Avoiding Absurd Living
A sermon by
1 Samuel 3:1-20
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SERMON: Avoiding Absurd Living
During his popular radio show on October 8, 2001, Rush Limbaugh announced, "I am, for all practical purposes, deaf, and it's happened in three months." It was a tragic story about a man with a terrible disability. Fortunately, Limbaugh has regained much of his hearing through the use of cochlear implants –– a device implanted inside the human skull and connected with tiny wires to a microphone. The implant allows a sort of hearing for the hearing-impaired. It is a kind of artificial ear that converts sound into impulses that the hearing nerves can understand. Evidently, these implants have been highly successful in Limbaugh's case, greatly exceeding his doctor’s expectations.
Some people trained in alternative medicine said this was a classic example of mental imbalances manifesting as a physical ailment. They said, "Of course he lost his hearing! He didn’t need it, for he doesn’t listen to anybody anyway. He already knows the truth, so why should he listen?" They further pointed out that Limbaugh lost complete hearing in his left ear, but retained a minimal amount of hearing in his right. "This makes perfect sense," they said, "because Limbaugh has never, ever listened to a single word spoken by those on the left, but will sometimes listen a bit to words spoken by those on the right." The cochlear implant gives the deaf ears to hear, but with it, can they listen? (1)
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Henri Nouwen states, "We live absurd lives." Then he talked about the meaning of that word "absurd." Surd, Nouwen says is from the Latin word for "deaf." When you look the word up in the dictionary you will find, "not to be heard, dull, deaf, insensible, laughably inconsistent with what is judged as true or reasonable." It is our inability to hear, to listen, that creates the conditions for an absurd life. Nouwen goes on: "A spiritual discipline is necessary in order to move slowly from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow his guidance." Absurd living is simply not hearing and not listening to God. We need to avoid absurd living. (2)
In today's text, hearing isn't Samuel's problem –– listening is. He can hear, but he can't listen. The boy hears and responds the best that he can, but he responds wrongly –– not because he hears wrongly, but because he doesn't really listen.
The call of the boy Samuel is one of the most beautiful stories in scripture. This miracle child of his aging parents was dedicated to the Lord and given to Eli the priest to live in the temple and be his helper.
One night when all was quiet and Samuel and Eli were lying in their beds, a voice called out his name, "Samuel." Samuel answered: "Here am I" and ran to see what Eli wanted.
"I didn't call," said Eli, "Lie down again."
A second time the voice called. It was the Lord. "Samuel," God called out. And Samuel again rose and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; for you called me."
But Eli said, "I didn't call; lie down again."
The Lord called a third time, "Samuel." And the boy arose and went again to Eli. "Here I am; for you called me."
Then Eli perceived that it was the Lord calling and said, "Go, lie down: and it shall be, if he calls you, that you shall say, 'Speak, Yahweh; for your servant hears.'"
And the Lord came and called, "Samuel, Samuel." And Samuel said, "Speak; for your servant hears."
This is not just a children's story. It is a story for all of us who are most in danger of losing their capacity to hear and respond to the word of the Lord.
Eli recommends seven simple words of prayer, "Speak, Yahweh, for your servant hears." It's a request that God help us to hear what he has to say –– hear his still, small voice among the many other competing voices in a noisy society. It's a conscious effort to tune out the distracting babble of billions of fellow beings, and tune in the divine bandwidth of Almighty God. It's a prayer that we will be able really to listen to the Lord, and determine together what he is calling his people to do and to be today.
Have you been listening for God's voice? Sometimes it comes in ways we least expect. This week one of my preacher friends shared the story of a time when he heard God in a totally unexpected way.
Eric had spent his adult life as a journalist. He was beginning to feel that there was more to life than he had known. He took a course at his church where they studied spiritual gifts. Near the end of the course, his pastor asked this question, “If you knew you could not fail, what would you do?” Eric’s answer was, “Well, I think I would preach.”
After the final session, his pastor pulled Eric aside and told him that a small country church was looking for a supply minister. Just that day, the area minister had asked that pastor if he knew anyone who was interested in preaching at Elkland Christian Church.
Eric said, “No, you don't understand. I think I’m supposed to preach 'someday.'"
He went home that night very confused and more than a little afraid. His oldest daughter Emily was about 10 years old. She picked up on his mood and asked what was wrong. He told her what had happened and they got out a state map to find Elkland. Emily said, “Dad, have you tried reading Psalm 91?” They got out her Bible and read it together.
In case you’re curious, Psalm 91 begins, "He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High... will say of Yahweh, 'He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust'." Towards the end it says, "He will call on me, and I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble. I will deliver him, and honor him. I will satisfy him with long life, and show him my salvation."
Those verses spoke to Eric. He asked Emily why she suggested that psalm and she said, “Oh, it was just on my mind.”
“Emily, you’re 10 years old. Psalm 91 wasn’t ‘just on your mind.’”
“Yes it was.” “No it wasn’t”
Finally, she said, "Well dad when we were at summer church camp a couple of weeks ago, the boys came over and tried to scare all of us girls in the middle of the night. Our cabin counselor read us Psalm 91. I got a card from her today and she wrote, "Remember Psalm 91. Her name is Judy, oh, and Dad, she's from Elkland." (3)
Eric has now been the pastor of Elkland Christian Church for almost five years. He heard the voice of God in his pastor, his daughter and the words of Scripture.
When we listen to God dramatic things happen. Walter Brueggemann observed that the story of Samuel's calling "is too often taken simply as an idyllic account of childlike faith. It is that, but it is much more than that, for the dream narrative is used to articulate a most disruptive, devastating assertion." (4)
Hearing and speaking the word of the Lord is not child's play. Samuel not only listened to God, but also how had to speak for God. The word that came to Samuel was a word of judgment against Eli and his household. The priesthood is about to be stripped away from Eli and his house forever with devastating consequences for his family.
Eli's sons have thoroughly disgraced the priesthood through their conduct. God was fed up with those sons and used Samuel to announce his judgment.
After the vision, Samuel goes back to bed rather than running to Eli with the bad news God has given him. He is afraid to speak. When morning breaks, it is Eli who calls Samuel to his room and commands him to speak the word that he has received from the Lord. Eli really wanted to hear God's message, no matter how bad it was.
How many people are there who really want to hear God's disturbing news? I'm afraid most people don't want to be challenged. They don't want God to disturb their set ways of thinking.
David Wood, Pastor of First Baptist Church, Gardiner, Maine, says, "In the course of my ministry, it is a rare aged person who pulls me aside and sticks a finger in my face and threatens me with the wrath of God if I fail to speak the truth that God has called me to speak. I have had plenty of folks on hand to remind me that I am entitled to my opinion but that it would be best if I kept those to myself or at least out of my sermons." (5)
Imagine how hard it was for little Samuel to tell old Eli the message of judgment from God. When we really listen to God, we may find life being shaken up. God's message is powerful.
William Willimon, chaplain at Duke University, says, "Some of you have heard my theory of church design: I think the reason why we pad our pews, bolt the furniture down to the floor, print up the service in a bulletin, then carefully, deliberately plod through the prescribed acts of worship is out of an inner fear. We tie everything down, we make church so predictable, so settled and fixed because, in our collective memories, we remember stories like this one. We know Bible stories of ordinary people who have heard their named called. We know that the temple, or this church can be a risky, dangerous place, what with the living God roaming about." (6)
In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard marvels at the nonchalance of most Christians. "On the whole," she writes, "I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely evoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense.... "' (7)
Martin Luther King loved to tell his story. He didn't want to be a national civil rights leader. He had gone into the ministry mostly because his father was a pastor and he always did what Daddy King wanted him to do. Martin wanted a quite life as a professor, possibly President of Morehouse College someday. Through an odd turn of events, as a young pastor he was thrust into the forefront of the Montgomery bus boycott. He came home late one night, tired, frightened. The phone rang. An angry voice on the other end said, "We're gonna get you Nigger!"
Martin Luther King stood in his kitchen, frozen in fear. He wanted to call Daddy King for reassurance and advice. But Daddy King wasn't there. Then he said it was like a voice. "Martin, you do what's right. You stand up for justice. You be my drum major for righteousness. I'll be with you."
He had heard his name called. He knew what God wanted for him. His life was forever changed and through his life, used so well by God, was the world changed. (8)
In the first verse of our Old Testament text we hear the words which describe our age as well:
"The word of Yahweh was precious in those days; there was no frequent vision."
Today's story from 1 Samuel is a promise and a warning. The promise is that though in times like ours the "word of God is rare," God is not forever silent. One night, when we are minding our own business, or one Sunday when we're in church just going through the motions, there is a voice, we hear our named called, and like little Samuel, our world changes.
2) Quoted in David J. Wood's sermon "Prophetic Acoustics" printed in Biblical Preaching Journal –Winter 2003, p. 8-9.
3) Kathy Donley posted on Preaching the Revised Lectionary listserv, 1/13/2003
4) Walter Brueggemann, "First and Second Samuel," Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990) 25.
5) Biblical Preaching Journal –Winter 2003, p. 8-9.
6) William Willimon, unpublished sermon, The Dangers of Going to Church, 1/19/1997.
7) Annie Dillard (1945-), "Teaching a Stone to Talk", Expedition to the Pole.
8) William Willimon, unpublished sermon, The Dangers of Going to Church, 1/19/1997.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.