In the very first verse of our Old Testament reading this morning, the writer of First Samuel tells us “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” And with those words, suddenly this story is placed in a context we can understand. Vanished are the burning bush that Moses encountered and the pillars of fire and smoke that accompanied Israel during their exodus. The time of Samuel, between 1250 and 1000 BCE, was a time when, as one scholar wrote, “God seems to be sleeping.”[i]
When the young boy Samuel, whose name means “God has heard” is called by God to be a prophet, he reacts with confusion and disbelief. Even though he had spent his whole childhood in the temple with Eli the priest, Samuel is startled and disoriented when he hears God’s Word for himself. On the third time that God calls, Samuel fully awakens and responds, “Speak, Lord, for you servant is listening.” (v. 10)
God tells Samuel then that God is “about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” (v. 11) The phrase shows up in the words of later prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah usually carrying a sense of omen and threat of destruction, and here they precede a word of judgment against Eli and his sons who were stealing from the temple offerings. But God’s word also carries a word of promise to Samuel and Israel that God had, in fact, been awake and had witnessed the unfaithful actions of their leaders.
With these words, God reveals to Samuel that God still remembered the covenantal words of promise that had been given first to Noah and then to Abram all the way back in the genesis of Israel.[ii]
Reflecting on Samuel’s story of awakening, I want to recall other stories of awakenings. One took place in Los Angeles back in 1906:
A few years before the city would boom and become synonymous with the glamour of Hollywood, an African-American preacher named William J. Seymour from Kansas traveled to L.A. to preach at a small holiness church. Afterward, he stayed, teaching and preaching to larger and larger curious and interested crowds. Some weeks later a building on Azusa Street was found by his followers, and worship gatherings began happening nearly around the clock. The religious meetings, collectively called the Azusa Street Revival, continued for several years, attracting thousands of people and birthing the Pentecostal movement.
Another awakening happened in 1977 after Bishop Óscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador in central America. While Romero doubted his qualifications, his appointment was applauded by the military government because they saw him as bookish, weak and compliant; he wouldn’t make waves. However, as he met the people who filled the cathedral and asked for his prayers and assistance, visited places like Aguilares where the occupying army used a church as a barracks, and witnessed the torture and assassinations of both priests and residents, Romero awakened to the suffering of the people there. And in the face of criticism, turmoil and increasing violence, the Archbishop responded obediently to God’s call “to preach God’s Word, to administer the sacraments, to conduct public worship, to witness to the kingdom of God in the community, to speak publicly in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.”[iii] In 1980, minutes after preaching, "One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us….” Romero was martyred, assassinated as he led mass.[iv]
In this Epiphany season when we pay special attention to how Jesus is being revealed, it is important to see that, in each of these awakenings, “human speaking and hearing …become one of the main means by which the light of God’s revelation breaks into the affairs of this world.”[v]
God remembers. God sees. God speaks and calls us to live out the gospel.
None of these leaders was perfect and none of them responded to God in a vacuum. Samuel, who did not yet know the Lord, needed Eli, Seymour needed the local neighbors, and Romero relied on the people who were living and dying in San Salvador. They identified where God was calling them to be by listening together.
Hearing God speak and responding to God’s call to public ministry becomes a communal activity where discernment happens as the community listens and takes action, investing in ministry with our neighbors. Just as Eli exhibited obedience after hearing what the Lord had told Samuel, we too are called to obedience to God’s Word.
Earlier today we dedicated spaces for ministry that welcome people who are grieving or hurting, or just need to listen for God’s voice in silence, remembering the words of the psalmist who said his soul waited in silence for God, from his hope was in God.”[vi]
And we dedicated the Little Free Pantry, remembering God’s command in Deuteronomy to "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."[vii] Both of these ministries help us fulfill our congregation’s mission to be an extension of Christ in our community.
As we continue through the Epiphany season, may we continue listening to God’s Word in Scripture and may we pay attention to the ways that God is breaking into our world now; may we hear how God is calling us to participate and respond obediently saying, “Speak, Lord, for you servant is listening.”
Let us pray…
We give you all thanks and praise, O God, for what we know of you is overwhelming, more wonderful than we can ever understand.
Awaken us to your presence in all circumstances.
May Your Holy Spirit guide our discernment that we would listen for Your voice and follow wherever it leads.
[i] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 8914-8915). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Genesis 9 and 12
[iii] Responsibilities of a Minister of Word and Sacrament, Manual of Policies and Procedures for Management of the Rosters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, p. 6.
[iv] http://www.uscatholic.org/culture/social-justice/2009/02/oscar-romero-bishop-poor, accessed January 13, 2018.
[v] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 8894-8895). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[vi] Psalm 62
[vii] Deut. 15:11