Anyone who’s read the Old Testament knows that God frequently spoke directly to his people. He talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3); he personally warned Noah of the flood that was coming and provided instructions to build an ark (Genesis 6); he spoke to Abraham on multiple occasions, calling him out of idolatry and sending him to a new land (Genesis 12), testing his faith (Genesis 22), confirming his covenant (Genesis 15); and he called Moses to lead Israel from a burning bush (Exodus 3); and here, in the account before us, the Lord not only spoke but even stood before Samuel in the middle of the night. And the natural question that many people ask is: why doesn’t God do that anymore today? Does God have laryngitis? Are we doing something wrong? Do we need more flashing lights and pumping bass and emotional praise music and, certainly, more inspiring, visionary preaching to get God to loosen up? Ironically, it was agent Dana Scully on the TV show The X-Files, who suggested that maybe God is speaking but no one is listening.  If we believe that in the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2), then we realize that only half of agent Scully’s suggestion is up for debate: God is speaking. The question is: are we listening?
Since technology has given us more ways to communicate than ever before, there are very few excuses for us to be “out of touch.” More often, if we don’t hear what someone is saying it’s because we don’t want to hear it. It’s called selective hearing. Whether it’s ignoring emails, screening phone calls and texts, or simply putting headphones in and cutting ourselves off from the world – we all practice selective hearing, even when we know we shouldn’t. And it’s not a new phenomenon – Israel, in Samuel’s time, had a severe case of it. It wasn’t that God wasn’t speaking; they still had the Law given to Moses and the promises given to Abraham, but neither those tasked with preaching it nor those tasked with listening were doing their job. The problem started with Eli and his sons, Hophni and Phineas, the priests of the LORD (1 Samuel 1:3). Instead of preaching and teaching God’s Word to the people of Israel – as they were called to do – his sons used their office to fatten their own bellies and satisfy their own fleshly desires. For example: God had instructed his priests to receive their portion of the sacrificial offerings only after it had been offered to the Lord (Leviticus 7:29-36; 1 Samuel 2:12-17) – but Eli’s sons robbed the people by demanding their portion first, sometimes by threat of force. They were also notorious for sleeping with the women who served at the tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:22). Worst of all, they refused to listen to anyone who tried to correct their sinful ways – they refused to repent (1 Samuel 2:25).
What do you do when you’re trying to talk to someone and you can tell they’re not listening? The Packer’s preseason has started, how many times will you try to get the attention of a diehard fan during a game before you give up? Parents, what do you do after the 9th and 10th times you’ve told your child to clean up their toys? Often, when we know someone is not listening, we react by refusing to speak. And that’s how God decided to treat Israel – they had stopped listening, so he stopped speaking. That’s what it means when it says in those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions. God was giving Israel the silent treatment. God wanted to speak to his people, to lead them, discipline them, forgive them, comfort them but because they refused to listen God refused to speak. It was the worst judgment possible.
Do we have a listening problem? Do we deserve the silent treatment from God? The numbers tell a sobering story. At Risen Savior we have 143 baptized and 103 communicant, adult members. And yet, our June and July average worship attendance was 82 and Bible class was 17. In terms of percentage, only 57% of the people God claimed as his own in Baptism and only 16% of those who swore at their confirmation that they would endure all things, even death rather than fall away from [God’s Word] were regularly hearing God’s Word. How long would you be able to keep your job, your marriage, your family if you only listened 50% of the time? If you owned a business, what would you do with an employee that only shows up half of the time? Phew, I’m a 50-percenter, I’m safe from the accusations of the Law today. Really? Consider that God says do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says (James 1:22). Do we ever worry (Matthew 5:25-34) or lie (Colossians 3:9) or place our trust in earthly leaders (Psalm 146:3), even when God says not to? Do we fail to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17), to love others as ourselves (Luke 10:27), to give God’s Word a central place in our homes (Deuteronomy 11:18-21)? Does God ever speak and we ignore what he has to say? Do we have a problem with selective listening or, just as dangerous, selective obedience?
Why? Why is the one thing needful often the first thing that gets cut from our schedules? Well, we’re busy, right? Busyness is easily the #1 excuse for not hearing, not meditating, not taking time to study God’s Word. But busyness is just a cover for the real reasons. Reasons like pride. Pride that wants to say “Listen up, Lord, I’m speaking” rather than “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” “Listen up, Lord, here’s how I want the course of my life to go, here’s how I want my marriage to be, here’s the dream college, job, home, career, salary, gift or blessing I want – and if you don’t give me what I want, then I’m going to kick you to the curb.” Or maybe it’s anger, the presumption that we are hurting and God doesn’t care. “God, where were you when my brother died, my daughter got into a car accident? Where were you when I was alone or depressed or panicked?” Or maybe our problem is just sheer laziness. Bibles, devotional books, sermon videos – and more – are all easily accessible, but we’re just too lazy to make use of them. In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis tells the story of a senior demon named Screwtape who writes letters to his demonic nephew named Wormwood – who’s just getting started in the family business of tempting humans. Screwtape gives him all kinds of sage advice about how to hasten mankind’s damnation. In one letter he writes “It’s funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”  If the devil can snatch God’s Word out of our hearts and minds (Luke 8:5), then he doesn’t need to fill them with all kinds of other voices, he’s already succeeded in stealing the “one thing needed” from us. Then Israel in the days of Samuel is a cautionary tale: we deserve for God to give us the silent treatment, too. Now and eternally.
And yet, even though we deserve the silent treatment, God, in his grace, continues to speak. He hasn’t taken his Word from our homes, from our church, from our country – in fact, just the opposite, he speaks to us in more places and ways than ever before. God is infinitely more patient with our deafness than we are with one another. Have you ever felt the burden of your sin, the guilt of your disobedience and not found your Savior standing here, offering you his body and blood, telling you to go in peace, your sins are forgiven. Have you ever desired guidance or peace or comfort and not had access to a Bible? Have you ever come here on Sunday morning and found the parking lot empty and the doors locked? In spite of our selective listening and in spite of our disobedience God continues to speak to us, for only one reason: grace. Grace that is rooted in Jesus.
Because Jesus, our substitute, never practiced selective listening, he never ignored his Father’s will or decided that he knew better. Jesus not only made hearing his Father’s Word his highest priority (Luke 2:41-52), he obeyed every word, perfectly. When His Father decided that the only way to save the human race was for the Son of God to become man, Jesus left his throne in heaven and took the very nature of a servant (Philippians 2:7). When His Father told him the salvation of sinners is only possible if he assumed the guilt of the sins of the world, Jesus sweated blood, Jesus begged for his Father to find another way, but he listened and obeyed (Luke 22:39-46). When God’s plan meant an illegal trial, mockery, and torture, Jesus endured it all in silence (Mark 14:61). And, when the Father’s wrath over our sin demanded that Jesus be nailed to a tree, suffer the depths of hell and give up his life, Jesus went, without complaint, like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). And, in his grace, God credits Jesus’ perfect listening skills and obedience to our account. He forgives our deafness and remembers our disobedience no more – all because Jesus endured the cold shoulder of God in our place (Matthew 27:46).
For Jesus’ sake, God still speaks to us. He speaks to us day after day, year after year, so that even stubborn, selective listeners like us get the message. And when he speaks, he gets results. We see that in the case of Samuel. The fourth time the LORD called to him, he finally listened. And he kept listening even though the message God had for him was unpleasant and even though what God was calling him to do wasn’t easy. God was calling Samuel to announce his judgment and punishment on his mentor and friend, Eli, and his sons for their deafness and disobedience (1 Samuel 3:11-18). Without question, it would have been easier for Samuel to just roll over and stay in bed. Humanly speaking, it might have seemed prudent for Samuel to change or modify God’s message to avoid offending and angering Eli. But through his Word God gave Samuel faith to not only listen but to boldly obey.
God continues to do that for us, too. He gives us the wisdom to understand that in a noisy world, there’s only one voice we really need to hear (Luke 10:42). He gives us the gift of the Spirit, so that we not only hear his Word, but believe it (Romans 10:17). He guides our lives with his Word like a light shining on our path (Psalm 119:105). And, like with Samuel, he transforms people like us – who were all-too-often hard of hearing – into his representatives, who boldly obey and boldly proclaim his Word. No, he doesn’t call each of us into the public ministry like he did with Samuel. And God often doesn’t tell us what we want to hear; that’s he going to make us rich or cause all our dreams to come true or heal all our sicknesses here and now – you will search the Bible in vain for promises like that. But he does call each of us to carry out our callings. We are husbands whom God has called to love your wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25) or wives whom God has called to submit to your husbands as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22). We are children whom God has called to obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right (Ephesians 6:1) and parents whom God calls to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). We are citizens and neighbors and employers and employees – all callings that have come from God. Those are all high, hard callings, how can we possibly carry them out? Listen to what the Lord promises: I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ezekiel 36:26-27). God’s Word has the power to do what none of the other voices in the world can do: he transforms us so that we not only want to listen, but we are emboldened to obey. It might not always make sense. It won’t always be popular. It will never be politically correct. But it is God’s Word – the only voice we can trust in this noisy world.
In the book of James, the Lord says: my dear brothers, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:19) The Greek philosopher Epictetus made the common sense observation: we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. Both theology and biology tell us that we should listen more than we speak – good advice in every area of life, but especially when God is speaking. Listen to the Word through which God gives you the humility to listen and the boldness to obey his calling. Above all, thank God that for Jesus’ sake he’s still speaking to us. Amen.