1 Samuel 3:1–10

I want to talk with you this morning about the power of silence. First, a
story: there was a remote monastery deep in the woods where the monks
followed a rigid vow of silence. This vow could only be broken once a year
on Christmas, by one monk, and the monk was permitted to speak only one
sentence.

One Christmas, Brother Andrew had his turn to speak and said, “I
love the delightful mashed potatoes we have every year with the Christmas
roast beef!” Then he sat down. Silence ensued for 365 days.

The next Christmas, Brother Michael got his turn, and said, “I
think the mashed potatoes are lumpy and I truly despise them!” Once
again, silence ensued for 365 days.

The following Christmas, Brother Thomas stood up and said, “I am fed up
with this constant bickering!”

This is a humorous story, but the truth is it’s all the funnier to
us because our society cannot imagine being in a community where silence is
such an integral part of life together. Noise and activity have become the
symbols for us of the good life, and filling up empty time as much as
possible has become a gauge for how well one is doing. Cell phones, ipods,
MP3s, mini-TVs, radios and boom boxes have all helped to crowd out
opportunities for quiet time in our society. While technology has increased
our opportunities for busyness, the problem is that human beings have
decreased their capacity for being still. The Bible doesn’t say
“Get busy, so that you can know the Lord,” but rather in Psalm
46, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

The lack of God-knowledge is an age old problem. The first scripture
lesson read this morning from the third chapter of the first book of
Samuel, describes events that occurred in the Holy Land 1,100 years
before the birth of Christ. It was a time when the Lord God appeared to
have abandoned the people. The chapter begins with the statement that
God’s word was “rare” in those days, and
“visions were not widespread.” Does this mean that God
stopped speaking, or stopped trying to communicate with people? No, it
seems rather that the people at that time in their history had slowly
lost the ability to hear God speaking. Prophets, or God’s
spokesmen, were no longer being heard, and eventually stopped speaking.
The political leadership was ineffective. The religious leadership also
was corrupt, and those who should have known better—the sons of
the prophet Eli—do not share his devotion to the Lord, and they
are known for their wickedness and total lack of “regard for the
Lord.” Things had reached a low point in spiritual growth and
development.

And that brings us to the boy Samuel. Samuel was ministering to the
Lord under Eli’s guidance, who nurtured him into the faith. One
evening Samuel was “lying down in the temple of the Lord.”
which many interpret to mean that he was sleeping, but so often in the
Scriptures when God gives messages to people and it is reported that
they are “sleeping,” it could be that they were simply
“resting” as in a period of deep contemplative
prayer, or “resting in God.” In this “resting,”
Samuel hears a voice saying, “Samuel! Samuel!” Supposing
that his mentor was calling him, he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli replied, “I
did not call you; go lie down again.” Apparently, Samuel had heard
the voice correctly, but he did not know the source of the voice. Being
untrained in how to listen for the word of God, he could hear but he
could not understand. Twice more he heard the call “Samuel!
Samuel!” running each time to Eli. Finally the prophet perceived
that it was the Lord who was calling the boy, and he directed Samuel to
respond the next time with, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is
listening.”

The story tells us two things. First, it reminds us of the importance of
discernment. Hearing “voices” is always a tricky thing when it comes to
religion. History, sadly, provides us with too many examples of well-meaning
men and women, hungry for a profound spiritual experience and intimacy with
God, hearing messages that they honestly believe is from God, and who once
acting upon them, cause great damage to themselves, their families or to
society at large. The lesson we learn from Samuel is that when he heard a
voice calling out to him, he had the presence of mind to check out his
experience with a true guide, his elder mentor, the prophet Eli, who in his
experienced wisdom could guide young Samuel into how to interpret the words
he was hearing. So please, if you believe that you are hearing voices from
God, you must—must—go to a wise spiritual elder who can help you discern
if it is a word from the Lord, or your own psyche telling you things you
really want to hear and to do and needing divine backing for.

Second, the biblical witness today tells us something about how God comes
to us. Rarely is God revealed to us in dramatic ways, with thunderous
pronouncements that are clear and obvious to us and everybody around us.
Much more often, it is in the silence that God comes, in the stillness of
the night when we have let go of the cacophony of the world’s messages that
we have gotten so used to hearing during the course of the day. The
Scriptures contain many examples of this; in addition to the boy Samuel in
today’s lesson, it is in the silence of the cloud that God comes to Moses in
Exodus 24; it is in the “still small voice”—or as newer translations have
it—“the sound of sheer silence” that God comes to Elijah in I Kings 19; it
is in the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration in Mark 9 that the voice of
God says in effect to Jesus’ disciples to be quiet, for “This is my Son, my
Beloved; listen to him!” As the poetry of Psalm 62 puts it: “For God alone
my soul in silence waits; my hope is in him.”

So, what does this mean for you? Are you waiting for God this morning?
Are you longing for the pure loving and gracious presence that is waiting to
be born in you? Perhaps you have found yourself feeling like St. Augustine
when he prayed:

“O Lord my God, teach my heart where and how to seek You, where and how
to find You. You are everywhere, so You must be here. You have created and
re-created me, and all the good I have comes from You, and still I do not
know You…Let me seek You by desiring You, and desire You by seeking You.
Let me find You by loving You, and love You in finding You.”

If you are seeking God this morning, and you want to communicate with God
at the deepest level, then know that the vehicle for establishing this close
relationship with God is through silence. The basic language of God, as St.
John of the Cross said, is silence. “And it is only in silence that we hear
it.” The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today, any more
than it could be heard in the noisy and wicked age referred to in today’s
Old Testament lesson.

If you can build more silence into your daily living, you just might hear
God calling you to do extraordinary things with your life. It certainly was
true for one man whom we are honoring today and tomorrow. This holiday
weekend our nation remembers the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr. It is also a very special time for this Cathedral for it is from this
pulpit that Dr. King preached his last Sunday sermon. King’s public witness
and ministry is well-known to people all over the world, but not many know
the extent to which King relied on prayer to sustain him throughout his
public life. Late one night at a scary and dangerous time for him and his
family in the midst of the Montgomery bus boycott in January of 1956, Martin
felt that he was at the end of his rope. Having received yet another
threatening phone call promising a swift and violent end to his and his
family’s lives, King realized that he couldn’t take it any more, and that he
desperately wanted a way out of taking leadership in the growing movement
for civil rights. Stephen Oates, in his book Let the Trumpet Sound (p. 85)
writes of that fateful evening:

He sat there, his head still bowed in his hands, tears burning his eyes.
But then he felt something—a presence, a stirring in himself. And it
seemed that an inner voice was speaking to him with quiet assurance: “Martin
Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for
truth. And, lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world”…It was
the voice of Jesus telling him still to fight on. And “he promised never to
leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone…He promised never to
leave me, never to leave me alone…”

He raised his head. He felt stronger now. He could face the morrow.
Whatever happened, God in His wisdom meant it to be. King’s trembling
stopped, and he felt an inner calm he had never experienced before. He
realized that “I can stand up without fear. I can face anything.” And for
the first time God was profoundly real and personal to him…no longer some
“metaphysical category” he found philosophically satisfying. No, God was
very close to him now, a living God who could transform “the fatigue of
despair into the buoyancy of hope” and who would never, ever, leave him
alone.

God called and sustained Martin in what he had to do, and God is also
calling you. Let us now be silent for a minute before we continue with the
liturgy; I invite you in these moments of silence to open your heart and
mind to God, so that you may hear. Amen.

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home, you who are weary, come home
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home.
(Words and music by Will L. Thompson, 1847–1909)