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January 2006

WHAT /WHO ARE WE LISTENING TO?

The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.

This 3rd chapter of 1 Samuel is the story of the call of Samuel.

Samuel will be God’s prophet at the beginning of the monarchy in Israel.

Samuel will anoint David as the promised leader to be Israel’s King.

I was struck by the way this story begins.

In those days the word of the LORD was rare

God’s word was rare.

Rarely spoken.

Rarely heard.

Rarely understood.

Could we say the same today?

I suppose in some ways God and God’s word seems to be spoken and heard, sung and listened to all the time.

There are any numbers of cable channels… books… lectures… revivals… special Christian special interest groups.

You name it and it’s out there.

There are even quite a few Christian dating groups online that promise to link you up romantically with another believer.

It would seem that God is spoken about or speaking to or listened to or invoked in favor of everything everywhere.

The people willing to tell you what God is saying to you or to the country or to the world form a line that goes around the block.

Perhaps the most publicized lately is Pat Robertson who has in succession suggested the following:

… New Orleans got what it deserved because of abortion and gay rights

… the citizens of Dover, PA should not look to God if disaster strikes their town because the voted “against” God by defeating council people who supported Intelligent Design

… and suggested most recently that God has struck down the Prime Minister of Israel because he was dividing up “God’s land.”

In would be instructive to know what God thinks about Rev. Robertson’s pronouncements…

Or any other number of preachers and prophets… including this preacher…

who make pronouncements in God’s name.

Perhaps upon hearing us wail away crying “Thus says the LORD”

God is like the young man in Abraham Lincoln’s story who was “too hurt to laugh and to proud to cry.”

Might it be that we are living in such a time as the writer of 1 Samuel describes:

In those days the word of the LORD was rare

Rare because God may well be fed up by those who falsely interpret what they God is saying.

Rare because God can barely get a word in edgewise with all the noise and chatter spoken in his name.

Rare also perhaps because people are not listening to what God may in truth be saying…

And we might not hear God when God truly chose to speak.

This story in 1 Samuel describes such a dilemma.

In his sleep… Samuel hears someone call him.

We are told that 3 times he hears someone calling out to him.

Being a novice in the priesthood… Samuel naturally thinks that his teacher, Eli, is calling out to him.

So Samuel goes to see what his teacher wants of him.

But Eli tells the boy to get back to sleep… Eli has not called him.

Samuel obeys him.

Notice we are told that Samuel has not learned the ways and the words of God.

Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD : The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

Hard to know who is speaking to you if you don’t know them or what they sound like.

In my neighborhood… every one of my friends knew each other’s mother’s voice.

Even in the midst of a hard fought athletic contest… our mothers’ cry for dinner or to come home could be heard.

For my mother… it was her whistle.

I could distinguish that whistle above the birds of the air or the trains running by.

So could all my friends.

And I knew that when her whistle sounded… my game was over.


Samuel’s problem was that he did not know god intimately yet.

Samuel had not heard God speak or call to him.

So when God did call to Samuel, he just assumed it was Eli.

The first two times Samuel goes to see what his teacher wants… Samuel is told he is “not being called.”

"I did not call; go back and lie down."

A la WC Fields “Go away kid… you bother me,” Eli dismisses the young apprentice.

Probably too excited to get started in the priesthood.

That’s all I need… Eli thinks… a way too eager kid who thinks he hears voices in the middle of the night.

Maybe his mother made a mistake leaving him here.

Maybe the kid won’t fit in.

Maybe he better sleep on it.

But there is no rest for Eli.

No rest for Samuel.

And certainly no rest for a God who won’t stop calling out until he gets the right person to answer him.

So God tries again.

The LORD called Samuel a third time.

Again the boy goes to Eli .

But this time he gets a different response.

Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'

Samuel obeys.

When God calls again, Samuel answers as instructed.

Given what God tells young Samuel… he may have very well wished that he had not heard… or that God had called upon someone else with this terrible word.

For God tells Samuel he is about to carry out something terrible.

"See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.

God then proceeds to tell young Samuel that the punishment he head sworn to carry out against Eli and his family.

Samuel makes no response.

The young student is rightly terrified by what God has said to him.

For the words pronounce judgment upon his mentor and teacher.

For such a divine audience Samuel shows neither enthusiasm nor thanks.

In fact… the story says he was afraid to say anything to Eli.

Not until Eli tells Samuel that no matter what it is… he must speak what God has told him to speak.

Would that everyone who feels that God has given to speak a divine and prophetic word demonstrated such fear and reluctance.

This story might well be a lesson for all of us:

You can trust a fearful prophet, but, beware of the enthusiastic one.

Not just this story… but the stories of scriptures are filled with those who fearful and reluctant men and women who heard and dreaded… ran and hid from the prophetic vocation.

Moses pleaded he could not speak… but hey my brother Aaron got an A in speech class.

Jeremiah speaking and no one was listening… so he tells God he is tired of getting stomach ulcers every time he has to say something

Poor old Jonah who tried to ignore the bishop’s new appointment in Ninevah by taking a slow boat to a nice little rural church in Tarshish.

Even Jesus in the Gethsemane trying to find another way.

(Personally, I like how Tim Rice portrays this prayer in his musical:

Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain.
Show me there's a reason for your wanting me to die.
You're far to keen and where and how, but not so hot on why.

You can search through the Bible and you will not find people running up to get in line to speak God’s prophetic words to God’s people.

They all seem to be running the other way.

Some thousands years later… I don’t believe its changed.

Tomorrow we pause in our work and school and play to remember another of God’s reluctant prophets.

It is easier now to encase Martin Luther King Jr. in sainthood.

Time and distance obscure the sorrow with which he lived and preached and the edge of his words.

King found no joy in confronting the violence of racism in America and the violence of war in Vietnam.

It broke his heart… strained his personal health and family life.

Eventually it cost him his life.

Look around today.

How many reluctant and heartbroken prophets do you hear?

When you sort through the books and videos… cable casts and lectures… what do you hear?

Reluctant and heartbroken people in a scared and barely audible voice.

Someone who trembles when they pronounce judgment.

Or do you hear shouting angry tirades… walking around the stage in their fine clothes in their fine sanctuary.

How many are like Samuel… too scared to speak for fear the terrible words will bring danger upon their friends?

How many are like Pat Robertson and others… so eager to interpret God’s word of vengeance and judgment that they rush in front of the cameras to enlighten us with their latest divine revelation.

Particularly moving for me is the last verse.

The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground.

When we are so careless with God’s words that we treat them without reverence…

When we banter them about as bumper stickers and political slogans…

When we confuse them with our own agendas and prejudices…

Then they fall to the ground and get soiled with the rest of the clamor and noise that pollute our communal conversations and robs us of our vision.

But if we take God’s words with fear and trembling…

If we hold them inside of us until the sear our hearts and force us to shyly speak of what we heard…

If the words we hear from God are spoken in the spirit of love and truth.

Then we can be and live as young Samuel.

The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground

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