Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
January 14th, 2018
1 Samuel 3: 1-10,
Today, the scriptures take us back into the Old Testament, retelling the story of the boy Samuel. Let us now listen again to these words contained in First Samuel, chapter three, verses 1 thru 10.
3 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So, he went and lay down.
6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So, Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
“Having heard these words with our ears now let us listen to our hearts as we consider their meaning.”
“Listen for God’s Voice”
When I was a child I was trained to listen for the voices of my parents and my grandparents. They were the voices of authority and wisdom in my life. I am certain that many of you here today, can identify those voices from your childhood, voices which you listened to with an open mind and an open heart! Prayerfully, your parents are, or were, on your list. If not, I must pray that there were voices of those whom ‘did’ earn your respect and trust, as your journey into adulthood progressed. The other voice I have come to listen to is that of God’s. Learning to hear the voice of God is different that listening to the voices of our parents and other voices we have come to know and respect. Perhaps I need to clarify. The truth is… when I say I have heard God’s voice, I do not mean an audible or distinct voice… but a voice none the less.
Confused yet! Me too, sometimes. Discerning the voice of God in our lives can be difficult and challenging at times. Perhaps this has always been the case. One could easily come to this conclusion about the boy Samuel. In our scripture this morning we are led to believe, by the author of this passage that Samuel heard the voice of God. But, he did not recognize it. He therefore assumed it was the old priest Eli. A reasonable assumption as Eli was the only other person close enough to have called out to Samuel. If I hear voices in the night, there are only a few rational possibilities. Lois, my wife, is calling out to me or talking in her sleep or the television is still on! Of course, the non-rational possibilities are limitless!
Let us set this thought aside for a moment as I need to tell you about Reverend David Jenks. He was the Pastor Emeritus at the church I served in Middletown New York. He was younger than our Pastor Emeritus, Reverend Jim Allen. Pastor Jim, as we know, is almost one hundred and two. Pastor David was eighty when I met him. I did the Funeral service for him eight years later, he was eighty-eight. There are countless, numerous stories I could tell you about David. However, for the sake of time let me simply say we became close and together we did a lot of Ministry in the community in which we served. Oh, I forgot to mention, David never did fully retire. He was the chaplain at the local hospital in Middletown up until he had a bad stroke less than a year before his passing.
Those months after Pastor David’s stroke is what I need to tell you about. The stroke left him partially paralyzed and he lived out his days in a local nursing home. His wife, Sue, was not able to care for him at home. As is common among stroke victims his speech had been greatly affected. When he spoke, a nurse explained to me, he believed his words were audible and could be understood. Consequently, at times he seemed confused and perplexed, believing those around him were not listening to him. Unfortunately, most folks were not understanding him and only a small few of us knew what he was saying. That’s right, you heard me correctly, I could understand him when he spoke. We had a number of long conversations together. How is that possible you ask? I don’t fully understand it. Yet, I did comprehend and grasp what he was communicating to me. You see, David and I, we understood each other. We had talked in depth many times. I believe my heart, my spirit linked and joined with his in those conversations. I knew we were connecting and thereby communicating with each other. I knew this because of his loving smile and the sense of clarity through which he was acknowledging my responses in a positive way. There are books written about what I was experiencing. It is called the language of the heart!
No, I have never heard the audible voice of God. Yet, God has whispered in my ear many times. God has sent messengers to me whom have delivered ‘needed’ points of clarity now and then. When I pray I can feel the presence of God deep within me! That has come with the growing trust and respect for God’s role in my life, and I in response, to God’s holy will in the realm of humankind. Several members and friends of this congregation, have communicated to me, audibly, that you have experienced this presence, this closeness with God. Those whom have shared this with me… seem to have a sense of peace about themselves. If you have seen this in others, it is worthy of pursuing as it a ‘priceless’ gift.
No one knows for sure what type of voice Samuel heard that night. It took Eli to help him understand it was God who was calling out to him. Does it matter what God’s voice sounds like? Or is it the message of those encounters, the messages that touch our very souls and awakens our spirits? The important part of this conversation which Samuel had with God, was partially that it took old Eli to help him realize he was hearing God’s voice. We can easily conclude that Eli was acting as an interpreter for Samuel. Because of the old prophet Eli’s conversation with Samuel, this young lad was able to trust that the voice he heard in the night, was the voice of God. Through this interaction, and thus his conversation with God, Samuel was able to respond willingly to God’s call. This encounter with God developed into a strong relationship which changed his life and made a dramatic impact upon those he came to serve. The point of decision seems to hover around Samuels need to get clarity from Eli, a man whom he trusted and respected. The lesson for us is to stay open, to those whom have earned our respect and trust. They just may be the connection we need to understand God’s voice when it comes to us.
From the scripture that follows this passage, we learn how Samuel grows in wisdom and strength, and ultimately comes to replace Eli’s position in the community, which Samuel was then called to serve. The challenge for us this morning is to clarify, at least for ourselves, where we are in this story. Are we Samuel? Are we being called by God to do something new? Making the choice to recognize we are the ones being called to take on a new responsibility, this can be exciting, breathtaking and even spine-tingling. Prayerfully, if this is whom you relate to in this present time, you will have found the trusting voice, the elder statesperson who will mentor you and help you to understand how to connect to the ‘still speaking voice’ of God. What an exciting moment this can be for you! I fervently pray you will answer that call! Or are we Eli, having come to that point of transition and we are being instructed to help train the next student to take on the roles we once filled? At first this may be hard to accept, as we know we can do the needed tasks better than anyone. Understandable feelings, as in this role we have done many good things under God’s guidance. Letting go, and stepping back, thereby taking on a ‘new’ role can be very disconcerting and even uncomfortable. Yet, some of us must strive to align ourselves with the old prophet Eli. If we do not, the Samuel’s of our time; they may miss their calling because we were not willing to interpret God’s voice for them! Let us begin this process of choosing whom we identify with, by opening our hearts and allowing God to connect with our spirits, where we will be able to hear what God is now saying to us.
Every week I receive a writing called “Weekly Seeds” sponsored by the national office of our United Church of Christ. It is meant to aid and inspire pastors like myself in relevant ways to interpret our scripture lessons each week. Now and then I find myself really connecting to the words of the theologian whom wrote this week’s reflections. The Rev. Kathryn Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio. Here is one of her reflections on this passage we are using today. “Our Old Testament reading this week is a ‘call narrative.’ It is a story of a young lad who received a call from God. Perhaps we’re not called in’ exactly the same (dramatic) way, by a voice in the deepest night or by Jesus himself standing before us. Still, there’s a powerful connection between our call from God and who we are in the depths of our being, not only our gifts and talents but also our most profound inner life and reality.” Her reflections have most certainly enhanced the sermons of thousands of pastors’ numerous times. Through her writings she has touched tens of thousands of lives. Just as Rev. Matthews found it time to relinquish her position as Dean, in retirement or simply in a time of transition, she opened a door for someone new to accept their ‘call’ to do something new as well. This is the cycle of ministry – just as we all come to understand the cycle of life.
Cantor Naomi Hirsch speaks of a new day, a new time. “As we begin a new year, how can we be fully present to the roll calls we may hear? What does it mean to say, “I am here?” How shall we enter a new place?” (A new place in time, with new challenges and new opportunities.) This theologian from Yale University, gives us a true challenge as we wrap-up our discussion of the voice of God ‘calling out to Samuel’ and now to us. This is a good time for these reflections as we too, need to ascertain the voice of God in our midst. What better time could there be, then this, to consider our rolls in this our church? As we seek the voice of God’s will, and as we discern how to answer God’s call, to serve the people of God! For this is the time, as it is each year, when this church, and countless other churches have their annual meetings. A ritual among us churches who operate under the model of organization called ‘congregationalism’; first adapted out of the puritan movement. This whole concept of how we the people, we the congregation make the decisions that decide who and what this church is, and how this church is to operate. It was out of this Christian movement that the whole concept of Democracy was first embraced in what has become these United States.
How shall we listen for God’s voice during this time? Have we taken note of the art of listening with our hearts? Shall we keep the voice of God ‘central’ as we grapple with the ‘right choices’ for this congregation now? Shall we set a ‘good example’ for others to follow and an example of how to serve God out in our community, and in our own homes and in our neighborhoods? Let us first listen with our hearts – then answer with the love of God – thereby living into the Spirit of God’s ‘still speaking voice’! Amen.