Homily by Bruce Johnson 17 January 2021
Listening for the Voice of God
The writers of the Old Testament included quite a few stories about a prophet named Samuel. One of those stories is our lectionary reading for today. The setting for this story is in a place called Shiloh. Long before Solomon built his famous temple in Jerusalem there were several small shrines or worship centers in Canaan and one of those was in the town of Shiloh. This shrine was, in fact, one of the most famous because the Ark of the Covenant was kept there.
A man named Eli had been the priest in charge of this shrine for many years. But now he was very old and now his two sons were in charge of the shrine. This is where the story gets interesting. It seems that Eli’s sons had turned the shrine into what we might call a racket. When people came to offer their sacrifices and to pray, these young men were charging very high prices. This reminds me of the Temple in Jerusalem at the time our Lord went there. Remember how Jesus turned over the tables and denounced the moneychangers? They had turned that Temple into a racket! It seems that it has always been fairly easy to turn religion into a profitable racket.
When Samuel was a very young boy, he was given to Eli to be raised in the shrine and to be a servant there. Every morning this lad would open the gates and at sundown, he would close them. He actually lived inside the Shiloh shrine. In many ways, he was like a son to the priest Eli.
So, the story goes that one night this boy was awakened by a voice calling him. “Samuel, Samuel.” He gets up and goes to Eli’s room and says, “here I am, what do you want?” Eli says, “I didn’t call you, go back to bed.” The same thing happens again. The third time this happens Eli realizes that this may be God who is trying to get Samuel’s attention. He instructs Samuel to return to his bed and to listen — listen for the voice of God. “What should I say?” he asks. Eli tells him to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
And so, it happened, just as Eli said it would. That night God revealed to this lad that the shrine at Shiloh and all the terrible things Eli’s sons were doing would soon be brought to an end. The next morning Samuel didn’t know what to do. He knew Eli would ask him if God had spoken to him and he did not want to tell him what he had been told. He opened the gates of the shrine as usual and lit the candles. And then, just as he feared, he heard Eli calling him. “Samuel, my son, what was it that He told you? Do not hide it from me.” So, what could he do? He told him everything and Eli knew it was true. What his sons were doing was an abomination! He should have stopped them a long time ago but he had done nothing. And so, he said to Samuel, “He is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.” It wasn’t long after that, that the shrine and the entire town of Shiloh was destroyed by the Philistines and the Ark of the Covenant was captured and taken away.
A century later many things had changed. The Jebusite town of Jerusalem had become the royal city of the Kingdom and David’s son, Solomon was building his temple. By that time the Ark of the Covenant was no longer in the possession of the Philistines. It had been recaptured by David who famously led the procession as it was brought up to Jerusalem. In the very center of this wonderful temple, there was to be a small enclosed space which would be known as the Holy-of-Holies. The Ark would be placed in the center of this space and no one would be allowed to enter this sacred space except the High Priest of the Temple and he could enter only once every year. The Ark was the most sacred object in all of Israel. To be near the Ark was to be in the very presence of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The amazing thing is that from the mat where the boy Samuel slept every night, he could actually see this wooden box. He was often near it as he went about his duties there in the Shrine at Shiloh. He never understood exactly what it was — this strange box.
This story of the boy Samuel in the shrine at Shiloh is the beginning of a much larger story. It is the story of the Davidic dynasty and the promised Messiah who will one day sit on the throne of David. When the boy Samuel grew up, he was to be the one who would seek out and anoint David as the king.
So, what does this story say to us? Why are we reading it this morning, thousands of years after it was written? To answer this question, we must actually listen to the story. I find it interesting that there is a set of skills called “active listening.” You can go online and enroll in a workshop called “active listening.” One of the prayers we often use at the beginning of our weekly Bible studies is for God to help us to listen — to listen to the scripture as we read it and to listen to each other as we discuss what we have read.
Here are some thoughts. Could it be that God is trying to get our attention — that He has something to say to us? Like that young boy in the shrine at Shiloh, we are all very busy people. Remember what Eli said to him that night? Go back to your cot and pray this prayer, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Maybe we need to make space in our busy lives to listen for the voice of God — to be still and know that He is there.
For the past few years, I have been spending a lot of time with people who are seeking to discern the calling of God. They were men and women who were convinced that they might be called to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. They were meeting with the bishop and she is also trying to discern the will of God. I can tell you that it’s not always easy to hear what God is saying.
The story we read this morning is a sweet story. This young boy Samuel asleep on his cot in the shrine at Shiloh hears a voice in the night. It turns out to be the voice of God speaking to him. But, does God really speak to people?
My grandparents were Baptists and when I was growing up I went to church with them many times. In fact, at one time we lived with them. One of the hymns that they often sang has stayed in my mind all these many years. It’s called “In the Garden.”
I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
We can read about it, think about it, talk about it, but to experience it we must open ourselves to it. We must take time to pray that God will open our ears — open our hearts — to hear what He is saying to us.
And so, what might God want to say to us? I have no idea. But I would like to share with you one of my favorite passages from the writings of the prophet Jeremiah. God is speaking to us through the prophet.
I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
Plans for your welfare and not for harm
To give you a future with hope.
Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me,
I will hear you.
When you search for me, you will find me;
if you seek me with all your heart,
I will let you find me, says the Lord.Jeremiah 29: 11-14