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Monday, January 09, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, I Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

One of the anthems written and composed by our own Kathy Walden and Dave Parker urges us to “Listen!” If God is the one we are to be listening to, many of us may wonder how we hear. While scripture regularly presents stories where God seems to speak with a clear voice in human language, that doesn’t seem to happen to most of us.

By the time you read this, Margie and I will be in Mexico City, where we will be spending a week enjoying the rich cultural treasures of that city and country. Both of us have some exposure to Spanish, mine extensive, but we haven’t used it in years. We worry about our ability to communicate, especially to hear. It is usually easier to spit out enough words to be understood than it is to understand when someone else is speaking.

Reading the passages for January 15th, I find myself catching glimpses of how we hear God, most of which resonate with my 72 years of life experience. As I comment on the readings (without much attention to their historical context), I’ll try to identify some ways in which we may hear God. Add your own.

The reading from I Samuel is familiar to many, the calling of the prophet Samuel. His mother Hannah left him with the elderly priest Eli, to be raised as a “nazarite”, one set apart for the service of God. (See I Samuel 1:21-28) Strangely, in this week’s reading, when Samuel is a young boy, we find that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord . . .” (I Samuel 3:7) When he hears a voice calling his name he thinks it is Eli. (vss. 4-5) This happens three times until “Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.” (vs. 8) Following Eli’s instruction, the next time the voice speaks, Samuel responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (vss. 9-10)

Now it turns out that the story is as much about Eli’s sons as it is about Samuel. They, having followed Eli into the priesthood, have become contemptible scoundrels. (I Samuel 2:12-17) Samuel is being called to replace them. (I Samuel 3:11-16)

I suppose the obvious lesson is that one can hear only if one is listening. Eli’s sons were not listening. They didn’t care to hear so it was another who heard his name called—Samuel. I find it equally noteworthy that Samuel had a helper—Eli. There are those around us who may help us hear and understand. We may not always be able to distinguish a “divine” voice from that of a trusted, dedicated, mentor or role model. Eli is as much a part of this communication process as some disembodied voice heard in the privacy of the bedroom or while “lying down in the temple of the Lord.” (I Samuel 3:3)

The verses from Psalm 139 perhaps are an antidote to the notion that we can fully hear and understand. They declare that God knows us wholly. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.” (vss. 1-3, with similar words continuing in vss. 4-5) All religions remind us that we cannot fully understand God or God’s ways. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it . . . How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand . . .” (vss. 6, 17-18)

Specialists in communication speak of “active” listening, listening being something that takes a lot of effort. It’s a useful perspective on listening; we often avoid the effort it takes. Sometimes, though, listening is more like an act of trust. We simply have to wait for things to unfold, grain by grain (to mix metaphors). 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.

I suppose if we combined this week’s epistle reading with the story of Eli’s son, we could come up with some reflections on sin and debauchery. Although such things are addressed in I Corinthians, chapter six (see vss. 13, 15-16, 18), I believe their meaning is to be taken primarily at another level.

Immediately, their context is a variety of disputes taking place in the Corinthian church, about Jewish ritual law and how it is to be applied to Gentiles, about lawsuits between followers of Christ, about what food can be eaten, etc. (see I Corinthians 6:1-13) Prostitution was regularly used as an image of those chased after other “gods.” They were like those who went to be with prostitutes.

If one is off indiscriminately chasing pleasures, one is not likely to hear the quiet inner voice of God. Ultimately, this is a passage about being spiritual joined. A first step in listening to God is sensing a unity of spirit with divine holiness. “ . . . anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him,” as opposed to “whoever is united to a prostitute.” (vss. 16-17) Listening means focusing, avoiding the things that distract and vie for our attention.

The Gospel lesson offers a story about the call of two of Jesus’ disciples, Philip and Nathaniel. When Jesus tells Philip to follow him, Philip is so impressed that he goes to tell Nathanial that they have found the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.” (John 1:41-45) Nathaniel is skeptical, wondering whether anything good can come from Nazareth, so Philip invites him to “Come and see.” (vs. 46) Nathaniel is convinced and is impressed when Jesus seems already to know him. Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (vss. 47-49) Jesus says that there are even “greater things” to come. “ . . . you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending . . .” (vss. 50-51)

We might be able to dig out many lessons if we understood the entire historical context of John’s Gospel. For now, with the focus on how we hear God speaking, I see four guidelines. 1. Just as was the case with Samuel and Eli, we can start by listening to others who want to help us hear. In this case, the word comes to Nathaniel initially through Philip. 2. Be prepared to hear God speaking in unexpected places, perhaps even where we would least expect it. God’s voice is not limited to what happens in church on Sunday morning. God may speak in the dirty streets of human commerce, or in the remote regions far from the halls of power. 3. In an insight similar to what we saw in I Cointhians, we need to find a place close to God if we are to hear. Nathaniel invites Philip to get closer so he can see and hear for himself. 4. Listen big! Expect to hear the unexpected. When God speaks, it may be a word of challenge, a word that expands our horizons, even as big as all heaven. Whenever we are being challenged and stretched, subtly or boisterously, we can at least wonder whether or not it is God trying to get our attention.

May these readings call us to listen carefully. Read them again and add your own insights about what it means to listen and hear. May we all find places and times when we know ourselves to be in God’s presence.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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