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Difficult Conversations

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was. The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said. Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?” “I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did. Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” “I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.” (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.) A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been. Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.” The Lord said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household-every last bit of it! I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about--how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.” Samuel lay there until morning, then opened the doors of the Lord’s house. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel, saying: “Samuel, my son!” “I’m here,” Samuel said. “What did he say to you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide anything from me. May God deal harshly with you and worse still if you hide from me a single word from everything he said to you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. “He is the Lord,” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.” So Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail. All Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was trustworhty as the Lord’s prophet. -1 Samuel 3:1-20

In the beginning, God spoke the dialogue of relationship with the words of creation. God began the cosmic conversation that God would have with humanity throughout history. God called into being all that is with his words, and began to interact and engage with the creation, particularly with his people. First, we have the stories of God walking in that Garden of Eden and conversing with Adam and Eve. And throughout the story of the Bible, we have God conversing and talking with people of faith. God calling Moses through that burning bush and talking to him on the mountain on behalf of the people... The prophets, the judges. The ordinary people like you and I. They got invited to be a part of his story. This morning, we find young Samuel working as an accolade or an assistant to the high priest, Eli. Now, Samuel is a story that comes at a time that was rather bleak for the people of Israel. Eli was not the greatest of high priests. And his sons... well, they were all but worthless. They were carousers. They were skimming off the offering in the temple. But even before that, Samuel's mother Hannah, desperate to have a child, went to the temple and offered her sacrifices and prayed fervently, pouring out her heart to God and Eli the high priest observing this, thought she was just drunk.

That tells us of the spiritual depth or lack thereof of Eli. But he's in charge. He's the high priest, and young Samuel is learning under him. And so in chapter three, we hear these words that, “In those days, the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread.” This God that spoke into creation and talked to and through the Prophets for generations, suddenly seemed silent. But consider the experts, the officials, the establishment who were in charge: an elderly priest whose vision is failing, who also had not had any true vision of God, his corrupt sons who were only interested in lining their own pockets and attending to their own once and wishes rather than serving God. So maybe it wasn't that God had stopped speaking, maybe God wasn't silent, maybe God was still engaging in... Or trying to engage in this conversation. But there was nobody to listen, and so God acted by speaking to Samuel, this young boy who we’re told really didn't know of the Lord or The Lord's word. And yet he became the means by which God conveyed a message... A message to Eli, but also a message to all of Israel.

Samuel didn't understand this voice that was coming to him, and I've experienced that in my own life with my call to ministry. A feeling like maybe I was being called to something and not quite understanding what it was. My first path into college was thinking that medicine was where I was headed. But in retrospect, after I did enter into ministry, I realized that God was calling me to assist and help and serve, I just wasn't quite sure where it went or where it would lead me. Samuel heard his name called. He thought it was Eli. And on the third time, Eli, from his learning and his understanding and maybe not his own experience said, ‘Oh, you know what, maybe God's calling to you. So the next time, go lay back down, and the next time you hear your name called... “Say, Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”’

Speak Lord, your servant is listening. What a place to find yourself in. What a place for that young man, boy, we're not sure how old he was. Not very experienced in what it meant to converse with God, being told when you hear your name called, say these words. And God spoke. God spoke to him and gave him a message. One that terrified him. One that he really didn't wanna have to share with Eli... 'cause it was not good news. The thing about this conversation that God began at the dawn of creation, is that God just doesn't make proclamations. But it is a conversation. And God invites us into this conversation as well. God needed to have a difficult conversation with Eli. But somehow, Sam, you got pulled in. Somehow, Samuel then became the means through which God was able to actually engage in and have the conversation with Eli. The step of faith that we see on Eli's part was after he finally pried this vision out of young Samuel was to say, ‘Well, it's the Lord, let Him do what He sees best.’

But these difficult conversations are ones that God desires to have with the world all the time. We hear it through the prophets. We hear it through scripture. We've heard it in that message of John the Baptist that called a repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. That message that God is speaking into a broken world through his son Jesus, that says, love your enemy, or turn the other cheek. These messages that we quite frankly, sometimes we just don't wanna hear, in Samuel's day, those messages were not being received... No one was hearing. The word of the Lord was rare. And in some ways, we could say the word of the Lord is rare today. What is God doing? What does God want of us: we trust, we pray, but yet we see this mess all around. We want God to do something about it. But maybe God is waiting on us. Waiting on us to say, ‘God speak. Your servant is listening.’ Pastor and writer, Barbara Brown Taylor says in a book titled, “When God is Silent”, that maybe in those moments, when it seems that God is silent, we need to spend less time saying, ‘Lord, hear our prayers, and more time saying, Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’

The problem with listening to God is that God often doesn't just ask easy things of us. In fact, God does not offer worldly wisdom. God doesn't pander to our preferences. God doesn't just give us something that makes us say, ‘Okay, God... That's what I thought.’ God usually challenges us. God usually asks us to step out and to trust and to go where we maybe haven't wanted to go, literally or figuratively. When God speaks, God reveals a truth that is His truth. And it's not always an easy pill to swallow. In fact, when we look at the prophets, often, they were rejected simply because they spoke God's truth. But what God desires for this difficult conversation is for us to be participants, for us to first listen to His voice. And then trusting in God to speak His truth into this world. We live in a time where it's easy to hear all kinds of voices, this simply reinforced the things that we already believe. Paul addressed this in 2 Timothy Chapter 4, Verse 3, he says, “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but we'll have itching ears. They will accumulate for themselves, teachers to suit their own desires. And they will turn away from listening to the truth.” Itching ears want to be scratched with the things that reinforce what they want, what they like, what they already think. But to Samuel, God said, ‘I'm gonna do something new. I'm going to do something different.’ So much so that the ears, both ears of anyone who hears it, will tingle. It's an interesting contrast between itching ears and tingling ears. Itching ears simply wanna be fed that line that says, ‘You are fine, what you think is right, you don't need to do anything different,’ Itching ears wanna be comforted and pacified and placated.

Tingling ears that have been woken up, brought alive. This word tingle, it refers to ears, only occurs four times in the Old Testament. The other three times are also about God getting ready to proclaim judgment. The message coming for Eli is not a good one. And yet he says, ‘That for all of Israel, when they hear of this, their ears will tingle.’ There's not a good clear sense of what this is. Some of the definitions mean to be kind of filled with excitement. As I read it and look at the other contexts, what it tells me is that those whose ears are tingling, their ears are tingling because they are hearing a truth that has been revealed by God. That tingling is the affirmation that, ‘Oh, this is important. This is significant. This is God at work right now.’

So friends, maybe it's time for all of us to begin to think of things as we see it here. First and foremost, God knew Samuel's name. And God knows your name as well. And God calls personally to you and to me and to all of us, wanting us to hear His words, to hear His truth. And may our ears tingle as God does a new thing in us, among us, and in this world that we're a part of right now. As that opening video said this morning, unity is a possibility. And it's not unity around an elected official or a political platform. It's a unity, rooted and grounded in the truth. The truth of God and of His love for this world. So may God continue to speak to us and invite us into this conversation. May God have with each of us those difficult conversations that will equip us and empower us to do the same. This conversation isn't a one-way street. It's one in which we say, ‘God speak, your servant is listening.’ So speak into our hearts, Lord, the message of forgiveness. Speak into our hearts the message of a love that is radical and extravagant, and loves even when it's not deserved. Speak into our hearts a message of mercy and kindness. Speak into us a message of grace that recognizes our own worthiness. It was not an easy message for Samuel to her, and yet God was with him. And by being faithful and obedient to receiving that word from God, and speaking that word, Samuel we’re told grew to be a young man that was respected and recognized throughout the land as one who spoke God's truth. May it be so for us. May we humble ourselves. May we trust that the words that God will speak are the words that we and this world need.


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