Called to Listen

1 Samuel 3:1-20
After Epiphany: The Church is Called
Elizabeth M. Deibert

My dad’s birthday was three days ago. He would have been eighty-nine this year. My dad had plenty of faults, like all of us, but what people really appreciated about him was his ability to listen well to others. Listening is an under-appreciated, under-practiced skill. I believe the church is called to listen well –to listen to God and to one another with careful attention. This is a crucial factor in being faithful.

The Stephen Ministers in training are learning the value of listening to people in need, not trying to fix them or correct them, but hearing their stories in order to better care for their needs.

The Book Discussion Group on Thursday night practiced the art of listening to voices beyond the Christian faith with the goal of finding some common ground and learning helpful information about how a listening mind perceives of God.

The Movie Group watched The Help which was the story of a group of black women, maids from Jackson, MS, who had been long-silenced by their place in society. When a young white woman began to listen to their perspective, it was the impetus for major change in her, in them, and in their community.

Each of you spent time 70-80 percent of your waking time in some form of communication, writing, speaking, reading, or listening. Much of what we communicated is through body language. But of all the time we spend in communication, over half of it was spent listening, and usually doing a poor job ot it. We are at best distracted listeners. We occupy our minds with what we intend to say next while the other person is talking. We multi-task, such that the person who’s talking does not receive our full attention. Isn’t interesting that God has given us the ability, the freedom to do many things at once, such that we have to discipline our minds to focus well on the task of listening?

And it’s even worse, if we talk about listening to God? How many things run through your mind when you are praying? How many of us took time this week to really listen to God? Or did we just forge ahead assuming we knew everything we need to know to be faithful?

What does it mean to listen to God? Is it in silent prayer alone that we hear God speaking? Or some combination of silence with other acts worship – singing, scripture reading, sacraments, giving, sharing peace, acts of service, listening to others?

At the beginning of our service today, you sang, “Lord, speak to me, that I may speak in living echoes of Thy tone.” Are you really asking God to speak to you and do you really want to share with others what God is saying to you?

We are reading an amazing narrative about God’s choice of a young boy to deliver an important message. Scripture teaches that God often chooses those whom we least expect to send messages we might not so be eager to hear.

The Story of Samuel, the boy who could hear God’s voice at a young age.

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the LORD called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" 5 and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down.

6 The LORD called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'"

So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

11 Then the LORD said to Samuel, "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever."

15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, "Samuel, my son." He said, "Here I am." 17 Eli said, "What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you." 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, "It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him."

19 As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD. (NRSV)

Imagine being a boy working for an older priest in the temple. Being scared to tell him the message you had heard in the night. Eli pressed him, “What did God say to you? Don’t hide anything from me, boy, or God will do something bad to you.” That’s a pretty scary place for Samuel. He’s thinking, “Let’s see – do I want Eli mad at me or God mad at me?”

But Eli did not get mad. He trusted God’s word coming from Samuel. He had perceived the authenticity of the voice in the night. He knew he himself was not calling Samuel’s name. He had not heard anything in the night. He was getting old. Hard to see. Hard to hear. Must have been a message from God to the boy. That’s why he told him to respond to God, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

The message was not a huge surprise to Eli. He knew his sons were a huge disappointment. He knew in his heart of hearts he should have restrained them, but the message that this mess known as his family was not to be repaired was disappointing. There was no sacrifice he could make to recover the damage his sons had done. In one sense, Eli already understood Samuel to be the replacement son, in spiritual sense. Samuel had a servant’s heart, an obedient and willing spirit. Samuel had the sensitivity to hear God’s voice.

What about us? Are we listening for the voice of God like Samuel? Can we hear God’s voice and have the courage to share what we’ve heard, even if it is a message that makes others uncomfortable?

Can we hear God’s message, even if we, like Eli, are not the primary receiver of the word of truth? Can we hear God’s message even if it is the difficult news of God’s disappointment with us or those whom we call family or affiliates? Can we hear God’s truth from someone who has less experience, less maturity, less power than we have?

Eli empowered Samuel by acknowledging that God might be speaking to him, by encouraging him to listen, and by asking for and accepting his message from God with humble trust.

We should all be Elis in the church, nurturing the young ones in the faith, encouraging them to listen for the voice of God and then respecting them enough to listen to what they have heard from God, instead of thinking we know it all because we are older and wiser.

We should all be Samuels, listening carefully enough that we cultivate both the ability to hear God speaking, and the courage to speak the truth we have heard in love. I wonder what might happen tomorrow, if you went through your day, saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” If you read scripture and prayed and meditated, and said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” If you listened to others, saying to God, “Help me to hear your voice, Lord, speaking to me, as I try to carefully listen to this person.”

What made Martin Luther King, Jr. such a powerful figure was his ability to hear messages from God, as a young man, and to communicate difficult messages with courage and love. This ability was cultivated by his roots in the church, where he heard the message of Christ who proclaimed good news to the poor and release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.

MLK’s ability to hear and speak the truth was cultivated by hearing stories of faithful young prophetic voices like Samuel’s. Hearing God’s voice was critical for the prophetic witness of Dr. King. In January 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott, he received a threatening phone call late at night. He couldn’t sleep. He went to his kitchen and took his “problem to God.” He was at a breaking point of exhaustion and about to give up. He spoke to God and says that in that moment he experienced the presence of the Divine and “could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’” His fears and his uncertainty ceased then and there because God spoke and gave him “inner calm.” God provided the interior resources for him to do the work God had called him to do – challenging work of righting wrongs. He needed God to speak first. Then King could act. He listened prayerfully then proclaimed prophetically. Prayer was crucial in propelling the Civil Rights Movement. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (Luke Powery, sermon)

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is chocked full of messages from scripture, because this servant of God was listening to God, not just talking to the people. King said, “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children.”

“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

This “I Have a Dream” speech is said by some, including our own Professor of Rhetoric, David Thomas, to be one of the best speeches ever written. I encourage you to listen to it or read it in its entirety today or tomorrow. Listen especially for the Christian moorings of his speech.

The civil disobedience and prophetic proclamation of Martin Luther King, Jr, whose real birthday is today, the 15th, is rooted in theological obedience, in prayerful listening to the call of a God of justice who says “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”(Amos 5:24 NRSV)

God speaks. We serve. But the first task of any follower of God is to listen. Will you turn off all the noise in your house and in your mind and stop all the busyness of your life long enough to listen to God? Will you stop talking and invite God to speak? And when God does, will you have the courage to share what you perceive to be God’s message? And lastly, will you listen humbly and with genuine interest to the messages God has given to others?

Church, we are called to be excellent listeners. Work on it