January 17, 2021
Here’s how our relationship with technology works much of the time. You check your e-mail, and an e-mail leads you to one of your favorite online shopping sites, where you browse around for a while. You might even order something, which takes you back to your e-mail to check the confirmation of your order, and another e-mail leads you to a blogpost from someone you enjoy reading, which then leads you to Instagram to follow that writer, where you discover that your favorite musician is doing an Instagram live performance. That musician gives a shout out to an upcoming movie project, and you check Twitter to see if the director has tweeted about the movie. She hasn’t, but you see a tweet about the latest series on Netflix that everyone is talking about, so you end up binging the first four episodes, and as you’re exiting Netflix, you catch a breaking news story on the television, which sends you down a rabbit hole on the internet trying to figure out the details of the story. While you’re there, you’d better check your e-mail one more time to see if any of your colleagues have responded to your message. They haven’t, but in the meantime your phone pings with a text message from the family group text, and there’s a fun back and forth for several minutes.
You may not do all of those things – or even most of them – but what’s true for almost all of us is that we are drowning in information. There are voices, images, sounds, text, and data coming at us constantly. It’s becoming harder to know what sources we can trust. And as people of faith, it’s becoming harder to know how to listen for God in the midst of all of that noise and distraction.
There’s a striking statement at the beginning of today’s First Reading: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” It describes a time when people were not attuned to what God was saying to them. They did not pay attention to what God was revealing in the midst of their lives.
We meet Eli, an older priest and leader, whose vision has literally deteriorated – which is something of a metaphor here for Eli’s failed leadership. Eli has gone off the rails as a leader. A few years earlier a woman named Hannah had come to pray that she might have a child. She was praying faithfully, and Eli accused her of being drunk. Eli has also done little to control his sons, who (among other things) have stolen portions of the sacrifices that people brought for God and even worse, they have assaulted the women who served at the tent of meeting, the place where people gathered to worship. Because of Eli’s transgressions and those of his family, God has decided that it’s time for a change.
As it turns out, Hannah did have a child, and she named him Samuel. By the time of today’s reading, Samuel is being mentored by Eli, so Samuel is sleeping there in the meeting place of God. And God comes to Samuel, still just a boy, with this message: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”
One of the things I find so endearing about this story is how understandably confused Samuel is when God speaks to him. He naturally assumes it’s Eli calling to him in the middle of the night, and so Samuel dutifully runs to Eli, saying “Here I am!” Eli says “I didn’t say anything” and sends Samuel back to bed. After they repeat this scene a time or two, Eli finally realizes that God must be speaking to Samuel. In a rare moment of wisdom, Eli instructs Samuel to respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
God does not give Samuel an easy message. God tells Samuel that Eli’s time of leadership, Eli’s family’s time in power, is coming to an end. They will be punished for their years of wrongdoing. God entrusts a young boy with the responsibility of being a prophet. And that young boy says, “I’m listening.”
This story makes me wonder how well I am listening for God’s voice? How attuned am I to what God might be trying to show me or tell me?
It isn’t just the distractions that get in the way, although that’s a challenge. It can also be my own skepticism or resistance to hearing God. In today’s gospel, when Nathanael gets an invitation to follow Jesus, he dismisses it at first, saying “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
I suspect that’s about more than Nathanael’s cynicism. It’s probably mostly his fear, the daunting prospect of leaving his life behind to pursue this uncertain and risky path. But I love that his friend Philip says, simply, “Come and see.” Not “wait and come when you finally feel fully qualified to be a follower.” Not “come and engage in lengthy intellectual debates.” Just “come and see.” Come and witness what is happening. Come and experience what this person Jesus has to offer.
How might we practice paying attention to where God shows up in our lives? How might God be speaking to us, trying to get our attention? Will we dismiss it? Or will we, like young Samuel, say “Speak, for your servant is listening”?
This year during Advent I tried a little experiment. I wrote down one thing each day that I noticed – something beautiful, something striking, something that caught my attention. The lichen clinging to the maple tree in my front yard. The way people’s eyes change when they smile behind their masks. How the small needles on my dwarf white spruce pricked my hands. The slant of light across the snow. Early on I had to remind myself to be on the lookout for that day’s noticing. But over time it became more natural; it changed the way I was paying attention. And it often led to prayers of gratitude for the beauty or for the calm that came in the moments of noticing.
I’m going to try something similar for the rest of the Epiphany season. I’m going to name one place each day that God might be speaking to me. God’s voice might not come out loud in the middle of the night like it did for Samuel (although I don’t rule that out). Maybe it will come in a dream. Or in a conversation with another person. Or in something I am reading. Or in a song. Or in a text message from a friend. However God’s voice shows up, the important thing is to be expecting it.
How is it possible to see or hear where God might be showing up?
Because God sees us first. God sees Samuel trying to sleep and speaks to him. God sees Nathanael sitting under that fig tree even before he sends Philip to say “Come and see.” And God sees us. As our psalmist says to God, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me…You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all of my ways.”
God sees you – in all the places where you live and where you work and where you play and where you encounter situations and people through whom God might be speaking to you. Even with your mask on, God knows your face. God loves your face and loves what you bring to the world. God is ready to put you to work bringing life and love to others.
So, people of God, come and see what God is up to. Come and hear what God might be saying to you. Come and experience the goodness and grace that God gives you with every breath. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ