Sermon - 3rd June 2018
Scripture - 1 Samuel 3:1-10
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (NRSV)
Was it true that the word of God was not heard very often in those days? Or were the people just not listening? Or, were they listening but did not recognise God’s voice? Do we expect God to speak in wonders, in whirlwinds and burning bushes, and the clouds opening? Or does God’s voice sound like our reader’s today?
God speaks but do we listen?
Three times God calls Samuel’s name, three times he runs dutifully to the old priest Eli, saying “Here I am, you called me” and three times Eli says, “No I didn’t; go back to bed”. It’s not entirely surprising that he didn’t recognise God’s voice; as an “apprentice priest” Samuel would know his Bible stories. Exodus 19:18 – 19 tells us that, when God speaks to Moses on Mt Sinai, God’s presence is announced by fire and smoke, thunder and lightning, trumpet blasts and an earthquake:
“Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.”
All Samuel heard was a voice that sounded like it could be the old man Eli, calling his name; it’s not until God calls Samuel the fourth time and Eli tells him that it must be the Lord speaking, that Samuel responds to the call with “Speak, for your servant is listening” (v.10).
At first, Samuel does not know God’s voice, but he soon realises that God is the foundation of his future prophetic work. Samuel reveals that prophetic proclamation follows prayerful listening. After he opens his ear to God, he receives his prophetic duty. And it’s not easy. Samuel is called to speak during a time of change, turmoil and impending war; he cannot lie down forever but must get up and act upon what he has heard.
God speaks. We serve. But the first task of a prophet is to listen.
Today Samuel offers us a beautiful picture of listening to God when he said, "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening." But, like Samuel, how do we discern what God is doing and saying out of all the other voices and demands in our lives? Well, we can start by listening prayerfully to God.
Now many of us, when we were younger will have been taught that “prayer is when we talk to God.” Maybe Samuel learned that definition of prayer as a young lad – if so, it's not surprising that when he heard a voice talking back to him, he didn't think it might be God. Because when we pray, we talk to God. When do we learn that God talks back?
Because God does speak to us, not with trumpets and fire and smoke and earthquakes and whirlwinds (well not to me anyway!) For me, I have mostly experienced God’s presence in the world around us, in other people, and in God’s creation; maybe we could say through the Spirit.
Who watched the Royal Wedding a couple of weeks ago? Who would have thought that an African American preacher would steal the show? Bishop Michael Curry electrified an audience of millions with his sermon, and afterwards BBC News had an interview with him and the Archbishop of Canterbury talking about the radical, transforming love of Jesus! Not hidden away on Christian TV or Songs of Praise but on prime-time TV! That, my friends, was the God-the-Spirit in action, speaking to the world through Bishop Curry.
Mostly though, it seems the Spirit speaks to us with a voice that sounds like one of our own thoughts. A ‘still small voice’ that’s easy to miss if we’re not listening carefully.
American theologian Frederick Buechner wrote:
“Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you because it is through what happens to you that God speaks.”
What makes this listening prayerful and holy is that we do it intentionally in the presence of God; we stop, look for God's presence in our lives and listen for God's voice as it speaks to us in the events and emotions of our everyday living.
I’m going to tell you another story now, one I found in this cookery book (yes God really does speak in some strange places once you’re open to God’s presence!).
The Religious Life
Once there were two friends who became Buddhist monks, joining a monastery together. Both were devoted to their religious practice, yet both still enjoyed smoking every now and again [please don’t take this story as any approval of this harmful practice!]. The monastic routine was rigorous, yet they still managed to find time to relax with a cigarette.
One day while they sat smoking they talked it over, saying to each other that they really ought to find some way to integrate their religious life with their smoking. “We’ve been here quite a while and since we do not want to give up smoking, we must find some way to make it part of our religious life” they thought.
So, shortly after this, one of them went to speak with the Abbot, saying, “I’ve been here a couple of years and this practice has been very beneficial for me, and I am devoted to prayer. But there is one thing which I have not been able to give up. I still enjoy smoking, so I was wondering if it would be all right for me to smoke during prayer?”
The Abbot was horrified. “Absolutely not!” he replied. “Prayer is just for praying. You must never bring in any other activities!”
The monk returned to his friend and reported that the Abbot was completely unsympathetic, he did not understand what they were trying to do, and it was no use trying to speak with him on the subject any more. Undaunted, the second monk said he would give it a try.
So, the second monk went to see the Abbot and said, as the first one had said, that he was really grateful to be able to participate in the religious life of the monastery, but the fact was, in spite of himself, he still enjoyed smoking. “And I was wondering” he said, “if it would be all right to pray while I smoke?”
“By all means, my son,” said the Abbot. “Whatever you are doing, you should also be praying.”
(Adapted from Edward Espe Brown, The Tassajara Recipe Book, 1985, Shambhala, London)
So, when I say “listen” and “pray” I mean we can listen prayerfully in many different ways: we can read scripture or books of devotion or poetry or even science, mathematics or history. We can be out and about or we can be working or playing sport or painting or sewing or singing. We can listen through prayer, through reflection on our hopes, our sorrows and anxieties, our loneliness and relationships, our work and leisure. We can listen by naming what we love and what we fear, by opening up the joys and the sorrows of our lives before the very heart of God. The truth is that all the space around us is sacred space because it is constantly inhabited by God’s Spirit and, if we listen carefully, from time to time, sometimes when you least expect it, the Spirit will surround you and fill you with a sense of God’s presence.
And always, in all our reflections, what we are really listening for is nothing less than an awareness and assurance of the presence of God, who has been listening to us and now takes this invitation of our attentiveness to respond.
“Speak Lord, for your servant is listening