Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
What would you do if you heard God speaking to you?
I thought a lot about this question this past week. As I sat in the silence of my office on Thursday afternoon, I wondered what it would be like to hear God speak to me with the same clarity as he did with the young child Samuel. As I pondered this, I heard a voice. I felt uneasy as I tried to figure out where the voice was coming from. I was alone in the office. No one was around. I thought perhaps my meditation upon our scripture readings led me to imagine things. Yet the voice persisted. With a bit of fear and trepidation, I got up from my desk and walked towards the church. I wasn’t sure what to expect. To be honest, I was a little concerned. As I made my way to the church, I glanced out the window of the parish office. I soon discovered that the voice was not the voice of God but rather Ian, our people’s warden, talking outside with his wife Liz. While relieved, I must confess as I was a little disappointed that it was just Ian.
All kidding aside, I did consider at some length my earlier question. What would you do if God spoke to you? What if I told you God does speak to you? Would you believe me?
Over the centuries countless women and men have longed to hear God’s voice. If there is any singular experience common to believers it is the perpetual yearning to hear God speak and to make clear his plan for us. Particularly so in times of trouble, distress, and anxiety. The Psalmist often echoes our pleas to God to show his face to us and to save us from all our tribulations. We hear in Psalm 80 the Psalmist’s supplication “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” (Ps. 80:1-3)
Like many of you, I’ve longed to hear the voice of God. Even as a child, roughly about the age of seven, I’d climb the hill behind my parents’ house in hope that I might hear the voice of God whispering in the trees or in the winds that blew through the valleys below. I recall once standing on the edge of the bluff, looking out over the Mississippi River valley below, and sensing the holy presence of God before me. Although I heard no voice, something spoke deep in my heart. So profound was the experience that I marked the place as holy by carving a cross into a nearby tree. Day after day, week after week, I’d climb that hill to that spot and wait for God to speak again. I yearned for God to show his presence to me, to speak to me as he did to our ancestors of old.
Yet they too longed to hear a response from God. Although not included in our first reading today, but ever so critical of an element to the story of Samuel, is the prayer of Samuel’s mother Hannah. We read in the first chapter of the First Book of Samuel of the great pain that pierced the heart of Hannah as she longed to have child but was unable to conceive. So profound was her grief and pain that she fell into a great sadness and depression. She repeatedly had gone before God in the Temple and pleaded with him to hear and answer her, but to her great dismay, she heard nothing. (1 Sam. 1:7-8) Although she continued to hear nothing, Hannah persisted and entered the house of God and appealed to God to hear her pain: “Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.” She pleaded with God, crying out “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant.” (1 Sam. 1:10-11) The scene is perhaps one of the most moving scenes in all of the Old Testament. The passion, the desire, the honesty of Hannah is so great that one can’t help but be moved her desire. Indeed, others were moved. Her husband, Elkanah, felt a great sadness for her and tenderly cared for her. Eli, the priest of the Temple, felt compassion for her, even after he mistook her whispering and demonstrative body language as a sign of a woman drunk on wine. Moved by Hannah’s testimony, Eli assured her God’s will would be done: “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” (1 Sam. 1:17)
If there is any patron saint of those who long for God’s response and healing, it is surely Hannah.
Eli gave voice to the tender compassion and love of God. Although he too was pained by the turmoil in his own family, Eli knew well God’s love for God’s people. He must’ve known well the ancient prayer of the Jewish people, the prayer we hear the Psalmist say today: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me… For it was you who formed by inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps. 139:1,13-14) The words of Psalm 139 are almost sensual; if you ever have some time, I encourage you to sit and to pray the words of the psalm over and over. The poet’s words speak of the tenderness of God for us. Our God is a God who knows our every thought and feeling, a God who surrounds us on our every side, and works within us as a weaver, shaping and forming us into his very image. Yet the Psalmist suppresses not his inability to see as God sees, but rather admits his vision is blurred by the darkness of night: “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night.” (Ps. 139:11) Yet the Psalmists persists in his belief that nothing can prevent God from seeing the light of day, as his ancestor Hannah believed so many years before: “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Ps. 139:11)
While our hearts may swell as we pray the words of Psalm 139, I’m sure we may also doubt inside whether or not God actually reaches out to us. We may identify less with Hannah and Eli, and more with young Nathanael in today’s gospel reading. Despite his friend Philip’s excitement and proclamation that they have been found by the promised one of Israel, Nathanael considers his friend a fool. “Can any good really come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) Even when Jesus, the incarnate Son of God comes into his midst, he doubts him. Clearly, he was not easily persuaded by the presence of Jesus. His disbelief and doubt only later transformed when Jesus’ reveals he knew of Nathanael long before. Had Nathanael forgotten the Psalmist’s words, so familiar to the Jewish people of his day? Had he not remembered the poet’s praise of God: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away”? (Ps. 139:2)
If only we could have the faith of Philip or the innocence of young Samuel. Young Samuel, Hannah’s beloved son, slept in the Temple before the Ark of the Lord, the very presence of God. Although he had yet not known God, God called out to him in the midst of the dark, silent night. Eli, whose vision had grown dim and whose heart was wounded by his sons’ rejection of God, struggled with Samuel’s repeated question “did you call me?” and waved him away. Only after the second time Samuel had shown himself to Eli did Eli understand that God was calling the young boy in the night. Finally, upon hearing his name called in the night does Samuel respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Sam. 3:10)
Although young Samuel heard the voice of God, his eyes were blinded by the darkness and he could not see the Lord standing in his midst. A telling detail in the story, one that is easily missed. Might it be a reminder that even if we do hear God, we might not even perceive God standing before us? Are we even able to perceive the good things that God is doing in our midst? In an ever-so-delightful way, God tells Samuel “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” (1 Sam. 3:11) Jesus echoes God’s promise to Nathanael, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (1 John 1:51) Perhaps we not only need to open our ears but our eyes as well?
If we are to hear God speak, we must enter into the great silence. All of the celebrated spiritual writers and masters of the Christian tradition have said as much. Do you wish to hear God and to see God’s face? Go into the silence. Even Jesus himself tell us as much: “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to Father who is in secret.” (Mt. 6:6) The great Spanish mystic St. Theresa of Avila, whom our Church continues to remember each year in our liturgical calendar, writes in her instruction on the spiritual life that “All one need do is go into solitude and look at God within oneself, and not turn away from so good a Guest but with great humility speak to Him as a father. Beseech Him as you would a father; tell him all about your trials; ask Him for a remedy against them.” Yet even she remains a realist, and reminds us that our prayers will likely not be immediately answered or perhaps in the ways we imagined:
If, however, the King makes no sign of listening or of seeing us, there is no need to stand inert, like a dolt, which the soul would resemble if it continued inactive. In this case its dryness would greatly increase, and the imagination would be made more restless than before by its very effort to think of nothing. Our Lord wishes us at such a time to offer Him our petitions and to place ourselves in His presence; He knows what is best for us.
Even Samual, the young boy who heard the voice of God as a child, would discover in his own life the frustration of God seemingly not answering his prayers. We enter into the silence not demanding an answer, but opening ourselves to what God may be doing in our midst. Our ears might just tingle as hear of the new things God is doing in the midst of us.
So will you enter the silence? Will you stand before the presence of God as our matriarch Hannah did so long ago? Will you rest in God’s presence like her son Samuel? If so, you might just hear God speaking to you in the night. Maybe not always, and perhaps not even right away. Someday you will. Trust me, I know. While I’ve enjoyed holy moments like the one on the hilltop so long ago, they have been just a few. But the moments I have felt and heard the presence of God have made the long nights of waiting and pleading for God to show God’s face worth it, for it was only when I set aside my expectations and my demands that I was able to hear God.
I close my meditation this morning with the words of Mother Teresa, a women who, as I’ve shared before, once wrote that she did not hear God for more than 20 years but remained ever faithful to the end. She once wrote about the silence we are called to enter into. Her words have remained with me ever since I first read them. She writes:
We too are called to withdraw at certain intervals into deeper silence and aloneness with God, together as a community as well as personally; to be alone with Him — not with our books, thoughts, and memories but completely stripped of everything — to dwell lovingly in His presence, silent, empty, expectant, and motionless. We cannot find God in noise or agitation.
In nature we find silence — the trees, flowers, and grass grow in silence. The stars, the moon, and the sun move in silence.
Silence of the heart is necessary so you can hear God everywhere — in the closing of a door, in the person who needs you, in the birds that sing, in the flowers, in the animals.
What is essential is not what we say but what God tells us and what He tells others through us. In silence He listens to us; in silence He speaks to our souls. In silence we are granted the privilege of listening to His voice.