A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 17 January 2021- 11:00am
1 Samuel 3:1-20 and John 1:43-end
It’s often said that one of the things we’re worst at as individuals is listening. Listening- as opposed to just hearing- is an important skill; apart from enriching our relationships, it dramatically improves our ability to be effective in our work. We listen to obtain information, to understand; we listen for enjoyment, and we listen to learn. But we are not good at it. Depending on which study you look at, we remember on average a dismal 25-30 percent of what we hear. That means, when you talk to your friend or colleague for 10 minutes, they only really hear 2 ½- 3 minutes of the conversation. I’ll leave it to you to work out how much that means you take in of your online meetings, or how much you will remember of this sermon!
Our Old Testament lesson this morning- the calling of Samuel- highlights the difficulty of really listening. Asleep in the Temple, Samuel hears a voice that wakes him up; he mistakenly assumes it is the voice of his Master, the priest Eli, who tells him to stop bothering him and go back to sleep. This happens several times, until eventually Eli realises this is no ordinary human sound. No, this is nothing less than the voice of God. This nice children’s story has a powerful lesson for us: if Samuel is to grow up into spiritual maturity and hold prophetic office, he has to get the ability not just to hear but to listen. “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” he learns to say.
Why is it that usually we don’t really listen? Until recently, an obvious answer would have been that in our loud and fast-paced modern world, we’re all far too stressed out and busy. But even in these times of Covid and in the slower pace of lockdown, there are still lots of things to distract us: our lives are still full of the background noise of social media and multiple voices- including those trying to tell us things that aren’t true- all competing for our attention. And in such anxious times, the level of concentration required to listen- whether to God, or other people, or just to the voices that feel important for us to hear- feels harder to achieve than ever.
This isn’t helped by the fact that places we normally associate with this kind of deeper listening, and the peace we need to achieve it, such as beautiful buildings like this one are not, at the moment, physically accessible to us for prayer and worship- though of course we can participate online, and our participation as the virtual body of Christ is real. It’s wonderful that the Cathedral was yesterday used as a vaccination centre for the first time- a real sign of hope, and a sign that physical and spiritual healing, the scientific and the religious, don’t oppose each other but belong together and complement each other in a beautiful way- a powerful and imaginative example of how the Cathedral can reach out to help the local community in a use that we would never have anticipated a year ago, and to which historically I’m sure it’s never been put before.
Going back to Samuel’s time, however, the Temple and its ministry were being corrupted. There was little that was new or imaginative, outward looking, healing or hopeful. Eli’s sons were scoundrels with no regard for the Lord. They ran quite a lucrative criminal business ripping off the pilgrims to the Temple and Eli turned a blind eye to what they were up to. Visions were not widespread and inspiration was hard to find; the nation had lost its way spiritually. God’s voice wasn’t silent, but it had got crowded out by more worldly concerns. It had become lost in the layers of ritual ceremonial in the Temple that had accumulated over time.
Yet it was in the Temple- that place of silence, of presence and of interaction- and within a spiritual community, that the boy assistant Samuel developed his skills of listening to God. For all his flaws, Eli instructed Samuel and gave him the right words of response. Eli accepted God’s verdict, that Samuel was no longer a boy, but a powerful person whose words, though hard to hear, were being fulfilled. “It is the Lord;” Eli acknowledges, “let him do what seems good to him”. And so a new era begins, with Samuel’s position as a prophet now acclaimed.
Epiphany, the season of the Church’s year that we’re in now, challenges us to pay attention, to listen for the voice of God, even when that voice seems silent. With the pain and suffering we see around us currently, it’s hard to see where God is or how He fits into it all. Yet even in these grim times we still hear stories of transformation and new beginnings, of those who- out of choice, or being forced to- have decided to use the pandemic as a time to rethink their lives and find a new purpose. This week, I heard a story of a young woman who always grew up wanting to be a singer and dancer on cruise ships. She achieved her dream, travelling the world for 5 years, but, in March, that abruptly ended- a huge shock, with no furlough or hope of the job returning, causing her to have to go back home to live with her parents and rethink. After taking a few weeks to get her head around things, she decided to retrain as a teacher, something she’d also always wanted to do, but never thought she would consider so soon. She absolutely loved working on the cruise ships, but if they called her tomorrow, she said, she wouldn’t go back, because what she is doing now, working in the classroom with young children, is just so rewarding.
A new vision, a fresh perspective or changed way of looking at things, is still possible even with a start to the new year such as the one we’re experiencing now. Just as Samuel over time, and with Eli’s help, came to recognise the voice of hope, of God, so in the Gospel Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael to follow him, not by asking them to listen, but inviting them to “Come and see”. As an invitation, that sounds simple enough. But, just like the difference between hearing and listening, words like “look” and “see” in the Greek don’t just mean the obvious sense of observing something physically, as we in our 21st century visual culture would automatically think of it. As you might expect from John’s Gospel, it means a deeper kind of seeing, a seeing that is full of awe and respect. Looking and seeing are closely tied up with faith. To look or see is to believe, to know something with inner conviction and trust.
At the start of John’s Gospel, in the Prologue which we read a few weeks ago at Christmas, Jesus was described in amazing, elevated terms. God revealed himself in his Son, and this is Good News for all people. And now, later in the same chapter, the disciples are urged to grasp this awesome thing that they have seen, as they come to see and know who this Jesus really is and believe in Him for themselves.
“Come and See”. Jesus’ invitation prompts us, as it did those first, tentative disciples, to look beyond the surface. Perhaps God is calling us to make a change, even within the constraints we’re living under. Perhaps this crisis is inspiring us to be less complacent, to reach out to our local community in new ways, or to rethink our purpose in life. Epiphany is about looking and listening for signs of God’s revelation, God’s glory, contained within the everyday, “patches of God, light in the woods of our experience,” as C S Lewis put it. Christmas is about God coming to us. Epiphany invites us to discover him. Whether that’s through making a dramatic life change or simply in discovering him through one another, in the gift of human connection, love and relationship, God’s hope, his love and grace, are always there for us, even in times when his voice seems silent- all we can do is listen and look.