Do we give ourselves the silence and space to listen to what is truly on our hearts? Are we giving God the silence and space in which to speak to us?
For those of us who grew up in the church, went to Sunday School, or heard some of our bible stories as children. It’s always interesting when we revisit those, maybe that will be in reading those stories to your own children, or when the stories come up in bible study and when they come around in the lectionary on Sundays.
When I think back, I can even recall what the Sunday school teacher’s favourite stories were by how enthusiastic or creative the skits or games were that we did. And we have some great stories for kids in the bible, Jonah in the belly of the fish, Daniel in the Lions Den, Moses parting the Red Sea Jesus walking on water.
But my favourite story was Samuel’s call from God which we read this morning. I’m not really quite sure why this was my favourite, I just remember picturing myself as Samuel as a child and waiting and listening for God to call me at night.
The funny but slightly sad thing about growing up and going to seminary learning how to critically analyze scripture, is that it is easy to lose some of the beauty in the simplicity of the story. So much so that I remember in one class, we had to pick a call story that we would preach on comparing that to our own call story. And I remember thinking about the call story of Samuel as a child and thinking, no I don’t want to touch that one. I don’t want to over analyze it, I don’t want to pick apart that story that I loved so much as a child. But now with a safe bit of hindsight, and maybe being a little less fearful of getting a bad grade for my sermon, today we find ourselves doing just that.
So there’s a couple of things right off the bat to consider.The names in the story are significant, all of the names in the Old Testament that have a prefix or suffix of ‘el’ like Elijah or Daniel, we know are important. ‘El’ being the Hebrew short form of Elohim meaning God. So with Eli we have a translation of ‘high God’ and Samuel meaning ‘the one who hears God’. So without any background to the characters we are already told of their relationship and their role in the story. And did anyone notice the caveat at the beginning? ‘the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread’?
Eli is the High Priest and Samuel the young child who is raised by Eli in the temple. Samuel is sleeping in the sanctuary space, and hears someone calling his name. He runs to Eli and says “here I am, you called me?” Eli says no go back to sleep, and the same thing happens again and then the third time Eli realizes what is happening and he instructs Samuel to respond, not to him, but to God. So Samuel hears God’s fourth call to him and he responds and listens to God’s call.
Now what God tells Samuel is not a message of comfort for a child. Samuel is in a really tricky position. God tells Samuel that because Eli’s sons turned their backs on God, that Eli’s family legacy in the temple would end and that God would displace Eli from the place of authority that he had. Samuel is naturally reluctant to share this vision with his caretaker, but Eli encourages him to tell him and then Eli accepts the word of God knowing that he would lose his place as high PriestThen the story concludes with us being told that Samuel thus grows into a respected and appreciated prophet.
One of the things that strikes me now about this story, is thinking back to how I used to interpret it as a child. Was that I naturally put myself in the shoes of Samuel. But thinking now in relation to my own discernment in the church, and also how I more generally see things in life, is that I see the wisdom, the love and care in Eli.Eli believes and affirms Samuel in hearing God’s call. And in his reaction, we see a man who shows patience, acceptance and humility to God’s message to Samuel. Eli really is such a key part of the teaching in this story. Because we have seen God call the willing child in David, the hesitant prophet Moses, and now in this case, we have someone who needs to recognize the call in someone else, and this comes with the realization of his own demise.
Eli’s humility is something that we can identify with in our Church’s place in the world. If we are to be like Eli in our pursuit of speaking truth through the work of reconciliation we have to accept that our history causes discomfort and unease, and so recognizing the word of God in our legacy relies on us being able to face that reality and raise up the voices that we have silenced.
But also inside the church, in looking at how we interact with one another in our own space. Here we have a story of young and old working together to discern God’s call. In this story of intergenerational cooperation we experience the collective discernment of Samuel and Eli together. In this story neither character alone can respond to God’s call and so they rely on each otherand together they move into a future of God’s purpose.Today, we live in a city where the rise in housing costs has created a vastly different reality for young families and young individuals than how things were 50 years ago. And equally, now being able to access resources and information through technology is a necessity that the younger generation have the benefit of being raised with. This separation and difference of circumstance can create distance, it can cause resentment, or make things harder for people of different generations to work together. But in the Church, we are encouraged to see ourselves as a family, we hear stories of cooperation and empowerment through characters like Samuel and Eli and we understand that our place in this community is not only by being together, but by learning from each other, building and growing together, using the wisdom that comes from experience whilst recognizing and making space for change; we can embrace one another’s gifts and grow and flourish as one community.
So let’s ask ourselves these questions.
Who are the voices that we hear? Are we listening to those who don’t speak the loudest?Are we listening to those who are not present?Do we give ourselves the silence and space to listen to what is truly on our hearts? Are we giving God the silence and space in which to speak to us?
And so like Samuel, if we listen close enough, will we hear God calling us too?