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The Voice of the Lord

January 8, 2018

“The Voice of the Lord” 1 Samuel 3:1-4:1a and Mark 1:4-11 © 1.7.18 Ordinary 2B Baptismal Renewal/Ordination and Installation by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

What does the voice of the Lord God sound like? How do you imagine it? When I was growing up, in all the movies and TV shows, the Almighty often spoke in deep, resonant tones, never loud or strident, and usually with a King James English vocabulary or at least a British accent, calling to Adam and Eve in the Garden or to Moses from the burning bush. (“Moses, Moses, put the shoes from off thy feet, for the ground whereon thou standest is holy unto the Lord.”) And, of course, the voice was always a mature male one. As everybody knew, God was an old man with a beard.

The ancient poet had his own ideas. The voice of the Lord is like thunder; it’s stentorian, extremely loud. It rips forests apart and sends trees whirling. No one can fail to pay attention to or recognize the majestic and powerful sounds from the mouth of Yahweh.

Whatever the voice of the Lord sounds like, we would particularly expect a priest to be able to distinguish it from background noise and other sounds. He should be able to tell when God is speaking as surely as parents know the sound of their baby’s cry or dogs recognize their human companions’ greeting. A religious professional should also perceive when someone was praying. Why then did Eli the Israelite priest mistake as drunken babbling the prayers of a desperate woman named Hannah who came one day to the house of the Lord to plead with Yahweh to give her a son? How was it that his years of experience in pastoral care did not enable him to recognize her despair and pain? Why in the middle of the night years later was Eli not immediately aware that the Lord was speaking to the boy Samuel, who was the miracle baby Hannah had asked for?

Maybe when you haven’t prayed yourself for a long time, at least with any fervency, focus or feeling, you lose the ability to recognize the genuine article. Or when you haven’t heard the voice of God for what seems like eons, it takes a while to figure out who’s speaking to you. Back in the day before caller ID, we all had those phone calls in which someone, such as a distant relative, started speaking without identifying themselves, and we mentally scrambled for a name, a context, a face. We may even finally have said “Who is this?” Maybe it was like that for Eli with God.

Perhaps he was distracted by many other concerns, as we are so often. Goodness knows he had enough to worry about. His sons, for instance. They had followed in dad’s footsteps, the two of them, and gone to seminary, as we would say, then come back to their home town for ministry. But they were greedy and corrupt, demanding higher and higher salaries for less and less satisfactory work, and when they didn’t get what they wanted, they had their staff take it from the worshippers. They were predators; today they would have joined Hollywood moguls and actors and Washington and state politicians on an ever-growing list of men guilty of sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment. To his credit, Eli tried to put a stop to the wrongdoing, but nothing worked. Finally, a prophet came to him and told him God was fed up; those boys and Eli’s whole clan were about to fall under judgment.

When the voice of the Lord came in the night to Samuel, the message was repeated. Yahweh commanded the youngster to tell Eli, a grown man, his mentor, that Eli and his kind were history. Can you imagine? The first time you hear the voice of God, and he tells you to deliver bad news. No wonder Samuel hesitated, and Eli practically had to threaten him to drag the information from his lips. But Samuel’s vision, scary or not, marked the beginning of something new. God was once again speaking in Israel. It had been a long time since anyone could say that. In the word of judgment was ironically a promise of grace: “I am about to do something in Israel that will tingle the ears of everyone who hears it.” We would say the Lord was promising a spine-tingling action, something so awesome and stunning it would make everyone sit up and take notice. As the psalmist might say, all in the house of God would cry “glory!” The Lord was at work again, and he had a spokesman people could trust, namely, Samuel the prophet.

Over the next 1000 years or so, the voice of the Lord came to and spoke through more prophets; sages; priests; monarchs; and faithful, ordinary people. Then came the day when, with a violence like that imagined by the psalmist, the heavens were torn open and from the aperture came a dove, then a voice. It was the Lord, speaking to a young man who had just been baptized by a radical desert hermit. The words he heard commissioned, comforted, and claimed him. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” A new era began with Jesus as surely as it had with the call to Samuel in the night.

Samuel’s summons to service came in the midst of a time not unlike ours. It was an era of moral chaos. The last tragic sentence in the book of Judges tells us that at this time “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Brutality was more the norm than the exception; violence, especially against women, was commonplace and even accepted as normal and necessary. And when Jesus was baptized and affirmed, his call came in a day when people were searching for meaning, longing for the fulfillment of promises made by God long before. Plus, there was unrest everywhere, held in check only the military might of Rome.

All of this sounds familiar. We are a people divided along any line we can think of. There really is no consensus as to what is right and wrong or else what is right and wrong, true and false are oddly defined. We strain at a gnat and swallow a camel, paying attention to trivia but turning a blind eye to travesties of justice, morality, and the suffering of our neighbors. Some lament the situation; others exploit it. There are plenty who are hungry for meaning, but spiritual seekers increasingly turn away from the Church of any stripe, fed up with its hypocrisy, resistance to change, and failure to follow Jesus.

But if we can find in the stories today a diagnosis of our current malady, they also give clues about what we can do to be part of the solution instead of the problem. First, we’re reminded by the tale of Samuel that the generations can and should work together to discern the call of God. I’m not sure if there’s ever been a time in any society when there hasn’t been rivalry between and among generations, with one feeling ignored while another feels misunderstood and yet another just keeps quiet. But that’s not the pattern in this ancient story. It may have taken Eli a while to recognize that the Lord was on speaking terms with humanity again, but when the older man caught on, he helped the young boy know how to respond. The wisdom of the gray-bearded was imparted to the one who still had peach fuzz on his face. And when Eli heard the harsh news, he was an example of commitment and obedience. He took Samuel seriously as a messenger of God, though he was only a child.

The Church is always enriched when such conversations take place. Older and younger learn from each other, and take each other seriously as those who together seek to find God’s will, whether on a church council or in a congregation or across the broader scope of a denomination. Believers can demonstrate how the insulation and isolation of generations can be overcome by respect and listening and cooperation. We are at our best and are the most effective witnesses when we refuse to allow the world to shape us, and we move beyond the suspicion and distrust born of different experiences, dissimilar tastes in music and dress, and diverse viewpoints to show the world what harmony looks like. Small churches particularly can and do excel in intergenerational understanding and ministry, since in congregations like this one, everyone is family; we are all important and needed, from youngest to oldest.

So the generations can and should work together to discern God’s call. Next, we need to speak a clear, challenging, and exciting word from God. When the voice of the Lord spoke to Samuel, it promised that something was going to happen that would make anyone who heard it sit up and pay attention, even shock them. Unfortunately, the word was one of judgment, but the word from God could at another time be good news, and it was as the years went on. Especially when Jesus was born, there was good news of great joy.

Can we say and do something today that will engage the senses and fire the imaginations of those who are seeking meaning? The observations of theologian Douglas John Hall from a quarter century ago are still relevant. He commented in his challenging work Professing the Faith that there are a number of people in our time who are “newly awakened to the need to know the faith they profess, desire to profess, or at least cannot fully renounce” (22). These folk are not satisfied with what might be called “gospel lite” (spell out). If it were beer, the slogan would be “easy to swallow.” They want something more rigorous and thought-provoking than they are typically offered in the churches, but they’re not attracted either to the dogmatic intolerance of the far right or the “whatever” attitude of the far left. Here is a striking sentence from Hall: “The only faith that can speak to them is one that allows them the freedom to explore its claims without restrictions, and one that is profound enough to engage their deepest anxieties and give substance to whatever remains of their highest ideals” (23).

The voice of the Lord that brings such a word will be our voice. We are the body of Christ, which means we are his mouth in this world. When we want to know how to recognize the voice of the Lord, it has the same sound as our own, whatever that may be. Younger, older, male, female, singing, preaching, soothing, summoning, crying, shouting. God can and does speak through us.

But if the generations discern the voice of God together, and we are invited to be such a voice in a searching world, so also, and finally, does the voice of the Lord speak to each of us to reassure, claim, and comfort. If Jesus, the Son of God, needed such help as he began his ministry, how much more do we? And the wonderful thing is God gives it. You are my son, my daughter, he says to us. I love you. I’m pleased with you. I claim and know and name you. I call you to the tasks that need doing in church and world. When I speak, you will know it, there will be no doubt, because I give you my Spirit to dwell in you and interpret the things of God to you, to tune your ears and heart to hear my voice clearly and unmistakably.

As we ordain and install ruling elders this morning, we are reminded afresh of the call each of us has. As John takes vows, and Chuck reaffirms his, we’re invited to reflect on our own promises to God and the task to which he summons us. In a fearful and broken world, we’re privileged to tell the story that will bring hope again, that will lift the spirits of the downtrodden, and promise wholeness to the wounded. I’m drawn to the words of a favorite hymn: “I, the Lord of snow and rain, I have borne my people’s pain. I have wept for love of them, they turn away. I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone. I will speak my word to them. Whom shall I send?” (Daniel L. Schutte)

“Whom shall I send?” Let each and all of us say “Here am I; send me. Let your voice speak through me today.”

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