(1 Samuel 3: 1-10)
You can tell when someone is listening to you – I mean, really listening to you. They’re not sitting there playing with their phone; they’re not distracted watching TV. No, when someone is really listening, you have every bit of their attention. They are looking at you, and there’s this look in their eyes that lets you know they’re fully engaged with what you’re saying. When you tell them something bad, their face cringes up. When it’s something funny, they may laugh. And you don’t need to repeat anything or remind them of something you said a few sentences back. You have their full and undivided attention. And it’s a good feeling to be listened to like that.
Now I readily admit that I don’t always do a good job of really listening. I think we’re all guilty of that at some point. So this past week I did an experiment of sorts – I made a concentrated effort in “intentional listening.” Whenever someone spoke to me about something, I did my best to stop whatever I was doing, look at the person, and hear them out. I don’t know that I was 100% successful, but when I did, here are some of the things I heard people say:
- I had someone express fear and anxiety about upcoming surgery. They were glad to have a date on the calendar, but still nervous about all the “what-if’s.”
- I heard frustration from the grown children of an elderly parent who should really be in assisted living care but is resisting making that change.
- I heard a new parent express joy and relief that their baby was finally starting to sleep through the night.
- I heard someone tell me how they were struggling to wrap their head around what good friends who lost their first-born son are going through, and how to be a support for them as they were wrestling with their own grief.
- And I heard excitement from a four-year old at our Trinity Weekday school camp as they told me about the beach trip their family was going on this week.
So that’s what I heard this week when I made the effort to listen. The thing is, listening isn’t always easy. Or, to put it another way, sometimes it’s hard discerning exactly what you’re hearing. Signals get crossed, voices get muddled. It’s especially the case when it’s God that’s speaking to us; trying to tell us something important. Listening can get really tricky then.
Just ask the two people in our scripture today. And I love the way the writer of Samuel sets the stage here:
The word of the Lord was rare in those days,
Visions were not widespread.
This is telling us more than simply “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” It’s also telling us that the people were not in the habit of listening for it. You don’t expect to hear something that doesn’t happen much. So when the word of the Lord does come – rare as that is – you aren’t prepared for it. You aren’t sure what to make of it.
Which is exactly what happens. This story is a story about Eli, the old priest who’d been there at the temple for years, who’d served God faithfully day in and day out. And Samuel, a young boy, raised in the temple by the priest, his protégé. It’s the dead of night, we are told. Almost dawn – the lamp of the temple; the lamp that would stay on all night to keep the place lit – that lamp had not gone out yet. Still lingering. Both Eli and Samuel, fast asleep.
And so it is early in the morning, not quite dawn yet, in a time when the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread, that God decides to speak. Figures, right? And if that’s not enough, God does not speak to the faithful priest. No, God speaks to the boy Samuel. The boy! And Samuel has no idea what to make of it, because these kinds of things don’t happen, right?
He assumes, understandably, that it’s Eli – so Samuel gets up and goes to Eli’s quarters and asks the priest what he wants. Woken from his slumber, Eli tells the boy he’s mistaken – he did not call him – and so he should go back to bed. This happens a second time, and then a third time. And it’s on the third time that Eli realizes something else is at play here. Something besides the active imagination of a child. No, Eli realizes that Samuel is hearing a voice, and that voice is the voice of God. So this time, Eli sends him back with instructions to respond next time by saying: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
Now we know what happens next – we know the Lord calls Samuel again, and this time Samuel does as suggested and says “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And with that, God gives his command to Samuel – a command to tell Eli some not-so-great news about what the future holds. That’s a different sermon altogether, but the main takeaway here is that God speaks and Samuel listens.
And this would be the first of many God-speakings and Samuel-listenings. It was Samuel, after all, who, on God’s command, would anoint Israel’s first two kings. It was Samuel who would call out Saul as his leadership declined. The centrality of Samuel to the biblical story cannot be overestimated. I mean, the guy’s got not one book named after him, but two!
And yet one has to ask if any of that would’ve happened had it not been for Eli.
Even though we don’t hear much from Eli after the third chapter. His time had come and gone; he kind of fades into the background as Samuel takes center stage. But one wonders if the rise of Samuel could’ve ever happened at all without Eli.
I mean, God calls out to Samuel, and what’s his initial response? Here I am. He’s not even sure who he’s talking to. But other than that, “here I am” is nothing more than marking yourself “present.” Like the first day of class, the teacher goes down the roll, they call your name and you say “here.” It doesn’t mean anything more than acknowledging your own presence. It’s a passive response; there’s no action required. Samuel? Here I am.
It is Eli who helps Samuel really listen and know how best to respond. Because when God calls your name, God is not interesting in knowing that you are “present.” God already knows that! What God wants to hear is that you are engaged, that you are ready to respond – that you are listening.
One has to think that things would’ve been different had Eli kept blowing Samuel off that night – Kid, stop bothering me, let me get some sleep! One has to think that things would’ve gone a whole different direction had Eli thought to himself, God is speaking to this kid, and not me. And that’s not fair. I’ve been here for years, I’ve given my life to this place. It’s me God should be speaking to!
But Eli does neither of those things – because Eli knows that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days, and visions were not widespread.” So if God is speaking to this boy, then Eli needs to help him listen.
And that is why Eli tells Samuel, The next time you hear that voice, don’t just tell it you’re here. Tell it more. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. Because that response is an active response, acknowledging that it is God who is speaking and Samuel who is listening. A response that accepts an invitation to engage in relationship. And it could not have happened here without Eli.
Real listening is a form of art. At least it seems that way when good ol’ Frederick Buechner describes it. Listen to this:
God speaks, and the words God speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and our sacred journeys. We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music. Sometimes we avoid listening for fear of what we may hear, sometimes for fear that we may hear nothing at all but the empty rattle of our own feet on the pavement. But be not afraid,” says another, “for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.
My friends, this kind of listening, this kind of art, is not something we are meant to do on our own. We need guidance to hear what is being said. We need mentors who put aside ego and pride to put us in the best position possible to listen. We need Elis among us. Those wise sages who have a healthy sense of their own place and purpose; those who know that, when the voice is speaking elsewhere, their job is to give us the verbiage to respond.
Some number of years ago, I sat in her office at the church. Martha was White Memorial’s Director of Christian Education, had been for years; but now she was something more than that. In the wild contours of staff turnover that sometimes happens for no reason other than random circumstance, Martha was the constant presence in the midst of transition. And so it was her office I found myself sitting in, because while I thought our interim minister and interim associate minister were fine enough people, I didn’t know them yet, didn’t know if they’d be the right people to have this conversation with.
I had come home for the weekend, home from my first job and new life after college, because I needed to know if the voice I’d been hearing was the voice of God or just my crazy imagination. For a while I’d been responding with “Here I am,” but the voice persisted. Was I really listening?
I remember sitting in Martha’s office at our arranged time that Saturday afternoon. She was sitting across from me in a chair with her back to wall-to-wall shelves of books. I told her about the voice, about how I wasn’t sure seminary was the right thing for me. She listened, because that’s what good mentors do; and I remember her knitting as she listened. It felt almost holy, watching what she did with her hands as I talked. She look down at it from time to time, but I never felt as if it distracted her. I could tell she was really listening.
And when she was done listening, she offered wise counsel – the equivalent of “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And so I did. Obviously.
And I’m not telling you this so you know how I was called to the ministry – because, truth be told, calls like this are not singular events. They are for all of us a process, like conversion, really. They take time, they work on you. They mold you into something you weren’t before. But call stories have a place of origin where the seed is first planted in the dark night. And if you look long enough, you can almost always find an Eli there.
Martha now lives in Davidson – she’s been to worship here a time or two. A few years ago after her first visit, she and I went out to lunch. And I made a point at that lunch of doing something I’d been meaning to do for a long time – and that was to thank her for that conversation in her office all those years ago, thank her for being for me an Eli.
My friends, who are the Elis among you? Who gives you guidance on your faith journey, on your life journey? Who helps you discern and really listen for the voice of God?
I want to invite you this week to give that some thought. And then I want to invite you to take time to reach out to them and let them know how grateful you are. If they’re not living in Charlotte anymore, find their phone number and give them a call. If they’re not living, write them a note anyway. Maybe send it to a family member, or maybe not send it at all. Either way, they’ll know what you said.
And as you do this, never fail to remember that you are almost certainly an Eli to someone else. Because you took time to care. Because you put ego and pride aside. Because you made an effort to really, really listen.
On this day and on every day, may we all be grateful for and cherish the Elis among us and in us.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (HarperOne, 1991), 115.