1 Samuel 3: 1-10
You can tell when someone is listening to you – I mean, really listening to you. They’re not playing with their cell phone; they’re not distracted watching TV or reading a book. No – when someone is really listening to you, you have every bit of their attention. They are looking at you and the look in their eyes lets you know they’re fully engaged with what you’re saying. When you tell them something bad, they cringe. When it’s something funny, they laugh. And you don’t need to repeat anything or remind them of something you said a few sentences back. You have their undivided attention. And isn’t it a wonderful feeling to be listened to!
We don’t always do a good job of letting someone know that we’re listening to them, so this past week I did an experiment of sorts – I made a concentrated effort in “intentional intense listening.” At least that’s what I called it. Whenever someone spoke to me about something, I did my best to stop whatever I was doing, look at the person, and intentionally and intensely listen. And when I did that, I was struck by some of the things I heard – things that I otherwise might have missed. Here are some of the things I heard people tell me:
- I heard someone voice concern about how they were sick but the sickness hadn’t been diagnosed yet. They were going to a bunch of doctors and they were all telling her different things. It was pretty frustrating for her.
- I had someone express fear and anxiety about an upcoming life transition. They had most of the details figured out but were still pretty nervous about all the “what-if’s.”
- I heard frustration from someone struggling with aging parents and their insistence on continuing to live in their two-story home when they really need to be in an assisted living facility.
- I heard a new parent express joy and relief that their baby was finally starting to sleep through the night.
- And I heard excitement about voice lessons from the best five-year old niece ever. Okay, that was actually last month, not last week, but this proud uncle thinks it’s still worth mentioning!
All of that is what I heard when I made the effort to listen. Even though listening like this isn’t what I would call easy. Or, put another way, it’s sometimes hard to discern exactly what it is that you’re hearing. Signals get crossed, voices get muddled. That’s especially the case when it’s God that’s speaking to us; trying to tell us something important, trying to show us the way. Listening can be a challenge then.
Just ask the two people in our scripture today. It says something, don’t you think, that we come upon this scripture just a few weeks after Epiphany – that sometimes-neglected day in the life of the church when we celebrate the arrival of the three kings to the manger and the revelation of God’s coming into the world in Jesus. Sometimes that enlightenment is as clear as a bright star in the night sky. Other times the voice of the Lord is one we mistaken for something – or someone – else. That’s what we find in this story of Samuel and Eli in the temple: hearing, but not necessarily listening. Seeing, but not really perceiving. Confusion, even in the moment of epiphany.
And I love the way the writer of Samuel starts things off. With his opening words in the third chapter we learn that, even though all this took place thousands and thousands of years ago, in a time we tend to think that God’s miracles and visions were in abundance, instead we are told this:
The word of the Lord was rare in those days,
Visions were not widespread.
So from the very opening sentence, we are not merely reading a story. We are in it; right in the thick of it. I mean, when was the last time an angel of the Lord appeared in your living room to deliver a message? When was the last time waters were parted in your presence, or prophets carried up into the heavens in chariots of fire? When was the last time dry brittle bones were suddenly enfleshed and brought back to life, right before your very eyes?
Exactly. Those things don’t happen all that much in our day and time. And they apparently weren’t happening all that much in Samuel’s and Eli’s, either.
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 illuminated in darkness – that lamp hadn’t gone out yet. There are two people sleeping in the temple. One is Eli, the old priest who’d been there for years, who had served God faithfully day in and day out, who had seen and heard it all. The other is Samuel, a young boy, raised in the temple by the priest, set to be his protégé.
And so early on this morning, not quite yet dawn, in a time when the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread, God speaks. But there’s a twist: God doesn’t speak to the faithful priest, as we might expect. Instead, God speaks to the boy Samuel, who has no idea what to do with it. Because these kinds of things didn’t happen.
Samuel assumes it’s Eli talking to him, which I think we all can agree is a perfectly logical conclusion. Who speaks? People speak. What other people are in the temple? Only Eli. So Samuel makes his way to the priest’s quarters, wakes him up, and asks him what he wants. Through his sleep-induced fog, Eli tells the boy he’s mistaken – he did not call him – and instructs him to go back to bed. Which he does.
This scene plays out a second time, identical to the first. And then a third time. And by this third time, Eli realizes that something is going on here. This is not a boy’s overactive imagination. No, he is hearing a voice, and that voice belongs to God. So Eli sends Samuel back to his room and directs him to respond by saying: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
Now before we get into the heart of things and what it means to really listen to God, I want to deviate for a moment to lift up something that often goes unnoticed. See, I don’t think it is insignificant that God chooses to speak to Samuel instead of the priest Eli. Nor do I think we should ignore the fact that Eli discounts Samuel with each early morning greeting and has to be hit over the head with it a few times before he sees it for what it was.
Culturally and historically speaking, we’ve tended to place an outsized influence upon our clergy when it comes to understanding God and God’s work in the world. I’m reminded of the occasional airline flight – usually one of the longer ones – where my seat companion learns I’m a minister and immediately launches into a litany of deep life questions, hoping for quick answers. At family holiday gatherings around the dinner table, who’s the one everyone turns to when it’s time for grace? This guy.
I remember a colleague of mine sharing a time when he and his buddies were golfing one Saturday morning and a huge rainstorm appeared out of nowhere. As they huddled under the shelter, avoiding the torrential rain and watching their day slip away, one of them turned to my colleague and said, “Can’t you do anything about this??” To which he quipped: “Sorry, I’m in sales, not management.” If you’ve heard me use that before, as many of you have, now you know where I got it.
Thankfully, we have stories like our scripture today that fly in the face of this understanding and serve to remind us that God’s voice does not rest on a select view – that long ago, when God apparently wasn’t in the habit of saying much and finally decides to speak, God speaks not to the seasoned priest but to a young boy who had no idea what was going on.
Beloved, never discount the fact that you are just as able – and sometimes more able – to be the one God is speaking to; to be the recipient of God’s message for your life, for the life of this church. Never discount that.
On the contrary, expect God to speak to you! Expect it! As hard as it might be to know if the voice you’re hearing is coming from God or something else. If the nudge you’re feeling inside is a holy nudge or just restlessness. The truth of it is that you and I have something in common with Samuel: we’re just not all that accustomed to hearing God’s voice. It’s not something we have a lot of experience with. The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Sometimes it feels like it still is now.
We’ve grown accustomed to embracing other explanations for things we don’t understand. We’ve resigned ourselves to thinking that God doesn’t break into our world all that much anymore. We don’t have waters part right in front of us. We’ve never seen thousands of people fed with a few pieces of bread and fish. And we’ve certainly never witnessed a dead man walking out of his tomb on Sunday morning. We live in a world where the knee-jerk reaction to anything outside the ordinary, anything miraculous or wonderful, sounds an awful lot like Eli: You’re dreaming. You’re hearing voices in your head. Don’t pay any attention to them. Go back to bed. Keep dreaming.
But what if we were to choose a different response – if we follow Samuel’s lead and say instead, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening! Speak, Lord, because I am ready to hear a good word. Speak, Lord, because despite what the world around us might have us think, despite what we sometimes think ourselves, I believe you still have something important to say.
Some years ago, at a weekly Bible study I was leading, one of our members, a recent transplant from the United Church of Christ, shared a quote by the late Gracie Allen, wife of the late comedian George Burns:
Never place a period where God has put a comma –
God is still speaking.
She explained that the United Church of Christ had adopted the comma as a logo of sorts for their denomination – commas appearing everywhere on coffee mugs, buttons, lapel pins, their website.
Never place a period where God has put a comma.
I got to be honest – I kinda wish the Presbyterians had thought that up first! Because Beloved, God has not stopped speaking to us. Not even close. What do you think this world of ours would look like if we followers of Jesus lived our lives in such a way because we knew God is still speaking to us and we are making a concentrated effort to listen? What would it look like, in this age of absent visions and misheard words, if the church – this church – was hearing God’s voice loud and clear?
What do you think God might be saying to you, to us, right now about our lives, our calling, our church, our world? If we really listened, what do you think we might hear God saying about the billions near and far who cannot remember the last time they had a decent meal? What is God saying to us about the ever-increasing desperate need for affordable housing in our city? What is God saying to us about those suffering from a culture of violence and fear, about the scourge of war and rampant inequity? Or those who are victims of domestic violence in our country every nine seconds, or who die of treatable diseases every eleven? What is God saying to us about those who just need to know that they are loved, that they are enough, and that they matter? What wonderful, amazing, life-giving things is God saying to us?
Not a period, people of God. But a comma. God is still speaking. We should keep listening.
In the name of 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.