Over the last couple of weeks, I have watched with horror and dismay at the events I’ve seen on my television and on my computer. Acts of violence, increasingly heated words, division unlike any I have ever experienced before in my lifetime. As each new news story has come out, I have asked, “God, what do you want me to say about this?” I have read the stories from 1 Samuel 3 and from John 1, and I have wondered where these stories might intersect what is going on in our world. And, to be honest, I’ve been speechless. What do you say when it seems like the world is falling apart?
So, as I sat down at my desk to write this message, I found myself asking God over and over: What is it you want me to say? And, it reminded me of a story: There was a pastor who decided to let God speak directly to him to deliver the sermon. No more writing or researching or preparation. Just an unfiltered time for the pastor to say whatever God said to say. On Sunday morning, the pastor got up into the pulpit with no notes and no manuscript, and he heard God say, “You should’ve been prepared.”
Karl Barth is often quoted as saying that the preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. But, recently, I came across an interview Barth did with Time Magazine shortly after he retired as a professor at the University of Basel. 40 years before, he had given this advice to his students: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” His reason was that what we read has the power to shape and form us, and we need to be certain that what is shaping and forming us is God’s word and not the patterns of this world. He continued, “Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?”
On this Sunday during the season of Epiphany, we gather around two familiar stories of God’s call – the calling of Samuel and the calling of Philip and Nathanael. We hold these two stories before us, while also carrying with us the traumatic and difficult events of the past two weeks. And we are asking, “God, where is your message? Where is your Word? And what does your Word have to say to our world that is in such need of you?”
Our story from 1 Samuel 3 begins with a problem – the word of the Lord was rare in those days. But, if we back up, we see that this problem had been going on for some time. In 1 Samuel 2 we learn that the priest Eli had two sons who were both “scoundrels.” They took the meat from the offering to God for themselves, and they abused the women at the entrance of the tabernacle. They abused their power and the place as servants of God. Their father Eli told them to stop. His sons’ reputations had spread far and wide, and Eli had heard stories of the things they had done. The Lord sent someone – the text calls him “a man of God” – to pronounce a judgment on Eli’s family. Soon, both of Eli’s sons would die, and that would be the end of Eli’s family serving as the Lord’s priests. God was about to do a new thing.
In the Bible we give to kids in our church when they are in the third grade, the heading over this passage is “The Lord Calls Samuel.” And, that does, indeed, happen in this passage. But, I wonder if this part of 1 Samuel 3 might be more accurately titled, “Samuel Wonders ‘Who Is Calling Me?’” As we explore this passage alongside our passage from John 1, we will be looking at three things as we continue our series on wonder. In these stories we are urged to listen. We are encouraged to wonder. And, then we are encouraged to go. Listen. Wonder. Go.
Samuel was dedicated to the Lord by his mother before he was even born. When his mother had weaned him, she brought him to the house of the Lord, and she left him there under the care of Eli the priest. Samuel learned from Eli how to do all of the proper priestly deeds, but Samuel did not know the Lord personally. He did not learn how to listen for God’s voice. And so, late one night, when God called to Samuel three times, Samuel had no idea what was happening. First, he assumed Eli had called for him. He ran to Eli twice, and eventually Eli realized that God was speaking to Samuell.
The story of Samuel reminds me that it is possible to immerse myself in the life of the church, it is possible for me to go through all of the motions as a Christian, to pray, to sing songs, to give offerings, and to have no idea how to tell if God is speaking to me. Samuel grew up under the care of the priest. He lived in the house of the Lord! And yet, when God spoke, Samuel didn’t know who it was. Trappist monk Thomas Merton talks about this struggle this way:
What is the “world” that Christ would not pray for, and of which He said that His disciples were in it but not of it? The world is the unquiet city of those who live for themselves and are therefore divided against one another in a struggle that cannot end, for it will go on eternally in hell. It is the city of those who are fighting for possession of limited things and for the monopoly of goods and pleasures that cannot be shared by all. There is only one true flight from the world; it is not an escape from conflict, anguish and suffering, but the flight from disunity and separation, to unity and peace in the love of other men.
Or, as it says in Romans 12:2 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Sometimes the biggest obstacle we face as we try to listen for God’s voice is that we don’t have much practice – or at least, it’s easy to fall out of practice. We get used to listening to all of the voices in this world – all of the noise. We can seek out silence. We can take time in solitude. But, if we don’t have much practice listening for God, we may not recognize God’s voice when we hear it. Listening for God means quieting all of those other noises. Turning off the distractions. And making space in prayer to listen.
We need to listen. But, then what do we do when we hear? Both Samuel and Nathanael from the Gospel lesson give us a clue. We hear God’s call, and then we wonder. Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli had to guide Samuel and help him understand what was happening. In the Gospel lesson, Philip tells Nathanael about Jesus and invites him to see him. And Nathanael says out loud, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I always used to read his question as somewhat judgmental, but Jesus doesn’t appear to have taken it that way. When Jesus sees Nathanael approaching him, Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” When Nathanael heard the call of God through Philip, he wondered about it. Could it be? And God was not offended by that question. Instead, Philip tells him, “Come see for yourself!”
In this noisy, distracting world, we must make space to listen for God’s voice. We need to learn to recognize the destructive and unhealthy voices around us so that we are ready when God speaks to us. But, if we are out of practice listening – or, if we’ve never really listened before – we may not recognize God’s voice when he calls us. Once we’ve listened, and we’ve heard, it is time to wonder. This is one reason among many why God called Christians to come together as the church. We need each other to help us discern, to listen, and to wonder. Is God speaking to us, or are we listening to something or someone else?
We are called to listen for God’s voice, to wonder with others about what we’ve heard, and then we are called to go – to take action. The Hebrew word for listen – shama – also means to obey. When we listen to God, we aren’t just hearing the words, we are doing what they say. For Samuel, God’s call was a big call. Samuel was not called to be a priest – though he did offer sacrifices, too. He was called to be a prophet. He was called to bring God’s message to those in authority. Now, at the time Samuel was called, Israel wasn’t yet governed by kings. There were judges who judged disputes and offered guidance. But, after Samuel was called, the people began asking for a king. Eventually Saul is anointed king, and after that time, whenever God called a prophet, that prophet was called to speak God’s truth to the king.
As you can imagine, prophets were often called to speak an unpopular word. They were called upon to speak out for God’s ways, even if speaking out could cost them their lives. Prophets were called to speak truth to power, and so it was imperative that the prophet get the message right.
We live in a time in history where so much is wrong. Almost 2 million people have died around the world from Covid-19, 400,000 of those in the United States. Deepening political divides have led to violence – at the Capitol and elsewhere around the country. Mistrust and anger have divided not only political parties, but also families and friendships. News stories appear so rapidly and frequently that it can be difficult to know what to believe. In this noisy and difficult season of history, it is more important than ever that we learn how to discern whose voice we are listening to.
We must carve out space in silence and solitude to listen for God’s voice. We must seek out trusted people in our lives and ask them to help us consider what we’ve heard. And then we must take action. There will be times when we have to speak truths that are unpopular or hard. There will be times when we are called to take action in ways that we aren’t sure we are capable of. But before we do those things, we need to make sure we’ve gotten it right. We need to ask whose voice we are listening to, and then we need to act.
Søren Kierkegaard offered up wise words about prayer and listening. Let’s allow his words to ruminate in our hearts:
As my prayer become more attentive and inward
I had less and less to say.
I finally became completely silent.
I started to listen
– which is even further removed from speaking.
I first thought that praying entailed speaking.
I then learnt that praying is hearing,
not merely being silent.
This is how it is.
To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking,
Prayer involves becoming silent,
And being silent,
And waiting until God is heard.