Listening and Waiting


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

January 12, 2020

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-12; Matt 3:1-17

      Almost everyone has heard the story of Mother Teresa being interviewed. This is one of those stories that is iconic. In 2014 Dan Rather interviewed Mother Teresa on 60 Minutes and he asked her what she said during her prayers. She responded with “I listen.” Seizing on what he thought would be a terrific moment in broadcast journalism, Rather then asked, “What then does God say?” “He listens,” came the simple reply.

       Looking at the confused Rather she continued “And if you don’t understand that. I can’t explain it to you.” Indeed, it is a difficult thing to understand—how to listen to God. Even more difficult is how to discern the voice of God.

       This morning’s reading from 1 Samuel is an example of that difficulty. The child Samuel hearing his name being called assumed it was the old priest Eli. How often have we thought we heard someone calling us and assumed it was someone else? Someone who should be calling us?

        The story goes on: Samuel is called by name a second time and then a third time. Eli realizes that it must be the Lord. The writer of text frames this story after it is stated that the “word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” It doesn’t sound that distant from the time we now live in.

       We certainly have enough people running around declaring that they speak for God, to be sure; however, do they reflect the “word of the Lord?”  Looking at this story in context, we are asked to listen and to discern, not just to follow anyone who claims to speak for God. And we do have enough of those kinds of people running around today.

       Listening to others, really listening, requires us to listen to ourselves as well. And sometimes we really need to listen to ourselves  How many times have we agreed to do some-thing or go somewhere without really considering how our promise to do this or that will adversely impact our own sense of ourselves?

        Let me give you an example. We may know deep down that to agree to do something violates our sense of who we are but we feel we cannot just say “no” because the person who makes the request is a friend or a family member. But we feel uneasy about the follow through.

      Listening to ourselves is really critical even when we don’t like the result. Listening to ourselves involves waiting because often we don’t have responses right away. We need to wait to be able to discern whether the voices we hear in our heads reflect who we really are. We need to wait to be able to dis-cern if the response to our questions about ourselves reflects how God wants us to be.

        And that is difficult. It is often confusing, even more confusing than it was for young Samuel as he heard a voice calling his name. 

       There are so many voices out there claiming to speak for God. Some offer instant solutions to what they see as the issues faced by our society. But just as young Samuel had to listen for the Lord more than once, so we, too, need to realize that listening means not just responding on the first call, sometimes note even on the second call, but on the third. 

       Sometimes we don’t like what we hear and try to brush it off. Other times, we think what we hear suits us and we reply too quickly without taking any consequences into consider-ation. We usually approach what we hear from our own perspective, our own worldview.

       The Samuel story of listening is generally what we like to read. The first story of listening actually begins with a plea for God to listen. Samuel’s mother Hannah is barren in that she has no children, so she goes to the old priest Eli and strikes a bargain. If the Lord will but give her a son, she will dedicate that son to the service of the Lord. The Lord hears her prayer and she bears Samuel.

       They are two very different stories of listening. One is that of the Lord’s response to a plea; the other is Eli’s discern-ment of the voice Samuel hears. And there are times when we need someone else to help us listen. This is, of course, re-flects the importance of community.

        Sometimes, however, what is considered a community is little more than support for one’s inclinations and prejudices. The internet has provided forums for all kinds of groups that promise to offer community when what they really offer is a combination of half-truths, if not outright lies. Community is created here, to be sure, and there is little question that it is difficult to break into tight communities of support for hate.  What we think of as community can easily become a mob.

        The process of discernment involves waiting as well as listening. Much of the writing about the process of discern-ment is found either in the early church or by modern Roman Catholic writers. Pierre Wolf, a Jesuit, has written about this process as one of waiting as well as listening. 

      He writes discernment is the process of making choices that correspond as closely as possible to objective reality, that are free as possible from our inner compulsions, and that are closely attuned to the convictions of our faith. It is a concrete way of dealing with daily reality that leads to making choices that affect ourselves as well as others. 

        Discernment may involve a paradigm shift, that is, a realization that the way we looked at the world before may not reflect the way we can look at the world in light of new facts, in light of a new reality. To take a simple example, the fact that a single-use plastic bag can break up into all kinds of small units and end up being eaten by birds and well as ocean life should make us shift our worldview so that we do not use those items but change our way of living. If you think that’s easy, just look at how anxious people get when we start to talk about banning those bags

        What’s this got to do with Samuel, we may ask. When he realized that it was the voice of the Lord, he had to re-spond. As the text tells us, the word of the Lord was rare. As a result of listening and waiting, Samuel will represent a shift in the paradigm of prophecy. It will involve the process of discernment, for Samuel will need to listen carefully. 

       Samuel, of course, discerns the word and the will of the Lord. Some of what he hears and discerns is disturbing, for it includes the fact that Eli’s two sons, who had blasphemed the Lord would be stricken down. That’s a heavy burden to lay on a small child. Listening and the process of discerning does not always result in what we want to hear. 

        Sometimes we wait in the listening and discernment process in the hope that we get the answers we want. And when we don’t we become upset, sometimes even angry. We don’t need to go far afield to find examples of that kind of anger and how it plays out. 

        Someone once wrote that expectations are premeditated resentments. Take, for instance, the expectations of many men who have worked their entire lives at one particular factory. They expect a retirement that lets them live in some comfort. That certainly was true of many industries at one time. But as medical costs, especially, have risen, companies have cut back on benefits.

        And this kind of action isn’t just with Walgreens or AV-Denison or even Ford, but for state and federal employees. Just a note here, that the same people who complain that they are losing their retirement benefits want the state to cut benefits for their retired employees. This is a wait that does not produce good results for many people.

      Moving beyond the waiting to active listening––to discernment––can help us strive for a more just society rather than stewing in resentment. What’s this got to do with our reading in Samuel? More than you might think.

      For what is it that Hannah sings when she learns she will bear the child who is Israel’s prophet? A song of justice and righteousness. Listen to her song in the translation of Robert Alter:

My heart rejoiced through the Lord. . . . There is no one holy like the Lord

The warrior’s bow is shattered and stumblers gird up strength

The sated are hired for bread and the hungry cease evermore. . . .

The Lord raises the poor from the dust

From the dung-heaps the wretched He lifts to seat among princes

A throne of honor he bequeaths them

For the Lord’s are the pillars of the earth

Upon them he founded the world

The steps of his faithful he watches

And he wicked in darkness turn dumb

For not by might will a man prevail 

For the Lord will judge the earth

       This is the song of Samuel’s birth. He will listen for the word of the Lord and will sing of righteousness for Israel. Should we not do the same in our time and in our place?

       Let us pray: Holy Creator who speaks to us even when we do not want to hear, help us to discern your will so we are faithful stewards of your word. In the name of him who was faithful, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.