Listening to the Vision
Text: I Samuel 3:1-10
“The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” That feels like it could be the opening sentence to describe 2024, but actually, it is the opening sentence to the ancient story of Samuel and Eli. “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
The story of Eli and Samuel is an invitation to take a deep breath and to remember that the present and the future rests in listening for God’s vision, even in spiritually lean times when visions are all too rare.
This ancient tale is written by someone with a wry grin on his face. It reads like a sitcom with the young boy Samuel hearing the voice of God three times, but each time mistaking God’s voice for the call of elderly Temple priest, Eli. Like most of us, Eli is just trying to get a good night’s sleep. He is not entertained by being awakened by Samuel not once, not twice, but three times. Finally, the keeper of visions, Eli, recognizes that God has been speaking to Samuel all along. The problem is that no one has been listening.
In the story, we learn Eli is hardly a model father and that he has raised some pretty troubled sons, but in this particular situation, he is wise even beyond his years. He tells young Samuel: “Go, lie down; and if God calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, O God, for your servant is listening’.”
Many folks I know say that listening for God’s voice today and attending to God’s vision for the world are so much religious hocus pocus and the best you and I can do is to sharpen our pencils and craft our own vision. After we do so, we can build a well-reasoned and solid strategic plan with specific measurable results to validate if it is actually a good plan built on a solid vision of the future.
The author of I & II Samuel begs to differ. So do I. If there is anything for us to learn from this old story, it is that we are best served when we spend our time listening not only for the voice of God but listening for the vision of God by listening to the Word of God.
On this weekend that we honor the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we thank God for someone who listened hard for the voice of God and lived into the life-threatening non-violent vision given him by God. Yes, King spent considerable time listening to other civil rights workers but fundamentally, he listened to God and God’s Word to discern God’s vision for a way forward.
When it looked as though the Montgomery Bus Boycott would fail, King struggled to sleep one night after the phone rang with a death threat on the other end. He went to the kitchen and paced the floor, despairing if he was actually living into God’ s vision. He feared for his life and the life of his family. In real desperation, finally, he prayed his version of Samuel’s prayer, “Speak, O God, for your servant is listening.”
King writes, “At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before . . . It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever’. Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me an inner calm. Three nights later, our home was bombed. Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My experience with God had given me a new strength and trust” (Strength in Love, pp. 113-114). In the midst of unrestrained evil unleashed in words and acts of violence, King heard a vision from God about a non-violent way to live in the world.
I never had the privilege of knowing Dr. King, but I did have the privilege of knowing one of his followers and friends, the Rev. Dr. Syngman Rhee. Dr. Rhee was the first Asian American to serve as Moderator of our denomination. He was born in what is now North Korea. When war broke out in Korea in 1950, his father, a Presbyterian pastor, was arrested and eventually murdered by the communist regime. Syngman and his younger brother fled to the South. His mother and another brother died before Syngman could see them again and he next saw his sisters 28 years later.
Dr. Rhee had every reason to hold a hateful vision of the world, a vision of a world out to get him and one in which he must exact vengeance to avenge all the wrong he had experienced. Instead, more than anyone I have ever had the privilege to know personally, Dr. Rhee embodied the Christian vision of reconciliation. In fact, very soon after arriving in the U.S. for the first time, he met Dr. King and marched with him, convinced that non-violence was God’s vision for this world and the best Christian approach to achieve reconciliation and lasting peace.
Dr. Rhee returned numerous times to North Korea. He advised U.S. presidents, ambassadors, and other officials concerning this volatile and dangerous country and he suggested ways to make peace on the Korean peninsula. When the sirens of revenge were sounding loudly across our land in the days after 9/11, Dr. Rhee sounded like wise old Eli and invited us to listen for a better vision, the vision of God. He wrote, “I have seen so much of the ill consequences of hostility, enmity and war. We must find a way to reconciliation to create a new history. We can't be enslaved by the past.” These words were spoken by a man who had experienced the horrors of hatefulness and had lost many in his own family through the terror of violence.
Dr. Rhee was the tallest man of short stature that I have ever known and his passion for reunification and reconciliation in the church and in his native land never flagged. I am a better pastor and a better person because God put Syngman in my path to remind me that it is God’s vision that you and I are called to listen for and to live into.
What Dr. King and Dr. Rhee knew and young Samuel learned is that the people of God do not need one more strategic plan with ten points and 35 goals bound in a lovely book to gather dust and sit on a church shelf. The people of God need to listen for a vision, God’s vision, a vision that will guide each of our lives and our life together in the days ahead.
As Bruce and Rachel honor the voice of God that they have heard to serve as ruling elders on Cove’s Session, may their daily prayer be the prayer taught to Samuel by Eli: “Speak, O God, for your servants are listening.” And as you and I enter into a new year, may we turn to an old story to learn something new as we listen together for God’s vision.
I wonder, then, if this story offers an invitation not just to Rachel and Bruce today, but to each one of us every day before we climb out of bed and before we turn out the lights at night. I wonder if this story is an invitation for us to pray every day: “Speak, O God, for your servants are listening”?
Well, I have spoken long enough and you have been kind enough to listen to me. I invite us now to listen for the voice of God as we sit quietly and expectantly. Join me, then, as we pray the ancient prayer together: “Speak, O God, for your servants are listening.”