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I’m Listening / Second Sunday after the Epiphany

1 Samuel 3:1-20

And the LORD came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for Your servant hears.”

Legend has it that President Franklin Roosevelt got tired of smiling and saying the usual things at all those White House receptions. So, one evening he decided to find out whether anybody was paying attention to what he was saying. As each person came up to him with extended hand, he flashed that big smile and said, I murdered my grandmother this morning. People would automatically respond with comments such as how lovely or just continue with your great work Nobody listened to what he was saying, except one foreign diplomat. When the president said, I murdered my grandmother this morning, the diplomat responded softly, I’m sure she had it coming. Nope. Nobody listens. Even to people who are important to us.

A young woman tells of a time when her father went on a three weeks’ vacation to London, England. He called her one evening just to check up on her and see if all was okay. The phone call signal wasn’t that good. She says she didn’t recognize his voice. She heard the person say something but couldn’t make it out.

Her grandmother with whom she was staying was close by. Her grandmother saw the puzzled look on her granddaughter’s face and asked her, what’s wrong? The girl explained, someone just called checking up on me, but I have no clue who.

Her grandmother asked if it was a male. She said, yes. Then her grandmother asked what the person’s exact words were. Then her grandmother said, that was your father. Don’t you recognize your own father’s voice, even if there’s static in the telephone?

Well, I think all of us have been stumped at some time or another when somebody called us and didn’t identify themselves.

That happened once to a young boy named Samuel. It wasn’t a phone call with static on the line. He simply heard a voice in the night. He was living in the temple of Shiloh. It was late at night. The writer of the book of I Samuel reports that the lamp of God had not yet gone out. That’s a phrase that could mean one or two things.

It might mean simply that it happened late at night. The only light in the temple was a candle hanging high up in the temple ceiling. And it was still burning. But it was obviously near the point when it would soon burn out.

On the other hand, this phrase could have symbolic meaning. Eli the high priest was at an advanced age. He was nearly blind. His sons who were in line to take his place, and they were now in charge of the temple who abused their roles as priests. They were moral misfits who had no business taking over the temple duties. So, the writer may have been saying that, even though the worship of God at Shiloh wasn’t what it should be, God was still dwelling there.  He hadn’t removed His presence, His light still shone even though dimly.

Whatever this phrase means, Samuel heard a voice, the voice of the Lord.

Remember, Samuel was in the temple because of a promise his mother had made. Hannah, his mother was one of two wives of a man named Elkanah. It’s a situation that seems to occur often in the Old Testament. The other wife named Peninnah was a baby factory. But Hannah couldn’t get pregnant no matter what. Peninnah teased Hannah unmercifully about this. Hannah would cry and pray intensely that God would give her a child.

One day Hannah was at the temple of Shiloh. She was on her knees, praying fervently for a child. It was then she made a promise to God, LORD, if you give me a son, I will give him back to You.” She was moving her lips without making any sound as she prayed.

And the LORD gave Hannah the desire of her heart and she named him Samuel, which means “I begged from the Lord.” And after he was weaned, Hannah placed Samuel under the care of the elderly priest Eli in the temple of Shiloh to fulfill the promise she had made to the LORD.

Now Samuel is about 11 or 12 years of age, lying on his bed late at night, when he hears a voice calling to him. Samuel assumed the voice was Eli’s. Remember that Eli, being almost blind, would call on Samuel quite often to get things for him and assist him as he grew older and weaker. So, Samuel ran to Eli and said, here I am; you called me. But Eli said, I didn’t call; go back to bed. So, he went back and lay down.

Again, the voice called, “Samuel” Now if this was some of us, we would be either frightened or very upset because we really don’t like to be bothered when we’re asleep. But Samuel simply got up and went to Eli again and said, here I am; you called me. Eli said, I didn’t call; go back to bed.

Then the writer gives us a key piece of the story. He says, Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

I find that interesting. How could Samuel not know God. It probably doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means, that Samuel is dull spiritually or that Eli is a poor teacher. It probably means that Samuel has never had an encounter with God and doesn’t have the ability to understand what’s happening.

So, a third time the voice called, “Samuel.” So, Samuel gets up and goes to Eli and said, here I am; you called me. Then Eli realized that Samuel was hearing the voice of the LORD calling him. So, Eli told Samuel, Go and lie down, and if He calls you, say, Speak, LORD, for Your servant is listening. So, Samuel went and lay down in his place.

The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel, Samuel.” And Samuel answered, Speak, for Your servant is listening.

This is a beautiful story that many of us learned as children. And it’s an important story. Samuel would later become a Judge of Israel and one of its most important prophets. In fact, he was the last of Israel’s Judges and the first of its prophets. Remember, it was Samuel who anointed both King Saul and King David to be kings. He had an important role to play in the Old Testament. He played that role thanks to a mother’s promise and his own openness to the voice of God. Of course, we are interested in what the story of Samuel means for our lives.

First of all, it reminds us of the importance of listening…listening to God and listening to one another. Most of us won’t be hearing mysterious voices in the night. At least, I hope not. I did read recently that, according to recent research, the experience of hearing voices is not all that unusual. Estimates suggest that more than half of the “normal” population have heard strange voices at some time or another, while about 4 per cent of the population hears voices regularly.

You may think you have never experienced this, but are you sure? You may have had the experience of hearing someone call your name only to find that there is no one there. Indeed, research shows that, especially for recently bereaved people, it’s not uncommon to hear the voice of someone they loved after they are deceased.

Hearing voices doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got problems, though certainly it can. Especially if these voices tell you to do something violent.

It’s important to note that when God speaks, it’s rarely if ever an audible voice. You’ll remember the story in 1 Kings about a prophet named Elijah who was told by the Lord to wait on a mountain top. Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper (12-13).

God sometimes speaks through a gentle whisper. Generally, God speaks in the quietness of our own hearts through Holy Spirit, who we now understand as Christians dwells within us.

You know, I’m actually surprised to be surrounded by people who so readily hear voices. I talk to God all the time, but I don’t usually hear answers. It’s a much more subtle process for me. God told Abraham and Sarah to get up and go and change everything about their lives. But nobody ever says that to me. If I hear God at all, it’s somewhere between the lines of a page I’ve been studying for hours when I am reading and all I ever hear is, ‘Burt, turn the page.’”

That’s the way it is for most of us. God most often speaks to us without words. He speaks through our life experiences. He speaks to us in the silence of our own thoughts after a time of laying out our needs and concerns before Him. That’s the importance of prayer. We come before God with our needs and concerns. God already knows those concerns before we express them, but it’s still important that we bring them to Him. Then it’s important that we pause and wait for a few moments to see if God has something to say to us. Remember, God has concerns, too. They may be concerns about how we are living our lives. It may be about someone in our family who needs our attention. It may be about something that needs to be done in the church or in the community. Give God a chance to speak. Take time in your prayer life to listen. He’ll speak. You’ll hear him. Probably not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in a voice small and whispering within the soul of you.

It’s also important that we take time to listen to one another, particularly in the family. We’ve all had to adapt to the technology of this world. He says that multi-tasking can be a good thing.

We rarely give each other our full attention. Two men were talking over coffee one day. One said: I’m concerned about my wife. She talks to herself a lot these days. The other said: mine does too, but she doesn’t know it. She thinks I’m listening. No one in this room will be surprised if I say that this is the biggest complaint of most women: you never listen to me. And I think “what a way to start a conversation?”

It’s important when someone is speaking to us, particularly someone we love, that we look them in the eyes as a signal that we are giving them our full attention. We might scare people if we gave them that much attention, but you get the point.

One of the greatest gifts that God can give us in life is the gift of listening. Listening is the key to success and perhaps even survival in most relationships. There’s a whole field of business training, firms that teach the members of your company how to listen. They suggest that the art of listening leads to business success. I don’t know if they can deliver what they promise, but I am convinced that every year many businesses will fail, not because their product is faulty or their service poor, but because management and workers are not listening to each other. I am convinced that every year some marriages will fail because two people, though lovers, do not know how to listen to each other.

Listening may be the most important sign of love. Let me say that gain: Listening may be the most important sign of love. Samuel listened to the voice of the Lord and became a great man. We will become greater men and women if we, too, listen for the voice of the Lord speaking to us. It’s equally important that we listen to one another. In fact, to listen to the latter may be listening to the former

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel, Samuel.”

And Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”