Speak, Lord, We’re Listening

This is Sunday’s sermon from 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Imagine with me what that must have been like.

Israel is not yet an organized nation. After strong leadership from Moses and Joshua, they’ve finally settled in the promised land, yet things are far from perfect for them.

In the time of the judges, people did what was right in their own eyes and now, tribal wars threaten to tear the people apart. After God’s leading of Israel through the wilderness, and God’s tangible presence with them, God is now uncomfortably silent.

There are no pillars of cloud, no columns of fire; there’s no inscribing of tablets by the hand of God, there’s no parting of seas. In fact, they’ve reached a time where, even in the temple where the ark of God lives, the voice of God is unexpected and unrecognizable.

The times are as dark as the night which falls at the beginning of the story.

Samuel, a boy ministering to the Lord under the priest Eli’s supervision is sleeping in the temple. Eli is sleeping in his usual place- his failing eyesight and Israel’s hope growing dimmer and dimmer every day.

Night has fallen on the scene, and God is silent. It must be terribly frightening for Israel to realize: maybe they’re on their own.

I wonder if any of us have ever felt the same way- painfully aware that maybe we’re on our own and wondering why God seems silent.

Aside from the news headlines these days, which seem to grow bleaker by the minute, any number of personal things in our lives can make us wonder if God is being silent – new or ongoing health struggles, not being able to do things that were once second nature, loss of a loved one.

Violence seems to abound just about everywhere you look. Hunger and disease plague developing countries.

Times are as dark as the night.

Even in church life, as other churches face scary realities and have those conversations about how to sustain themselves, and as this congregation continues to move through its own grief process it’s not hard for us to find ourselves in solidarity with Eli and Samuel- wondering if God is asleep.

Thankfully, as the lamp of God which burned in the temple from evening until dawn, flickers and glows before snuffing itself out, we discover that God is definitely not sleeping, but delightfully awake.

God calls to Samuel, and Samuel who knows about God, but does not yet know God, quickly answers “here I am” as he runs to tend to Eli- thinking it was Eli who called him.  Eli says he didn’t call Samuel, and the two of them go through this confusing ritual two more times until Eli, truly awake now for the first time in years, finally realizes what is happening.

The text doesn’t elaborate on this part, but I like to imagine how it might have been. It takes Eli three times to finally perk up and realize that the Lord- silent all this time- is the one calling Samuel.

We don’t know if Eli’s spiritual eyes are as worn as his physical eyes, but this experience is surely like a glass of cool water for a soul parched by a desert – of silence, lack of vision and a family that is spinning out of control.

What a gift- God speaks into the fading hope of Israel and Eli’s shortcomings just in time, before the priest’s ability to recognize the voice of the Lord snuffs itself out completely.

Samuel is instructed to go back and lie down again, and if he’s called again to say, “speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

What happens next makes for a powerful story about the courage required to listen and to speak. Samuel responds to the Lord and welcomes in a new era of God’s appearing in and revelation to the human world.

If we read on in the chapter, we hear the word of the Lord to Samuel. God says “see I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” Can you remember the last time you felt a tingle about the word of God to you?

I can. I was sitting at my desk at Children’s Healthcare at Scottish Rite at the end of the day. I opened up my email and noticed that my seminary’ career center had sent out the monthly email about available church positions- one of the titles caught my eye and drew me in, heart and soul.

Associate pastor of ministry with aging. As I began talking with Greg and Norma, during the process of interviewing, I began to read through some of your Dawnings journey, and the vision for Scott Boulevard’s new mission.

It was like God was saying “see I’m about to do something with these people that will make the ears of anyone who hears of it tingle… And tingle they do. I’ve seen it. I saw it when Norma, Greg and I presented at CBF National. I see it every time someone asks me to further explain what we are doing as a church

I see it every time someone expresses an interest in getting involved with My Church at Home.

See, God is doing something in and through us- and people are tingling. God is kicking hopes into high gear and sending pins and needles all over us reminding us that God’s word is among us, God’s presence is with us, and that God’s mission is for us as much as for anyone else.

If you know the story of Samuel’s start as a prophet, you may remember that the message he receives on that night is not completely a warm and fuzzy message. It’s s judgment against Eli and Eli’s household. His sons, as priests also, have been abusing their power and eating the fat portions of meat that belong to God.

God tells Samuel he is going to do something that will make the ears of everyone tingle, as he promises to fulfill everything he spoke against Eli and his household.

Samuel, deeply troubled spends the rest of the night wide awake- wondering how he will be able to relay this message to his spiritual mentor.

Eli summons Samuel the next morning and once more, Samuel answers as the other times, “here I am, you called me.” When Eli asks him to tell him everything and leave nothing out, Samuel  courageously relays God’s message to Eli.

Eli accepts the message, saying ” it is the Lord.” He was warned about his sons before, but has been ultimately unable to get them under control, and God has had enough.

The priest and the young boy tingle in fear at this message of doom against the house of Eli.

God’s message to Samuel and judgment of Eli seem harsh, as harsh as the circumstances surrounding Samuel’s early service in the temple: social unrest and the silence of God at a truly low point in Israel’s history.

However, this judgment is ultimately founded in God’s justice and based on God’s care of the vulnerable. Eli knew his sons were abusing their power to exploit the weak, and God has no tolerance for that. Without this judgment, the hope of the coming restoration wouldn’t be nearly as tingly.

Fortunately for us, we know the rest of the story; the big picture message that ears tingling with fear will soon tingle with hope of forgiveness and renewal as God prepares to do a new thing in Israel.

God’s message to Samuel was certainly not what Samuel was expecting. After a debilitating time of silence from God, it seems fair to expect a comforting word. What Samuel and Eli both need to hear are words of comfort, hope and affirmation.

Instead, God’s words to and through Samuel, of challenge, judgment and critique are less about personal consolation and more about social transformation.

Yet, there is comfort in this too, for Israel and for us. Israel will be lead into a time of monarchy, ever clinging to God’s promises for them which will be spoken to them through the prophets, and Samuel will become a prophet of justice, speaking out against rulers who exploit the weak.

The comfort for us lies in the fact that though in our own time visions are not frequent, and though sometimes God seems silent, visions can still happen and God still speaks.

God’s word to us may come in unexpected ways, at unexpected times and be totally the opposite of what we expected, but through God’s grace, we, like Samuel, can have the courage to listen and to speak.

The comfort in Samuel’s story lies in the fact that Samuel’s story could easily be our story. No, we probably don’t sleep next to the ark of God every night, and we may not actually hear the voice of God calling in the night- but God still speaks to us

God may choose to reveal God’s self to us in a beautiful sunset that puts us completely at peace; a gentle breeze through barren winter branches reminding us that spring always comes;

whether it’s through a trusted friend speaking truth into our lives, or the sunshine finally piercing through a cloudy sky, or a fresh reading of a familiar passage of scripture that makes us tingle with excitement,

God still speaks to us.

As we continue to listen to God’s leading, let’s be continually sharing with each other things we are learning through our Care Partners ministry, My Church at Home, deacons ministry and other areas of service- so we can grow together as God continues to speak to us.

As we look to expand beyond our walls, let’s be Samuels and Eli’s to the community around us. Let’s be Samuels who speak up for older people who live alone- being on the lookout for needs that arise and ready to address them as we are led.

And let’s be Eli’s to one another- helping each other understand what God might be saying to us, and to discern what God might be asking us to be and to do.

There will be times when God seems absent from the scene, but even then we will see that the Lord is at work, and that the light of God revealed in Jesus will continue to break forth into our own lives to bring about a new thing.

There is a chance for newness in Eli’s submission, in Samuel’s availability, in God’s resolve to do a new thing. Though this new thing will be painful at first, it will bring with it a change in God’s relationship to God’s people, and ultimately pave the way for a perfect mediator of the word of God to us, in Jesus.

This is good news. It’s good news for people who have felt or are feeling the silence of God. It’s good news for people who want to understand God’s word for them in their own lives. It’s good news for dedicated servants who are in the habit of asking  of God: “speak, Lord, we’re listening.”

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