Listening to the Lord's Call

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, February 1, 1998


1 Samuel 3 The Lord calls Samuel

The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The 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. Then the Lord called Samuel.Samuel answered, "Here I am." And he ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."

But Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." So he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, "Samuel!" And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."

"My son," Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down."

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord. The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

The Lord called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

And the Lord said to Samuel: "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family--from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family for ever because of the sin he knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore, I swore to the house of Eli, 'The guilt of Eli's house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.'"

Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, but Eli called him and said, "Samuel, my son."

Samuel answered, "Here I am."

"What was it he said to you?" Eli asked. "Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you." So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, "He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes."

The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. And Samuel's word came to all Israel.

John 1:43-51 Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, "Follow me."

Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote--Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."

"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked.

"Come and see," said Philip.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false."

"How do you know me?" Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you."

Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel."

Jesus said, "You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than that." He then added, "I tell you the truth, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

Apocalypse Revealed #87 Hearing means listening and obeying

"Hearing" means both understanding and obeying, since we pay attention to someone so that we can understand them and do what they say. It is clear from everyday language that "hearing" means both understanding and obeying, since we talk about "hearing" someone and we also talk about "listening to" someone. When we say we "hear" someone, it means that we understand them; but we say that we are "listening to" them when we do what they say.


The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening." (1 Samuel 3:10)

Sometimes it takes a few tries to get through to a person.

I must admit that I have often been one of the people that requires several attempts. Heidi (my daughter) reminded me of this the other day when she came into my study with a small bundle of those personalized pencils that were a regular Christmas present for the kids in the Woofenden family. Some of the pencils, of course, said "Lee Woofenden." But others were stamped, in those neat, gold-embossed letters, with one of my family's favorite nicknames for me as I was growing up: "Phineas K. Fogbound."

It was a well-deserved nickname. While eating dinner with my family, it was not unusual for me to suddenly catch a phrase that piqued my curiosity, and ask what that was all about--only to find that it had been the subject of conversation for the last ten minutes. More than once I was brought to the here and now by a voice piercing through to my consciousness from some vast distance, saying "Earth to Lee! Earth to Lee! Come in, please!"

So I have a certain appreciation for the story about the Lord calling Samuel when Samuel was a young boy. I know the feeling of suddenly hearing a voice and wondering where that came from. Samuel--who lived at the Temple in Shiloh under the direction of the high priest Eli--thought that it was Eli who was calling to him. Three times he went to Eli to find out why he had called. Only on the third time did Eli realize that it was the Lord who was calling to Samuel. In effect, the Lord was calling, "God to Samuel! God to Samuel! Come in, please!"

Samuel did tune in to the message that God was trying to get through over the vast distance between the perfection of God and the low, corrupted state of human society in Samuel's day. The words of the Lord were rare in those days. There were not many visions. Why were the words of the Lord rare, and visions scarce? Few people were listening for those words, or watching for those visions. Even Eli's own sons (who were, ironically, named Hophni and Phinehas), one of whom was supposed to succeed him as high priest, were corrupt, and abused their positions as priests of the Lord. This was the cause for the message of doom on the house of Eli that was the Lord's first communication through Samuel.

Samuel was not corrupt. He was a dutiful boy, devoted to the tasks of the Lord's house. Yet even with Samuel, it took the Lord three tries to get through. I suspect we can all relate to this. Most of us aren't awful, corrupt people like Hophni and Phinehas. For the most part, we're ordinary, decent folk. We do our job. We try not to step on people's toes too much. We lend a hand here and there when we see the need.

Yet even though we mostly are ordinary, decent folk, as with Samuel it sometimes takes the Lord several tries to get through to us. We have our set patterns, our ways of doing things, our habits of long standing. We go about our business, and if something comes along that doesn't fit into our regular pattern, we are likely to pass right on by without noticing it. Or maybe we'll stumble into it and say, "Oof! What was that?" and hurry on our way. It often takes several go-rounds in the school of hard knocks before a message from God finally gets through our thick skulls!

All too often, listening for messages from the Lord is not part of our regular pattern. And if it isn't, then tuning our ears to hear what the Lord has to say may take some practice. This is only natural. Every skill requires practice, and listening for the Lord's call is a skill that can be developed.

Fortunately, we have some help in developing that skill. Most of us are not fortunate enough to hear the living voice of the Lord calling to us as Samuel did. Still, the Lord is not silent. For the Lord has given us his Word--the Bible--as a living voice that can speak to us if we tune ourselves in to the spirit of its message.

This is symbolized in today's story. In the Bible, prophets and priests represent the Word of the Lord, and spiritual teaching and guidance that we get from God's Word. Samuel did not immediately recognize that it was the Lord speaking to him. He had to go to Eli three times in order to find where that voice was coming from, and to get instruction as to how to respond so the Lord could give him the message. In the same way, when our conscience speaks to us about something we are involved in, or when we get some sudden intuition and don't know where it came from, we may need to return several times to the Bible, or to church or Sunday School, or simply to meditation and prayer with God, in order to understand the meaning of these "voices" that are trying to get through to us--trying to get through with a message that is vitally important for us to hear.

The messages the Lord is trying to get through to us may not be a matter of physical life and death as they turned out to be with Eli's family. But the Lord's messages are always matters of spiritual life and death. And sometimes those messages are gloomier than we want to hear. Samuel did not want to tell Eli what the Lord had said to him. He knew how upsetting it would be for Eli. We, also, prefer not to let the Lord's messages upset our lives. But even though Eli had not been able to control his sons, as for himself, he was attentive and obedient to the Lord. It is to his credit that after insisting on hearing what the Lord had said to Samuel, Eli did not get angry or hold it against Samuel; he simply accepted the Lord's message, and the Lord's right to deliver such a message.

Would we be able to accept a message from God as readily as Eli did, even if it meant the end of our life as we know it, and the beginning of a whole different kind of life? Are we willing to accept the message that the Lord gives us every day--that we need to stop engaging in this or that wrong way of feeling, thinking, or acting? Are we willing to let these messages come through, and take the action--make the change--that the Lord is asking of us?

Even if we are ordinary, decent folk, each one of us has rough edges in our personality that need to be smoothed out. Each one of us has places where we don't do what we know is right--or don't stop doing what we know is wrong. Each one of us has stubborn bad habits that we have not yet tackled. Each one of us has ways that we unthinkingly hurt the people we come in contact with. Each one of us needs to tune in to the messages that the Lord is trying to get through to us every day.

Our reading for today shows us how we can do this.

First of all, when Samuel heard the voice, he didn't simply ignore it. This is the first step! The voice of the Lord is not rare because the Lord doesn't try to speak to us; it is rare because most people, most of the time, aren't listening for it! So the very first step in listening for the Lord's call is, simply, to listen for it. When we hear our conscience speaking, we may not be able to act on what it is saying right away. But if we can simply hear what that voice of God within us is saying, and not push it out of our minds, we have taken the first step in listening to the Lord's call.

Next, we need to start taking some sort of action. Samuel did not know that it was the Lord calling. In the same way, we may not know whether this prompting inside us is genuine or not. We may need to learn more about it. Why would the Lord tell me this? Is there really anything wrong with the way I'm doing things right now? If so, how can I go about changing it? What steps do I need to take to make a change . . . and make the change stick? As with Samuel, it may take several tries to "kick the habit" that the Lord is calling us to give up, or to take the new step in our emotional or interpersonal lives that the Lord is urging us toward. But as long as we are taking some steps to learn more about the issue that the Lord is presenting to us, we are on our way to hearing and obeying the Lord's call.

Finally, when we have fully tuned in to what the Lord is telling us, and have grasped the whole message--no matter how difficult it may be for us--we need to respond to it in the way Eli did: without anger or blame, but with a simple acceptance that yes, this is the Lord speaking; the Lord's message applies to me, and I must abide by it.

As the story continues beyond what we read this morning, Eli's family line does come to an end, and the spirit of the Lord passes over to Samuel, who leads the Israelites into the next phase of their national and spiritual life. Just so, in order to truly listen to and act upon the Lord's call, we must be ready to allow the old, flawed self that the Lord is speaking against to fade away and die, so that a new, stronger, more spiritual self can take its place.

We must be willing to let our old habits die--as hard in coming as that death may be. We must be willing to let our old, faulty and hurtful ways of relating to others fade away to nothing, so that a new, more respectful and considerate self can arise in us.

Yes, listening to the Lord's call involves the full range of meaning in that vital word, "to listen." To truly listen, we must progress from hearing and understanding what the Lord is telling us, right through to putting that message into practice in our lives. Amen.


Painting entitled "Silhouettes" is ©Tom Sierak 
and used with his permission by Moon And Back Graphics to construct this set

 Music is Memories
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer