In last week’s readings we heard a lot about God’s voice. It was God’s voice speaking out across the waters of primordial chaos that caused creation to leap into being – Let there be! And creation was! And we learned that God’s voice is powerful and creative. In the psalm we heard that God’s voice thunders forth in power and glory, strong enough to cause mountains to shake and forests to be stripped bare! In the Gospel we looked on as Jesus was baptized, and, with Jesus, we heard the voice of God his Father speak, as the heavens were ripped open, naming and claiming Jesus as God’s own beloved Son, even as God names and claims us each and all as beloved daughters and sons as we come through the baptismal waters. And in the story of Paul in Ephesus we heard God’s voice carried on the lips of God’s people who, empowered by the Spirit, spoke God’s word in a multitude of languages, reminding us that we are all called to proclaim God’s story in and through what we do and what we say.
And right about now you might be wanting to ask: That was all last week, Pastor, why are you dwelling on last week’s lessons now?
Well, because God’s voice plays a central role in today’s 1st lesson, and I think it’s important to make the connections, especially since, last week, I focused on baptism in a more general way, rather than on the voice of God. And if we’re going to make sense of the connections between the weeks, it’s helpful to be reminded of what we heard last week…
In our first reading today we heard the familiar story of the call of Samuel, a lesson many of us probably remember from childhood Sunday school classes. The child Samuel is living with Eli the priest, because his mother, Hannah, who was thought to be barren, promised God that if she had a child she’d give that child over to the service of God. Another important thing to know about this story is that Eli is a horribly ineffective parent whose sons are living like privileged brats, taking advantage of their father’s powerful position in order to get rich, and to live high on the hog, so to speak. And Eli is doing little to nothing to stop them or correct their behavior, though he knows what they’re doing and God has warned him to get his house in order or else trouble’s a-comin’ and in a big way! So God’s voice comes one night, even though God’s voice had been pretty scarce in those days, and God calls Samuel to be a prophet, and, as such, to lead God’s people after God makes good on the promise to wipe out Eli and his sons.
So that’s the story in a nutshell, and I think this story gives us a wonderful opportunity to think together about discernment in general and, more specifically, about discerning God’s voice in our own days and times…
To start with, that line in verse 1 of 1Samuel 3, might sound familiar. The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Now, I’m not so sure if the problem today is that God’s Word rarely comes, or if we’re just missing it when it comes. It can be tough to discern when we’re hearing God’s voice when there are so many voices competing for our attention each and every day.
There’s a general sense of confusion in our world – socially, politically, spiritually. We hear so many different voices from so many different sources that it’s hard to know what to listen to. Where do we hear a voice we can trust? You might be tempted to answer quickly with something like: “Well, from the Bible, of course.” Or “At Church.” But we all know that that’s a little too easily said, and sometimes way too hard to realize with the likes of various television preachers and proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” running around out there crowding our radio and television signals, to say nothing of our brothers and sisters in Christ in more legitimate settings with whom we have great disagreement about the nature of God’s word and the saving work of God in Christ. And I won’t even touch the vast array of voices we hear in the social and political spheres. So many voices that one might be tempted to ask if God’s speaking at all…
But notice, even when the word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread, the lamp of God was still burning. The light of God still shines. And, as we heard at Christmas, this is the light that no darkness can overcome.
But still it’s important to think about the nature of God’s light as that nature is revealed elsewhere in Scripture. Yes, it’s a light that shines in the darkness, but it’s also a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. When it comes to discernment – when it comes to following the word of the Lord in our daily living – that’s often all we get. It’s not a floodlight. It’s not like turning on the high beams on our car that spread out and illumine our path way out ahead of us and all around us. This is a lamp that shines on our next step – right at our feet. Step by step.
I mean, it would be wonderful if God were to give us the big picture, and if we could know the end of a thing from the beginning of it, but that’s not what we get from God. We get a call to live by faith, and to strike out into an unknown future, trusting that God will give us the light we need for each step along the way, not for the whole journey all at once. Otherwise, what’s the point of the call to walk by faith?…
Now, it’s interesting to note that God’s call comes to Samuel as he sleeps. In Advent we heard the call, repeatedly, to wake up! Stay alert! But we aren’t always as awake as we maybe ought to be, are we? And so it’s good that God calls us to be in community together. Samuel doesn’t know what’s going on when God calls, and he assumes that what he’s hearing is Eli’s voice, and he goes to Eli and says: “Here I am, for you called me.” It’s not until the third time that Eli realizes what’s going on and clues Samuel in, and that’s often the case for us as well. We might be hearing God’s voice and mistaking it for something else. Or we might be missing it altogether, and it’s then that we need one another – the community of God’s people together – to help us hear and see what we’re missing. We need partners along the way to help us recognize God’s voice, and to sort it out from the other voices we might be hearing and mistaking for the voice of God.
You might remember that in 1st John, as the writer of that letter is talking about discernment, we’re told that there are other voices out there. He identifies them as the world, the flesh and the devil. And when we hear what we think is a word from God, we’ve got to be careful to discern that it’s not one of these other voices that can, and do, come, and that might sound in our minds a whole lot like God, or what we hope God might say to us in a particular situation.
Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice right away, and he needs Eli to help him out. And in the same way, we are called to discern together, and to walk together in faith and love, loving God and serving the neighbor…
But notice, even though God calls three times, and Samuel misses it three times, God doesn’t give up. God keeps on calling. And that’s important. And it’s a source of real hope for folks like me who tend to be, you know, a bit on the dense side. Even if we miss it the first time, or the second time, or the third time, God doesn’t stop calling. God doesn’t give up. God knows us full well, as Psalm 139 reminds us – God knows our days fully before a single one is formed. God, unlike us, does know the ending from the beginning, and God never gives up on us…
Once Samuel finally knows what’s going on – that God’s calling him – he puts himself in a position to hear from God. Samuel opens himself up and makes himself available to hear: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And here again is a very important lesson in discernment. We need to pray, and not just in terms of filling the air with words. We need to pray in terms of spending time listening for God’s voice, and putting ourselves in places and situations where God has promised to speak. Luther says this is what the third commandment is all about in the end: Keep the Sabbath Holy, Luther tells us in the Small Catechism, means
“Don’t despise God’s Word or preaching, but hear it and receive it with joy.” Which basically means: get your rear end into the pew so you can hear God speak to you in reading, in preaching and in the enacted word of the Sacraments. This is how we put ourselves in that open position, like Samuel, saying: Speak Lord, your servant is listening…
But then we have to be ready to hear what God has to say, which may not always be an easy word to hear or to receive. Eli hears words of judgment against himself and his sons, and God follows through on that word soon afterward as the Philistines attack and kill his sons, and Eli, on hearing the news, falls over and dies, too.
God’s word isn’t always easy to hear, but we need to hear it. We need to hear it all:
Words of call
Words of judgment
Words of encouragement
Words of healing
Words of forgiveness
Words of challenge
Words of freedom
Words of invitation – “Come and see.”
Words of sending – “Go out and live the Gospel for the sake of the world.”
We need to hear it all at various times, and to be able to discern that voice when it calls…
May God grant us the grace to hear clearly the word of Jesus, and strengthen us by God’s Spirit to follow where he leads.