Amen.