God has heard, have you?

1 Samuel 3:1-10

1 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and 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 he went and lay down.

6 Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

8 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

I heard a comedian recently talking about how good kids have it today. It was one of those “back in my day…” kinds of sketches. One of the things he said that made me giggle was, “Back in my day, we used to have to answer the phone to know who was calling.”

Caller ID is a great thing. So is the “ignore” button on the phone. I try not to ignore calls because people don’t usually just call me to chat. If my friends or people from church call me, they probably need something. So if I’m available, I answer. However, this week I was playing around online looking at refinance options for our home. I’m always looking for a way to save a little money, and I think that we might be able to get in on a HARP refinance deal. I put some information into a website, which I thought was a government website. I hesitated a bit when they asked for my phone number, but I clicked “submit.” And of course, there was a disclosure that said, “By clicking submit you are agreeing to our terms and conditions.”

Yeah, cuz I read those.

I just wanted to see if I was eligible for the program, and I kid you not, within two seconds of clicking “submit” my phone started ringing. I didn’t know the number, so I answered. “Hello, Kevin. I’m from Quicken Loans. We have your inquiry and would like to ask you a few more questions.” And before he could get out that sentence, my phone started beeping. I was getting another call from an unknown source.

What I thought was a government website that would tell me if I was eligible for a reduced cost refinance, actually turned out to be a third-party who immediately sold my contact information to several loan agencies.

I’ve been thankful for that “ignore call” option.

What do you do when your phone is ringing, but you don’t recognize the caller? It probably depends on your personality and your line of work. Before the refinance fiasco, I would usually answer in those situations because I do get a number of calls from people in the community and in the broader church whose number I don’t have stored. But often those calls are informing me that a car I sold five years ago is eligible for an extended warranty or that because I’ve stayed at a certain resort in the past I’m now able to get a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

Even with all of our technology and all of our experience, it can still be really hard to know who is calling. And don’t even get me started on how hard it is to tell whose phone is ringing when they all have the same ringtone! How can we sort it all out?

Our scripture for this morning is the calling of Samuel. Samuel is the prophet who will go on to anoint the first king of Israel, Saul, and his successor, David. It was Samuel’s mother, Hannah, who prayed to God for a son, and promised to give him back in service to the Lord. The name Samuel means “God has heard.” (Samuel can also mean “name of God.”)

Young Samuel goes to live with an old priest by the name of Eli at the synagogue in the city of Shiloh. Notice what we find in verse 1: “The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.”

I sometimes hear people say things like, “Miracles don’t happen anymore.” Or “God doesn’t speak to us like he used to in the Bible.” This may be true, but notice that God didn’t speak often in those days, either. The Bible is a collection of stories spanning thousands of years, and when we put them all together in one place, it seems like God was always doing miracles and speaking to the people. So maybe God speaks less today than in the biblical days, but I don’t know for sure. But I would guess that the heavens could seem pretty quiet at times in those days, too. And maybe God was speaking, but they didn’t know how to listen.

So things have been a little quite around the synagogue in Shiloh. Some historical figures suggest that Samuel is about 11 years old at this time. Samuel lies down and someone calls him. But there is no caller ID, so Samuel assumes that it is Eli, the curator of the synagogue, who is calling him. So Samuel gets up, runs to Eli, and says, “Here I am.”

Then Eli says, Why are you waking me up? I didn’t call you. Go back to bed!

Samuel goes back to bed, and he hears someone calling again. There must not be anyone else in the synagogue because again Samuel assumes it is Eli. So again Samuel goes to Eli and says, “Here I am!” And again, Eli says, Go back to bed.

            A third time someone calls out for Samuel. Whoever is calling is even more persistent than Quicken Loans, who eventually got the idea that I didn’t want to talk. Samuel again goes to Eli, and all at once, Eli realizes what is going on. They haven’t heard this voice for a while in this synagogue, but after the first few attempts, Eli recognizes the caller. Verses 8b-9a say: “Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’””

And when God called the fourth time, Samuel was ready. “Speak Lord,” he said. “For your servant is listening.”

Why was it that Samuel did not recognize the voice of God, and Eli eventually did? Look at verse 7: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

I hear people use the phrase “know the Lord” differently today. This verse isn’t saying that Samuel didn’t believe in God or follow him, but that he hadn’t had a personal experience with God. Again, we are talking about a boy of about 11-years-old, and verse one said that God had been quiet for a while. But the old man Eli, he could go back in his memory banks and recall. Maybe God had spoken to him in the same way many years ago. Or maybe he had a different, yet consistent experience. Either way, after the third try, Eli recognized it was God speaking to his young apprentice, and Eli was the one who gave Samuel guidance on how to proceed.

Like all times and places, we in the modern, western world value certain personal attributes. We value the self-made man or woman who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps. We value youth. We value beauty. We value celebrities who are famous simply for being famous. And all at once we have this new term, a new class of people who are looked up to known as “YouTube Celebrities.” I don’t get it, you just video your day, upload it, and people watch this? My children have been talking about JoJo Siwa recently; I seriously feel old and out of the loop. I had no idea who JoJo Siwa was. But thanks to the public school system, my kids do, and now I do. As of Friday, January 12, 2018, JoJo Siwa has over 324,000 followers on Twitter, 428,000 likes on Facebook, and 6.5 million followers of Instagram. And in my opinion, after watching portions of two videos, she isn’t that talented, either. Her songs are all voice-overed.

What is she? She’s young. She’s cute. She blonde. Evidently 6.5 million people value these things.

Some cultures have totally different values. Rather than the young and the beautiful, they value the elderly, the experienced, the wrinkled, the gray-haired people. Because with every wrinkle and every gray hair comes wisdom.

I think we in the church would do well to slow down and listen to the voices of experience. I’m not suggesting that older people have all of the answers, but I also think that there is wisdom in the words of Ecclesiastes 1:9b, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

In a few weeks our conference will be losing two more churches over the issue of inclusion of people in same gender relationships. We’ve lost a number of conservative churches, and now we are losing a few more progressive churches. This is dividing our denomination, our conferences, and our churches. How do we deal with this divide? I wish I knew! But I think there is wisdom in going to our elders and asking about how they dealt with divisive issues, what they would do the same, and what they would do differently. I bet they would say we got some things right and some things wrong. Though this may be a relatively new issue, there have been issues before. We need people like Eli to help us discern God’s calling. We need people who have heard God’s voice before to help us hear God’s voice today.

We also could do better at utilizing the people around us, people who know us. Our church, our community, our friends. These are the people who can help us discern God’s voice.

Each month our Church Council meets to discuss the work and mission of the church. Sometimes I think we could call this group the Church Counsel rather than Council. We do counsel one another and I believe it is helpful to bounce ideas off one another. We gain more insight this way. Perhaps you hadn’t thought of it from a certain perspective.

One of our deep discussions this past meeting was the pronunciation of the word spelled A-U-N-T. It is my observation that those born south of the Mason-Dixon Line pronounce this word awe-nt, while those of us born north of the Mason-Dixon Line pronounce it…correctly. When asked why he pronounced it awe-nt, one insightful individual said, “Because that’s how it is spelled.” Add another letter or two and you get words like taunt, haunt, flaunt. Many people on council contributed their opinions, but finally, I just asked the question, “Where do we live?” We live in Staunton (pronounced Stan-ton).

But that was just a warmup for our meeting. We went on to talk about how we might be able to help a refugee family who had to leave their home in Florida because of Hurricane Irma. A mother with three children, the husband is not in the picture, is living in our community. One person on our council has a personal relationship with the family, a senses God’s calling to help. How can we be of help? How is God calling us to help? What is God calling us to do? What are we overlooking, and how might we do the most good? I can try to help and think through these problems on my own, but we do a much better job asking questions and digging deeper when we gather to discern in groups.

But what about those who don’t have a Church Council/Counsel at your disposal? A couple of years ago I was invited to participate in a process known as a Clarity Circle. This is a practice that traces back to the Quaker tradition, and probably much further. When someone had a decision to make and they were trying to discern God’s calling, they would invite people from the church to meet in a circle and just ask questions. This is often used when someone is considering changing jobs or moving. Trusted friends ask questions like, “How will this affect your family?” “Are you happy doing what you are doing now?” “Will this be financially advantageous?” This is an extremely vulnerable situation. Some Quaker traditions even invite people considering marriage to participate in the Clarity Circle process. “Have you thought through how you will spend your holidays?” “Have you talked about how to divide up household responsibilities?” “Are you sure you want to marry him/her?” J Often it is people who have experience asking questions that the younger couple may have never even considered.

The Clarity Circle that I was a part of was for a young couple considering doing international mission work. The challenge for them was that they had an established life and would be leaving a lot of things behind. He co-owned a construction company with a friend; she was a school teacher. They owned a house. They were very active in their church. They were very aware that their decision would affect many people, and they wanted to make sure that the voice they heard saying “Go to a land I will show you” was the voice of God and not just simply their desire for something new and exciting.

They went, and it was a great experience for them. They spent six years ministering to and teaching an underserved population. I have no problem saying that God was calling them to the mission field.

In historical Christianity, there is a concept known as the Deus Absconditus, which is Latin for “The hiddenness of God.” To abscond means to leave secretly. Deus Absconditus can be used to describe the situation in 1 Samuel 3:1, where the word of the Lord was rare and rarely heard. And I believe many of us can feel the same way today. The word of the Lord can be very difficult to hear, and when we do hear something, how do we know that it is a word of the Lord and not just something of our own fabrication?

I believe that the Deus Absconditus is not the result of God retreating from our world, but our own lack of perception of God’s word and activity all around us. I think we would do well to learn from Samuel when learning how to discern God’s call. We don’t have a caller ID that will inform us when it is God, or when it is Quicken Loans. So like Samuel, we go to those with more experience than we have, to learn from their successes and from their failures. And like the Quakers, our Church Council, and so many groups before us, we gather together to discern God’s word together.

The name “Samuel” means “God has heard.” Now the question is, have you heard God? Let us discern together.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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