In A Time When The Word of God Was Rare
A Sermon Preached by Rev. Jeremy Hall on 1 Samuel 3:1-11
If you open the book of 1 Samuel and read from the beginning it does not start with the story of Samuel himself. It starts with a common motif of the Hebrew Scriptures, a barren woman desperate for a son.
She prays, begging God for a son, pledging to give that child to the service of the LORD at Shiloh if God would only grant her prayer.
And God does…
When we pick up our text in the third chapter, we find her son, Samuel, serving the LORD under the priest Eli.
The passage opens by telling us that the word of the lord was rare in those days, and that visions and prophecies were few. These were days when God seemed silent.
The passage shifts from being about the personal piety of a faithful woman who has received a direct response to her earnest prayer - to the perspective of the religious system, with their priests, temples, rituals, and power.
From their perspective the Lord has been silent… Miracles are rare, and prophecy seems to have ceased. It is of course ironic to read this with a miracle son lying near the site of worship at Shiloh serving at the mercy seat of God.
And in these days when the word of the God was rare… A voice is heard in the night!
Have you ever been woken up from a dream by the sound of someone calling your name?
Someone who wasn’t there?
…And you couldn’t tell if it was real or in the dream?
(I have. And it was a frightening experience.)
God calls to Samuel, but Sam goes to the old priest to tend to his needs.
(“Samuel did not yet know the lord and did not recognize God’s voice”)
This happens two more times, and Eli gives him a priestly/prophetic response,
“speak lord, your servant is listening.”
So when the voice comes again Samuel responds, “speak, your servant is listening.”
And in this time when the word of God was rare God speaks to Samuel, “appearing in the room.”
Commentaries argue back and forth over whether or not this was an actual theophany (an appearance of God), or if the language serves to describe just how real it was to young Samuel…
Either way, it was real enough to catapult him into a lifetime (2 books worth) of prophetic ministry.
We live in a time when the word of God is perceived as rare. Folks argue that God has stopped speaking, or that God never spoke at all. Perhaps God spoke in a prior age, or maybe the voice of God is for an age that is yet to come…
But what does this passage tell us about the voice of God, if it is to be heard?
It seems to me that this passage points out a few things about the voice of God and what it takes to hear it.
Here in 1 Samuel 3 the voice of God comes first as that still small voice that called Elijah.
The voice of God comes in the still and the quite of the night. How often do we produce such an environment for ourselves?
And the place is not only still, dark, and quiet, but it’s also holy. This event takes place at Shiloh where the YHVH god was being worshiped. The text seems to indicate that God honors the intention of such places.
Where in your life have you carved out room for something to be holy? What aspect of your life has been set apart for God? What practices are you cultivating for the sake of listening? … and are you ready to hear?
In a time when the word of God is rare, the voice of God is unexpected and easily missed… perhaps because it has already been dismissed.
Many of us who grew up in more evangelical settings (which includes myself even though the Church that I called home for the first 18 years of my life is a mainline protestant congregation.), were thought to “talk to God” in prayer. But what that tends to work itself out to is closer to talk at God in Prayer. Many Christians have cultivated the practice of prayer, but for what seems to be the majority, that practice consists of all talking and very little listening.
But in a time when the word of God is rare, do we even know what we are listening for?
Maybe we should take a walk through the Bible and see what the voice of God sounds like.
Moses spoke to God through the burning bush and from the pillar of fire on the mountain, but Elijah tells us that God’s voice wasn’t in the fire that passed him by.
The Bible says the God spoke to Job as a whirlwind, but 1 Kings 19 says that the prophet did not find the voice of God in the wind.
Revelation says that Jesus’ voice is like that of many waters; Jeremiah said that God’s voice was connected to a tumult of water. David says that the voice of God thundered from the heavens, but Elijah found the voice of God in silence.
I have always been told that I would recognize the voice of God instinctively when God speaks, but with examples like these to use as a metric for determining if a voice comes from God or not, and in a time when the word of God is rare… is there any surprise that there can be some confusion?
And at a time when the word of God was rare, are we surprised that Samuel was confused about what he was hearing? Could this be why Samuel mistakes the voice of God for that of the aged priest in the other room? Could this be why it even takes Eli, with all of his years of priestly experience, three times to even suggest that the voice heard in the holy place of worship at Shiloh could be that of the supposedly long silent YHVH God? Could this be why Samuel, in responding to the voice in the dark when it calls for the fourth time, fails to use the divine name- as he had been instructed by the priest?
The words Eli had given him were “Speak YHVH, your servant is listening.”
But when young Samuel answers the voice in verse 10 he drops the certainty that the divine name implies, instead saying only: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Let’s be serious about this for a second.
I already mentioned how frightening it can be to be woken up by a noise in a dream. What if you had been woken up by a strange voice, had gotten up and searched for the source, to find nothing, shook it off and went back to sleep, only to have the same voice wake you again.
And then it happened again…
And then it happened again…
How quickly would you come to the conclusion that it’s the voice of God?
After all, this is a time when the word of God is rare.
If this were to happen to me, I would be terrified! Or I’d think that I was losing my mind… I might call a friend, or do something really crazy, like reduce my caffeine intake.
Before I proceed I feel like we need to make a hard stop at this point in the sermon for a brief aside.
Two things that I tell my youth frequently are “don’t believe everything you think.” -and- “Don’t over-spiritualize it.”
There are a lot of voices that populate our lives, and we tend to trust the ones that live inside of us. Be careful, just because you think it (especially about yourself) does not mean that it’s true; and just because it sounds good, doesn’t mean that it’s from God.
In that same vein, just because it feels or sounds good does not mean that it is of God. Don’t over-spiritualize it! From the Bible, and the history of the Church, we can see that we are dealing with a wild, creative God. But be careful, everything that happens to you is not necessarily God trying to tell you something.
Ok, Back in the Pulpit!
In this time when the word of God is rare, we must attend to the practice of listening if we are to discern the divine voice from the chorus of voices that speak into our lives. Perhaps some good first steps in this process could be to develop a practice of ritual silence, setting apart time in your busy day to be still and present.
Another good place to start is with the cultivating of sacred space in your life, Devotional practices, Christian inner spirituality, and self-care.
And in the same way that God spoke at the place of worship in Shiloh, maybe you should spend some time in the places where God is already known to be…
Like with the outcast, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. If you seek to commune with the god that liberates slaves, maybe you ought to stand with- and for- the oppressed.
In a time when the word of God is rare, we must be careful that we don’t miss the things that God is already doing around us, like the priests at Shiloh working alongside the son of a barren woman claiming that miracles don’t happen anymore.
In a time when the word of God is rare, we must be careful not to dismiss the voice of God – for we serve a God who has a history of communicating in wild, creative, powerful, subtle, loud, quiet, broad, personal, and unexpected ways.
So in this, a time when the word of God is rare… Listen!
And see if the word of God doesn’t catapult you into new and prophetic places.