Hard Hearing

First United Presbyterian Church
“Hard Hearing”
Rev. Amy Morgan
June 3, 2018

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1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;
 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.
 4 Then the LORD called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!"
 5 and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down.
 6 The LORD called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again."
 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.
 8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.
 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
 10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
11 Then the LORD said to Samuel, "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.
 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.
 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.
 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever."
 15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.
 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, "Samuel, my son." He said, "Here I am."
 17 Eli said, "What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you."
 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, "It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him."
 19 As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.
 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake.
 6 For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
 7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;
 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;
 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.
 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.

He had just been fitted with hearing aids a week ago and was hearing better than he had in a decade. When he came back into the clinic for a follow-up visit, the audiologist asked him, “How are your hearing aids working?” “Good!” he said. “I’ve changed my will three times already!”

Sometimes the trouble with being able to hear is that we hear some things we didn’t necessarily want to. Being hard of hearing is difficult, no doubt. But sometimes there are things that are hard to hear that have nothing to do with the health of our cochlea.

In the time when Samuel was a young boy ministering in the temple of God, his mentor, Eli, had a hearing problem. I know the text says that the problem was that his eyes were growing dim, but his listening skills seem to be the real issue. Just prior to the text we read this morning, a man of God comes to Eli and delivers some news that is very hard to hear. 
Because Eli’s sons have been wicked and evil, and Eli has been greedy with the altar sacrifices, God will kill both of his sons on the same day, no one in his family will live to old age, and all the members of his household will die by the sword. We don’t hear any response from Eli, and the next time we see him is in this scene, lying in his room, trying to rest. Which makes us wonder: did he really hear this prophesy? Did he understand it? Did he believe it?

We’re told at the beginning of today’s reading that the word of God was rare in those days and visions were not widespread. Perhaps Eli had grown cynical, suspicious of anyone claiming to have a word from God. Maybe he had written the man off as a charlatan or a fraud. Perhaps someone was using this man and his message to sow discord in his family, get him to disown his sons.

This response, to us, would seem reasonable. I think its fair to say that the word of God is rare in our day and that visions are not widespread. Many folks have had experiences of awe and wonder, some kind of mystical religious experience they can’t explain. But actually hearing the voice of God, seeing a vision from God, is rather unusual. Particularly among Presbyterians, I think. If someone does claim to have experienced such a thing, their revelation is subject to harsh scrutiny. We are cynical and suspicious, having heard people who claim to speak God’s word speaking words of hatred and bigotry. We wonder about the mental health of someone claiming to have seen a vision from God more readily than we tend to believe them. We question the motives of those claiming to have a message from the Lord for us.

The boy Samuel heard the word of God loud and clear, but he didn’t know God and wasn’t expecting to hear a word from the Lord. So he could only assume it was Eli calling to him. Only after having his rest disturbed three times does Eli finally realize that it must be God calling to the boy. Maybe it is the rarity of God’s word that causes Eli’s delay in figuring out what is really going on. Or maybe he suspects all along that God is trying to speak to Samuel, but he is pretty sure he doesn’t want to hear what God has to say.

When Samuel finally learns that God is trying to speak to him, he starts listening. Samuel returns to his spot in Holy of Holies, where the ark of the covenant was held. At this time, the Israelites believed that the ark held the very presence of God. Perhaps this auditory awakening suddenly made Samuel aware of that presence, because the next time God calls to him, it’s not just with a voice. The text says that God “came and stood there.” Because Samuel was listening, waiting, expecting God to call, God showed up in a way that was more real and tangible than ever before.

Maybe its something about children, their lack of cynicism, their openness to the impossible, that makes them able to listen. The voice of God may sound like a teacher or a parent or a friend. But when a wise adult advises a child to listen, listen for God’s call on their life, that tends to be a transformative experience. Perhaps they don’t hear a voice or see a vision or experience God’s presence physically in the room with them. But many call stories have some origin in childhood, some deep listening and enthusiastic response.

Even in adulthood, I wonder if it isn’t true that when we’re listening, expecting God to speak to us, God’s presence in some way becomes more real and tangible.

But we learn early on not to expect God to speak, or at the very least not to listen. We learn to question that still, small voice and write it off as a figment of our imaginations.

And I wonder if perhaps that is because most of the time folks don’t want to hear what God is saying. If we look at the history of prophecy in Israel, prophets are often the bearers of bad news. They have to speak some hard truths. Pointing people back to the way of God typically involves pointing out the ways they are straying from God’s path. And if you’ve ever had to redirect a toddler who is wandering into trouble, you know that this doesn’t always go well and is exactly no fun.

So when children ask us those prophetic questions, we tell them to go lie down. We don’t want to hear them ask, “why don’t we give that lady with a sign some money?” or “why are people so mean to each other?”

One night at dinner, our son asked us, “People who buy guns – did they forget about God?” This was years before gun violence and mass murders had risen to its current crescendo, and it wasn’t a hotly debated topic in our home. It was just something he prophetically wondered. We were caught off-guard, and we didn’t want to talk about it with our six-year-old. But he had been listening hard. To God and to the world around him. And it just didn’t make sense to him.

As children grow, they realize more and more how the world is at odds with the word of God. Even those they love and respect the most – parents, teachers, mentors, friends – do things that are clearly not loving toward God and their neighbors. And so when God calls to them, they are faced with a difficult choice, the same choice Samuel had to wrestle with. Ignore the voice of God or speak some things that are hard to hear to people they love.

No one wants to confront a parent with a substance abuse problem. No one wants to expose a pastor’s misconduct. No one wants to rat out a co-worker who is stealing. No one wants to tell someone they care about that they are in trouble. They especially don’t want to tell them that God has it in for them.

And so most people keep silent. And, as the adage goes, that is all that is needed for evil to triumph. The silence of the prophets, young and old, in our culture, aids and abets all kinds of sin and evil.

God’s judgment on Eli and his family sounds incredibly harsh. That is not news I would be eager to deliver. But Eli’s reaction to Samuel’s prophesy is telling. "It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him." He doesn’t kill the messenger or question his authority to speak on behalf of God. He offers no defense at all.

Perhaps it is because he knows he has no good defense. He finally hears the truth of his wrongdoing and accepts the consequences. Or perhaps he is so hard of hearing that he dismisses God’s word, even as he acknowledges the veracity of it.

There is no way to sugar coat what happens next to Eli, and to Israel. The Israelites are attacked and defeated by their enemies, the Philistines. The ark of the covenant was captured, and thousands of Israelites were slaughtered, including the two sons of Eli. When this news was delivered to Eli, he fell over backward, and his neck was broken, and he died.

The story of Eli, with his dim eyesight and hard hearing, ends here. But the story of Samuel continues. He continues to prophesy in Israel, and “none of his words fall to the ground.” They land directly in the ears of those to whom he speaks the word of God. He is known to be trustworthy, not a false prophet or a con artist. And because of this, he is able to advise, guide and direct God’s people through some very tumultuous times. As Samuel serves as the last judge, the first prophet, and a trained priest in Israel, God’s people transition from the age of judges to the age of kings. They fight off the Philistines and reclaim the ark of the covenant.

Actually, the return of the ark is one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament, and I have to quickly tell it because it’s hilarious and it never comes up in the lectionary.

So, the Philistines capture the ark and take it back to their homeland. They put it in a temple with one of their gods, Dagon. And in the morning, their god has fallen over on his face. So they set him back up. Next morning, he’s fallen over again, and his hands, feet, and head have been cut off, leaving only his torso. And then the people begin to develop tumors. They decide to get rid of the ark because it has brought this plague upon their people. So they hitch a wagon to two cows. And they say, “if the cows go back to Israel, where the ark came from, then it is God who has caused these tumors, and we’ll be all set. If they turn another way, then it was just a coincidence, and we’ll go ahead and keep the ark.” The cows make a bee-line for Israel, and when it arrives in the first town, the people sacrifice the cows. And every time I read this story, all I can think is: those poor cows!

So that tells you something about the stories I love in the bible.

Anyway, back to Samuel. He goes on to anoint king Saul and David, and he judges the people and speaks God’s word to them his whole life. He also has the distinction of being the only ghost to appear in the Bible. That’s another great story – for another time.

In our own tumult and transition, we need more Samuels, more prophets who are listening hard and who are courageous enough to say things that are hard to hear. Our call may not sound like the voice of God. It might sound like the voice of our mentor, or friend, or teacher, or pastor. But I pray that we will all be listening. The things God is saying might make both of our ears tingle, and they might be hard to speak and to hear. But God is speaking, and those words will heal, and bring wholeness and life. Because in Jesus Christ, God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God’s Word died and rose for us. God’s Word is still speaking, is still with us, in the bread we break and the cup we bless. Let us listen and listen hard. Amen. 


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