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Hearing God

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on January 15, 2012.

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Many years ago when our church was looking for a staff member, we conducted an interview with a candidate highly respected in his field who had served a long tenure in a large, prominent Baptist Church.  I can still remember this man’s answer, (who we did not hire) when I asked why he wished to leave his current position.  “I’m thinking it’s time to leave,” he said, “because one Sunday morning not long ago our pastor stood in the pulpit and said God had told him that anybody, including staff members, who disagreed with him was demon-possessed.” 

Now in all honesty, does anybody except a power hungry pastor really believe God said that? 

Last year a preacher claimed God told him the world was coming to an end on a particular date, and most of the secular world rolled its eyes when that date came and went and the world went on .  Then the preacher claimed he had apparently been mistaken and revised his date for the near future.   This time I notice few Americans seem to care.   And who can blame them?

I remember a conversation with a perceptive church member sometime ago who said, “Dr. Hughes, have you ever noticed that when God tells a preacher to move, it’s always to a larger church with a bigger salary?”  I promptly told that guy he was demon-possessed!

And we wonder why so many, including lifelong church members, privately doubt that God really speaks to people.  And if God does speak, how in heaven’s name would we know if what we hear is the real deal, or the voice of some egomaniac claiming to speak for God, or simply the product of our own vain imagination? 

How do we know we are actually hearing God?

This is the question that ended last Sunday’s sermon.    And this is the question we hope to answer today with the help of one of the most famous stories in all the Old Testament.

The story of Samuel’s call from God actually begins with Samuel’s mother, Hannah.  After failing to have children for many years, Hannah promised the Lord if he gave her a male son, she would hand him over for the Lord’s service as soon as he was weaned.  Lo and behold, God gave Hannah the son she desperately wanted.  And lo and behold, Hannah took her precious young son after he was weaned to the temple of Shiloh to be raised by the chief priest named Eli. 

As priests go, Eli earned a passing grade.  But the sons of Eli, we read in 1 Samuel 2:12, were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.  It seems that Eli’s boys were stealing prime cuts of beef from the animal sacrifices dedicated to God.  They were not only routinely violating the temple sacrifices, but taking indecent liberties with the women who served in the temple. 

Eli knew all about this abominable behavior and tried to rein his sons in.  But the boys basically told their elderly dad to take a hike, since they had no intention of letting Eli or anybody else stop them from using the temple as their personal pleasure palace.  One day an unnamed prophet blasted Eli for his boys’ debauchery, and predicted that Eli’s boys would die for their sins.  But the prophet was wasting his breath, because essentially nothing changed.

Such was the state of affairs when God suddenly and dramatically intervened in the life of Shiloh’s temple.  Notice that despite its rampant immorality the temple was still operating.  Eli was still running the show.  And Samuel, now probably a middle-schooler, was assisting Eli by performing menial tasks.  He slept near the Ark of the Covenant and provided oil for the lamps.  He opened and closed the doors of the temple, and cared for the needs of the aged Eli while Eli’s boys were doing Lord knows what. 

But we see many signs that reveal the temple is in steep decline.  The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  God’s dramatic revelation to Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness was ages ago, and not even the temple priests were in touch with God.  They were just going through the motions with their rules and rituals and hoping for the best.

It wasn’t just Eli’s physical eyesight that had grown dim.  So had his vision of the Lord and of the Lord’s work.  It wasn’t just the lamps of the temple that had almost run dry.  So has the souls of the temple leaders…save for a wet-behind-the-ears young man who had yet to attend seminary.

Now God was about to do something new and unexpected through this young man.  One night as Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord…the Lord called, “Samuel, Samuel!” and (Samuel) said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said “Here I am, for you called me.”  But (Eli) said, “I did not call, my son, lie down.”

And Samuel did.  And the same thing happened again, and Eli again told Samuel he was mistaken and he should return to bed.  And that’s when we read this shocking bit of commentary:  Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 

And we wonder how this could be?   Samuel’s mother dedicated him to the Lord.  Samuel worked in the temple and did religious things all day long.  Yet, he did not know the Lord!  Maybe that means proximity to the house of the Lord does not automatically translate into a personal relationship with the Lord, just as hanging out in a church does not guarantee you know the Lord of the Church. 

One commentator suggests there is a world of difference between knowing about and knowing the Lord.  The Old Testament Hebrew word, “to know” (yada), suggests an intimate relationship that exists, for example,  between a husband and wife.  This is the kind of intimacy Samuel is about to gain through his nighttime encounter with God.

God called Samuel still a third time.  And this time when Samuel ran into Eli’s bedroom Eli offered a different response.  Even blind Eli, who hadn’t communicated with God in a long time, understood God was speaking to Samuel.   So Eli coached Samuel in what to say if God made a return appearance.

God did in fact appear and speak a fourth time, and following Eli’s advice, Samuel gave his now classic answer:  “Speak (Lord), for your servant is listening.”  And with that answer Samuel initiated a warm, conversational relationship with God that would last the rest of his life, making  him the most trustworthy prophet in all of Israel.

In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard identifies six different ways God communicates to people throughout the scriptures.  He speaks through a supernatural phenomenon, accompanied by an audible voice, as he did through the burning bush with Moses.  He communicates through angelic messengers, as when Gabriel informed Mary she would give birth to Jesus. 

God speaks to a variety of people in visions and dreams.  He speaks through human voices as through his prophets, and most clearly, through his son Jesus.  Most of all he speaks with a “still small voice” inside the hearts and minds of those dedicated to him, those who regularly make time and space to listen to him. 

And on rare occasions, he speaks in an audible voice.  His approach to Samuel that night was one of those occasions. 

What do we notice about that ground-breaking connection between Samuel and God? 

We notice it happens as Samuel is “lying down.”  Lying down can of course refer to the act of sleeping.  But in this case I think it indirectly refers to the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude, or getting very still and quiet so we might hear the voice of God.  One reason many of us never hear God speak is we never “lie down”, never grow still and quiet away from the voices of the computer and the television and the phone.             

We notice that God is persistent in his attempt to break through to Samuel.              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!” 

I have an idea God often feels like he’s talking to himself because we’re not listening.  The remarkable thing about God is not his apparent silence.  It’s the fact that he is so persistent in speaking to us, despite our turning a deaf ear his way, over and over again.

In this season of Epiphany we celebrate the fact that we are not in the dark when it comes to God’s love and will for us, that the light has pierced the darkness of our world.  But for the Light to pierce the darkness of our souls, we must have eyes to see and ears to hear. 

We notice that what makes Samuel such a dependable receiver and communicator of God’s word is his humble, wide-open heart.  I first heard this story of Samuel’s call in children’s Sunday-School a half-century ago.  But I’ve never noticed until this week how similar Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel was to Samuel’s response to God. 

Last month just before Christmas we reviewed Mary’s famous response to Gabriel.  When Gabriel announces that Mary will produce the Son of God through a virgin birth, she asks one question for clarification and then says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  At that moment, Mary let go of all her preconceived plans and goals for her life, and humbly submitted herself to God.  In other words, she became indifferent to all but God’s will.

When God spoke to Samuel, three times in a row he said to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.”  Then, when God spoke to him again, Samuel responded, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  With that same humble spirit, Samuel makes it clear he is ready to do whatever God asks even before he asks it.  In other words, Samuel is indifferent to all but God’s will. 

On this second Sunday after Epiphany, and the first Sunday after we’ve began the beginning of our conversation about the future of our church, I’m convinced this is a clear word for us from God.  The reason so many Christians, and Christian churches, struggle to hear God’s voice is because their own internal voices, their own whims and preferences drown out the voice of God. 

As I analyze the challenges cited by Chris Gambill facing the Church universal and our church in particular, I have my opinions about what our church should do and not do in the future.  And when the time is right I will share those opinions.  But my first order of business, and your first order of business, is not to work the system so I can guarantee my opinions will be heard and followed.  My first order of business is to say to God, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.  Here I am Lord.  Let it be to me, and to our church according to your word and your will.”  In other words, I need to become indifferent to all but God’s will for our church. 

I believe that the heart that hears God most clearly is the servant heart, the heart willing to do God’s will before God has even spoken.  If we approach our process of discernment with servant hearts, I’m convinced the same God who spoke to Samuel will speak to us… maybe not audibly, but with his still small voice.

Now even with his servant heart, Samuel needed the insight of Eli to make sense of God’s voice.   That tells me that God usually speaks most clearly to those who engaged in community with other believers.

When anybody, preacher or not, says he has heard from God all by himself, and he proceeds to announce God’s plan which has the net effect of promoting himself and demoting everybody else, I get very suspicious.  In my reading of scripture, and in most of my experience, God speaks most clearly in and through a community of spirit-led Christians rather than through one solitary individual. 

And just because the word we hear is hard doesn’t mean it’s not from God.  The word Samuel heard was hard indeed (especially for Eli and his family), and it led to a dramatic new change in the direction of the temple in Shiloh.   Survey the ways of God, and you’ll find that God is often up to something new.  And those communities of faith that refuse to believe this or hear this often wind up on dead end streets.   On the other hand, when the people of God listen with open minds and  hearts, and the voices of the Holy Spirit and scripture and their circumstances all point in the same direction, they best hear and obey. 

It would be misleading to say hearing God is always easy because often it is quite challenging.  But here is what I know.  When your consistent stance toward God is, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening,” the probability of hearing God correctly increases dramatically.

So today, I’m asking you to offer this simple prayer over and over again in 2012:  “Speak Lord, for your servants at First Baptist Church are listening.”

And I believe he will.