Listening for God: Eli and Samuel sermon 2024. 1 Samuel 3:1-11
I love the evocative story of the old priest Eli and the young prophet Samuel because I find more depth in it every time I read; something I hadn’t noticed before or something that pops out that turns out to be a profound spiritual insight. Let me share some things I’ve learned to appreciate through the years.
The word of the Lord was rare, or was it?
The story begins with the ominous line that the word of the Lord was rare in those days, and visions were not widespread. That is, there was a spiritual disconnect. I’ve always wondered if God was still speaking and offering visions, but few were interested in hearing God’s voice or envisioning a more wholesome way of building community.
It’s hard to listen. I heard someone say she used to make fun of her parents for using closed captioning to help read what was said on TV. Then she got hooked on it. Recently, when listening to an audiobook, she wished for someone to invent closed captioning for audiobooks before she realized, “O yeah. That’s the book.”
God’s disruptive monologues.
Listening to God’s voice is even more tricky because God tends to whisper silently. And often, we don’t want to hear what God has to say. If things are cushy for you and you are sailing along, listening to God and envisioning how God wants things can be disruptive because God may tell you to change or do something that makes you uncomfortable–like share your resources, work for a just distribution of them, take care of someone in need. Ain’t nobody got time for that! So they stopped listening, and the clergy went along with the flow and offered a hollow version of faith that didn’t challenge society to do better.
The clergy, especially singled out, were the sons of the old priest Eli. The priesthood was a family matter. If your father was a priest, you were a priest. The sons were interested in forms of faith that didn’t ask anything of anyone, making it about the rituals, not about the heart. It was a shallow, self-serving religion that twisted things to make it about political power, excluding people who were different and entrenched in political and economic systems that kept people down. You know, the stuff we see all the time. Lots of noise, and no one listening or dreaming of something better.
The mystery voice.
The two main characters in the story are the old priest, Eli, and the young boy Samuel. Earlier in the story, Eli used to watch a woman come night after night to the Tabernacle, where he was in charge of the ark of the covenant (yeah, the one from the Exodus, featured in the Indiana Jones movie). Eli thought the woman was a drunk and dismissed her. Her name was Hannah, she was barren, and she came begging God for a child. She turns up pregnant and sings a song of praise that later influenced Mary’s Magnificat when she was pregnant with Jesus.
Hannah dedicates her son Samuel (which means one who hears God) to God’s service and eventually gives him over to Eli for his instruction and training.
One night, young Samuel is roused from his sleep when he hears a voice calling his name. He assumes it’s Eli and goes to the old man. “You called?”
“Hmmph! What? Who?” Eli wipes the drool from his mouth. “No. Go away.”
This happens two more times in a comical fashion, frustrating beyond measure both the kid and the old man. Finally, the light bulb turns on, and Eli remembers the stuff he’s supposed to believe in.
“Samuel, maybe it’s the Lord! Return to bed, and if it happens again, say, ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’”
He returns to his quarters and he says “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.”
God says, “I am about to do a new thing that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”
The “still speaking” God.
Perhaps God has been trying to get through to you. The slogan for our denomination, the United Church of Christ is “God is still speaking.” We believe God still speaks to our hearts, has something to offer us our world, and still uses people to improve things. Let me be like old Eli for a moment and suggest that you put on your listening ears.
Breath prayers. Speak, Lord; your servant listens.
Can you devote seven minutes to it this week? Try it as a breath prayer. Slow down your breathing, and as you inhale, silently pray, “Speak, Lord,” as if you are soaking into your spirit God’s breath, bringing it into you. And briefly hold it at the top of your breath, and then on the exhale, pray, “Your servant is listening.” With the exhale, purge yourself of the thoughts and attitudes that keep you from being open. One minute a day this week.
How to tell when it’s God’s voice?
It’s always tricky when we talk about God speaking to us. It has to be done with humility. Don’t expect some audible voice. God mostly speaks to the quiet of our hearts. Maybe it comes in nature, maybe music or art, or by recognizing the truth of what someone says. Maybe it is just some inner knowing of something you can’t explain, not something you deduced but just a feeling way of knowing in your heart. We put ourselves in the sanctuary, where we can slow down and remind ourselves to listen. The eternal flames of mystery still flicker.
How do you know it’s God and not indigestion? When I was 15, I was infatuated with a girl I just met. I prayed, “God, if she’s the one, let it be 11:34 the next time I look at the clock.” Three minutes later, I looked up, and it was 11:34. I told her the next day that God told me we would be married. “Yeah?” She said, “When he tells me the same thing, I’ll let you know.”
Some tests: 3-fold, love, justice, degree of difficulty.
Shirley McLain has a line about how when we speak to God, we call it prayer, but when God speaks to us they call it mental illness. God puts concepts and directions on our hearts rather than downloading specific instructions into our brains. If it is of God, it will be consistent with the loving principles of scripture, it will honor God, others, and yourself. We call this the three-fold test. Is it something you alone can see, or do others confirm it?
Samuel’s story gives us an indication that not everything God calls us to is going to be easy or self-serving. Good luck if you just expect God to tell you how to get richer and make your life easier. Often, we are called inspired to do hard things.
The tingling indictment.
What was it that God told Samuel that would make everyone’s ears tingle? It was that God was moving away from the old system of the priests being the keepers of religion to a new era where God’s voice could come to anyone, even a young child like Samuel. Samuel was supposed to convey the message that the corrupt, self-serving, blasphemous sons of Eli and their form of religion had been judged and fallen out of God’s favor.
Say what, God? Do you want me to tell the old man you’re done with his family and ways? Guess what. He didn’t want to.
Degree of resistance.
I think it’s true that much of what God wants from us needs courage, and it isn’t something we’d come up with ourselves. As I’ve talked to other pastors through the years, one common theme is that we usually resist when we first feel the call to ministry. My brother was the first person who suggested that I become a pastor. I punched him for saying that. “That’s all you think of me? Some bore blabbering on and on, holier than thou? No! I want an interesting life. I want to do something important with it. Dummy.”
But as others said something about it, I couldn’t punch them all. At some point, one has to stop punching, stop clenching one’s fists in defiance, and start opening your heart and mind to a new thing.
I don’t know everything you are called to do, but I suspect some of it isn’t easy. Maybe there are changes you need to make, hard truths to share or deal with. Maybe you have to make yourself vulnerable and can’t predict what will happen next. This stuff is not for the faint of heart.
With all our technology, there are more voices than ever clamoring for our attention and our affection. But can you sort through all of that to hear the true voice that sings to your soul and pulls out of you more than you thought you could do?