I Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) 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.” Then the LORD said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.” As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
Ephesians 4: 4—7; 11—16 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. . . . The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Luke 2:41–52 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ 49He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
“DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?”
It seems just yesterday we were singing Christmas music. Now, along with millions of others, we are watching American Idol as it begins a new season, and especially during the auditions, it is amazing to try to understand how some of the performers could ever possibly have been led to believe they can sing. Clearly, they lack an ability to hear themselves, and when challenged by the judges, it is always the worst ones who argue the verdict, which of course provides part of the entertainment value of the show. The truth is that some people really can’t hear – they don’t have the capacity to discern that their voice is actually not tuneful or talented but terrible. So it is up to the judges to discern that one great voice, out of all the thousands of competing voices, to become the next American Idol.
In the first lesson today, from 1Samuel, the young Samuel is portrayed as having an acute sense of hearing, and what they are talking about is a sensitivity to the voice of God, while old Eli is a washed-up old priest who only dimly remembers what he is there for, his religious life having become empty and perfunctory a long time ago, and is now mostly concerned with his own entitlements, not with service. Eli had long since put the focus on what he was getting out of ministry than on what he was putting in. He didn’t care enough about the well-being of the people to intervene as his sons stole from their offerings, or to stop them from making sexual advances on the women who came to make religious sacrifices. The lesson today goes on to speak of the destructive consequences of Eli’s unfaithfulness as a representative and servant of God.
Eli lacks direct experience/knowledge of God. He has lost contact with the divine, so he has no vision, and is no longer a reliable guide in the realm of the religious and spiritual. The message is: if the religious leaders are not inspired, when they are not offering an example, you can hardly expect the people to be bouncing with enthusiasm for God. The text suggests that, as with Eli, so with Israel, spiritual insight has become dim to non-existant, the people are struggling and uncertain, and they don’t know the way. God seems to have disappeared, but it is the people who have faded away spiritually, devotionally and religiously. But Samuel tunes in to God, and Eli has just enough wisdom left in him to encourage the boy to attend and pay attention to that voice, because it’s the most important voice he will ever hear.
Discerning the voice of God, and then responding to the call, is one of the themes in today’s lessons. Samuel becomes a great prophet, based on his capacity for hearing God’s voice. Renewal comes to Israel through his faithfulness and openness to God. God is always present to us. It is generally an issue of whether we are present to God. It’s not only a matter of hearing correctly, it’s a matter of choosing to respond. Samuel says, “Here I am,” he presents himself, and that makes all the difference.
The picture painted in both the reading from 1Samuel and in the Gospel, is of an institutional religion devoid of spiritual life. Once that light has gone out, once that voice is no longer being heeded, whether in the Temple or in the Church, you may as well turn off the lights and lock the place up. No amount of preaching and persuading can substitute for first-hand experience of the presence of God. The value of any religious institution is how well it connects people with God. Nothing else the church offers can sustain people for long, and as in ancient Israel, so also in Jesus’ time, what had once been a vital religion was now a shell, going through the motions, but deaf and blind to the source of its own true life – and it was dying.
One of the messages in today’s lessons is that no matter how dim it seems, the church needs to remain open to the possibility that God can and will find a way to communicate, and there will be people who will reveal the way, Samuel for example. Jesus too is meant to serve as evidence of that. “In these last times, God has spoken to us by a Son …” the Epistle to the Hebrews says. John’s Gospel describes Jesus as the “Word,” or the voice, or communication, of God.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as being welcomed into the Temple, so he can engage the great religious minds of the time. His coming is a sign of renewal, transformation – a paradigm shift. The graciousness of their welcome to Jesus is noteworthy. When people come to us for spiritual guidance, when they come with their questions, what do we have to offer them? Do we welcome the energy and idealism and enthusiasm of youth into the life of our church? Do we truly offer them godly wisdom and guidance? Are we open to the renewal and transformation needed for the church to remain vital and relevant?
Jesus is portrayed as astounded that his parents don’t get it. The message that the Gospel seems to convey is: “Don’t you realize – aren’t you aware? God is the priority, so I just go where God tells me to go. Isn’t it that way for you? If you were tuned in better, you would just know – you would know that I would be here. And you wouldn’t be worried and fearful.” The story is not meant to suggest Jesus as a difficult and inconsiderate child – it is trying to tell us how completely responsive to God’s calling he really was – and in turn, how responsive Christ’s followers are meant to be. The fact is that mystical and spiritual people often baffle and frustrate others – they assume others will just know these things, and that others are operating on that same wavelength.
Today, people who pay attention to their inner life, and hear voices, are most likely to be dismissed as hallucinatory or delusional. Sometimes they are! But religion has focused outwardly on good deeds and socializing because the truth is, in our particular society, we are much better at DOING than BEING, but coming into closer relationship with God requires being – BEING still and becoming aware of God’s presence. We are so externally oriented, and yet people are starving for “the inner experience,” as Thomas Merton calls it. Practicing the presence of God involves learning to find that inner stillness, and peace, that place where the still, small voice of God – the sound of sheer silence – can begin to speak to us and shape our lives. When we come to realize that it’s an oasis, not a prison, we will have made some progress, and we will understand Samuel, and Jesus, much better.
Both of these scriptures point up the problem with perceiving or understanding God in set, conventional ways, because that can render you less open to fresh insight and experience. I think we are cheating ourselves if we believe that this sort of relationship is only available to a spiritual elite or to particular gurus. A prophecy of Jeremiah says: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” I operate from the basis that everyone is capable of hearing the voice of God, and that people often do hear that voice, but don’t identify it as such, because they have not been taught what it is, or because they fear ridicule and rejection, even from people like clergy (who should know better).
Relating these ancient stories and situations to our own spiritual lives is always the challenge. Today, we learn that one of the first things a person on the journey of prayer needs to develop is the art of listening.* We often end petitions by saying, “Lord, hear our prayer,” but it is tempting at times to put a line in there for God, saying something like: “Of course I’m listening – are YOU?” An essential aspect of developing in our spiritual life is the willingness to listen – to be still – to develop a discerning ear for the voice of God. That takes some time and practice, which is why we refer to spiritual practices. All being well, we get better at it as we practice the art of being still. One of my personal mottos is: “Do just do something, sit there.” Sometimes, it’s exactly what I need to hear as I begin careening about, in a frenzy of busy, reactive, and unreflective activities.
The scriptures today urge us toward a receptive, open, attentive attitude toward God, which enables a much deeper communion than we have previously known. This is a communion in which we gradually sort out all the competing external voices, and even our own competing inner voices (which are sometimes confused with the voice of God), and like Samuel, and like Jesus himself, begin to live our lives in tune with the purposes and will of God.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers
*In the primary stages of prayer, we are usually taught to recite prayers. It is a good way of giving people a vocabulary, an inner library, of prayer that they can rely on. These are rote prayers, and the Prayer Book is a great treasury of prayers – prayers like the Lord’s Prayer and table grace, etc. These prayers enable young people to develop a prayer vocabulary, some variety in prayer subjects and styles, and perhaps a practice and pattern of praying. As we progress, we eventually develop a capacity to start using our own language and our own voice as we form our thoughts and intentions. But it quickly becomes a monologue, if we don’t develop the receptive side, and begin to realize that it’s more than just finding the right words to send in God’s direction – it’s about When Jesus goes to raise Lazarus, he is portrayed as offering words out loud simply so people will have some idea about what’s going on – he was in such deep communion with God that he did not need to give outward expression.
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