Eli: Helping Our Children to Hear
A Summer Family Reunion: Lessons From Our Faith Ancestors
I Samuel 3:1-10
Sunday, June 17, 2018
You may have heard about the man who went to see his doctor about issues with his hearing. The man had finally decided to be fitted with hearing aides, but, had chosen not to tell his family about his decision as he wanted to surprise them with his newfound ability to hear. The visit to the doctor went great, the hearing aides worked beautifully and the man was able to hear better than he ever had before.
A month later, the same man returned to his doctor for a simple follow up. The doctor entered the room and said, “well, how are things going? Are your hearing aides working okay?” “Okay?” the man replied. “They are far better than okay, they work terrific! Why, I don’t think I have ever been able to hear this well in my entire life.” “That’s wonderful!” the doctor replied. “I am sure your family must be ecstatic too!”
“Oh, I don’t know how they will respond. I decided to hold on to my news. I haven’t even told them about my new hearing aides yet!” “You haven’t told them?” the doctor said. “Nope,” the man said. “ And, as a matter of fact, I have already changed my will three times!?!”
Sometimes, we take hearing troubles as a given. As in this cute little story, some of us have family members with hearing issues and we automatically adjust by talking louder or turning the volume up. We don’t expect anything to change with their struggles to hear and so we change.
Likewise, there are places we expect trouble with hearing. We avoid certain restaurants because they are crowded and noisy. We go to car races and wear headphones to drown out the anticipated noise. And, we take our kids to the movies while stuffing paper in their ears because their young ears are sensitive and we know that the speakers are going to be very loud.
Another place we expect hearing problems is in church and in our relationship with God. Now, I know that sounds strange but I have found it to be a true statement so let me explain. I say this not only because our minds wander, the preachers and our teachers are often boring or because we struggle to understand and thus struggle to hear clearly the scripture. I also say this because over time, as we struggle to hear God speak to us, we develop an attitude and expectation that God will likely not speak to us at all. Thus, we often enter church and church activities anticipating hearing problems.
In our text for today from I Samuel, which is the story of young Samuel working for the elderly priest Eli, we also encounter a story about the struggle of hearing God speak. This issue for the people of God then as for the people of God now is named on multiple levels in this story.
First, the beginning of the story is clear that in those days the voice of God was not heard very often. In other words, all of the Israelites had hearing problems.
Second, the major emphasis of the story is on God speaking to Samuel yet Samuel not understanding that it is indeed God who is speaking. Three times God calls Samuel and three times Samuel assumes it is the older priest Eli who is calling him. There is no indication that Samuel even considers God as the possible source of the voice he is hearing. Again, God’s voice was hard to hear and difficult to discern.
Third, Eli, even though he is an older person and someone who has served God faithfully for many years as a priest struggles to recognize God’s voice in the story too. Again, it is only on Samuel’s third visit to Eli’s room that it dawns on Eli that Samuel is being spoken to by God. Perhaps Samuel was hearing things or perhaps Eli and Samuel had another visitor in the Temple who was calling out to Samuel yet who had not yet made themselves known. There had to be some explanation for the voice Samuel was hearing, but again, even for Eli the first idea as to the explanation of what was going on was not the voice of God. God’s voice was hard to hear even for a longtime, experienced leader of the faith like Eli.
One thing I want us to see here is that we are not alone. Even in the days of God’s presence in the lives of the Israelites in a very personal way, they collectively struggled to hear. Even for a young worker in the Temple’s service like Samuel, hearing God was hard. And, even for an older, experienced, longtime leader of the faithful like Eli, hearing was challenging and God’s voice was not assumed.
Hearing God is hard, and in my opinion, it gets harder and harder all the time. After all, much of the time, we live in a world of noise. Its certainly not that it is impossible to hear God without total silence or quiet but it definitely helps. Yet our world is full of competing voices from people, from technology and from the noise of everyday life. Think for a moment, how often, in your day is there silence where you have the freedom to stop and listen.
Likewise, this for a moment about the setting of the story. Samuel and Eli was lying down in their rooms for the night’s rest when God spoke. Now this was in a day long before electricity, televisions or cell phones. Therefore it should have been very dark and very quite. Only the candle of the Lord was burning according to the text. Yet, even then hearing God’s voice was challenging. How much more difficult might it all have been had the story happened in the world of noise in which we live?
Let me illustrate this point further. Unbeknownst to most of you, we did a little experiment while you were gathering for worship today. Right before worship, a handbell played one note. Right before worship, the fight songs of both the University of South Carolina and Clemson were played on the piano. Right before worship, two hymnals were dropped on the floor, on purpose, in the balcony. How many of you heard all of this? Exactly, almost none of you. Why? Well for many reasons. First, you didn’t know to listen for these sounds. Second, you were focused on other things. Third, you were busy having conversation with folks. Why, I even struggled to hear these sounds and I knew to listen for them. Unfortunately, there was a lot of noise. All of this prevented us from hearing. Would we have heard all of these sounds had the room been quite? I can’t guarantee that we would have but I think the odds are a lot better that we would have.
Let me invite you to think about the low hanging fruit in the Samuel and Eli story. Hearing is hard so hearing takes hard work, intentionality and quite. Hearing requires us to make time and a place for listening. This is an important truth for our own lives but also something to model for our children and grandchildren. When and how often do you get quite? How and where does it happen? How do you intentionally make space for hearing God and how do you encourage this practice in the life of those that you love. I try to begin the first 30 to 45 minutes of my day in silence. Most of those moments are spent outside on a walk. I pray, I think, I am quite. There is not a guarantee is this discipline that God will speak and many days I don’t hear anything profound. But, the work of being intentional about creating the space and the place for God to speak, I think is half the battle. In terms of this battle are we winning or are we loosing?
There is something else here though and it is the part of the story that is most appropriate I think for this day, Father’s Day. It is also the most important lesson in the story that comes directly from Eli rather than from Samuel.
When we read the story a moment ago, we stopped reading at a crucial point. We read up until the moment that Samuel and Eli recognized it was the voice of God speaking which culminates with Samuel’s openness to hearing form God. We did not continue and read what it was that God said. The rest of chapter three is God’s message to Samuel. What Samuel heard was a word of coming judgement against Eli and his sons whose names were Hophni and Phinehas. Basically, God told Samuel that he was disappointed in Eli and his unwillingness to discipline his boys. Further, he told Samuel that judgement was ahead for all of them. It was such a harsh word in fact that the text says that Samuel dreaded the moment when Eli asked him what it was that God had said. Samuel, naturally didn’t like the idea of having to be the bearer of bad news.
The remarkable part for me comes in Eli’s response. When Samuel gives him the harsh word, Eli, the Old Priest simply responds by saying, God is God, our job is to respect and to accept what God says even if we don’t like it.
Despite many bad decisions this is a wonderful moment of Eli mentoring Samuel in the right way. Eli had first encouraged Samuel to listen and be open to God’s voice. Here, he mentors Samuel to accept and to follow God’s voice even when it is not what either of them likely wanted to hear.
I wanted you to hear me on this point for it is crucial. Two of the best things we can do as people of faith for ourselves and for those who come after us is first to make space to listen for God’s voice. It will not be easy, but, we must make it a priority. The second best thing we can do, in the spirit of our kin Eli, is to accept ourselves and teach others to accept what God’s says with obedience even when it isn’t what we wanted to hear.
My point is this; we so often simply want God to bless and affirm what we have decided for ourselves or for our children or our grandchildren. Sometimes, however, God has different plans and ideas. It is a hard place to allow ourselves, our children or our grandchildren to be obedient to God’s dreams and hopes for our lives rather than following our own hopes. It is a hard place to encourage our children and grandchild to listen more carefully to God’s plans than to our own. But, it is the work of a wise and mature person who allows for this possibility.
There is a story that has stayed with me for many years. It happened in the church I served in Kentucky. There was a young man in that congregation who was really growing in his relationship with God. He and his wife had done well but truth be told they had overtaxed themselves with their expenses. And, as he grew in faith, this young man became convicted that he had very little left over to give to the church financially after he paid his monthly bills. He and his wife talked it over, prayed about it and thought through it. Eventually, their decision was to downsize. They literally decided to sell their current home and buy a smaller house so that they could give more to the church. Now, let me be clear, they were not going to move from a 5,000 square foot house into a 500 square foot house. It wasn’t that extreme. But, it was going be a change that was for them an act of faith and obedience.
In the midst of their decision making, his mom stopped me in the hall one day. His parents went to our church too. She was concerned. She thought they were making a bad decision. She wanted me to talk him out of it. In as nice of a way as I could, I encouraged her that I would be as supportive of her son as possible, but, I could not make that decision for him nor would I. This was about him and God and what he felt he was hearing God say.
Now, your temptation is going to be to make that story about the financial decision this young man made. Don’t go down that road with the story. Instead, allow it to speak to you as it still speaks to me about a mother’s dreams for her son versus God’s dreams. Allow it to be about her struggle to encourage her son to follow God even when God was saying something she wasn’t completely enthusiastic about. And, allow it to remind you just as it reminds me about our job for ourselves and for our children to teach this same lesson. We must find a way and teach those we love to listen for God and to obey God above all other voices. Even above our own voice.
Listening is hard. Listening to God is even harder. But, what might happen if we have the courage and the capacity to truly hear? Amen.