A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Pentecost 2 ~ 1 Samuel 3:1-10
To give you some context for this story – Samuel was just a young boy learning about faith from Eli who was a Temple priest – and they both slept in the temple with the Ark of the Covenant – where the 10 Commandments were kept. God called Samuel’s name, but Samuel didn’t realize it was God talking and instead responds to his mentor, Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.”
After a little comedy act of repeating the call and conversation 3 times – “You called” “No I didn’t” (back to bed), “You called” “No I didn’t” (back to bed), “You called” “No I didn’t” – Eli finally figures out that Samuel is hearing God’s voice.
I wonder how many times we’ve been called by God but didn’t recognize God’s voice – and we didn’t have an Eli to explain it to us.
So, how does one listen to God?
How does God speak to us?
Sometimes God calls to us in extraordinary ways – in the big events of our lives – or in the silence of the night.
But I worry that as great as these stories are they might be “too good” for us to be able to relate to.
Honestly, have you ever heard God’s voice like Samuel did? I mean have you ever actually, audibly heard God’s voice speaking to you out loud such that if you had a device handy you could record it and play it back later for your friends? Some say they have. But I sure haven’t!
So why tell these stories if they’re so far out that we can’t really relate? Well, because I think they point us to a really important truth about God – the truth that God communicates with us in many ways – but we don’t always know how to listen. Sometimes we’re expecting something big from God – but get a whisper. Samuel wasn’t expecting anything – and was confused because he didn’t understand at first.
Ah, now that’s something I can relate to!
The Samuel story began with the sentence “the word of the Lord was rare/precious in those days, and visions were quite uncommon.”
I think this is true today too. Our Bible is a closed book and we can mistakenly get the sense that God has finished revealing all God is going to reveal and it’s all in the book.
I don’t think that’s even a little bit true! God is still speaking!
As you’ve probably heard it said, “God is not silent, we are not listening!”
And did you notice that it says that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out”? – This is a reference to the custom of a lamp being lit with just enough oil to stay bright all night beside the Ark.
The inference here is that the lamp was close to going out – which meant that the scene took place just before dawn.
So many religious experiences seem to happen in that time of night.
Could it be because that’s the quietest time, a time in which we’re usually not distracted by any tasks or busyness so that we can hear God, or sense God?
I’d like to suggest that there are 2 primary ways God communicates with us – and they both require us to be quiet.
One is scripture, and the other is prayer. Through our scripture readings, my words, and your reflections, God’s Word is being communicated right now.
And in a few moments we’ll move on to being quiet together in a time of prayer.
It worries me that we in the United Church, generally speaking, don’t spend enough time on either one of these!
When we sit in this place and pray, and ponder, and sing together we get all charged up and we’re invigorated and recommit ourselves to living God’s way – to living our lives, every moment, noticing God’s Presence.
When we’re here it’s fairly easy. But when we leave…it’s much harder.
Living the Christian life is challenging. It’s not automatic. It requires commitment on our part. Like anything you choose to commit yourself to it requires work, effort, and discipline.
Want to be a doctor or teacher or tradesperson? Better be prepared to study. It takes discipline.
Want to play a musical instrument? Better be prepared to practice. It takes discipline.
Want to be a good spouse or partner. Better be prepared to work at the relationship. It takes discipline.
Want to be in shape? Better be prepared to sweat. It takes discipline.
Want to be a Christian? Guess what? It’s not automatic.
It’s not a one-time profession of faith that sets you up for life, or showing up for worship now and then. You’d better be prepared to study, practice, work, and sweat.
It takes discipline.
Want to hear God’s voice? Want to listen to/for God?
Then you need to read the Bible and pray – and not just on Sunday morning. The Bible is an incredible book – actually it’s a whole library of books – but God can’t speak to us through it’s pages if we never open it up.
I once saw a poster that showed a picture of a Bible crammed underneath a person’s bed along with all sorts of miscellaneous things and the caption read: “Some Bibles don’t change lives.”
Reading the Bible can change your life – because in it you can “hear” the voice of God – if you’re listening.
Let me say something fairly provocative.
I don’t think you can be a person of faith if you aren’t a pray-er (a person who prays).
Every single religious tradition in the world has this element in common. Some may call it meditation, or being deep in thought, but the practice of intentionally growing quiet and connecting to the transcendent (however defined) is universal.
Prayer rhymes with air. Prayer IS air – and if you only breathe either one of them once a week you’re in big trouble!
Air, and prayer, flows 2 ways – both in and out – like talking and listening. Breathing is a conversation that your lungs have – prayer is a conversation that your heart, mind, and soul have…with God!
Some might say that prayer is an unnatural activity. I disagree.
I think prayer is actually our natural state.
As I said, it’s like breathing.
A big challenge for many of us is that we’ve placed ourselves so firmly at the center of our personal universes that it seems like we’ve pushed God to the sidelines.
Maybe prayer feeling unnatural is really a reflection of how out of touch we can become with what IS natural and best for us.
Maybe it’s like exercise.
When you first get back into exercising it does not feel good, or natural or fun – but it’s definitely good for you. It’s your body’s preferred state. And after you get into the rhythm of it you wonder why you ever did without it.
Even Jesus apparently couldn’t do without it – prayer that is, not exercise – because he needed to frequently go off by himself to pray – something I find to be incredibly comforting.
Jesus wasn’t just born with a deep connection with God – he cultivated it!
Jesus said, “My house will be called a house of prayer!” – not a house of preaching, or a house of music, or a house of worship, or a house of committees – but a house of prayer.
And how does one go about achieving that distinction? How do we build that house?
Thomas Merton says “The best way to learn to pray, is to pray.”
We usually think that when we pray we should be “doing” something – so we talk. We’re uncomfortable with the silence so we fill it up by rambling. Maybe we try to mimic what we hear in church, which tends to feature long wordy prayers.
But prayer must be a conversation. And as you know, when only one person is talking it’s not really a conversation – kind of like a sermon! Prayer requires as much or more listening than talking. Too often we treat it as if we were the only one involved – rambling on without letting God get a word in edgewise.
One of my favourite lines is by author Brennan Manning who once joked that in order to pray well you only have to do 2 things – show up and shut up!
But showing up and shutting up aren’t that easy!
Finding time in the day and a quiet enough spot can be tough. And once there, we need to really, really listen.
Do you remember the movie “The Fugitive” from a few years back? It’s about a man who escapes from prison and the US Marshals who are trying to find him. In one scene the Marshals have a recording of a phone call that the fugitive made. They’re trying to figure out where he is. So the group of them play back the tape, listening intently. One person hears a train sound in the background. Another says, no, it’s an elevated train. Then someone hears an announcer’s voice and they begin to filter out the background frequencies and hear what the voice is saying. It’s a really cool scene.
Do you see what they did?
They were in the right frame of mind to hear the message – they wanted to hear something.
They slowly filtered out the background noise until they got to the important piece.
And they acted on what they heard.
That is the lesson for us today – and for Samuel.
Once Eli helped focus him, Samuel went to bed yearning to hear from God. He filtered out the background stuff – nervousness, being unsure, Eli’s words – and heard God’s message. And he answered – Here I am Lord, I’m listening. Then he did what God told him to – which was actually something really hard, but that’s another sermon!
We need to enter into our reading of scripture and our prayer times yearning to hear from God – expecting to hear God’s voice.
We need to filter out the background stuff of our lives – stress, to-do lists, random thoughts – and say, “Here I am Lord, I’m listening!”
And then we need to respond.
What do I think we’ll hear if we take the time to listen?
I doubt it’ll be a voice you could record – although that would be nice.
Sometimes I wish Jesus was here just so he could walk up and say “Follow me” and I’d be so sure of the call that I’d drop everything and follow.
Jesus’ voice was clear – but God seems to call us in mysterious ways.
Sometimes it’s a word that pops into your head and won’t go away – maybe a word from the scripture passage you were meditating on.
Sometimes it’s a feeling – like a weight on your heart that’s nudging you or compelling you to act on something.
Sometimes it’s a sense of purpose to accomplish a task you need to do.
Sometimes it’s just a soul hug – a profound feeling of peace and comfort that comes from knowing that God is there, God knows you, God cares about you, God loves you.
I doubt very much that you’ll hear a word of judgment or condemnation – unless of course you’ve done something really bad and need to confess it.
But our God is not a God of stern faces and wagging fingers – God is a God of love and acceptance. Our God wants us to follow in God’s way because it’s the way we were designed to live. But we can’t really hear that message until we stop and listen for it.
Brennan Manning once wrote that if God had one message for us – if God could only break through and get us to listen to one thing, the thing God would say wouldn’t be “Thou Shalt” or “You lowlife” – it would be this…. “I miss you!”
So listen for God.
Listen in the events of your life.
Listen in the words of scripture.
Listen when you pray.
Listen when you breathe.
What you hear (or sense or feel) could change your life!