it takes practice--a sermon for October 13 2013

Rev. Teri Peterson
it takes practices TAKE TWO
1 Samuel 3.1-21
13 October 2013, NL 4-6


Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’

 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’

 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.



“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Almost feels as if it could have been written yesterday. Especially if we read chapter two and chapter four, where we learn that as Samuel was growing up in the temple, the religious and political leaders (who are the same people) were corrupt, self-serving, and greedy. They claimed God’s favor but acted in ways contrary to God’s calling and character. So perhaps a better way to say it is “talk about God appeared everywhere, but the word of the Lord was rare.” Sound familiar?

In the midst of this reality—scandal, greed, temptation, abuse of power, corruption—comes, surprisingly, the word of the Lord. But Samuel doesn’t recognize it! There are so many voices, so many noises, so many opportunities, so many people…even in the quiet, in the middle of the night, in the holiest place around, Samuel doesn’t recognize the voice of God.

After years in the Temple, doing the work, ministering before the Lord, taking care of the sanctuary and helping people who come to worship, Samuel does not know the Lord. So when this voice speaks to him, who else would it be but Eli?

How often do we find ourselves in the same situation? We work, we do ministry, we serve on committees, we take care of things and participate in stuff, but…do we know the Lord?

Hopefully the answer is yes—the reason we do all the things we do is because they grow out of a deep and meaningful relationship with God and with others. And yet I suspect that many Christians—probably a good many of them Presbyterians—find themselves ministering before the Lord without really knowing the Lord, much like Samuel did.

There is a saying that goes around the church world every so often, that I think pretty well sums up this idea. “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to the garage makes you a car.” There’s more to the Christian life than simply sitting in a pew or serving on a team or doing good works. Though those are all good and important things, they are only part of the story. The goal of our life with God is to be transformed ever more into Christ’s likeness, becoming better and better mirrors of the divine image. That happens through grace at work in our lives combined with our practice at drawing closer and closer to God.

There are many practices that can and will help us know God, nurture our relationship with the Spirit, and change our lives. Only rarely do we find those practices in a meeting or a program or a class or even in a sermon. They take intentional time and effort on our part, time spent reading God’s word and listening for God’s call, time spent looking for God’s presence and learning to connect to God’s heart, in addition to giving of ourselves, our time and effort and resources. Samuel was plunged into a relationship with a God who demands a lot—maybe even more than we want to give. Which is why these practices are so important.

The first and foundational practice is the one that Eli offers to Samuel, once he finally figures out what’s going on. It takes a few false starts, but eventually Eli teaches Samuel to stop, listen, and be open. Instead of rushing off to perform a task, immediately speaking, turning to the person beside him—or the facebook or twitter or blog or phone beside him—he is to simply listen.

In my mind’s eye I can see Samuel reciting his line over and over, the way I recite my parking space number so I won’t forget it before I get to the train platform. “speak for your servant is listening. speak for your servant is listening. speak for your servant is listening.” I also wonder if he had to sit there in the silence, straining to hear, for a little while. Did God’s voice come again immediately, or did Samuel also have to practice his silent listening first?

Because most things we do take practice, right? It’s rare that we develop a skill without effort, and sitting in silence, listening to others, listening to God—these are no exception. We have to practice silence, even when our inclination is to follow the distractions down their fun rabbit holes. We have to practice listening, even when God doesn’t seem to be speaking. We have to practice discernment, even when we think we know the voice. We have to practice silence, even if we think we’ve got this Christian life thing down.

I suspect many of us are like Samuel—we haven’t heard directly from God before, and we might not even recognize God’s voice if we did. Sometimes that’s not for lack of trying, either! But for many of us, this discipline of listening is just too darn hard. Our brains don’t seem to be wired for silence, for listening when no one appears to be talking, and our world today is so busy. It’s hard to connect with someone you can’t see, and the ways we can try to imagine—like talking to God on the phone or something—are too cheesy to take seriously. So…it must just be that the word of God is rare.

I wonder if the word of God was rare in Samuel’s day because so few people were willing to say “speak, for your servant is listening”? After all, the message Samuel gets is no walk in the park—it’s a message that will bring pain before the healing can begin. It’s not a message I’d want to hear—I would rather say “listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking”[1] and not have to worry about the hard parts, because when God talks it changes our lives. Could it be that God is speaking but we’re so afraid of what God might say that we keep on talking, keep on going to meetings, keep on ministering before the Lord the way we always have?

If so, how do we remedy that? How do we become people who connect with God, who discern God’s voice in the midst of the cacophony of life, and who are willing to share the news which is both hard and good?

Sadly, I don’t think it’s just going to happen overnight. I think it’s going to take some work on our part. Samuel had to learn and practice—and he continued to practice throughout his life—and in the practice, he found a connection to the Holy that he could never have imagined.

We have heard the instruction. So the first step in following it is to, like Samuel, listen and be available. Samuel lay down in his place and waited, and when God spoke he was ready to hear. It could have been seconds or hours of waiting in the silent darkness...are we willing to wait? To make space, however difficult that is, for God to speak? I know it’s hard—believe me. For one thing, I like to talk. For another, I think about things. Some might use the word “obsess.” And let’s not even talk about the allure of facebook and twitter and the 24 hour news cycle. Turning all that brain clutter off takes practice and commitment. 

When we can’t, it’s tempting to give up. But we don’t give up on math or learning an instrument or soccer practice, so why do we give up on this? It took Samuel and Eli several tries before they figured out what was going on, but they kept at it. It took Paul literally being struck blind. It took Peter hearing himself deny before he could truly hear Jesus. It took Moses several rounds of excuses before he could listen to God. All these people, and many more throughout history, stayed in the game and found that God used them in amazing ways they could never have imagined, and certainly could never have done on their own. They discovered that, in the words of Tennyson, God is nearer to us than our own hands and feet, nearer than our own breath. When we practice, we too can find that God is surrounding us and within us and between us, offering both love and challenge, grace and peace, if only we will notice. There is value in this discipline, in the trying (and even in the failing) to quiet ourselves and listen for the Spirit’s whisper.

Let’s keep trying—even just a minute or a few minutes at a time—and eventually, we may find that there’s just enough room for God to enter. And then who knows what might happen?

May it be so. Amen.


[1] someone posted this as their facebook status…I don’t remember who, but I have shamelessly stolen it. Thank you, facebook friend.

Posted on October 13, 2013 and filed under 2013.