“Do We Listen to God?” (preached at Epiphany UCC, Chicago)
1 Samuel 3:1-21 (3:8-10) – October 17, 2021
Are you a good listener? Listening well is a real challenge. Many people are not particularly attentive listeners; they might get distracted, or they are preoccupied, or any one of a dozen other reasons. It is difficult sometimes to listen, especially when we are straining to listen to a crackle-y voice, like on an old-fashioned radio, or over a cell phone’s poor connection.
If we consider our Scripture reading this morning, we are told something right up front: “The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.” People couldn’t simply check out their Bibles, or look up a reading on their cell phone or laptop. No!
The word of the Lord was mostly verbal, chiefly an oral tradition passed down, passed around by priests and temple workers. There wasn’t a written set of Scriptures, except for probably a collection of the laws of Moses, an early account of the Patriarchs, and early history of the children of Abraham, probably kept in the Tabernacle, God’s special tent where God was pleased to dwell.
All of these factors are a challenge, when it comes to listening to God – in the time of Samuel, anyway. The Lord’s word was rare at this time. So, when God did speak to a person, that must have been a huge event!
The Hebrew word for “rare” also means precious. That would go for both the voice of God as much as for visions from God. As precious as precious metals or precious stones!
Even Samuel’s upright mother Hannah was not one of these favored people, to hear the voice of God. What we know from 1 Samuel 1 was that she was a barren woman for years and years; she could not conceive a child. Eli the priest finally saw Hannah in her need, praying in great distress. He promised she would receive what she prayed for so earnestly: a son.
Hannah was so thankful that she returned the precious gift of a son: she gave Samuel to the Lord when he was very young, to serve in God’s Tabernacle from that time forward. That leaves us at the point where we re-enter the narrative – here.
. And, what does this reading say about the boy Samuel? “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” A few years have gone by since his mother Hannah entrusted him to the priest Eli. Samuel works in the special tent where God’s special presence is located, where the intricate Ark of the Covenant is stored, with the Ten Commandments tablets inside.
Do we begin to have some sort of idea how valuable—how rare it was for anyone to hear from God, the Lord Almighty, who made heaven and earth? If you and I are abandoned to total silence from God, that must be a very sad time, indeed.
Is it difficult to listen to God? I know we have a lot of competing sounds and voices in our world today. Just think of the insistent voices of business and school, assignments and responsibility that call to us. Remind us that we have more work to do. Something important to handle, an urgent message or an impatient person to get back to.
What about the seductive sounds of social media? All kinds of eye-popping entertainment? You and I can be entertained 24/7, 365 days a year, if we so desire. Talk about drowning out the voices of our friends and family! Much less the voice of God!
I know Samuel was still a boy. Children can have serious concerns and other important stuff going on, too. But, let us take a closer look at this passage: “Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called Samuel. Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 5 And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So Samuel went and lay down.”
I do need to go back in our reading, and emphasize one point in particular. In verse 2, we are told the priest Eli had lost his eyesight. “With failing vision, he cannot see God as clearly as he might have during the height of his ministry. Although Eli could not see it, God had already called his student, Samuel, to lead Israel.”  The Lord was already calling to young Samuel, but Eli and Samuel are both missing that call. Misunderstanding that voice.
How often do you and I miss an important voice? Mis-hear or misunderstand? And, sometimes our attention is not the best. I know I can get distracted, and not hear. I’m sure you are aware of that, too. I suspect it’s happened to you when you’ve been worried or frustrated or distracted, Or, what about your kids, or grandkids? “How many times do I have to tell you? In one ear and out the other – could you stop, pay attention, and listen to me, for cryin’ out loud?”
The priest Eli may have been losing his eyesight, but he had not lost touch with his position. He was the priest of Israel, serving the Lord God Almighty. He had the internal insight to tell that the Lord was calling to Samuel. Our commentator Herbert Marbury tells us “Thankfully, it took Eli only three attempts to recognize God’s voice. The omniscient narrator heightens the reader’s frustration by clueing the reader in to the identity of the voice before Eli identifies its source. Finally, Eli realizes the gift that God had given to Samuel.” 
And, it is indeed a gift that God gives to Samuel! God calls to Samuel, and Samuel responds. He answers, as Eli prompts, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”
I know it is not the easiest thing to focus closely and to listen to God, especially when God’s voice is half drowned out by the cacophony of competing voices, sounds, buzzes and beeps of modern technology. Not to mention the internal worries, concerns and anxieties of this heightened pandemic, this COVID-time – worries not only for us, but for our loved ones, too.
Sometimes it is good to slow down, to rest, to make oneself quiet within and without. And then, you and I may be more likely to hear God speak. “God persisted in the darkness of Samuel’s room until Samuel recognized God’s voice. Just as Samuel finally recognized God’s voice, God persists until we listen.”  Amen! Speak, Lord!
Can you slow down and listen? Listen to the voice of God? So often, you and I can be distracted or dismayed, preoccupied or anxious. Can we take a deep breath and unplug? Listen for that calm voice of love and welcome. Can we be as open to God as the boy Samuel?
When we quiet, slow down and become available to God, we can see ourselves in the image of our Creator, not in the images developed by market-driven mass media. On that day, when each one has what she needs to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” then the blessings of the Lord will truly be revealed among us. 
Lectionary Commentary, 1 Samuel 3:1-10, Herbert R. Marbury, The African American Lectionary, 2009.