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On Listening

1 Samuel 3:1-10, 19-4:1, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Of all of the stories of the Bible that made an impression on me as a child none captured my attention more than the story of the boy, Samuel, serving in the Jerusalem temple as an apprentice of the priest, Eli, who was very old and whose eyesight was failing. Three times one night Samuel heard his name being called. Three times he went into Eli's room, thinking that it was the old man who had called. It finally dawned on Eli that it might be God who was seeking Samuel's attention. He told Samuel that, if the voice called again, he should respond, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." Samuel did as instructed. He did listen. He continued to listen. And he became one of the most important of those persons in Israel's history through whom God communicated his messages to his people.
One of the reasons this story impressed me so much was that, as a child, I was a much better talker than listener. I still have my elementary school report cards, and the place where I had the most trouble was with what was called "deportment," which meant general behavior. There was a space for comments by the teacher each six weeks. The spaces on my cards too often brought my parents comments such as these:
"Harold talks too much." "Harold needs to listen to instructions and to follow them." "Harold needs to pay closer attention."
The story of Samuel gripped me because I knew that I needed to be a listener as he was. It also gripped me because from a fairly early age I felt that when I did listen I began to hear what God was saying to me and to the world in which I lived.
It is interesting now to realize how my own history is similar to that of Samuel. I became in time, as he did, an interpreter of God's word to God's people. I am still a better talker than I am a listener, but I have been blessed by being with and working with people who are good listeners.
One of the New Testament lessons for the first Sunday after Epiphany is about two people, John the Baptist and Jesus, who listened carefully, consistently and courageously to what God was saying to them. Look first at John. He must have been powerfully tempted to listen to what was being said by the crowds of people who were flocking to hear him. They were asking whether he was himself the Messiah, and he must have been aware of that. Why did he not let himself be swept to even greater acclaim and glory and power? Because he was listening to God who made it clear to him that he was the one who was preparing the way for God's Messiah.
John Baillie was a scholar and theologian whose little book, A Diary of Private Prayer, has been a source of spiritual nourishment to me since I was a junior in high school. My impression, however, is that Baillie never achieved the prominence which some of his peers achieved. That is not an easy thing for a capable and ambitious and sensitive scholar to accept. The reason John Baillie's prayers have touched so many lives is that they are so personal and so honest. In one of his prayers of confession in The Diary he says, "Forgive, O Lord, my unwillingness to believe that thou hast called me to a small work and my brother to a great one." Through the years I have prayed that prayer again and again as I have struggled to rejoice with my brothers and sisters who have been called by God to what I have perceived as greater works than the ones to which God has called me.
If you are an adolescent or a young adult, you are getting messages from different sources about what you should do with your life. You are getting those messages from family, from friends, from our culture at large. Those messages are worth considering, but what you need to be listening for if you want really to fulfill your destiny is what God wants for you to be and do.
With respect to important issues in our lives there is always the very real danger that we will be influenced by many voices except the one that counts the most. The questions we should be asking consciously and praying about earnestly are: What is God saying to me about the responsibilities I should assume and the ones I should decline? What is God saying to me in the stress I am now experiencing? How does God want me to allocate the money I have at my disposal? What is God telling me that God is proud of in my life?
John the Baptist became the man God intended him to be because he listened for and listened to what God was saying.
In our text from the third chapter of Luke we also see Jesus listening to the voice of God as he clarifies for himself who he is and what his mission is. Jesus was steeped in what God had said through the psalmists and the prophets of Israel. Psalm 2 was written for the coronation of one of Israel's kings. In it God says to the new king, "You are my son; today I have begotten you." At his baptism, Jesus hears God speaking these words to him and knows that he is the anointed one. But he also hears God speaking to him the word spoken to the prophet, Isaiah, which describes this king as one who establishes God's kingdom, not through might, but through servanthood which includes self-giving and suffering. Isaiah wrote:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench... He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth. (Is 42:1-4)
That was not an easy word to hear and to accept. Jesus knew that he was not the kind of Messiah for whom people were looking nor the kind whom they wanted nor the kind whom they would long follow and support. He knew that they wanted a Messiah who would rule with might and lead them to national prosperity and international power. In the Gospel of Luke the next voice Jesus hears after his baptism is the voice of the devil urging him to be that kind of Messiah. But Jesus resists the temptation and listens with determination to what he believes God intends for him to be and do. What a costly decision that was for him!
What a costly decision it is for anyone who follows Christ to listen faithfully for and to the voice of God! Martin Luther was a Catholic monk who heard God speaking to him through the writings of the Apostle Paul a message that set him at dangerous odds with the church under whose authority he lived and worked. The showdown came in April, 1521, when the authorities of the church demanded that he repudiate the views which he had been expressing. In his History of Christianity, Kenneth Scott Latourette writes that Luther said: that his conscience was captive to the Word of God and that unless he were convicted by Scripture and plain reason...he would not recant anything. To do so would be neither right nor safe. He added, "God help me, Amen." He did so at the risk of his life. Although the Emperor had guaranteed him safe conduct, the precedent of John Hus, who had come to his death in spite of a similar promise by an earlier Emperor, was by no means reassuring.
If you listen for and then heed what God is saying to you, you can find yourself on an uncomfortable and painful path.
You can find yourself becoming involved in some project or some service venture which other people regard as foolish.
You can find yourself in a conversation taking issue with an idea or point of view which everybody else holds and is comfortable with.
You can find yourself under compulsion to reply softly and courteously to someone whose rudeness makes you want to give tit for tat.
You can hear God telling you to make a decision when you do not want to or to admit that you were wrong when you are embarrassed to do so or to sit down and be quiet when you have many things to do. As a devout soul once rightly observed, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." The only thing more fearful is not to do that. Paul Fisher, a California pastor, relates the following story;
I remember sitting in a small chapel with a woman who was experiencing a great deal of turmoil in her life. She felt as if the world was caving in around her. I listened carefully to her story. I felt inadequate to respond as she had many important decisions to make. Finally I asked her, "What do you think would be a first step in beginning to restore your life?" Without hesitation she responded, "I was hoping you could tell me that." I knew right then she wanted me to tell her what she ought to do. Again I asked her about an initial step she could take to make things better. After some moments of silence she said, "I need to return to daily prayer. I used to feel God was very close to me, but that feeling has left. I need to start praying again." When we talked about how she knew God was very close to her, she referred to the speaking of the Holy Spirit. The voice she had grown to love brought her comfort and peace. In the midst of her troubles she had stopped listening to God. Certainly she needed pastoral guidance, but even more she needed the leading of God.
Many voices compete for your attention. Many of them are worth your attention. But one, above all, has the capacity to guide you in the way of righteousness and life. One, above all, deserves from you, when you sense its beckoning, the attentive and earnest reply, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
J. Harold McKeithen, Jr. Newport News, VA