1 Samuel 3:1-10
These were dark days for the children of Israel. Yes, they had come to live in the promised land. Each tribe had taken a particular territory to inhabit, to fill, to possess. They had accepted Joshua’s challenge to give up the gods of Egypt, and to give up the gods of their new neighbors in Canaan. They had promised to serve Yahweh, for Yahweh was the one who led them out of slavery with great power and mighty miracles into a land to call their own.
But just as Joshua saw it would be, they could not live out their promises. Over and over again, they fell in with their neighbors and forgot their promises. Why? Were they tempted by their neighbor’s power? Threatened by their foothold in the land? Did they believe the stories the others told of their gods’ control of sun and clouds and rain and drought? Did they feel powerless because of their neighbors advantage in technology and sophisticated lifestyle, these simple nomadic people who followed their flocks to places of water? Did they forget to tell their own stories of salvation from slavery, of the mighty acts of God who brought them through oceans and across deserts, who no stone wall or mighty river could stop?
Remember that they didn’t have this collection of the great stories that we call the Bible. They had to remember them by telling them over and over and over again. And in the telling, the stories retained their people-shaping power that we know today. Thank God that enough of them remembered to tell the stories so that they would finally be written down for us to tell our neighbors and our children!
Samuel was born to a time after generations of the people were forgetting the ways of Yahweh, forgetting to trust, and giving in to fear. Over and over God had sent saviors – Judges, they were called. More than a dozen powerful leaders God raised up to rescue his people when they fell so deep into their selfishness that no one could save themselves.
Now Eli was the judge and priest. His sons were power-mad, dishonest and seekers after wealth, pride and fame. God’s word was rare. There were not many visions. People were blind to God’s presence and deaf to God’s voice. But Eli, though he didn’t see or hear for himself, he remembered the stories just enough to give Samuel good instructions. It is God calling you. If you hear it again, say, “Speak, Lord. I am listening.”
I have always appreciated Eli because, while he himself was blind, he could remember enough stories to recognize the true voice for another. He remembered enough to hope that the voice of God was yet to be heard in the land. So, he opened the door to Samuel’s epiphany!
Speak, Yahweh, for I am listening.
On the night of January 27, 1956, when he was just 27 years old, Martin Luther King Jr. received a threatening phone call that would change his life forever. Shirley Cherry, Tour Director at Dexter Parsonage Museum tells it this way in a video interview for Biography:
“Martin Luther King pretty much said you have to do two things in order to be free: You have to forgive everybody for everything they’ve ever done to you. And number two, you have to lose your fear of death. It is not how long you live, but how well you live. He lost his fear of death in this kitchen at around midnight on January 27, 1956, where Dr. King received his epiphany after he received a threatening phone call. ‘We’re tired of you and your mess now’ – and they were talking about the Montgomery bus boycott – ‘and if you are not out of this town in three days we’re gonna blow your house up and blow your brains out.’ And he said to himself, with fears creeping up on his soul, he went into that kitchen to try to figure out how to get out of Montgomery without appearing to be a coward. And something happened when he started to pray out loud. And then he heard that voice, that inner voice called him by name, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth, stand up for justice, and stand up for righteousness.’ Martin Luther King Jr. could have hid in the crowd with everybody else. Because he was such a man of character, he couldn’t say no. He had a choice. He had a privileged life. He didn’t have do what he did. But he said in his own words, ‘I’m trying to do what is right. I’m losing my courage, but I’m trying to do what is right.’”
Speak, Lord, for I am listening.
Like Samuel, Martin Luther King Jr. heard the voice of God call him that night and he listened. I get the feeling from this telling that Martin Luther King Jr. did not feel as big as his name that night. The little boy in him was afraid. Yet he listened. He allowed that voice to get into his soul and walk him straight through his fear. He did stand up for truth, justice and righteousness. Not without mistakes. (If you finish Samuel’s story you will discover that he did not finish without mistakes either. None of the great Biblical heroes did!)
Martin Luther King Jr. listened and acted. And yet, we have not arrived in the Promised Land he dreamed: “… that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood; …that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice; …that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” [MLK 1963, I Have a Dream, speech at the March on Washington.]
These stories – Samuel’s, Martin Luther King Jr.’s – they can seem so distant. They are not like us. But they are. They are just like us! We have our epiphanies, too. God calls us every day, waiting for us to say, “Speak, Lord, for I am listening.” Do we really believe any more that God is calling us? That God is sending us into a new way leading to salvation for all, and a whole new world?
Jim Brooks is a cowboy. One of the few black cowboys at the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada back in 2005 where writer, Richard Whittaker, had the “accidental” opportunity to interview him.
“Brooks observed how people, when they retire, often die not long afterwards because of the loss of meaningful work.” And the conversation was off and running. “Is that something you think about? What are you going to do when you’re seventy, say?” Whittaker asked.
“Well, I’m not going to sit in a chair. I’ll probably do the same thing I’m doing now. I’ll probably die doing the same thing…. Everything I do, I love doing. Otherwise, at this stage of the game, I wouldn’t do it…. I’m a very lucky person; I realize that. I realize that God has blessed me with a lot of things; not monetary things; I’m a poor man. But I have my health; I have a good wife. We’ve been married for thirty-five years, and I have good animals that I need for my work. I’m blessed also in the thought of gaining monetary things, not worrying, you know. My folks never had any money. Nobody in my family ever had any money…. I was into cowboying since I was a little kid, but there was no way or means to follow my dream. At least, I didn’t think so. I’m telling you, this fellow God, we’ve got up there … has a plan for everybody. I had no means of any kind to do what I’m doing. But whenever I want to do something, it’s weird how it happens, but it happens!… I kid you not! I’m just a cowboy, you know…, but whatever I want to do, it just happens! I just do it! The same with cowboying. There have been lots of times where I shouldn’t have been doing what I’m doing, but God intervened and gave me the opportunity, and I’m doing it! I could have been standing on the corner selling drugs, or burglarizing your house….”
Speak, Lord, I am listening.
Jim Brooks, too. He saw all those little opportunities as the voice of God. He listened, and acted on what he heard the voice of his heart calling him to do. And you may not think of the cowboy life as a significant calling, but it is a hard life, and Jim Brooks has made it beautiful, touching so many humans and animals with his kindness and compassion. Is that not to dream of “…that day when all of God’s children, black people and white people, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” [MLK 1963, I Have a Dream, speech at the March on Washington.]
It is the season of Epiphany. The season of “Ah-ha!” An epiphany is a manifestation of a divine being, a moment of sudden insight or understanding, a flash of insight. It happened for the magi who saw a star and followed it all the way to Jesus, with some help from people and angels along the way. And when they saw Jesus, it was just the beginning, an inkling of hope for a whole new world.
This Epiphany, let us fill our souls with the stories of epiphanies. Let us remember that God has always spoken, and dark times do not keep the voice silent. The din of chaos can make us a little deaf. But the voice still speaks.
I have always wondered about how many times angels have come to humans, or the voice of God has spoken, and we just never noticed. Like, this story of Samuel. I wonder how many times God spoke like this to one of Eli’s sons and they didn’t hear it, or to Eli himself. How many magi did the angel speak to about seeking the new king? How many young women may have been approached to bring the divine to life in human form?
Forget new year’s resolutions and live. Just live intentionally paying attention every moment of every day. May the prayer of every day be simply, “Speak, Lord, I am listening.”