"The word of the Lord was rare in those days...."
That sounds familiar, doesn't it? We tend to think of the word of the Lord being pretty rare right now. But did that mean that God had really withdrawn from Israel? Historians can stack up the reasons why God might well have decided to ignore those people at that time. But then again, they certainly were not behaving in a way that indicated that they had been listening. Had God continued to be reaching out, and they just were too busy listening to their own voices and desires to pay attention? Are we?
When we feel lonely, abandoned, stuck in a situation without solution, can we hear God's voice? Or, when we feel complete, secure, satisfied, do we bother to listen? Whose voice do we listen to when we are trying to make a decision?
Specialists in communication speak of “active” listening. Active listening being something that takes a lot of effort and focus. We often avoid the effort it takes to listen to others fully. And when it comes to God, listening is more like an act of trust. We simply have to wait for things to unfold in God's time. Hearing what God has to say to us is a long process, even an eternal one. If we don’t hear and understand immediately, even tomorrow or next week, we are called to persist in our listening, treasuring the fragmented, even sometimes distorted pieces we get in any given moment.
That trips us up sometimes, doesn't it? We get impatient. We don't want to put in the effort and the time to wait for all of what God is saying to us. We assume we already know and go ahead and do, rather than waiting for God to finish. We'd rather get our answers right now, wouldn't we?
Or maybe it's hard for us to say "Here I am" that openly because we aren't really ready for God to come into our bedrooms and our dreams peeking into our innermost selves. Oh sure, Lord, we scrub up and come to church on Sundays, but don't ever call on us in the middle of the night or in our businesses or our marriages or our friendships. Please, Lord, we're not ready for that.
You and I have to face up to the idea that self-revelation often occurs in the middle of the night as it did for Samuel. Until we do that we will have trouble hearing God calling our names and leading us into new ministries and new lives. Other words will block God's redeeming and cleansing word of grace. Samuel didn't hear it the first time or the second time or the third. Maybe he was having a hard time hearing it because no one else was hearing it in those days.
And it doesn't stop with listening in the story does it? God tells Samuel what he needs to do, which is condemn the sons of the man who is raising him for their behavior. Listening isn't even the hardest part when it comes to God's call. We have to then go and do what God is calling us to do. That can be even scarier.
After the vision, Samuel goes back to bed rather than running to Eli with the bad news God has given him. He is afraid to speak. Can we really blame him? After all, the words he has been given to speak are against the family of his mentor. Eli was Samuel’s guardian. In the social values of that time, Eli had authority to beat Samuel, fire him, even put him to death. Children and slaves were property, for the master to dispose of as he wished. We need to remember that sometimes following God’s call is not easy. It’s not comfortable. Sometimes it’s not enjoyable, but we need to do it anyway.
When morning breaks, it is Eli who calls Samuel to his room and commands him to speak the word that he has received from the Lord. Eli really wanted to hear God's message, no matter how bad it was. I think that's pretty amazing of Eli. After all, how many people are there who really want to hear God's disturbing news? Most people don't want to be challenged, they don’t like change. They don't want God to disturb their set ways of thinking.
I think dismissing Eli in this story is a mistake. Yes, his spiritual eyes were dim, and he had not heard the word of the Lord in a long time. And he did not recognize it at first when he did hear it. But he did finally recognize it. And when the young boy Samuel sought answers to his questions, Eli was there to guide him in the right direction. Even amid all the changes that were unfolding here for the nation, the new leader born and called by God to bring new light to the people needed the guidance of the blind Eli to know how to respond and what to do. Even though the old ways were dying, they still had a role in guiding the new generation into their calling as God’s people.
Remember, Samuel hears God’s voice, but he does not recognize it on his own and he does not know how to respond to it properly. Only when Eli tells him the right words to say can Samuel be in a position to receive God’s oracle. It is Eli who first realizes that God is attempting to speak to the boy, Eli who tells Samuel how to proceed and Eli who responds in pious humility after Samuel later tells him the contents of God’s message: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
Eli recommends seven simple words of prayer, "Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening." It's a request that God help us to hear what he has to say –– hear his still, small voice among the many other competing voices in a noisy society. It's a conscious effort to tune out the distracting babble of billions of fellow beings, and tune in the divine calling of Almighty God. Its an exercise in active listening. It's a prayer that we will be able really to listen to the Lord, and determine together what he is calling his people to do and to be today.
We are all capable of being intermediaries between another person and the holy. We can be intercessors when there is trouble, channels of encouragement when days are wearying, agents of peace when worry rules, instruments of hope when life seems broken. We need to remember that being that intermediary, being the mentor, is just as important a call as Samuel's was. Sometimes what we are called to do is show others how to respond.
We must first listen, and listen actively. Without hearing God's call we can never go any further. But we can't just stop there. “Speak for your servant is listening.” Your Servant Lord. It is not enough to hear. We must have the courage respond. Whether we are like Eli or Samuel, we are all a part of that new future that God is bringing.
Listen to where God is calling you in your life. Whether you are called to speak hard words or to mentor those who are in need of it, God will call you somewhere. God knows you, loves you, and calls you to God’s work. May you have the courage to say
"Speak Lord. For your servant is listening."