6/10/18: Speak, Lord 1 Samuel 3:1-12
Second in the series: Holy, Broken Hallelujah
First Lesson: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Second Lesson: 1 Samuel 3:1-12
Rev. Scott Dickison
We’re in week two of our summer series on the story of King David told in 1 and 2 Samuel, and David has still yet to appear—in fact we’re still a couple of weeks away from meeting the ruddy-haired shepherd boy from Bethlehem. We’re still setting the stage. Last week we looked at the story of the prophet-priest Samuel’s birth, specifically through the eyes of his mother, Hannah, and her song of thanksgiving to God when the child for whom she had prayed finally arrived. This morning we meet the child Samuel himself, now under the care of the aging prophet-priest, Eli.
And in the same way we noted last week that Hannah’s story of despair and longing opening up to hope and new life could be viewed through a wider lens to point us to something more—namely the hope and redemption of her people—this story of Samuel and Eli and the voice of the Lord, too, has a wider purpose.
Once again we’re reminded of the dire straights in which Israel has found itself.
“Now the word off the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
These are dark, desperate days. The people have lost their way. No sense of place or purpose, no vision or imagination. The spark is gone. That sense being tethered to something beyond us—that sense there is something below the surface of things. When the word of the Lord is not there, something is missing.
As the story goes, the old, revered scholar pastor was late coming into the sanctuary for worship. He was known to emerge about halfway through the service from a door in the back of the chancel and make his way to the chair up front not ling before the time for the sermon, when he would then climb the spiral staircase that led to the pulpit. But something was different this time. It was almost time for his weekly ascent and he had not yet emerged from the bowels of this study. And then, just seconds before it was his time—and seconds before the minister of music had a heart attack—the door opened, and out stepped the preacher. He carried himself up the steps of the spiral staircase and behind the pulpit, where he opened his folder and arranged his notes. He stood there looking at them for some time until he finally raised his eyes, which looked heavier than usual. The congregation stared up at him, afraid toe breath. He back at them, until he finally broke the silence and said, I have no word from the Lord this morning. He then gathered his notes, closed his folder, turned, and walked down the stairs, sat down in his chair, and after a few beats, the closing hymn began.
When the word of God is not there, something is missing.
The word of the Lord was rare in those days, we’re told. And yet God is still up to something.
The prophet Eli is old and his eyesight has grown dim—in more ways than one, we’re to believe. We’re told in the chapter before his sons, who have already assumed control of the temple, are vile and corrupt—and yet the lamp of God had not yet gone out. God will speak through the young boy Samuel signaling the end of the old regime, and the dawning of something new. With this God, we learn time and time again in scripture, there is always the possibility for something new, but it comes at the expense of the old, and by that we mean the present, the way things are. This in-breaking of the new is hard and painful, and God knows we never give up the old without a fight—sometimes not even a fight, simply a crucifixion. This story of what’s next for Israel is a painful one, it always is. But the light of God is still burning, and the voice of God is still speaking, and so anything is possible.
Viewed through this wider lens, this is the moment when the voice from God returned to the people who had forgotten what it sounded like. But as with Hannah last week, the Bible always points us to the bigger picture by focusing in on the smaller one. So we can’t forget to focus the lens on this child finding his place in the world, and the one who is guiding him into it.
Samuel!the voice cries.
Here I am! the boy responds, speaking those words of Holy response that appear over and over in Scripture.
God calls to Abraham, telling him to sacrifice his son, Isaac—Here I am!God calls to Moses from the burning bush—Here I am!
God calls to the prophet Isaiah saying, Whom shall I send—Here I am!
The angel of the Lord appears to a young girl in first century Palestine and tells her, she will bear God’s son into the world—Here I am!
Here I am, Samuel responds, he thinks to Eli, but Eli, blind as he may be, soon realizes something more is going on, this is the voice of God the boy is hearing, and if that is the case, he knows just what to do. Eli tells Samuel to go back to his room and when the voice comes again, respond, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.Samuel goes back, the voice indeed comes again, Samuel responds how he is instructed, and the voice of God continues, outlining what is to come and Samuels days as God’s messenger to the people have begun.
And I believe God still speaks in this way. I’m not above saying that. Not because I’ve heard God speak in this way—though there have been plenty of times when I wish God had. Speaking plainly, explaining the past, sorting through the present, outlining the future. I know God still speaks in this way, not because I’ve heard it, because so many of you have and you’ve told me. You’ve shared those holy moments when you’ve heard the voice of God. You’ve never questioned what it was, but all the same you spoke of it in a whisper—after all, this is the First Baptist Church of Christ! We’re an educated bunch here. When God speaks here it’s through Buddy Shurden or Ruth Rowell.
I believe God still speaks in this way,
and I believe we should talk about it more when God does. But we limit ourselves and God if we think this is the only way God’s voice speaks to us. The voice of God comes to us in many ways—scripture tells us as much, but so does your life. Often we understand it to be something else, something not quite as grand. But when you quiet your mind and listen…
Have you ever seen a child look out over the ocean for the first time? How they stand there, or perhaps you’re holding them, and their eyes are drawn out to something bigger than they’ve ever seen. The movement, the smells, the sounds. Their bodies are drawn to it. Their center of gravity begins to move them toward it.
The ocean, the mountains. The sky on a clear night. The plains—I drove through the plains of North Dakota one August and saw from the highway fields of sunflowers in every direction as far as you could see.
Scripture of Nature, it’s sometimes called.
And there are other means. We feel the tug, the pull. The feeling of being drawn, of being summoned. That feeling of our ears tingling as it says here. The lump in your throat. You’ve heard the voice of God before.
Of course, the voice never just comes to us to come to us, it always comes to tell us something, usually to urge us to do something, almost always something that will challenge us or stretch us—remember, the voice of God always comes offering something new, which means something that stands in opposition to the way things are. The voice often comes through our conscience. That voice inside us that says, “That’s just not right.” “Someone should do something.” It’s usually not the voice that tells you to do what you want to do. It’s the voice that tells you to do what you must do. It can be a dangerous voice, a costly voice. But when it comes you know you’re not alone.
The now-deceased leader in the civil rights movement, Dr. Vincent Harding, once spoke a time back in the Freedom Summer of 1964. Civil rights groups were leading efforts to register black voters in Mississippi. They invited hundreds of white co-workers—many of them students—to join in the effort. But during the very first week, three of the young people were arrested and later released, but then disappeared. Their badly-beaten bodies weren’t discovered for weeks.
Dr. Harding said one of the other leaders got up and told these hundreds of students that if any felt like they needed to return to their homes or schools, they would not be thought less of. In fact, the organizers in Mississippi would be grateful for how far these students had come already. They were encouraged to take a couple of hours to make phone calls, to talk to family and friends, to talk with one another as they made their decisions.
And Dr. Harding recounts, as he moved around the room and among the small groups of people that began to gather to together, he heard in group after group people were singing “Kumbaya”—a song that’s become shorthand for a kind of shallow, sentimentalized faith, but actually has much deeper roots. It’s an old Spiritual sung in the Gullah dialect. It means “Come by here.” A plea, a cry for help, for mercy, for a word, a vision, a hope. Of course, it became popular in the 60’ around the push for Civil Rights.
These hundreds of students were singing:
Come by here, my Lord. Come by here.
Someone’s missing, Lord.Someone’s missing.
We all need you,Lord.We all need you.
Come by here.
Dr. Harding remembered that almost no one went home. “They were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to.”
Come by here, Lord. Speak, Lord.
And this speaks—we could say—to an important truth about the voice of God as it comes to us, that each of us has experienced in some way even if we haven’t understood it as such, and that we find here with Samuel, which is that we all need an Eli. The voice came to Samuel, and I suppose you could say he was listening, but Samuel couldn’t have known it was the voice of God he was hearing without Eli there to tell him, and then to help him know how to respond. And this is true of all of us. We all need people in our lives, spiritual guides or mentors, to teach us what the voice of God sounds like so that when the time comes we can answer it for ourselves.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the language we use at baby dedications. When we covenant with parents to help raise a child in the faith, this is what we commit to do as a church: to help this child learn the sound of God’s voice so that when the time comes they can answer it for themselves. It’s a holy task. And you do it, in so many ways. Sunday school and Wednesday nights. Celebrations down in the Fellowship Hall. None more involved than what many of you did over this past week putting on VBS. Amidst the singing and the dancing and the silly skits and arts and crafts and science experiments and recreation, the voice of God was quietly being taught.
But other times as well, when they’re watching. When they hear of missions trips and choir tours. When they hear of lunches being prepared and served. Gifts being given. Kindness and generosity and compassion being showed—often at great cost. Isn’t this what we do as the church: open people to the voice of God in their life? Tune their ears to it? Tell them, That’s it—that’s the voice. The one where your heart feels full and broken at the same time. The one that tells you to reach out to the stranger, stand with the vulnerable. To say yes to compassion and understanding and imagination and no to fear and judgment and cruelty. The one that says there’s always another way. That forgiveness is hard but worth it. We teach it to children, yes, but the truth is we never get to the point where we no longer need someone else to help us discern the voice of God in our life. That continues long into adulthood.
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days,” we’re told. But I wonder if that’s true.=
Was it the word was rare, or did people hear it and not tell anyone? Or was there no one there to help them know what they were hearing? What will they say about these days? What would have them say?
Speak, Lord, yes.
But speak, church, too. Amen.
I’ve heard this anecdote told with a number of pastors in the starring role: Reinhold Niebuhr, Carlyle Marney
Vincent Harding, “Is America Possible?” On Being with Krista Tippett, https://www.onbeing.org/programs/vincent-harding-is-america-possible/