15 March 2015

Voices in the Night

 1 Samuel 3:1-10

Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 15th March 2015

"The word of the LORD [, that is, Yahweh,] was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1).  This verse sets the stage for what unfolds in this remarkable text. 

It was rare to hear a word from Yahweh in those days.  Visions were not widespread.  Not in their day.  There was a time when people expected to hear a voice from Yahweh.  There was a time when people expected to have visions and visitations, epiphanies.  Revelation had become a thing of the past.  Samuel and Eli and others were living from, living off of earlier epiphanies, earlier visions, earlier encounters with the Living God, not from anything new.

Eli is tending to the ark of the covenant, the dwelling place of God.  The candle was lit near the ark, as it was every night; it burned all night.  Eli, the priest, was near the ark, close to it, but obviously the thought of the presence of Yahweh didn’t disturb him; it didn’t keep him up all night.  Here is the ark, the dwelling place of Yahweh.  Just think of the power of the ark. It would have been like sleeping next to a volcano. Yet, that thought didn’t seem to keep him up at night.

This is an evocative scene: Eli, the priest, a member of the religious establishment, is tending to the religious practices required of him, lighting candles, keeping watch over the ark of the covenant, preserving the rituals of the sanctuary in Shiloh, this dwelling place of God.  And he’s asleep.  Granted, he needs to sleep.  We all need to sleep.  But, here, sleep is the context for what happens; it’s the setting for the story, the occasion for what transpires.  Sleep almost becomes symbolic for something else. Does Eli represent a time when the people of God fell asleep before the presence of God?  Yawning before Yahweh.  Bored with Yahweh.  A time when the people of God served with little expectation that Yahweh would actually speak or move.  Or, perhaps, it was Yahweh who yawned, who fell asleep, bored with his people.

It’s curious that this scene occurs at night, probably close to the dawn, near the moment of first light, in that liminal, in-between place when night yields to day.  It’s while they are both asleep—sleep, when the ego relinquishes its control to the depths of the unconscious—that Yahweh chooses to speak, to speak when they least expect it, to speak when their ego defenses are down, for that’s when Yahweh is most likely to be heard. At night, in a dream state, outside conventional, ordinary, waking experience—that’s when Samuel is available for a word from the LORD.

“Samuel!  Samuel!”  Was it a shout?  A whisper?  Was it a dream? How did Samuel first hear his name? 

Of course, he didn’t know it was Yahweh.  He assumed it was Eli calling, no different from other nights, no doubt, when Eli, poor of sight, might have called out for help from Samuel. “Eli, here I am,” he said.  Samuel assumes that it could only have been Eli calling out his name. It’s striking: even though they’re before the dwelling presence of Yahweh it never dawned on them that God could be speaking, there’s no expectation that the voice was coming from God. They both assumed that God was silent.

And so Samuel runs to Eli.  “Here I am, for you called me.”  Eli says, “I didn’t call you; go back to sleep.”  So he went back to his bed. 

The Lord calls again, “Samuel!  Samuel!”  So Samuel gets up and goes to Eli and says again, “Here I am, for you called me.”  Eli says again, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  So Samuel went back to his bed.

We’re told here at this point in the story that even though Samuel slept in the temple, he was the ward of Eli; the text reads, “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7).  This is a remarkable piece of information in the narrative.  Samuel is unfamiliar with the voice of God; he’s unfamiliar with the presence of God.  So there was no way for Samuel to recognize the voice or the movement of God in his life because they hadn’t been formally introduced, as it were.  Recognition is not possible without cognition.  You cannot know again (re-cognize) without first knowing.  And Samuel had no prior knowledge of God in his life.  Surely, he knew about Yahweh, but that’s not the same as knowing Yahweh—there’s a world of difference between the two.

And so for a third time the voice of Yahweh speaks to Samuel.  And for a third time Samuel’s confused.  He assumes that Eli is the only one there.  He assumes that there can only be one person calling his name, only one option: Eli.  And so for a third time he goes to Eli and says, probably frustrated at this point, “Here I am, for you called me.”

It’s only then, after the third visitation that Eli begins to awake from his own spiritual slumber.  You can almost imagine him slowly beginning to realize what is happening.  Even though Yahweh had been silent for a long time, Eli knew enough about Yahweh, knew something about Yahweh’s style, knew something of Yahweh’s approach to recognize a visitation when it happens.  Eli knew it was Yahweh.

“Go,” Samuel, “lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”  And so Samuel went and did as he was told. “So Samuel went and laid down in his place.  In time Yahweh returned and “stood there,” the text said, “calling as before, ‘Samuel!  Samuel!’”  And this time he was ready. “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  Then Yahweh began to speak to Samuel.

This is a lot for a twelve-year old to take in, isn’t it?  This is a lot for anyone to experience.  Perhaps we should be grateful that experiences such as these are not that common.  At some level any encounter with Yahweh, as we see throughout scripture, is disturbing and unsettling. Our immediate response might be something like fear, which is why the angels of the Yahweh are forever saying, “Fear not!”  After the initial feeling of fear, one thing becomes evident: once you have a religious experience like Samuel’s there’s no going back.  Normalcy is forever altered.  There are people who have never had a religious experience in their lives and hope for one, they hope for something that will confirm their faith.  I can understand that hope.  On the other hand one must be careful what one hopes for.  Once you have such an experience there’s no way to undo it.  It’s yours and then you’re responsible for it, responsible to it—to be faithful to it.

There are other folks in our day, some even in the Church, who believe that religious experiences such as Samuel’s were for an earlier age.  It was a different time, a different dispensation.  Perhaps we’re too sophisticated for epiphanies and theophanies, for spiritual experiences.  Perhaps in our age we’ve become so jaded and cynical and hurt and disappointed to the point that we, too, say, “The word of the LORD is rare in these days; visitations are not widespread.”  And so there are plenty of folks who have fallen asleep in the temple of the LORD, yawning before Yahweh, never expecting to hear a word from God or experience anything profound. Others, like Samuel, go about their religious practices and rituals, without any expectation that the Holy is about to be heard or encountered.

That wise poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) once said there are things “not known, because not looked for.”[1]  If you have no expectation that God still speaks, if you’re eclipsing any possibility of encountering the Living God, then don’t be surprised if you’re disappointed.  As Jesus said, “Those who seek, find” (Matthew 7:7).

So, what if we assume that God is still speaking, still seeking us, still trying to appear in many ways, how will we recognize that voice?  How will we recognize the Voice that summons us in the middle of the night?  We need an experience, a cognition, first. And we all need mentors who can help show us the way. Eli’s advice to Samuel was very wise and that truth still holds for us today.  Say, “Speak, LORD, your servant is listening.”

We are called to listen.  To listen is to be receptive to what God is trying to say to us in our lives. 

Listening requires presence.  In other words, in order to listen we need to be present, in the moment, not somewhere else.  It’s difficult to listen to someone if you’re thoughts are elsewhere.  We have to be present.

Being receptive means we have to be open, available, removing the obstacles that silence the Voice.  Being receptive means shutting up long enough to listen for what God might be trying to say.  It requires silence.  It’s difficult to listen to what someone is saying when you’re doing all the talking or when the internal chatter carries on incessantly in our heads as someone talks to us.  You know someone is speaking to you, but it sounds like the voice of the teacher in Charlie Brown; it’s almost impossible to really listen and understand what is being said.  The same can be said of our relationship with God.

And the same is true with prayer.  There’s a place for speaking in prayer, voicing our praise and petitions to God.  But there comes a time when the words must stop, when we realize there’s nothing left to say, and so we become silent and still and we open ourselves, becoming receptive to the "word" that might be coming the other way, a word from the silence, coming from God.  St. Isaac of Syria, writing from the seventh century, said, “The highest form of prayer is to stand silently in awe before God.”

It’s a terrible risk, you know, all of this.  It requires trust.  Can we trust the silence to speak?  Can we sit long enough in the silence and listen?  Can we trust what we hear? Can we trust the Voice? 

Samuel, quite innocently, even naively, opened himself up to the voice of Yahweh.  The reading for today ends at verse 10, with Samuel saying, “Speak, for your servant is listening!”  The lectionary completely skips what we find in verse 11. It completely omits what Yahweh said to Samuel and what God said was not what Samuel wanted to hear, not what he expected to here.  Samuel discovers God’s impending judgment against the house of Eli, against the blasphemies of Eli’s sons, actually.  The message Samuel receives is difficult, abrasive, and devastating.  As you can imagine, Samuel was afraid to tell Eli what he saw and heard.  But Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.  He had to.  That’s the risk.

And that, my friends, is how prophets are born—or called or formed.  The text says, “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.”  Samuel was obedient to what he heard and saw.  Samuel knew that he was beholden to the Voice.  He had to be.  He had no choice. 

This is what is means to be a prophet within the biblical tradition.  The first task of the prophet is not to foretell the future.  The first task of the prophet is to listen to the Voice of God and then speak to the people, not what the prophet wants to say, but what the prophet has to say, is compelled to say, is called to say.  This is also a good description of how ministers are called and a good way to describe the life of a preacher and how sermons are formed.  What the prophet says is for the sake of the people because it’s for the sake of God and God is on the side of the people.  “The prophet,” Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, says, “is somebody whose role is always to be challenging the community to be what it is meant to be—to live out the gift that God has given to it.”[2] 

The person who perhaps best captures the image of a prophet for us is Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968).  King a preacher, yes; a reformer, yes; an agitator, sure—but it was his role as prophet that really made King, King.  What he said was challenging to hear (then and now), but he was challenging this nation and the Church to be what it was meant to be, to live up to it’s own ideals and vision, to live out its calling.  That’s the role of the prophet. We can hear it in so many of King’s sermons and speeches and sayings, such as this one: “If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”[3]

Prophets aren’t the only ones summoned to listen to God.  We’re all called to listen, called to be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10).  And in that stillness, in the silence, actively listening with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30), in time, you will hear something—a still small voice whispering in your ear in the middle of the night or a voice that shakes foundations—that will change your life. 

“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  This, too, can be our posture in prayer.  And who knows…you just might be summoned to be a prophet.  You never know.  You might be summoned to become a preacher.  You might discover a voice you didn’t know you had, a voice the world needs to hear.

What matters most is that we awake up from our spiritual slumbers.  There is so much in our lives that wants to lull us to sleep.  But we need to wake up and then listen and then follow wherever the Voice wants to take us.

[1] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” from Four Quartets.
[2] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 13.
[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (1963).

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