Thursday, 7 June 2018

Hearing God's Voice- 1 Sam 3

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We meet Samuel in our reading as the nation is on the doorstep of a major transition. The nation was made of a number of tribal groups, who were sometimes led by judges (something like a mixture of warrior and a prophet). The book of Judges is a book about the deterioration of God’s people. By the end of the book they are in a deep dark hole. During Samuel’s time the people will transition to being a kingdom under the rule of a king.

The spiritual state of the people probably has something to do with why it says, 
“The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
 It could be that God wasn’t active in communicating, but I suspect it is more likely that the people had entered into a space where they were unwilling to hear and live according to the word they might hear. In the book of Judges the people were stuck in a pattern or turning away from God, which led to things going badly for them, then they would turn to God for help; God helped them, but when things went well they once again turned their back on God.

There are things we can do that will make it hard for us to hear God’s word to us. One definition of sin is that it is separation from God. Sin will make it hard to hear God’s word to us. If we are unwilling to follow what God will say (if we were to hear God speak), that indicates a heart that is not trusting of God's direction. A heart like that will not hear God easily. We might also lead a life of distracted hurry where we rarely take time to be quiet- that too will make it difficult to hear God. Whatever the reason, it seems like the people rarely heard communication from God.

It is during this dark time in the history of Israel that we meet little Samuel, who was placed into the care of the priest Eli by his parents. We don’t know how old he is at this point, but let’s imagine maybe he is a 10 year old boy. He has grown up serving in the temple and being trained under the old priest Eli. Serving God was that boy’s whole life.

One night (well it was actually very early in the morning) as the two of them were sleeping- the priest Eli was sleeping in his room near the sanctuary and Samuel was sleeping in the sanctuary near the Ark of the Covenant- Samuel hears a voice calling him.

We have a God who communicates. Our Bible describes God speaking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God speaks to the family of Abraham. God speaks to Moses, using a burning bush to get his attention. God sends angels, who are messengers. God sends dreams and visions. Sometimes God communicates dramatically, and sometimes- like Elijah standing at the entrance to the cave- God speaks with a still, small, voice. One translation says it was the sound of sheer silence by which God communicated. ... Our God wants to communicate, but it’s more than that, God wants to have a relationship with His people. In our reading today God seems to be speaking with an audible voice- though perhaps it was a voice only Samuel could hear.

I think it is not insignificant that at this moment of darkness and transition that God chooses a young boy to be his prophet. God values the humility Samuel represents. Humility and obedience to God’s will seem to be important elements for hearing God. These are elements we see in those called to be prophets- often they refuse God’s call believing they aren’t special enough to be a part of God’s plan. I suspect that is why Jesus chose fishermen rather than religion scholars when he was starting his movement.

So little Samuel is sleeping when he hears a voice calling to him. Twice he thinks the old priest Eli is calling to him. I think this tells us a few interesting things about God’s voice that are worth reflecting on. 

The first thing that stands out to me is that to Samuel the voice seemed familiar. It didn’t sound like a foreign voice. It was so familiar to him that he thought it was the voice of the man who was a father to him, so he ran to Eli. This man took care of him. He taught him to serve God. He fed him. He made sure he was safe. This man seems to have been a caring father to Samuel. 

God’s voice also called him by name. God didn’t say, “you boy”. God said, “Samuel”. God is personal. God knows us intimately. As the Psalmist says, “it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb” (139:13). And in Jeremiah 1 God says, "before I formed you in the womb I knew you".  God speak as someone who knows you, not as a stranger.

You can also learn something about your view of God by how you imagine God’s voice in this passage. Is it a booming and demanding “SAMUEL!” or is it a loving father waking his child up, “Samuel, it's time to get up”. In my mind there is a gentleness to God’s voice. If Samuel mistook the voice for Eli's voice then we have reason to believe it was a gentle voice. The second time Samuel wakes Eli up he says, "
I did not call, my son; lie down again." I hear all kinds of gentleness in that "my son".          

There is also a persistence to God’s voice. God doesn’t just call out once and then give up. God gave Samuel time to figure out what was going on, so he kept calling. … But notice how important Eli’s guidance is here. What if Eli told the boy that he was just dreaming and to God back to bed? Or what if he told him he was just hearing things, or said that he was crazy? That would have had a huge effect on the nation because they would have lacked Samuel's leadership. The guidance of Eli is crucial for Samuel to hear God. 

That makes me think about our role with the children around us. Do we help them hear and understand God's call to them, or do we too easily encourage them to pass by God’s call? Do we teach them to hear God’s call, or do we teach them that it is just their imagination playing tricks on them? … This isn’t easy. Sometimes it IS their imagination. But we are called to discernment and wisdom as we guide the young. I wonder what leaders the world as been denied because there was no one willing to be an Eli in a young person's life.   

 Thankfully, Eli was wise and discerning and by the third time Samuel came to him he realized what was going on. He gave him the direction, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'”

Samuel follows Eli’s direction and hears a message from God. But it isn’t a pleasant message. Part of hearing God is being willing to do the difficult thing God is asking. God gave a message that Eli’s irreverent and hypocritical sons would be removed from their service as priests. Understandably, Samuel doesn’t want to share what God Spoke to him, but Eli insists.

I think this is another aspect of the story we don’t want to miss. A prophet who has to share difficult news finds it painful to do so. Samuel was full of fear, not “righteous indignation” and judgement. The prophet Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet. He loved his people, but he saw the terrible things that were going to happen to them. I once heard someone say you should not talk about hell unless you have tears in your eyes. … The false prophets told people what they wanted to hear and so people loved being around them, but the true prophets were willing to speak the hard words of necessary correction- and they were hard words to speak as well as hard words to hear.

Samuel began a long relationship with God through his willingness to hear and act on what God said to him. Samuel is considered by some to be the most important prophet next to Moses. It is through Samuel that the people went from being a group of tribes to being organized under a king. This wasn’t necessarily a good transition, but it was one that God used.

I think that Samuel was called to a very specific ministry and so he heard God in a very specific way. … I also believe that God speaks to people now. I know of one person who heard an audible voice from God coming from the backseat while he was driving. It was only once and he was not someone inclined to the charismatic side of the church. We was a humble and quiet banker. … Hearing a voice like that is unusual, but I think there are ways that we can all hear from God.

Generally, God probably won’t make a point of communicating something to us that is plainly a part of the overall message of Scripture. I suspect God isn’t going to wake us up in the middle of the night to tell us not to murder (unless, maybe, we are in the midst of planning a murder, but I suspect we aren’t very open to hearing God’s voice at that point). When we take Scripture as a whole and we consider the general principles we can derive from it, reading it through the person of Jesus, we have a pretty good general sense of what God is wanting to say to us. And anything God is going to say to us is not going to be in contradiction to the person of Jesus.

The main way we hear God personally is through an impression on our spirit, or as an experience in our thoughts. An impression on our spirit is something like the feeling of conscience. When you are about to do something you know is wrong and something in you doesn’t feel right, that’s conscience. The regret you feel after doing something you shouldn't have is also your conscience. When you know you should do something to help someone, the pressure inside you is your conscience. Similarly, you will sometimes have thoughts enter your mind. And I have to admit that it isn’t always easy to discern between my thoughts and God’s voice. Sometimes it is only after the fact that you have a hint as to which one it was.

We should not be surprised that God communicates with us. If God is real, and the God Jesus reveals to us is who God actually is, then we should expect that we will hear from God. And we should also beware of saying things like, “who am I that God would speak to me?” because that seems to be the exact prerequisite in the Bible for someone God speaks to. God spoke to a shepherd with poor public speaking skills named Moses. God spoke to a little boy, not the priest. I suspect God is speaking to more of us that we realize, but perhaps we need the voice of Eli to tell us to listen and to identify that voice. AMEN

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