(A sermon based on 1 Samuel 3:1-20 for Sunday, January 18, 2009)
We need to pay attention. We need to pay attention to the world around us; we need to pay attention to the life within us; we need to pay attention to the people near us—but, most especially, we need to pay attention to the God who made us, who saves us, and who summons us to follow.
It is important that in every time, in every place, and in every generation God’s people listen for and hear God’s voice in their lives. It is important that we here at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald listen for and hear God’s voice. That voice tends to be a still, small one, to be sure, and so we often must be very intentional about paying attention to it. I want to challenge us today to such intentionality.
Our text is about Samuel hearing God’s voice; Samuel was a young man who was hearing the voice of God calling him to serve in a particular way. But all of us, no matter what age we are and no matter at what point in life we find ourselves need to pay attention to the voice of God and to the claims that God’s voice is placing upon our lives. Usually when we think or talk about God calling someone we think about God calling a young person. So here we are—young and old and everything in between and it is thus important to say at the outset that God’s voice can come to anyone at any stage in his or her life. Any of us—all of us—can and will hear the voice of the Lord if we are careful to listen and if we are open to what it says to us. And we all need to pay attention.
Interestingly, in today’s text God’s voice comes in the context of a transition in leadership. We are in the midst of a transition in leadership since I am still in my early days as your pastor, but really such transitions take place all the time as we always have a new generation of Christians arising in the church. Doing what we need to do will take all of us and so we all need to pay attention to the voice of God.
God is speaking to us and God will speak to us; the question is, will we pay attention?
I. We all need to pay attention to God’s voice
People in every generation need to hear God’s voice and to do the best they can to carry out the call that accompanies that voice but people in every generation will have mixed success at carrying out God’s call. No doubt the priest Eli had experienced many successes in his ministry at Shiloh but he had also experienced his share of failures. So it is with all leaders; so it is with all people. Sometimes we will do well at following and sometimes we will not do so well; acknowledging that going in will help guard us from frustration.
The Bible tells us that the Lord decided to take the leadership of Israel away from the family of Eli because of the sins of his sons and because of Eli’s unwillingness or inability to correct them. Leadership could not be passed on to Eli’s sons so it was going to pass to Samuel instead. Regardless of the reasons and the circumstances, though, the call of God must be passed on to new leadership in every generation. Life is dynamic; nothing ever stands still or stays the same. The church is also dynamic; nothing ever stands still or stays the same, and one of the ways that the church is constantly changing is that we have to identify and nurture and develop and accept the voice of new leaders who are willing to pay attention to God and to try their best to obey God.
Notice in the story how young Samuel listened to old Eli and how old Eli listened to young Samuel. Each generation listened to the other and in listening to each other each generation heard the voice of the Lord. In the church the different generations need to listen to each other because in so doing they just might hear the voice of God.
We all need to pay attention to the voice of God.
II. We all need to be available to pay attention to God's voice
Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD when he heard God’s voice. It is possible that he was participating in a ritual whereby he slept in the tabernacle near the Ark of the Covenant in order to put himself in a position to hear the voice of God. If that is the case, it raises two questions.
First, might Samuel’s mentor Eli have guided him into that situation? Those of the more experienced generation of leadership need to encourage our young people to put themselves in a position to hear God’s voice in their lives. We can do that, and parents have a special role here, by making sure that our children are in worship and in Bible study and on mission projects so that they will be available to hear God’s voice; we also need to make sure that our homes are places where such paying attention is fostered and encouraged. The church also has a role in providing worship, study, and service opportunities that are geared to our youth so that they might hear the voice of God in their own language—another version of Pentecost, if you will. The next generation is responsible to hear for themselves, but the older generation is responsible to help them hear.
Second, why did Samuel mistake the voice of God for the voice of Eli? Perhaps he was just not mature enough to know the voice of God when he heard it. Regardless, here we get a glimpse of a situation that people, and perhaps especially young people, struggle with in their efforts to ascertain the voice of God. Are they hearing the voice of God? Are they hearing the voice of circumstances? Are they hearing the voice of peers? Are they hearing the voice of family? Are they hearing the voice of church members? Or are all of those voices combining to give voice to the voice of God?
I perceived that God was calling me to preach when I was fourteen years old. When I got older and became a little more reflective, I began to ponder the circumstances that surrounded my perception of that call. My mother, a very devoted Christian, was terminally ill with cancer. My church family spoke of God’s call only in terms of a call to full-time Christian ministry and never in terms of a call to a profession as a Christian layperson. My emotional stability was very much based in pleasing people. Might I have heard those voices rather than the voice of God? I came to realize, though, that I had heard the voice of God and that even if God had used some of those other voices to get my attention, they had finally led me in the right way. God does in fact speak to us through other people and through circumstances as well as through the Spirit, through the Bible, and through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
How does the voice of God come to us, then? It comes to us through the events of our lives; it comes to us through the words and example of other people, and it comes to us through the Spirit of God, through the witness of Scripture, and through the example of Jesus.
Not long ago I composed a short prayer that captures it for me:
O Lord, help me to listen.
Help me to listen to my life;
Help me to listen to the people in my life;
Help me to listen to you because you are my life!
O Lord, help me to listen.
III. We all need to accept the challenge of paying attention to God’s voice
The dynamics created when the voice of God is heard and responded to by a new generation—or for that matter by the older generation when we start listening carefully—can be difficult. All generations in the church experience significant challenges that must be navigated as we try together to pay attention to what God is saying to us. We may not always like what we hear from each other but we always need to consider carefully that the word we don’t want to hear may, in fact, be from the Lord.
Whomever God chooses to work through and however God chooses to work, the appropriate affirmation for us is that of Eli when Samuel told him what the Lord had said to him: “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him” (v. 18b). We need to have the faith that through or in spite of what we have done and are doing, God is working his purposes out and the future is in God’s hands, hands that are much more capable than ours.
Telling the truth that we learn as we pay attention to God’s voice can be a challenge but it is a challenge to which we must respond with courage, with love, and with grace. Often the Old Testament prophets were called to proclaim a message that was hard for people to hear and hard for the prophets to speak. And so Samuel was afraid to tell Eli what God had said to him because that message contained negative words about Eli’s family. All of God’s people, those in every generation, need to pay attention to the voice of God in our lives and that means facing squarely and speaking boldly, but with love and grace, the words that God gives us to say. If we have to say things that are hard for us to say and for others to hear, so be it, so long as our saying them is motivated by obedience and seasoned with love. And if others have to say things that are hard for them to say and for us to hear, so be it, so long as their saying them is motivated by obedience and seasoned with love.
To be the Church we simply must work at paying attention to God and at speaking the truth to one another in love.
God is speaking to us and God will speak to us; the questions are: (1) Will we pay attention? and (2) Will we respond by doing what God leads us to do and saying what God leads us to say? We are the people of God and God will teach us through God’s Spirit, through the Bible, through the events of our lives, through other people, and through the example of Jesus if we will just pay attention. Will we? Will we commit ourselves to paying attention to the voice of God?