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Are You Listening?

Thomas J Parlette

“Are You Listening?”

1st Samuel 3: 1-10 (11-20)



Over 80 years ago, Jed Harris was a successful producer on Broadway. One of his successful works was a production of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.” In the middle of a lengthy season mixed with the intense pressure of many details, Harris began to lose his sense of hearing. He could not even hear what other people close to him were saying and so he was missing crucial details during conversations.

As a result, Harris decided to pay a visit to a renowned audiologist who listened attentively as the big time producer recounted his sad tale seeming to lose his hearing. After a thorough examination of Harris’ ears, the hearing specialist pulled out his expensive gold-coated pocket watch and held it up to the producer’s ear. “Can you hear this watch ticking?”, he asked.


The doctor moved farther away and held the watch up again, “How about now?”

“Yes, I can hear it.”

Then the doctor walked into the next room and asked, “How about now?”

“Yea, I can still hear it.”

The doctor walked back into the room and put his pocket-watch back in his vest. “This is actually quite a common condition, especially among busy and successful people like yourself. Your hearing is excellent Mr. Harris. You’ve simply quit listening.”(1)

Maybe you know someone like that? They don’t have a hearing problem, but they certainly do have a listening problem.

Good communication, especially good listening skills are vital to successful living. Many companies now spend a lot of money to send their employees to workshops to develop their listening skills. Women seem to be more conscious of the need for good communication than men. One national magazine polled over 30,000 women and only one problem ranked above conflicts over money – it was poor communication. Researcher Terri Schulz writes, “Although many women chose their partners based on sex appeal, research shows that if they had to do it again, the ability to communicate and listen would be much more important.”(2)

Listening is also central to the life of faith. There is a beautiful story in the Bible about someone who spent a lifetime listening. In his case, though, he was listening to God. Most of you remember the story of the boy Samuel from your Sunday School days. It begins with the touching scene of a woman named Hannah pleading with God to allow her to bear a son. Hannah made a vow to God that if she had a son, she would give him to the service of the Lord all the days of his life. Some time passed, but God answered Hannah’s prayer and she had a son, naming him “Sam-u-el”, because as Hannah said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.”

And Hannah followed through on her promise to give Samuel to the Lord. As soon as he was old enough, Samuel was placed under the care and training of an old priest named Eli. Eli was gradually losing his vision. But he was faithful in his teaching of young Samuel. He also gave Samuel light duties around the tabernacle.

One night when Samuel was about 11 years old, he had a life-changing experience. He was lying down, trying to go to sleep, when he heard a voice in the night. He ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, you called me.”

But Eli said, “I didn’t call, go back and lie down.”

So Samuel went back to bed, but then the voice called out again, “Samuel”

Once again, Samuel went to Eli, “Here I am, you called me.”

“No, my son, I did not call. Go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel had been studying about God, so the scripture says, but he did not yet know God. The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

It’s interesting that you can hear the word of God, you can know about God, the church, theological issues and church history – and still not know God. Samuel could hear, but he wasn’t listening yet.

So, a third time this voice in the night called, “Samuel.”

Then, Eli realized that the Lord was calling to Samuel, so Eli told the boy, “Go lie down, and if he calls you, say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” So Samuel went back to bed.

The Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel, Samuel.”

And this time Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

And that’s where the story usually ends – a young boy learning to listen to God. A nice domesticated little story that teaches us to be open and attentive to the voice of God.

But this story does not end there.

You probably noticed that the punctuation for this passage is a little different from what we’re used to seeing. I kept the parentheses around v, 11-20, because our lectionary gives us the option of just reading 1-10 and stopping with “Speak, for your servant is listening” or we can continue with verses 11-20 and hear what God has to say to Samuel. When we include those verses in parentheses, the story changes completely.

In the second part of this passage, the Lord has some rather harsh news for Eli. The Lord says “I am about to do something in Israel that will make your ears tingle. I am going to make a change. The house of Eli is out.”

Now Eli had been a faithful servant of God, but his sons had been taking advantage of their family’s status as the caretakers of God’s house. They were using their status as priests to take advantage of the vulnerable women and orphans who came to the Temple and were helping themselves to the precious fat of the sacrifices. Eli knew this, but did nothing to stop them. So now God, who as the text ominously notes, was pretty quiet in those days – was going to act. In the face of injustice, corruption and abuse, God was going to do a new thing.

Young Samuel heard all this – he listened closely. But he didn’t know what to do with this word from the Lord. He laid awake all night thinking about this. He was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But in the morning, Eli urged Samuel to tell him what the Lord had said – do not hide it from me.

So Samuel told him everything, he held nothing back.

This is one of those moments in scripture where I think there was a long pause. At times I think we are so familiar with a biblical story and so comfortable with what we think it means, we gloss over the fact that these were human beings. Like the story of the Annunciation to Mary. An angel comes to visit Mary and tells her she is pregnant. She wonders, how can this be, I am a virgin. The angel says the baby is from the Holy Spirit. And Mary says Ok – let it be with me as you say.

Well I think there was a long pause there. I think Mary thought about that for awhile. I think she took some time to play out the scenario, consider everything that was going to happen with this pregnancy. I don’t she said Ok as quickly as we assume. I think that was a pause-worthy moment.

I think we have another one of those moments here. I think Eli thought about this for awhile. This was not good news for him. His family’s position and status was being taken away. He had tried to be a good servant and priest and pass that down to his sons – but he had failed.

How tempting it must have been to want to lash out, defend himself and his sons. How tempting it must have been to work out a strategy, spin the facts, file a lawsuit and fight to keep his house in place.

And yet, he doesn’t do that. After what I think is a long pause, he resigns himself to the fact that God is going to do a new thing. “It is the Lord,” he says. “Let him do what seems good to him.”

Eli’s faith in the Lord, his faith that God will do a new thing that will make us tingle, outweighs his need to defend his family.

If we only read the first 10 verses of this story, we come away thinking that Samuel is the hero. When called, he listens – and readily answers “Here I am.” We go away thinking, like John Calvin, that Samuel is prompt and sincere in the work of the Lord. And that is true.

But when we include what’s in the parentheses, we see that the real hero of this story is Eli. He’s the one who realizes that God is speaking. Eli is the one that tells us to listen. Eli is the one who has the courage to hear God’s word, even though it is a hard word to hear, especially for him. And Eli is the one who has the faith to accept God’s word and even help train Samuel to become a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

If we read just the first 10 verses, we have a nice little story about an individual’s call. But if we include what’s in the parentheses, we have a powerful story about the courage required to listen and to speak about God’s vision of the new thing that will make us tingle.

You probably don’t remember the name Anthony Thompson. Thompson is a pastor whose wife Myra was killed, along with eight other people, as they held a bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina. They were killed by a young man named Dylann Roof. Thompson once told a story in a sermon he preached about going to a bond hearing for his wife’s killer.

“I didn’t want to go,” he said. “I didn’t have Dylann Roof on my mind. All I could think of was – did Myra suffer? Why wasn’t I there for her? I didn’t want to go to the Bond Hearing, but my children wanted to go and would not go unless I did. So I went for them. I told them, “Keep your mouths closed. Don’t say anything. And when we got there, I sat with my head down. I wanted it to be over so I could go back home. Then God intervened. He whispered in my ear, “I have something to say.”

“I got up immediately. I had learned from experience that when God speaks, you listen, and you do what God says, and it will turn out alright. So I listened and said what God told me. I said, “Son, I forgive you, and my family forgives you. You need to repent and confess, and give your life to the One it means the most to. You are in a lot of trouble, but if you do that, no matter how much trouble you’re in, you will be alright.”

“You see, God’s love was about me forgiving Dylann – like God, in Christ’s name forgave me. And after I did that, I experienced God’s love. I experienced a peace that passes all understanding. God’s love freed my heart of the burden of bitterness and anger. God’s love assured me that God is in control, that he had prepared a place for Myra, and that he was going to bring me and my family through this, day by day.”(3)

Anthony Thompson listened to God, and he spoke God’s word, not holding anything back, despite how hard it must have been to utter those words, “I forgive you.”

But his faith was stronger than his need to fight or seek revenge.

And God did a new thing, a thing that makes us tingle. God gave Anthony Thompson a peace that passes all understanding.

That what can happen for all of us when we really listen to God and find the courage to speak.

May it be so, for you and for me. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, p15.

2.    Ibid… p16.

3.    Anthony Thompson, Journal For Preachers, Vol. XLI, No. 2, p9.