Year B, Epiphany 2
1 Samuel 3:1-20
Every priest and deacon has to go through a thorough process of discernment before being ordained. Before you can even go to seminary, there is a lengthy interview process, sometimes an internship and you have to show that you have the support of your parish priest, the vestry, and a separate committee in the church. For 6 years I sat on the committee for the diocese that walks along people who are hoping to be ordained. During those 6 years I heard a lot of stories of people who felt that they were called to the ministry. Typically people’s stories were more nuanced than you might expect. For most people, there was rarely one moment when clarity struck. The call came over years, even decades. There was no thunder and lightning. No one ever started their story with, “God spoke to me and said, ‘You need to be a priest’.” Sometimes the call would come through life events and often the encouraging words of others.
It is strange because if you look at the stories in the Bible, of people who were called to various ministries (whether it was prophet, disciple, mother of God, etc)—it was usually more direct. God spoke to people in dreams and visions. For Moses, his physical appearance changed after he spoke to God. It was that obvious. Paul was blinded and a voice came from heaven. For Mary, an angel appeared and spoke to her. It seems that in those days, God was a lot more direct. Yet in this day and time, in the modern age, God is a lot more subtle in the way that he communicates. There have been many times in my life, when I wished God would be less subtle, more like he was in the stories in the Bible.
One of the first verses from our Old Testament reading for today is, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” This got my attention, because this is the Bible after all. It’s God’s word. You don’ expect that the Bible would mention a time when God’s word was rare. Yet even then, in the time of the great prophets and kings, even then there were periods when God seemed less communicative than usual. The Hebrew word translated to rare typically referred to things like jewelry, anything that was rare and limited in supply. Other translations use the word precious. God’s word was precious.
The other reason it seems a little odd that the word of God would be so rare in this story is the location. The boy in this story (Samuel) is living in the temple, as a servant/apprentice of the high priest. He was living in the temple. The text says that he was sleeping in the room where the ark of God was housed. The ark of God was the place where God was supposed to reside. The ark was the closest thing to the embodiment of God. It was the closest you could get. Yet even there, feet away from the ark of God, the word of the Lord was rare. It must have been a dark time indeed. But as you know, just because something is rare and precious, does not mean that it is impossible to attain.
This story of Samuel and the voice of God is fairly well known. Typically when we talk about it, we think of Samuel’s refrain, “Here I am.” Even the popular hymn you just heard repeats this refrain, “Here I am.” As a result, I have always imagined that this is the way we respond to the voice of God, with assurance, confidence, with a loud, “Here I am. It’s me. I’m who you are talking to.” Yet what is interesting is that was how Samuel responded when he thought it was Eli calling him.
Remember that the word of God was rare. Samuel didn’t know what it sounded like. In our text, there is an exclamation point after his name. Samuel! Samuel! But we don’t really know what the voice of the Lord sounded like. It probably didn’t sound like James Earl Jones. It was probably quiet, more like a murmur than a voice from heaven. Therefore, it was not that odd that he assumed it was the elderly priest Eli. Samuel responded as any good servant, by jumping to his feet and proclaiming, “Here I am.” Even after 3 times of hearing this, he still jumped to his feet and ran to Eli. Who knows, he might have done that all night had Eli not figured things out and given him some advice.
Now had I been in Eli’s position, I would gave jumped up as well and tried to get some more details from Samuel before formulating a plan where I would have joined Eli as we chatted and waited for the next call from God. But Eli was wise and probably a little tired as well. He told Samuel to lie down and wait. The next time God called, Eli instructed him to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel did exactly that. He did not bounce out of bed and say, “Here I am!” Instead he asked God to speak and made sure that God knew that he was listening.
Because of that, God spoke and shared something that would change Samuel’s life, Eli’s life and shape the fate of Israel. I have always assumed that God was waiting for Samuel to realize that it was God talking before sharing his wisdom. But I think God was waiting for some evidence, some confirmation that Samuel was ready to listen. He wasn’t just the eager pupil bouncing up and down in his seat desperate to be called on so he could speak…he was the servant ready to listen.
It is hard to know whether the word of God is rare now, or if it is just listening that is rare. It’s hard to listen. If this story of Samuel and Eli happened today, Samuel would have had ear buds in with music blaring. Or he would have been playing a video game or chatting online with someone. Eli would have been sound asleep with his white noise machine or maybe the TV on. It’s hard to listen because there is so much noise. It’s not just that the word of God is rare today. Silence is rare. It is so rare that it is precious.
Because it is precious, it is that much more important that we seek it, that we strive for moments of silence, moments when we can not only step away from the constant noise that surrounds us, but even the chatter inside our heads. God doesn’t usually speak to us with exclamation points. He doesn’t even use emoji. But I promise you that his word isn’t as rare as our ability to listen.
One of the things that helped Samuel was Eli, someone who was there with him and was able to point Samuel in the right direction. That is what the faith community is for. Church is the place you come to hear God’s word. You may not hear it in the readings, or the music, or the sermon. But this is the place where we intentionally make space for God’s word. That hour of worship might not be enough which is why we have different groups, Bible study, the men’s group, the adult forum, St. Anne’s guild, the young adult group…places where you can go to be with other people who are trying to listen for the voice of God. You can also come to Mark or me and we will listen to you and with you. Because whether you know it or not, God is speaking to you. God is desperate to talk to you. Not only are God’s words precious, you are precious in God’s eyes…which is why he never gives up. He never stops trying to reach you…no matter who you are or where you are from. You are precious.