Speak, Lord, Your Servant is Listening

The Rev. Anne Grizzle

Epiphany – we are in the season of Epiphany.  Have you ever had an Epiphany?  An Aha, awakening, light showing, God appearing moment?  The little boy Samuel in our Old Testament lesson had one, while he was trying to get some sleep in the temple.  Nathaniel, the Galilean man without guile, had an Epiphany when a stranger spoke to him in a way that revealed he actually knew his very core being.  My grandson Forest had one last Saturday when for the first time this baptized six year old decided on his own to take the body and blood of Jesus at my ordination.  My husband had an Epiphany when he was watching Wonder Woman several months ago when Wonder Woman looked at an accuser of many who had done wrong and said, “They are all that you say, but they are more.  I choose love.”   Father William Wilson, founder of Amistad Mission in Bolivia, had an Epiphany when he saw a little poor Quechua woman sitting on the roadside in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and realized how deeply beloved of God she was, and each of us are. 

An epiphany, meaning manifestation from its Greek root word, can happen anywhere to anyone.  In this liturgical season which is sandwiched between the better known seasons of Christmas, and  Lent moving to Easter, three major manifestations are particularly remembered.  A star appeared  in the far east to strangers of the Jewish faith of Jesus and led them to find a babe hailed Son of God.  When he was in a river being baptized by his cousin John, Jesus had the Holy Spirit show up in the form of a dove and voice from heaven.   A wedding feast became the place of  Jesus’s first miracle, turning water into wine. 

While we cannot create epiphanies in our own lives, there is a stance that makes it more likely to happen.  Many epiphanies are less about an external miracle than a change in our eyesight or ear hearing or heart attitude. So for those of us who are saying, “I’d like to have one of those happen to me,” we can adopt the stance that Samuel learned from his old mentor Eli.  In our Old Testament lesson today, Samuel, the miracle child Hannah prayed for, is already serving God as a young boy. He even sleeps in the temple where the ark of God is.  God speaks Samuel’s name, “Samuel, Samuel” but the boy assumes the voice to be that of Eli. But when he checks with Eli, Eli says he has not called and sends him back to bed. Three times Samuel and Eli play this out, and only on the third time does Eli realize the Lord is calling the boy. So he instructs Samuel to respond, “”Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  This is the stance and prayer we too can make, whether in church at the altar of God or driving a car or watching a movie or walking down the street: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

I must admit there is something about our Samuel lesson today that brings up something that annoys me: when someone calls me, particularly on the phone, and does not identify themselves.  They say,  “Hello, Anne,” and I say, “hello.”  Then not recognizing their voice I am left guessing who it is who thinks I should recognize their voice, hoping they will give a clue before I make a fool of myself.  Finally I might just guess and say, “Oh, dear Uncle John, how are you, so good to hear your voice” only to have them reply, “No this is your neighbor Ed wanting you to know your lights on your car are left on.” The Lord knows us all together and is a considerate God so why no identification.  Why did the Lord not say, “Samuel, this is the Lord calling.  Sit up and pay attention. I have something to say.”

I think it is because our Lord wants us to become so familiar with His voice that we recognize it.  Like Jesus wants us to know his voice as well as sheep know their good shepherd.  Like the very few people whose voices I know with just our name spoken.  Like Bishop Mano for me, whom those of you who were at my ordination heard preach and know has a distinctive British combined with Pakistani accent.  Or my husband, who might call me by a pet name, “Monkey?” or now ”Reverend Sweetie Pie?” that no one else uses.  Or my identical twin sister who occasionally when she called and started talking, I thought it was me. These are the voices of the ones we know so well that we respond as soon as they call our name.  Learning to recognize the voice of the Lord and being willing to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” is the work of the faith life. 

How do we recognize the voice of God speaking in our own lives.  Some of us might assume, as Samuel had, that God really doesn’t speak often so why bother to learn the tone of his voice. However we who live after Jesus, after Pentecost, who have read the book of Acts cannot so easily follow that path.  Some of us might figure if God wants to speak to us, he can knock us off our horse like he did the Apostle Paul.  But those to whom God most frequently speaks are those whose hearts are listening, like a young woman who would say to a scary angel, “be it done unto me according to thy word”  or a boy already serving in the temple or disciples gathered together for worship like we are here today. We who seek God can learn to spiritually listen just like a piano student does ear training – to train the ear to hear particular notes and rhythms.  Or a bird watcher who intentionally goes out to learn the colors and voices of the birds.  I can identify maybe 5 bird songs but Claire Mellinger came to our Bellfry and on one walk identified 35!

Today we learn from Eli a first essential lesson, to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening!”  A great place to start doing that is when we enter church to worship.  We can be physically present but not alert, or distracted by many thoughts and eager to get to our lunch or plans for the afternoon.  I can be so concerned about whether I will say things right and remember everything as a priest that I forget my main purpose, as is yours, in this time together is to be totally present to God in worship.  Then we may hear a word that speaks more loudly to our hearts or notice light from one of the Trinity windows that the Holy Spirit is illuminating for us today. If every time leave this sanctuary we take one word or idea that God has dropped into your mind or heart to ponder for the rest of the week, it has been a great service – even if the sermon is lousy.

But church is not the only place God speaks.  Even more personal can be the speaking and listening of our own individual devotional time. We are simply more likely to hear God if we are trying to hear.  It can be simple, like using prayers for individuals and families in the prayer book or Our Daily Bread devotional or a Bible reading plan for inner spiritual growth.   As we learn from Samuel, be sure to  begin by saying,  “Speak Lord for you servant is listening.”   Or as Paul commended us to balance last Sunday in his sermon, we can hear God as we seek to serve.  As we volunteer for noon lunch or folding bulletins or go see a sick neighbor, or as I go to the Boys Home as chaplain, let’s remember before we set out to look up and say,  “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Finally a wonderful part of Epiphany is our expecting God to appear in unexpected places – fantastic places but more often ordinary places.  A star in the sky, a visit to a river, a wedding of a friend, a wait in the grocery line,  a drive in the car.  God’s part is to speak.  Our part is to listen.  Sometimes we are surprised by a sudden Epiphany gift, like the bald eagle gliding down the creek as I was driving to Christmas eve service, or the call from an old friend right when we are in a moment of doubt.  But just as great can be ears that have been trained for every day.  Ears that have heard the good news that the great Epiphany of God coming down has already happened.  And that Emmanuel Jesus promised He was be with us always.  As we become Epiphany people, we might live with the wonder of realizing every breath is a gift.  When we train our spiritual ears to hear, as Jesus was always commending, every voice that calls our name can be treated as a beloved child of God, whether best friend or telemarketer (I admit that is for the well advanced in spiritual life).   Every birdsong can be a word of our Creator calling out love.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem reminds us of this, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”  If we learn from our old mentor Eli this morning to pray, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” we might be surprised by some great epiphanies but more important we might experience an epiphany of the heart.