January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139
John 1:43-51

“Rare Words from God”

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” That was part of the introduction to the story about the prophet Samuel… Samuel as a young boy, when he first began to listen for God’s voice and share God’s words with the people and their leaders.

I wonder if people might say something similar about the days in which we live now. I wonder if you would say that it is rare to hear God’s word today, that there are many, many words and messages being proclaimed in print, on TV, through the internet and social media, but that hearing God’s word in the midst of all of those other words is rare, indeed.

The story of Samuel’s calling serves as a reminder for us that God does indeed speak. Even when we have begun to think that messages from God are rare or even impossible, God continues to call. The question is whether we are listening and able to recognize God’s voice.

When Samuel figures out (with Eli’s help) that it may be God who is speaking to him in the quiet of the night, and he says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

I love how God begins the message he has for Samuel. God says, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” Interesting, huh? What God is going to say is going to make “both your ears tingle”! I have no idea what that means, but it does seem to imply that the message is going to be important.

One commentator suggests that one ear is tingling because it is a harsh message of judgement against the religious leaders, and maybe the other ear tingles because God is doing a new thing and setting things right.

I think it just may be a poetic way of saying that people will recognize that this is no ordinary message. They’ll get a sense (as if their ears are tingling) that this is a divine message.

It would be convenient for us if God would speak to us with nice clear messages that we could easily recognize as God’s voice – a call on the telephone, a daily email with instructions for the next 24 hours, or even a voice in the night or a dream that could guide us towards God’s will.

If God spoke to me as clearly as he spoke to Samuel that night, I would know for sure what words of comfort or challenge God wanted me to proclaim to you on Sunday mornings. And it would take the pressure off deciding so many things like how to spend my time, my money, and my talents when I find it difficult to set priorities.

But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that God’s words to us are actually rare. They probably weren’t that rare in Samuel’s time either. It’s just that no one had learned how to truly listen and share God’s words with others.

What is happening in our Old Testament text today is actually the beginning of a new role in the community of God’s people. While the people of Israel have been asking God for a king who will keep the people together in unity, and protect them from foreign kingdoms, God has been hesitant to grant them a king.

After all, there are dangers inherent in giving too much power and authority to one person in a community. That person may start to think of themselves like a god. A system of shared leadership and accountability works better, and reminds everyone that only God is god.

But the people insist that they really need and want a king, and eventually God relents and establishes a kingdom for Israel. But first, God sets in place another role that will be essential if there is going to be a king. God establishes what is referred to in today’s text as a “trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”

God speaks in a particularly clear and insistent way to Samuel (and other prophets who would follow him) giving them messages from God to share with the religious leadership, and soon with the kings of Israel too. If there is going to be a person with as much power as a king, there needs to be someone to “speak truth to that power,” to bring the challenge, correction, and sometimes the encouragement of God to those with the responsibility of leadership and care of the people.

It raises the question as to whether there are prophets today. Are there particular people to whom God speaks in an especially clear and insistent way? Are there individuals who have a special calling to listen for God’s voice and share God’s message with those in power or with the wider community?

You might think of people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Ghandi or Nelson Mandela. In a Vancouver Sun article about modern prophets, top picks included Bruce Cockburn, David Suzuki, Jean Vanier, Malala Yousafzai, and many others. Or you might say that this is the role of preachers or other leaders in the church, to listen for God’s word and be bold to share it with the world, even when it is challenging.

Although there certainly are some people who have special abilities to listen and discern God’s voice, and there are others who are very good at articulating a message for God’s people, I believe that God speaks to all of us, and we listen best when we listen together.

Today’s story points out that sometimes we need help in discerning God’s voice. Although God was speaking to Samuel directly, Samuel needed Eli’s assistance in order to figure out that it was God who was speaking. And although Samuel brought the message of judgement from God, Eli’s accepting response was critical for how that message would be received by the wider community.

As Christians, we have learned that we listen for God’s call best when we listen together. We interpret the Scriptures in community. We talk to each other and check out what we think God may be saying to us, even as we continue to listen. Indeed, we discern God’s guiding and direction very often through our conversations and prayers with others who are present with us as we struggle to figure out the way forward.

Presbyterians are convinced that the Spirit guides us when we listen to God together, especially in the courts (or decision-making bodies) of the church. Sometimes that conviction means that we take some extra time to make important decisions as we wait for a shared sense of the Spirit’s guidance.

And once we have heard a word from God, Presbyterians are called to share it – first of all with each other, as we help the people of our churches to follow Jesus with their lives. But also with the wider world, when we are called (as a church) to speak prophetically to our political leaders and others in positions of power and influence.

Very often, we are called to speak for justice, compassion, and mercy in a world that so often leaves those values aside. Like with Samuel, God’s word doesn’t come to us just for our own sake, but we are called to share even challenging words, speaking truth to power.

Our other Scripture readings today make it very clear that God’s words to us are not as rare as we are tempted to think. As the psalmist reflects on God’s presence and help in his life, he marvels at the volume of God’s thoughts and plans for him. He exclaims, “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the sand.”

And we are given a similar assurance from Jesus as he meets one of his earliest disciples for the first time. Nathanael is already astounded by Jesus because Jesus seems to recognize and know him when they first meet. But Jesus tells him that there will be much, much more to surprise and cause him wonder if he chooses to follow Jesus with his life.

Jesus says, “You will see greater things than these…” God’s Word has indeed been made flesh in the person of Jesus, and his disciples are going to be absolutely inundated with words of grace and love and challenge from God.

You see, God is not silent. God is not dead, as some have foolishly tried to convince us. God’s word to us is much less rare than we usually think. God is alive and at work in the ministry of Jesus Christ, and God is present and active still through the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s word is available to us in the Scriptures, and together we are able to interpret it for today.

Over the last few weeks, as the calendar flipped from 2017 to 2018, I wonder if you have done some reflecting back on the year that is finishing and made plans for the New Year. Sometimes we celebrate the memories and accomplishments of the year past, but often we look back with regret and resolve to do things differently this time around.

Among all the ideas for how to make 2018 better than 2017, I noticed one suggestion inviting people to spend 2018 paying attention to the good things that happen in their lives. Whenever something good happens, they are to write it on a slip of paper, put it in a jar, and then read through them at the end of the year to notice all the good things that happened.

Inspired by that idea… As we begin this New Year, I want to invite you to keep your eyes, heart, and mind open to notice how God is at work in our church, in your life, and in the world around us. I want to invite you to look, listen, and pay attention for messages from God or “God Sightings” and write them down.

I have provided some little slips of paper and a container to collect our “God Sightings” on the table in the narthex. Perhaps by the end of 2018, we will be amazed and encouraged by how much good has happened this year, by how often we have recognized God’s voice, by how loving and active our God has been in our lives and community!

Sometimes, however, God is harder to see and hear, and we have needs and concerns and questions that we want to express, so I’ll also put out a container to gather our prayer requests as well – the ways in which we are looking for God and God’s help in our lives.

But let’s not be fooled into thinking that God’s word to us is rare in these days. What is rare is that we take the time to listen attentively, and to share what we have heard with others. So, let us resolve to open our ears to hear what God is saying. Let us resolve to open our eyes to see where God is at work in our world.

With your permission, I’ll include your “God Sightings” and your prayer requests in the Prayers of the People on Sundays. Let us trust that 2018 will be a year full of words and wisdom from God. Let us trust that we will yet see greater things than we have ever seen before.