Sunday, August 2, 2015
Did Anyone Else Hear That (1 Samuel 3:1-10)
Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. 2 One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. 3 God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was.
4 The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.
5 Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.
6 Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”
(7 Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)
8 A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.
10 Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”
Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
After 45 years of marriage, he was starting to suspect that his wife was developing a hearing problem. One evening as she was relaxing in her lounge chair, he quietly came up behind her and said softly, “Honey, can you hear me?” There was no response.
He crept a little closer, and said it a little louder, “Honey, can you hear me?” Still, there was no response.
He got right up behind her and said in a normal speaking voice, “Honey, can you hear me?” She turned around in her chair, looked him right in the eye, and said, “For the third time, yes!”
It can be frustrating to feel like you aren’t being heard. It’s one thing when someone doesn’t have the ability to hear you; it’s something entirely different to know that they have the ability to hear, yet aren’t listening. Ever had the experience of someone not listening to you?
Ever stop by somebody’s house, ring the doorbell, and you know they’re home – yet, for whatever reason, they don’t answer the door? How many times do you ring the bell, how long do you stand there waiting for them to answer, before you turn around and walk off the porch? Ever tried repeatedly to call someone, and they never pick up, let your call go straight to voicemail, and never return your messages? How many times do you call, how many unreturned messages do you leave before you give up trying to contact them?
Been there? If so, then perhaps we know something of the frustration God must face on a daily basis when it comes to getting through to us.
The first verse of today’s Scripture reading tells us that, at the time of Samuel, the word of the Lord was rare, and visions from God weren’t widely-known. In the kind of parody ripe for an episode of Saturday Night Live, Eli, the old priest, is going blind. You can’t make that sort of thing up! A priest with failing eyesight? Really? No wonder visions from God were rare! Of course Israel can’t see God – her own priestly leader can’t see anything!
Enter Samuel onto the scene. He is living with Eli, the old blind priest, and serving in the temple. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had prayed for a son, and struck a deal with God that if God gave her a son, she would give the son back to God in a lifetime of service. Shortly after Samuel’s birth, his mother kept her promise and brought the boy to the old priest.
Samuel has spent his young life serving in the temple. Learning the priestly trade, assisting with the tasks and chores of maintaining the sturdy religious institution. One night, he is lying down in the temple, in that place between asleep and awake, and a voice calls to him in the night: “Samuel! Samuel!” Obediently, if not somewhat begrudgingly, the boy jumps out of bed and says, “Here I am! You called me!” as he scurries into the room of Eli, the old, blind priest. “Silly boy! I didn’t call you! Now quit bothering me and go back to bed!”
The scene is vaguely familiar to anyone with children in the home. The adults are tired and the child won’t stay in bed. In slapstick comic fashion, not once, not twice, but three times the child shows up in the adult’s room when he should be in bed.
But finally, the light bulb goes off in old Eli’s head, and to his credit, he finally seems to get it, summoning up the last bit of his mojo right near the end to do what he was supposed to be doing all along. And yes, God has to call Samuel three times before Eli remembers that the Lord sometimes does this sorta thing. But Eli does remember. It takes a minute before the rusty old gears in his priestly brain engage, but Eli does remember, he remembers that he is a custodian of the ancient and treasured words about how God has done this before, and there’s enough of a momentary flicker within his old mind to believe that maybe God is speaking again.
Eli tells Samuel to lie down and be still. In other words, he tells Samuel to go to intentionally tune out anything that might distract him from hearing and responding to God.
We would do well to do the same. I think that so often we miss out on hearing a word from God or catching a vision from God because we are too-easily distracted by too many other things. Other things grab our attention by their noise or their flashiness, and if we’re honest, we each generate plenty of our own noise, as well. We surmise, like the people at the time of Eli and Samuel, that God must not be speaking.
But friends, we often don’t hear from God because we aren’t listening for God. We aren’t listening for God when we worship, or in our prayer, or in studying the Scriptures. It isn’t that God has stopped speaking; it’s that we aren’t listening. The absence of a word or vision from the Lord has more to do with our human refusal to listen than with any divine reluctance to speak. Or, we’re listening to many things, just not the right things. We listen to voices that tear down rather than build up, voices that aren’t rooted in love and grace.
We make the mistake of going about our faith alone, when very often, listening for God requires listening to each other. One of the oft-overlooked but crucial details of the story is that both Samuel and Eli had to listen to each other for God’s voice to be heard. In the church, we need both the wisdom and maturity that necessarily comes from old age, AND the energy and enthusiasm that necessarily comes with youth.
There’s a story of a church service where the message of the sermon was about how church is not just comprised of one generation. God’s people span the generations, and the message was really about how the generations can learn from and value each other.
The children in the nursery had been taken outside to play on the playground, and you could hear them laughing and their shrieks of joy and surprise outside the windows of the sanctuary. What an appropriate backdrop for such a message!
And then it happened. A man in the congregation stood up, walked clear down the side aisle, opened the door to the church yard and told the children that they needed to quiet down because a service was taking place inside. During a message about generations needing to be willing to listen to one another, some guy actually got up and told the younger members of the church to pipe down.
Can you imagine something so rude and hurtful? Can you imagine how something like that would have just wilted the budding faith of the youngest members of that church? I hope to never hear of an incident so completely devoid of God’s grace taking place here, and I have good reason to hope that, because of pictures like this:
We are at a point in history when five generations are worshiping in the church together. That’s never happened before – to have five generations alive and active in the life of the church. Now, of those five generations, which one is God’s favorite? Which one has the exclusive claim to the church?
We’re all God’s children, aren’t we? And the reality is that God is still speaking to and speaking through all of his children of every generation. 103 years separate Miss Dorothy and little Miss Skylar in this picture – five generations covered between them, and it looks like they speak the same language of joy and love that is common to all people of faith, regardless of their age.
Friends, in the midst of a Christian community, hearing the voice of God requires that we listen to each other, never forgetting that we are all on the same team. What happens between the generations within the church is like what happens between runners in a relay race. Those who are on the same team, whether they run their leg early or late, are not in competition with each other. They have to work together, run in the same direction, listen to each other, communicate with each other. When one generation or group is rooting for another to fail, then guess what – the whole team loses. But when each is rooting for the others to run their leg as best as they possibly can, cheering them on, supporting them, then the whole team wins.
In the church, that means God wins. It means God getting through to each generation, and making his love and grace known in and through us. Whatever generation you belong to, whether you are old and wise, or young and fresh – and I will not assign you to those categories, I will let you choose for yourself which one best suits you! Whatever generation you belong to, here in the community of faith I hope you will be willing, for the sake of the kingdom of God, to listen to those of a generation not your own. Take the best they have to offer, and while you’re at it, offer the best of yourself back to them.
Successful teams will work on their handoffs, and if we’re smart, we will learn from that – we’ll spend time on how we hand off leadership from one generation to the next. If you’re part of an older generation, I pray you’ll know when it’s time to graciously pass off the baton to someone who is ready to keep running the race you’ve started. If you’re part of a younger generation, I pray you’ll know when it’s time to graciously receive the baton and keep running the race someone else was running long before you.
In either case, whether we are passing off or receiving the baton, I pray we will do it graciously. If you’re of an older generation, find ways to invest the best parts of yourself and your faith in a younger generation. If you’re of that younger generation, look for older folks who are walking close to God, and ask them to help you do the same. In either case, invest in each other, and listen to each other – listen most attentively to those who are listening to God.
Friends, we need both the wisdom that comes with age, and the energy that comes with youth. We need both. Our faith needs both the voices of experience and exuberance, both young Samuel, and old Eli.
If we’re willing to listen to each other, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to hear God. Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening!