As we begin our ninth lap around the great stadium, surrounded by a great ‘cloud of witnesses’ who are cheering us on in the race of life, we see a boy of 12 or 13 come down from the stands to run with us. We think about the many stories in which God called young men and women to follow him…Joseph, David, Esther, Mary, none of whom we have met yet. “I am Samuel,” the boy says, and I have some wonderful news: “God still speaks to those who will listen!” As we look at Samuel, the prophet, forerunner, and anointer of Saul and David we can’t help but be encouraged. If God could speak to Samuel - a boy who did not know the Lord, in a world in which few people were seeking God in the first place (see 1 Samuel 3:1-4:1) - perhaps God can speak to ordinary people like us in our own skeptical age. As we run along the track with Samuel he shares with us how he learned to recognize, listen to, and obey God’s voice…
(i) Samuel learned to recognize God’s voice (3. 2-8) “When God spoke to me in the darkness of the early morning, I did not immediately recognize that voice as God’s voice” he tell us. I had to learn how God communicates. Samuel goes on to remind us that he had to learn that when God speaks he always does so through a physical medium that we can recognize and interpret with our five senses. Even an “audible voice” will have to register on our ear drums as a familiar sound if we are to make it out. When God spoke to Samuel, he thought at first that it was Eli who was calling him. Why? Because God was speaking to him in a way that he could understand; a way that was familiar and intelligible. Over time, Samuel learned to recognize various ways that God speaks, and so must we. Consider the following :
God speaks to us through the Bible (3.3). Samuel was known for carefully handling the word of God as a prophet. But long before receiving any prophetic word, Samuel had become familiar with God’s written word. He reminds us that every night he lay “down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was” (3:3); the Ark contained the tablets of stone on which the commandments of God were written, the guiding principles of Samuel’s life. Now the Ark was in the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies. Just outside that area was the Holy Place where the Lamp of God was located. We read in v. 3 that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” It was Samuel’s job to make sure that this lamp burned from evening until morning, as it symbolized God’s eternal presence ( Exodus 27:21). Therefore, this is a time signature meaning that God’s word to Samuel came very early in the morning. There is a lesson here…While I have benefited from God’s word at various times of day, I would have to agree that beginning the day with God’s word is a powerful discipline. Like tuning an instrument before a concert, it prepares us to enter our daily tasks, whether school or work …with a sense of God’s presence and clear direction.
God sometimes speaks to us through prophetic words, dreams, visions, and audible voices. We would be avoiding something very obvious in this account, if we did not acknowledge that God speaks to Samuel in an audible voice, repeating his name, “Samuel! Samuel!” (3:4). Does God speak to people this way today? The answer is that God can speak to us in any way that he chooses, because he is God…and what century it is makes no difference to Him.
In my own experience God does speak through verbal impressions, dreams, even visions. I’ll never forget a difficult time in my early twenty’s when I was feeling alone and discouraged. In that instant God gave me a vision of Jesus standing before me. I knew that he completely understood me, accepted me, and loved me as no one else could. Then God gave me the gift of healing tears. Over the years I have known men and women to whom God has given prophetic words…words that have built up and encouraged others to be faithful followers of Jesus. I have received and treasured such words myself…two which I have kept in my Bible for more than 35 years now!
But of course, anyone can claim to have had a vision or direct word from God. How can we know such words are valid? Here are 3 tests. (1) Is it faithful to Scripture? “All scripture is inspired by God (literally, God-breathed)…” - 2 Tim. 3: 14-17. And Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” - Matt. 5:17. (2) Is it faithful to Jesus? “The one who hears my words and does them will be like a man who built his house on rock.” - Matt. 7:24, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God….Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” - 1 John 4:1-3? (3) Is it loving? “If speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol” - 1 Cor. 13:1.
God speaks to us through other people (3.9). Notice that when Samuel heard a word from God, he thought at first that Eli was speaking to him. It was Eli who “perceived that the Lord was calling the boy” (8); and it was Eli who told Samuel what to do next so that he could receive God’s message to him (9). In my mind, Eli represents “the people of God” here, the church. In order for Samuel to understand that this was God’s voice, he needed the counsel, the direction, the experience of one who knew the Lord. There is wisdom here!
Lisa does not make snap decisions…and when I asked her to marry me, she needed time. But when she prayed, she experienced confirmation through several people who spontaneously approached her and offered to pray about our relationship; even people who did not know her well; there was a prophetic word from her friend Ginger; and a Sunday sermon at Lake Ave. that spoke to her directly about our relationship. God used the Body to encourage her and me! When we are seeking guidance, it is wise to seek confirmation about that from at least two other people who walk with the Lord…and are not personally involved in our situation. Prepare to be blessed, challenged, and encouraged.
God speaks to us through circumstances and common sense (1, 10-14). Samuel lived in a time in which there was a great need for spiritual leadership:“The word of the Lord was rare and there were no frequent visions” (3:1). The circumstance was itself part of God’s leading, and prepared Samuel to receive his call. When God gives us an assignment, it is usually the case that our God-given gifts and interests fit the particular need and situation of our time.
What are the circumstances of your life right now? What are the needs in in your family, in your workplace and community. Where do you see God at work? Where do you see a need for your particular gifts and abilities in the Body of Christ? As you look back on your life, how has God been at work? These circumstances are one of the ways that God calls us to join him. If I might reflect on this week's Senior High mission trip with YWAM San Francisco…I don’t know if anyone had a prophetic word about starting a YWAM base in San Francisco, but I’m pretty sure that the need itself was the call. It was compassionate common sense, tested against Scripture and the wisdom of the Body, that Jesus used to direct godly men and women to begin that mission. We don’t have to wait for a bolt of lightening and a voice from heaven to act! The need and the circumstances may be the call! Just as when Jesus looked at the multitudes, he was moved by compassion, by their tremendous needs, because they were like sheep without a shepherd!
(ii) Samuel learned to listen to God’s voice (3. 9-10) 1 Samuel 3 reminds us that the word of God was rare in those days. It was rare not because God did not want to speak, but because no one was listening! God will not compete for our attention. Samuel is instructed by Eli to say: “Speak Lord for your servant is listening”(3.9). All the preliminary events of that early morning were meant to prepare Samuel to tune in, and listen to God’s voice alone. How do we prepare to listen attentively to God’s voice?
You begin by finding a quiet place tomorrow morning, where you can sit in silence for a few moments, with a good study Bible, opened and placed on your lap. And then, before reading, you say these words: “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.” Ask yourself three basic questions: (1) What does the Scripture say/mean? (2) What is this Scripture calling me to do? (3) What is my prayer response to God? This attitude of receptivity/attention is what the Lord is looking for in his children. Secondly, when God speaks to you, write it down. Keep a journal. Why is this important? We read in 1 Samuel 7:12 that when God answered Samuel’s cry for help against the Philistines… “Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah,and named it Ebenezer (or Stone of Help) for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’” He did it to remind himself of what God had done. Writing down God’s word to you functions the same way. It helps you to remember, record, and retrieve God’s personal word to you! It works, believe me!
(iii) Samuel learned to obey God’s voice (3. 15 - 4.1) The key to hearing God’s word as Samuel did, is our willingness to obey it, regardless of what anyone else thinks. We read that after Samuel hears the word of the Lord, that “…Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli” (3:15). Why? Because it was a word of judgment against his sons, the priests who had defiled the offerings and slept with the young women who served at the entrance to the temple (1 Sam. 2: 11-26). We can see how a boy might be frightened to speak this word. But his act of obedience was the first step in an unending life of useful service to God.
One of the most respected Presbyterian ministers of the 20th century, and Chaplain of the US Senate, Peter Marshall, told of a foggy pitch-black Northum-berland night, as he was cutting across the moors of Scotland in an area where there was a deep, deserted limestone quarry. As he plodded blindly along, an urgent voice called out, “Peter!” He stopped, surprised, and answered, “Yes, who is it?” What do you want?” No response. Thinking he was mistaken, he took a few more steps. Then again, more urgently, “Peter!” He stopped again, and trying to see into the darkness, stumbled forward and fell to his knees. Putting down his hand to brace himself he found nothing there. As he felt around in a semicircle he realized he was at the brink of the quarry: one more step would have killed him. This is not only an unusual story of God speaking to one of his servants, it is a powerful reminder that when God speaks…we need to listen and obey him. Has God ever challenged you to step back from the dark pit of anger, unforgiveness, infidelity, judgmentalism; or called you to lead someone else away from such a cliff? He does so only because he loves you and wants to spare you needless pain.
Going where God sends us is a blessing! I had the honor yesterday of working at a Christian Legal Aid - Los Angeles Clinic. Some, like Clark Brown came to offer legal counsel, others came as interpreters, still others as spiritual counselors. It occurred to me that what each person was seeking really as they came to us, was guidance. One man lost his home: “The Lord is my rock and my salvation”, another was trying to clear his name and get into recovery: “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation”, and a third needed healing from his anxiety more than legal counsel: “the peace that passes all understanding”. In every case, we were able to share what God had given us to share… compassion, timely legal advice, a word of scripture or a prayer. This week our students will be doing the very same thing..as they serve the homeless in San Francisco…the Body of Christ, once again offering up their hands, feet, and voices in obedience to his call, and out of their love for him.
As Samuel finishes up his lap with us, he encourages us one more time: “God still speaks to those who listen!” (1) God speaks to us through his word, (2) God speaks to us in dreams, visions, or prophetic words that are consistent with the word of Christ. (3) God speaks to us through the church, and his people. (4) God speaks to us through the circumstances of our daily lives. He really does! So, can I pray for you today as you seek to listen to God’s voice and obey it?” “Dear God, we need to hear your voice now more than ever! Help my friends to be silent before you--that they may hear you; to rest in you--that you might work in them; to be open to you--that you might enter them; to be empty before you--that you might fill them. May they find that quiet place each day where they can be still and say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’ Amen.