When the Word of the Lord is Rare (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

1 Samuel 3:1-20


“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” we are told about the time in the waning days of the judges of Israel when Eli and his two sons were the priests. I think maybe some of us feel this way about our own time: The word of the Lord is rare in these days; visions are not widespread.

Maybe we feel it about our own lives, that amidst all the words with which we are bombarded every day the word of the Lord is not getting through. For, if it were, we might be less fearful and more hopeful. If it were, we might be less stressful and irritable and more alive with the possibilities of what could be.

So the question is: How do we make a space in our lives for the word of the Lord to get through? There is a hymn we sing sometimes in our worship and will today: “Lord, speak to me, that I may speak.” How is it possible for us to hear the Lord speak to us, empowering us to speak to others with words of compassion and love and hope reflecting that, although the word of the Lord may be rare in these days, it is not rare with us?

In a time of turmoil in Israel when things were about to change dramatically and the word of the Lord was rare, I think we get an answer in the story of old Eli the priest and his young apprentice Samuel.

The first part of the answer that comes from this story is that the word of the Lord is never loud and blaring. It is never overpowering and overwhelming. If you spend your days surrounded by noise—the noise of television, the noise of the radio, the noise of work and busyness and things to do, the noise of chatter about everything from politics to sports to the latest gossip—you may find it very difficult to hear any words from the Lord. If silence is your enemy and idleness when you are not checking some electronic devise for the latest information makes you anxious, you may find it hard to hear the Lord speaking to you—or even believe that the Lord is speaking to you. If you can’t sit silently for a few minutes in a time devoted to being present to God, you may be wondering: Does God actually speak to someone like me? Or to anyone else for that matter?

It is night. The lights are turned out. Only the lamp of the Lord in the tent of meeting still burns. Old Eli the priest, worn out by the years, barely able to see, is lying down on his bed just about to drift off to sleep. His young apprentice, the boy Samuel, is curled up in the darkness near the ark of God. The stillness of night has come. No worshipers with their sacrifices. No busyness with the work of the Lord. No voices or footsteps of people coming and going. Just silence—non-anxious, unfilled silence.

And then the voice, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Of course Samuel doesn’t have a clue as to what is going on or who is speaking to him. The narrator tells us that young Samuel “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” Which is to say that he hadn’t had enough experience with how God speaks to persons to know when it is God who is speaking and when it is not. So, when he heard his name called in the silence of the night, he thought it must be old Eli, calling for his assistance.

It’s sort of comical—the Lord speaks to Samuel and Samuel goes running to Eli. “You called?” he says to Eli. “No, I didn’t call you. Go back to bed,” Eli says to Samuel. Three times this happens: “You called?” “No, I didn’t call you. Go back to bed.” And those of us with children who have come into our rooms in the middle of the night, waking us up and wanting us to do something for them, have no trouble in imagining the frustration of Eli as Samuel keeps coming into his room as he is trying to go to sleep. “Here I am, for you called me.”

But then something strikes a note of recognition in Eli. This is the Lord who is calling Samuel. Eli is not a stranger to the Lord’s voice. He has heard that voice in his own life. So he counsels young Samuel. “Look, go back to bed. And if you hear your name being called again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Which is exactly what Samuel did. In the silence of the night he heard the voice again, “Samuel! Samuel!” And this time Samuel stayed put and responded, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Here then is the second part of the answer that this story gives us about how we listen for the Word of the Lord in our own time and in our own lives. Simply put, we need the help of others. Listening to God is both a personal and a communal affair.

God speaks to us in the silences of our own hearts. Even so, sometimes our hearts betray us. Sometimes we are just so cocksure about the way things are with us and with others, and then we find ourselves with people whose reading of scripture and whose relationships with God challenge what we once thought was a given. Sometimes we are just so sure that we know, and then others come along who remind us that we don’t know — that maybe we don’t know that forgiveness is possible for us, that our life’s trajectory can be changed, that the things that maybe we thought were so important are really not so important at all, that those we once demeaned and confined to the realm of God’s outcasts are in fact children of God just like we are who deserve our love. Sometimes we get stuck and people come along with ministries like teaching or leading a class or working in a hospitality house for the homeless or delivering meals to people who are poor and lonely, and something clicks. And we say, yes, this is God speaking to me, calling me out of my stupor.

I think one of the most important reasons that we come here on Sunday mornings to worship and to engage the scripture and our faith tradition together is to listen—to listen for a word from the Lord. I know we come here and we get caught up in other things that are necessary for maintaining a religious institution. But one of our chief purposes for coming together on Sundays and at other times during the week is to clear out a space from the noise of the world—where there is no news blaring or pundit blowing off steam, where there is no boss or principal telling us what we have got to do, where there are no bills to pay or to do lists—and we can devote ourselves to listening together as we sing and pray, as we listen to the words and message from scripture, as we discuss with others what is going on in our lives and in the world in light of our faith.

I think we find it difficult to hear God speaking to us unless we intentionally make places in our lives where we can be still and open. But I am also aware that what we hear in the stillness of our own hearts and minds is not always easy to discern. It may be God or it may be something else. This is why we need the support and the challenge of others in the community of Christ’s body as we seek to listen for what God is saying to us.

Now, as some of you know, when the story of Samuel’s calling is read in church, there is a temptation not to want to read past verse 10 where Samuel answers the call of God, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” For good reason. It makes for such a lovely ending to this little story. Why go on to the actual words Samuel is given? They are most unpleasant! They speak God’s judgment against Eli, and especially against his sons who have abused their calling as priests in ways that are reminiscent of present day clergy scandals—corrupt womanizers that they are. They speak of an ending in Israel so that something new can emerge.

Maybe Eli could have done a better job of reigning in his corrupt and abusive sons, but I have a lot of respect for him nonetheless. The news that he coaxes out of Samuel about what God revealed to him is not good for Eli and his sons. The days of their priesthood in Israel are about to come to an end. But Eli submits to it because he knows that what Samuel is sharing with him is the truth and that it is from the Lord.

Thus are we pointed in the story of Eli and Samuel to the third part of the answer as to how we listen for God’s voice today. When God speaks it is almost always about something needing to end so that something new can begin, which is why listening for God can be such a frightening thing. What if God called me to a new way of living? That would mean I would have to leave my old way of living behind. Who would I be without my resentments? Who would I be if I weren’t always running myself down and telling myself that I am not good enough to do things? Who would I be if the way of Jesus were my way? What would I have to leave behind? What if God is really telling us that we need to shut up our belly-aching about problems plaguing our society and world, and do something about them? What if God is saying that a new day has begun and we need to stop wringing our hands and get on board with what God is seeking to do in the world?

As many of you will recall, there are some Sundays when, before reading the scripture for the day in worship, I will say something like, “Buckle your seat belts.” In other words, essentially what I am saying is that the scripture before us is so troubling and challenging to our way of living and seeing the world that I find it every bit as difficult to preach from it as you do to hear it. But I am convinced that God is often heard in the difficult things. God is often heard in the words that shake our worlds and invite us to take another look at what we have been taking for granted.

Whether it was to the prophets or to Jesus or to the likes of Paul and many of the early Christians, the powers frequently could be heard saying to them, “Go away! Get out of here! You’re disturbing our so carefully prepared and maintained peace.” But when God speaks that is often what happens: the peace (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the peace of Christ we pass every Sunday) gets disturbed.

Being still and open, as well as seeking the help and insights of others in community, are important when it comes to listening to the voice of God. But finally we will have to decide whether we dare to listen to this troubling God of ours, who judges us in order to save us, who brings endings in order to make new beginnings possible, who calls us to leave behind in order to move ahead.

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days…” Not now, I believe. At least for those who listen.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, January 28, 2018

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