Every year I preach once at church. I dust off my skills and put together a sermon on our Lenten series. This year our Lenten midweek services were themed from a book by John Ortburg called God is Closer than you Think, I had chapters 5 and 7 and my theme was listening for God. The reading was 1 Samuel 3:1-11 found below. I was also supposed to have an "experiential" element to the worship service which is why the video clip is built into the meditation. So here you go, since some of you wanted to see what it was I had to say.
The Lesson - 1 Samuel 3:1-11
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; 3the 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. 4Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’* and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and 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. 6The 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.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The 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. 9Therefore 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.’ 11Then 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.
The Meditation - Are you listening?
I’d like to begin our meditation today with an excerpt from a famous musical work by John Cage. Please listen to this portion of John Cage’s 4’33” arranged for full orchestra.(We began this video at 0:39 and ended around 3:15)
This video is no joke; 4’33” is a piece of music. John Cage wrote it in 1952 originally for piano. At the first performance a "tuxedoed performer came on stage, sat at a grand piano, opened the lid, occasionally turned some music pages but otherwise sat as quietly as possible for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, then rose, bowed and left." (Gutmann) And that was it.
This piece often earns the nickname the “silent” piece but that isn’t true. Peter Gutmann, a classical music critic, describes the music of the piece well. He writes:
While the performer makes as little sound as possible, Cage breaks traditional boundaries by shifting attention from the stage to the audience and even beyond the concert hall. You soon become aware of a huge amount of sound, ranging from the mundane to the profound, from the expected to the surprising, from the intimate to the cosmic –shifting in seats, riffling programs to see what in the world is going on, breathing, the air conditioning, a creaking door, passing traffic, an airplane, ringing in your ears, a recaptured memory. This is a deeply personal music, which each witness creates to his/her own reactions to life. Concerts and records standardize our responses, but no two people will ever hear 4'33" the same way. It's the ultimate sing-along: the audience (and the world) becomes the performer.
4’ 33” relies on the listener to attach value to the sounds heard in the silence of the performance. We hear this piece differently because we are all unique people. We come at it from different places and preferences. No one hears the performance the same way.
Likewise, we are all different when it comes to our experience of God. C.S. Lewis wrote:
Why else were individuals created but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently?...If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note.
We should take this as a compliment, that God is willing to tailor our experience of him. After all, most of us don’t experience the direct conversation that Samuel received in our reading today. Many times listening for God can involve some straining to hear. John Ortburg, author of “God is Closer than you Think,” the book on which our Lenten series is based, identifies seven different spiritual pathways through which people experience God. For example, Ortburg’s Intellectual pathway experiences God in books and words, while the Creation pathway experiences God best in nature. Others see God through service, worship, relationships, solitude, or activism.
When reading about these pathways, I was struck by the similarity between them and the multiple intelligences theory on which we base our Sunday School curriculum. The crux of both theories is the same: people are different and we come at learning (in the case of multiple intelligences) and our experience of God (in the case of Ortburg’s spiritual pathways) differently.
It is a gift that God is willing to reach us in a way that we may be prepared to receive His Word, however, that doesn’t mean it is an easy task to listen for God. In our reading today, Samuel, who was being brought up to be a leader of the church, failed to recognize God’s voice. Even his master, the prophet Eli, did not immediately recognize that God was speaking to Samuel. Samuel was called three times before his call was understood for what it was: the voice of God. If it takes Samuel that long to recognize God’s voice, how often to we fail to hear, or fail to understand the voice we are hearing? Even as we strive to listen for God we can fail to hear him.
But God is persistent. God comes to us in a way that we can experience; we simply must choose not to be passive participants. Listening is not a passive activity, it is an active one. Imagine a days worth of thoughts in your head. They are diverse and varied and never-ending. Surely these include worries and joys. Our thoughts may be about big problems or mundane realities.
Ortburg describes that every thought is an opportunity to be either God-breathed or God-avoidant. He writes that “what we say, do, hear or imagine makes our minds receptive or deaf toward the still small voice of God.” In time, as we take an active role in listening to the voice of God in our lives we can grow to hear him more frequently. By making your mind a dwelling place of God through our thoughts we can be prepared to truly hear God’s voice when we are called.
Perhaps you’ve already had an instant where God’s voice has guided you. Have you listened to the voice that opens your heart to the needs of another? Have you brought a meal to a friend who is suffering? Have you ever felt compelled to help in a small way, even if it seems like a tiny thing? Chances are that you were open to God’s voice in those times. God spoke, you listened, and you said yes to God’s nudge.
That is what it means to keep our thoughts God-breathed. If we keep listening for God, and we choose to say yes when we believe that God is speaking to us, then God’s voice becomes a little easier to hear. Think of John Cage’s piece, as you become accustomed to the silence of the “music” you hear more and more life about you. As you listen for God actively, God’s presence and voice become more apparent. Conversely of course, when we choose to ignore God, when we fail to listen, God’s voice can become even more distant.
Have you ever been around a baby on the cusp of learning to speak? My son [baby goat] is just starting to find his voice and there are constantly times when he surprises me. I can repeat something again and again with no reaction and without even a sign that he is paying attention, and suddenly one day he is able to make that same sound. My words sink in and he is listening and learning from them. With God we are like a small child learning to speak. We must listen, hear, understand and then act. The pathway is not an easy one, but God gives us all the help we need to succeed in it. We can be like a small child, or Samuel, or the prophets.
When we keep our thoughts God-breathed and are diligent in listening, we remain open to the voice of God. God comes to us on our own spiritual pathway. He tailors our own experience based on who we are and speaks in a way that we can hear him. God is persistent with us, he keeps talking to us. Give him the opportunity to speak, listen with your heart and your mind, and you may be surprised by the clarity with which you hear God’s voice.
John Cage’s piece emphasized the music that could be found in its seeming silence. But we know that it isn’t really silence, that there is music hidden and expressed within the piece. God’s voice is like that too. We may assume at first that God is silent with us, but by listening and being open to truly hearing God’s voice we come to realize there is more there than we originally heard.
God is closer than you think. God is calling your name. Are you listening?