Learning to hear God

It was the noon-hour rush on a steamy July day and two men were pushing their way through the crowds in New York City's Times Square. They practically shouted at each other as they tried to hear above the din. One man was a native New Yorker; the other was a Native American from Oklahoma.

The Indian stopped suddenly and said to his friend, "Listen! Do you hear the cricket?"

His friend was incredulous. "Are you kidding?" he laughed. "How could anyone hear a cricket in this bedlam? You just think you heard it."

The Indian didn't argue. He just said, "Come over here and look." He walked over to a planter that was holding a large shrub, and pointed at the dead leaves in the bottom. To his amazement, the New Yorker saw a cricket.

"You must have an extraordinary pair of ears," he exclaimed.

"No better than yours. It just depends on what you are listening for. Watch this."

The Indian reached into his pocket and pulled out a few nickels and dimes. Then he dropped them on the sidewalk. People all around stopped in their tracks and turned to look where the sound came from.

"See what I mean?" he said. It all depends on for what you are listening.

How does one learn to hear God speak? This morning’s reading from the book of 1 Samuel offers four key insights on that subject.[1]

First, as my opening story amply illustrates, one must have a desire to hear God speak. The boy Samuel was born to Hannah, a woman filled with a desire to please God.[2] Samuel was the child for whom she had long yearned and that she had promised to dedicate to God if her desire to be a mother was fulfilled.[3]

Today I hear many saying that they would like to hear God speak. Yet I witness few who actually invest much time and energy in the project. Actions, not words, best measure desire. The aspiring athlete devotes countless hours to training. The young musician virtually lives in a practice room. The one who finds fulfillment in working with computers can lose track of time when at a keyboard. We almost instinctively understand the importance of a desire so strong that it pushes us to persevere until successful. Do you have that same degree of spiritual motivation?

Second, desire to hear God must give birth to silence. The psalmist wrote, "Be still, and know that I am God!”[4] Samuel slept in the temple of the Lord where the ark of the Lord – the physical symbol of God's presence[5] – was kept.[6]

Unlike Samuel we cannot live in close proximity to such a powerful symbol. However, some Christians, especially from the Orthodox tradition, find the use of icons helpful in centering and quieting themselves. Other Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, find that praying in the presence of the consecrated host, which they believe embodies Christ's presence, helpful in the same manner. You may find that art, spiritual music, nature, meditatively reading Scripture or some other technique helps to quiet your mind and spirit so that you can hear God speak. Technique is the incarnation of desire. Find a technique helpful to you and stick with it. God is speaking. All you have to do is learn to listen.

Third, the variety of techniques for learning silence, learning to truly listen, makes it important that one has a spiritual guide. The young boy Samuel’s parents sent him to live with Eli.[7] Three times Samuel heard God speak but thought that it was Eli. On the third occasion that this happened, Eli finally realized that God was speaking to the boy Samuel.[8] Now you may think Eli spiritually dense for not having recognized what was happening sooner. But who knows how many more times God would have had to speak before Samuel realized on his own that it was the Lord speaking. Part of the value of religious education – Sunday school, Bible study, etc. – is helping us learn to hear God speak.

One day, Dwight Morrow and his wife, the parents of Anne Lindbergh, were in Rugby, England. After wandering through the streets, they realized that they had lost their way. At this moment, an incident occurred that entered into Morrow's philosophy and became a guiding principle in his life. He stopped a little Rugby lad of about 12 years. "Could you tell us the way to the station?" he asked.

"Well," the boy answered, "You turn to the right there by the grocer's shop and then take the second street to the left. That will bring you to a place where four streets meet. And then, sir, you had better inquire again."[9]

Developing our ability to hear God is an iterative, lifelong learning process. Consultation with a spiritually mature individual or a chaplain can help you find a technique that suits your personality and spirituality.

Fourth and finally, listening for God to speak can be dangerous. In this morning’s reading God speaks with what Samuel considers to be a human voice. The text also describes God standing in the temple with Samuel.[10] Philosophers and theologians label the practice of using human imagery to describe God as anthropomorphism. We know that God is both infinite and spirit and cannot be accurately portrayed using finite, human terms. Our choices are either abstract nouns such as God for which no tangible referent exists or concrete nouns associated with finite objects such as humans or nature. John Wesley once said, “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from Him. They may be from nature. They may be from the Devil.”[11] Wesley was absolutely correct: haste in ascribing things to God often leads to error.

Several safeguards exist by which we can test what we think is God speaking to us. Is the word we receive consistent with the God revealed through Scripture? Is the word that we receive consistent with the God who has a human face, the one who for love’s sake was crucified and then triumphed over evil? Is the word we receive confirmed by those who know and love both us and God best?

Listening to God is also dangerous because very often we find ourselves opposed to contemporary culture. Samuel was usually at odd with Israel’s kings; John the Baptist and Jesus were at odds with the Jewish and Roman elites; and Martin Luther King, whom we commemorate tomorrow, powerfully opposed the dominant culture of racism and economic exploitation. Today, it appears if some of those clearly unchristian forces are resurgent as we hear racism spoken from the White House, laws passed that increase rather than diminish economic inequality, and the challenge of scientific reductionism to the very possibility of God’s existence. In short, your presence here this morning is evidence of countercultural behavior.

May we like Samuel desire, listen and learn that when God speaks we too respond, Speak, for your servant listens.[12] Amen.

Sermon preached the Second Sunday after Epiphany / 14 January 2018

Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] 1 Samuel 3:1-20.
[2] 1 Samuel 1:16.
[3] 1 Samuel 1:11, 21, 24-26.
[4] Psalm 46:10.
[5] “Ark,” The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Henry Snyder Gehman (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), p. 62.
[6] 1 Samuel 3:3.
[7] 1 Samuel 1:24; 3:10.
[8] 1 Samuel 3:2-9.
[10] 1 Samuel 3:10.
[11] J.K. Johnston, John Wesley Why Christians Sin, Discovery House, 1992, p. 102. http://www.christianglobe.com/Illustrations/theDetails.asp?whichOne=w&whichFile=will_of_God.
[12] 1 Samuel 3:10.


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