Rev. Teri Peterson
It Takes Practice
1 Samuel 3.1-10
15 January 2012, Ordinary 2B
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.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 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. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 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. 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.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 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. 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.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’
I admit to feeling a little bit odd reading that text then standing up here to talk. All week I’ve wondered why I didn’t just decide to say “speak, for your servants are listening” and then sit down for a few minutes? In addition to meaning less work on writing a sermon, it seems it would make more sense—why am I talking about a story that’s all about listening? Then I read again the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, which is the topic of our Monday online theology class on the blog. In the very first chapter it says “the preached word of God IS the word of God.” Right…no pressure, then. I’ll just come up with something to say that will be as valuable to you, the listener, as hearing directly from God standing at the foot of your bed or your pew.
I think many of us can relate to the opening of this story—“the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Or perhaps, if we’d read a little before and a little after this passage, we’d relate even more. As Samuel is growing up in the temple, the religious and political leaders (who are the same people) are corrupt, self-serving, and greedy. They claim God’s favor but act in ways contrary to God’s calling and character. So perhaps a better way to say it is “talk about God appeared everywhere, but the word of the Lord was rare.” Sound familiar?
In the midst of this reality—scandal, greed, temptation, abuse of power, corruption—comes, surprisingly, the word of the Lord. But Samuel doesn’t recognize it! There are so many voices, so many noises, so many opportunities, so many people…even in the quiet, in the middle of the night, in the holiest place around, Samuel doesn’t recognize the voice of God.
I think we like to imagine that if God were ever to speak directly to us, we would notice. Maybe because there would be a voice coming from the clouds, as at Jesus’ baptism, or a flaming bush talking in the desert, or a blinding light on our commute, or maybe even a whisper—but preceded by such great signs that we couldn’t possibly miss it. But when God talks to Samuel, it’s in a voice like any other voice, calling in the night. Eli has probably called Samuel countless times before, there’s no reason to assume this night is any different. Who else would be calling, after all?
Because—and here’s what I think is the interesting part of the story—Samuel doesn’t know God. He’s never heard or talked to God before. God calls Samuel before he even knows about God, before he’s learned God’s word. He’s been serving in the temple, helping Eli and his sons, but he doesn’t know God. And yet God speaks to him.
First there are the false starts—where Samuel doesn’t recognize the voice. He’s never heard it before, never spent time talking or listening to God, so why would he know this voice?
Then there’s the instruction—Eli finally realizes what’s going on and teaches Samuel what to do. Instead of rushing off to perform a task, instead of immediately speaking, instead of turning to the person beside him—or the facebook or twitter or blog or phone beside him—he is to simply listen.
And then I imagine there’s some practice. In my mind’s eye I can see Samuel reciting his line over and over, the way I recite my parking space number so I won’t forget it before I get to the train platform. “speak for your servant is listening. speak for your servant is listening. speak for your servant is listening.” I also wonder if he had to sit there in the silence, straining to hear, for a little while. Did God’s voice come again immediately, or did Samuel also have to practice his silent listening first?
Because most things we do take practice, right? It’s rare that we develop a skill without effort, and sitting in silence, listening to others, listening to God—these are no exception. We have to practice silence, even when our inclination is to follow the distractions down their fun rabbit holes. We have to practice listening, even when God doesn’t seem to be speaking. We have to practice discernment, even when we think we know the voice.
I suspect many of us are like Samuel—we haven’t heard directly from God before, and we might not even recognize God’s voice if we did. Sometimes that’s not for lack of trying, either! But for many of us, this discipline of listening is just too darn hard. Our brains don’t seem to be wired for silence, for listening when no one appears to be talking. It’s hard to connect with someone you can’t see, and the ways we can try to imagine—like talking to God on the phone or something—are too cheesy to take seriously. So…it must just be that the word of God is rare.
I wonder if the word of God was rare in Samuel’s day because so few people were willing to say “speak, for your servant is listening”? After all, the message Samuel gets is no walk in the park—it’s a message that will bring pain before the healing can begin. It’s not a message I’d want to hear—I would rather say “listen, God, for your servant is speaking” and not have to worry about the hard parts, because often when God talks it changes our lives. Could it be that God is speaking but we’re so afraid of what God might say that we keep on talking over the still small voice, or we delete the message before we have a chance to hear it, or we assume it's just another call from a friend or colleague or telemarketer?
If so, how do we remedy that? How do we become people who connect with God, who discern God’s voice in the midst of the cacophony of life, and who are willing to share the news which is both hard and good?
Sadly, I don’t think it’s just going to happen overnight. I think it’s going to take some work on our part. Samuel had to learn and practice—and he continued to practice throughout his life—and in the practice, he found a connection to the Holy that he could never have imagined.
We have heard the instruction. so the first step in following it is to, like Samuel, be there. Samuel lay down in his place and waited, and when God spoke he was ready to hear. It could have been seconds or hours of waiting in the silent darkness...are we willing to wait? To make space, however difficult that is, for God to speak? I know it’s hard—believe me. For one thing, I like to talk. For another, I think about things. Some might use the word “obsess.” And for a third, 99% of the time I also have a song or two or three running through my head. I’ve finally learned not to hum all the time, but the music still plays. And let’s not even talk about the allure of facebook and twitter and the 24 hour news cycle. To say that there’s a lot going on in my head is an understatement—and I bet that’s true for most of us. Turning that off takes practice and commitment. When we can’t, it’s tempting to give up. But we don’t give up on math or learning an instrument or soccer practice, so why do we give up on this? It took Samuel and Eli several tries before they figured out what was going on, but they kept at it. It took Paul literally being struck blind. It took Peter hearing himself deny before he could truly hear Jesus. It took Moses several rounds of excuses before he could listen to God. All these people, and many more throughout history, stayed in the game and found that God used them in amazing ways they could never have imagined, and certainly could never have done on their own. There is value in this discipline, in the trying (and even in the failing) to quiet ourselves and listen for the Spirit’s whisper. Let’s keep trying—even just a minute or a few minutes at a time—and eventually, we may find that there’s just enough room for God to enter. And then who knows what might happen?
May it be so. Amen.