Thursday, February 12, 2009

When God Speaks

When God Speaks
1 Samuel 3:1-20
February 1, 2008
Heritage Baptist Church

I am a night owl. I have no problem staying up until 1 AM. When I was on-call at WakeMed last semester, the early hours after midnight energized me at least until around 4:30 AM. My dad says I have always been like that. I was born at 8:31 PM, and Daddy told me that at midnight that night, I was the only baby in the hospital nursery who was wide awake.

This week I was thinking about how I would stay up reading at night when I was a pre-teen and teenager. Sometimes you just get into a good book and don’t want to stop. I have done that as an adult just this past week, but it wasn’t the joy I remembered as I struggled through the next day tired and sleepy. I don’t have the option of sleeping in anymore when I hear a voice saying, “I’m hungry. Mommy, where’s breakfast?”

I have been thinking a lot about how my sleep habits have changed. When I was a child, I didn’t want to go to bed. As a teenager, I wanted to sleep until noon. As a college student, I made sure that there were no 8 AM classes (and if there were, there was time for a nap later in the morning). As a summer worker at the textile mill, I slept all day because I worked third shift. As a part of an archaeology dig in Jordan one summer, I had to go to bed by 7 PM because wake-up was at 3 AM so that we could get our work done before the heat of the afternoon became unbearable. As a young mother, I didn’t get much sleep with a baby that wanted to be held all the time. Now, on Sundays, the early service is not so appealing, but I usually promise myself a nap later (I guess I treat it like an 8 AM college class). Thankfully, I have never suffered from insomnia yet. I know that it may be in my future at some point.

With all that sleep or no sleep, I have never heard the voice of God. I have heard my parents tell me to stop singing and go to sleep. I have heard my parents tell me to stop reading and go to sleep. I have to respond to a baby’s cries, so I can go back to sleep. No, God hasn’t come a callin’. It could happen or not. I’m not losing sleep over it though.

In our passage today, we don’t know if Samuel was asleep. He was lying down in the house of the Lord. Samuel served as a sort of apprentice to Eli. He lived in the tents that contained the Ark of the Covenant. And that was where Samuel was going to sleep, as he waited for the last drops in the oil lamp to burn.

We do not know how old Samuel is in this passage. He had been with Eli since he was weaned around age 2 or 3. Samuel did not know the Lord yet. More than likely he was still younger than 12, a very concrete thinker. Children do not grasp abstract thought until they are pre-teens. This fact does not mean that Samuel did not know who God was, but rather, Samuel did not have a personal relationship with God yet. He understood God as a child would.

It is a wonder that anyone at this time knew who God was. There was a drought—a drought of God’s Word. Verse 1 says that “in those days the word of the Lord was rare.” It was a time of major cultural, governmental, and spiritual upheaval. The Israelites were moving from the time of the judges into a time of the monarchy—being led by a king. There was war with the Philistines—a group of people who had settled along the coast of Palestine and kept venturing closer and closer to the hills where the Israelites lived. It was a time when the priests did not do the right things to lead the people. Eli’s sons, who were also priests, were wicked. They did not respect the offerings that were presented to God, and they did not respect God’s holy places. Eli knew the wicked ways of his sons and did nothing to stop them. So God uses a boy to reveal the future, a vision. God’s prophet Samuel hears a voice.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we could sometimes hear a voice from God? We struggle to determine the right course of action. We look to scriptures mired in one cultural perspective to find our way in our culture today. Just as the people in Samuel’s day needed a spiritual vision, we too need a spiritual vision. This is not a vision like a human vision of the future—thinking about where we will be in 5 years or 10. This vision is a spiritual vision—a plan for God’s kingdom on earth.

Times are difficult now. Even an optimistic person such as I dreads to see the front of the newspaper these days. There is great turmoil. People are losing jobs, losing houses, losing savings—it is not a pretty picture. It may be keeping you from sleep at night. Culturally and governmentally our nation is shifting as well. Can spiritual change be coming, too? It starts with a message from God.

Samuel heard God’s voice as he lay by the Ark of the Covenant—that box that contained the precious relics of the Israelites: the ten commandment tablets, Aaron’s rod, manna. Those things were the physical evidence of God’s covenant with the Israelites. It was a holy place for Samuel to be. He was physically in a place where God dwelled.

As a parent and a Christian, I know it is my responsibility to see that my sons are in places where God dwells. Church is an important part of our week. Reading from the Bible and discussing Bible stories are also important. Many people in our churches think that teaching children about spiritual things is the job of the church, the pastor, or the children’s minister. I am here to tell you that it is the parents’ responsibility. Do you know who your children look to for spiritual guidance? It is you as you sit in this church sanctuary. It is you as you bow your head in prayer. It is you as you talk with your sons and daughters about what it means for you to be in this place. It is you as your children realize how much and how important it is to be in the presence of God in worship. I am so thankful to be a part of a church that encourages children to be present in worship. One of the first things I was told on my first day at Heritage was that my 2 year old son would be welcome in the worship service. I used to worry that my son would be disruptive. It is difficult to keep children quiet when they are 2 and 3. But in the past few years, I have realized that I am teaching my children that worship and the worship service itself are important to me. I am hopeful that this lesson will be a life-long one for them.

Samuel was in the holy place of God. And God spoke. Samuel says, “Here I am.” And he runs to Eli. Poor, old, nearly blind Eli. Samuel thinks that Eli has called him. And in that case, he does what he should. What does Eli need? Eli may not have been very pleased that Samuel had awakened him. Maybe he said, “Go back to sleep, kid, you’re hearing things.” Eli wasn’t expecting God to speak. God had not spoken in so many years. And why would God choose to speak to a child, a child with no experience in receiving or conveying God’s message? More than likely, Eli just wanted to get some rest. And Samuel keeps waking him up.

I wonder if God has ever tried to tell you something. I know that we don’t usually hear an audible voice—at least I haven’t heard an audible voice from God, but there are other ways that God speaks. On Thursday, the News & Observer published a story in the life section about Gail Liston. Liston attends Hayes Barton Baptist Church here in Raleigh. The story was about how Liston felt God’s call to create a tapestry for the new Family Life Center. As Liston tried to come up with an appropriate design for the tapestry, she received God’s revelation for it. The article put it this way:

"Liston’s loom dictated the size. She couldn’t weave anything wider than 46 inches, so she decided on three panels. At first Liston though she might weave three crosses symbolizing the three crosses at Calvary, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. But as she doodled on a tablet of graph paper she felt at cross—even one stretched across three canvases—wasn’t enough. One night, as she was sitting at the drafting table, her eyes wandered to a heart she had woven on a copper wire and had given to her husband on Valentine’s Day years ago. “Oh, my God,” she though. “That’s it. It’s a heart. That’s what God is—love.” At church a few Sundays later, a girl sitting beside her was filling out a puzzle in the shape of [a] heart. OK, Liston though, a good sign. Then everyone got up to sing the first hymn: “Joyful, joyful we adore thee; Hearts unfold like flowers before thee.” A second sign. By the time the children’s minister pulled out a heart made of construction paper that went along with the day’s message for the children, she had three signs that her design was on the mark.” (N&O, Thurs. Jan. 29, 2009)

Now you might think it was just a coincidence that all those hearts happened to appear at just that time, but I wouldn’t agree. Liston had her eyes open. She was looking for a revelation from God. I have done that, too. I do it most when I prepare sermons. It is amazing how illustrations will cross my path—like that one about Gail Liston—when I am writing a sermon. When we invite the Holy Spirit—God’s Holy Spirit—to come into our lives and reveal the path we should take or the words we should say or the design we should create, we receive revelation. It takes open eyes and open hearts and an awareness of God.

I am very sure that God speaks to us today. The big question is: are we actively listening?
Once Eli has been awakened by Samuel three times, old, blind Eli finally “sees” that it is God who is calling Samuel. Eli tells Samuel what to say: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And God reveals a message for Samuel, a prophecy. This is the ordination of one of God’s prophets—this young boy in the presence of God.

I am always so blessed to see the children of this church participate in our worship time. When G___ plays the piano, when R___ reads scripture, when our youth lead us as they did a few weeks ago, and when S___ preached, it is a blessing to me. That is what worship is about; we all have gifts to bring. By letting our children participate, we are helping them to see that every part of our congregation is valued. When our pastor himself does the children’s message, it is even better because he is demonstrating that he is the pastor to the children as well as to the adults.
Now I will admit that I am a bit biased about children and how the church ministers to children. I have taken quite a few classes about preschool and children’s ministry. But I can look back to my own childhood, too. I know when I was valued in my church. I know from my mother and father’s example that church was important. I know when teachers took the time to value me. I also see times when ministry to children wasn’t valued. In our congregations, the children do not have a voice, but they are the future. Without children and ministry to children, a church cannot grow.

After all, there are bible stories besides this story about Samuel that convey how children are used by God. There is the story of Naaman’s wife’s servant girl who directs Naaman, diseased by leprosy, to the prophet Elisha to be cured. There is the story of David who takes five stones and kills Goliath, a Philistine giant who had been terrorizing the Israelites. There is the story of the girl Miriam who sees her brother Moses being pulled out of the bulrush basket by Pharoah’s daughter, and Miriam speaks to this royal woman and helps her mother have a chance to raise Moses without fear of his death. There is a story of a boy who willingly brings his lunch to Jesus so that 5,000 people may be able to eat. There is a story of a boy, seated in a temple, teaching the religious leaders about God, doing his Father’s business. Look around. Do you see our children and youth here today? God can speak to them even now. Further, God expects us to be like the children—open and receptive to God’s revelation. When the disciples came to Jesus in Matthew chapter 18 and asked him “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called a little child and placed that child among them and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (v. 1-5).

There is more to this story. In God’s revelations to us, there is something that goes beyond the discovery of the revelation. We also must act or share what the revelation is. In the second part of our scripture passage, we have the message that God gives to Samuel. When Samuel heard the message that God sent him, I wonder if he understood it. It was not a message that I would give a child. It was disheartening, a message of doom for Eli and Eli’s sons. In the morning, when Eli asks Samuel what God has said, it is difficult for Samuel to tell Eli the bad news. Eli makes Samuel tell him anyway, and Eli accepts the message. It wasn’t anything new to Eli. In chapter two, an unnamed prophet had told him the same message. I wonder if Eli listened all the more when his own apprentice delivered the same revelation. After all, Eli could always argue with a grown adult delivering the message of doom, but the innocence of the child Samuel is something that Eli could not deny.

And the Lord was with Samuel and let none of Samuel’s words “fall on the ground” or go unheeded. Here is the first prophet. God established the prophetic era in Samuel. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Amos, Micah, John the Baptist, and so many others prophesy about what will happen because of sin, what will happen because of evil, and most importantly what will happen when God breaks into this world to set things right through Jesus. That is the message we need to share. You see, it is not so much that God does reveal things to the ones who seek God, but that the revelation is to be shared. We are called to tell others about God. We each may witness in different ways, but it is still our commission as Christians. To do that, we must make ourselves available to God.

Discerning the message from God and speaking the revelation is our call. Dr. George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, TX says:

"This is one of the great tasks of the church in every age, and a key theme in the season of Epiphany. We depend on the same God that spoke from heaven in Jesus' baptism a word of blessing and call to do the same for us. We must help one another recognize the unique call of God to each soul. We only want people to serve by God's design. We want them to find the gifts God has given them and the way to use them best that God has made for them."

What is your gift? How can it be used to meet the world’s need?

In the past, I have shared how I struggled to stand up and preach my first sermon to my worship class in divinity school. But it taught me the possibility of being a preacher. I felt the tug at my heart because preparing, writing, and even delivering a sermon gave me energy. I found out that I liked doing it as strange as that may sound to some of you. But I waited for nearly a year before I ever told anyone that it was the way I felt—how I felt about being called to the pastorate. Instead, I started looking for God’s revelation about the call. And I heard it. I heard it in sermons: sermons at school, sermons at my church, even in the sermons of the conservative preacher at my mom’s church—who surely didn’t mean for me to interpret his message that way! I heard it in songs, especially the song we will sing today “Here I Am, Lord.” Often those songs that spoke to me would render me speechless and in tears as I struggled with a difficult revelation that my path to the pastorate would not be easy. Thankfully, I have surrounded myself with supportive people who value God’s revelation.

Theologian Frederick Buechner has written the best quote ever that vocation is where our greatest joy meets the world's greatest need. God is calling you to a vocation of service for God. What is your greatest joy? Where does it meet the world’s need? Like Gail Liston, it may be a special project to inspire the congregation. Like our children participating in worship, it may be the chance to share a talent to help us grow closer to God. Like Samuel, you may have a message that needs to be shared with others. Like me, you may feel an overwhelming pull to the ministry. I will guarantee you one thing: God is calling each and every Christian to act, to serve, to witness. Do you have this passion; do you have this vision? Or are you sitting in a land where the word of the Lord is rare?

That is our challenge today. We need to get to a place were God’s word is not rare. We need to be saturated in the written word of God. We need to hear the message of God in worship, in song, in our church family. The world is counting on you.

What is God calling you to do today? Our church has ministries that need our support. We have a community that is dying to know that someone cares and understands. I challenge you to open your eyes and see that God is calling your name. God is saying, [insert names of people in the congregation here]. What is it that you are supposed to do? When God speaks, we need to answer.

It is my invitation to you to accept that God is calling you. If you have never asked God to be Lord of your life, the invitation is there. If you have never thought about the fact that God is calling you to service, then I invite you to think about how you can be involved in building up God’s kingdom. If you need to make a public decision, I invite you to do so. If you need to become a part of this body of believers, I invite you and welcome you to come forward.

Let us pray.
God, you know our hearts. You know the struggles that we have in this world. You also know that you have called us to be yours. Please help us to accept our call and act upon our call to service. We invite your Holy Spirit to dwell among us and touch our hearts. Help us to know our gifts and be able to find ways to use those gifts to uplift your kingdom. Amen.

Our invitational hymn is “Here I Am, Lord.” It is also my prayer that your eyes will be open and your ears will be in tune to God’s revelation. Please stand as you are able.