In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Eli the old priest of the Jerusalem temple said to the young Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if God calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” According to the Bible, the word of God is something to learn how to hear. Eli the priest doesn’t tell Samuel what God is saying. He teaches Samuel how to hear that voice for himself. That is a priestly task. As much as people like me are often all too ready to tell others what God is saying, that ancient priest, coaches Samuel in how to hear the word of God for himself. It is a skill to be acquired.
In our day, there is a near constant call to become more assertive, more self-confident and, above all, to speak up and tell your story. It seems like nearly everyone has a podcast, or twitter account loaded with tweets, a YouTube or TikTok videos, Facebook or Instagram page. We’re told that it takes courage to speak your truth and we have no shortage of pundits and influencers sharing their opinions and promoting their points of view. Compared to that admonition to speak, there is relatively little exhortation to listen. It is as if listening is just something too passive for us to appreciate. How would you even brag about your ability to listen, understand what you hear, and be changed by it? The result is a society with more and more shouting by more and more people who don’t feel heard.
Eli teaches the future great prophet Samuel, long before he ever made any great speeches, first of all, how to listen. In the Bible, seeing God is almost always something for the afterlife. As St. Paul explains, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). God in this life, according to the Bible, is perceived through a more indirect sense, God is heard more than seen. St. Paul, again, explains, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word” (Romans 10:17). Needless to say, the Bible ascribes far more importance to learning how to listen than we do in our current cultural moment.
Few things, however, are more important in your personal relationships than learning how to truly listen. I’ve been working on how to be a better listener for years, not just to God, but to other people, and to the uncanny way that God tends to speak to me through the voices of other people if I can hear it. Listening is not at all passive. It is the most active of engagements. To truly hear and understand what it is like not to be yourself, but to be someone else, to experience the world as other than who you are, is one of our most remarkable capacities. It is one of the most daring things you can do. Even people you live with and have long known can astonish you as you come to perceive a way of being in the world that is not your own. One with this its own wonders and hardships, blind spots and fresh insights, joys and burdens.
Understanding alone, though, is not listening. There is a too often overlooked further step. It is somehow with a facial expression, word, or emotional response that you communicate to the human being you are listening to that you understand. Listening to human beings involves not just hearing, but, instead, having a shared experience where someone feels heard.
This is a skill that is undervalued and most of us are not that good at it. If you are listening to me right now, you may be thinking that that sounds like a lot of work. It is, but think of it more like a spirituality, than just one more thing on your self-improvement list that you are never going to get around to. It is a wonderful thing to live your life in such a way that you are always listening to those around you and being changed by it for the better.
That is easier said than done. You have practice and learn it. That experience comes often in the most unexpected of places. In our Gospel reading today, when Nathaniel was told about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaniel exclaimed, “Nothing good can come out of Nazareth, can it?” (). There wasn’t anyone from Nazareth that Nathaniel believed was worth his attention, no one worth the work it takes to listen. His friend Philip calls to him “Come and see.” The future apostle found that what he was looking for was from the last place he would have expected it, Nazareth. Nathaniel learned to listen even there.
Take for example our frequent exercise of listening to sermons. The point of listening to a sermon is not to be able to repeat something I meant to say, but to hear from God what you need to hear right now. If your mind wanders a bit during a sermon (which it might be doing right now), it may not be a lapse of attention as much as it is evidence that your heart is reaching for what it needs right now. The voice you need to hear is not the voice of preachers. We’re Eli in this story. It is the divine words in your own heart that is what you come here to hear. I’ve frequently been complimented for saying something important and profound in a sermon that I never said, but the person heard anyway. That’s when they are getting it right. That is truly listening. God speaks the steady truth all the time, but it is only heard when you have learned what to listen for inwardly as the outer words present themselves. God redeems countless mediocre sermons in this way, just as God whispers deep truth into our ears amid the cacophony of human voices if we know how to listen for it.
Perhaps, surprisingly, this is one of the reasons we Christians have the Bible. People too easily assume that we have a Bible to tell us what to do rather than how to listen. It is through turning one’s attention to the Bible that God’s word is most often heard. That’s why we read it so much in church. It’s a precious opportunity for every one of us to hear what we need hear today. In fact, reading the Bible is more of a conversation than anything else. It invites us into a dialogue where there are multiple voices to attend to, including our own, and through this attentive listening the Bible teaches us what to listen for to hear Gods’ voice.
Take for example, the book of Psalms which is the only Biblical book that we read every week. The psalms are so unusual and special within the Bible because the voice we find there is God’s voice giving us the words to find our own voice. It is the human voice expressing in a 150 different poetic songs all the emotions of human life. It does this without judgment and with disarming honesty. In today’s psalm, the psalmist in prayer says to God, “LORD, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting places and are acquainted with all my ways” (Psalm 139:1-2). These words at first are not ours, but by truly hearing them, they become our own, as the words of another open up ever-new ways of being human in the world unavailable to us otherwise, apart from the kind of deep listening that transforms and renews us from within. To listen to the Psalmist, to really listen, is to feel yourself known, known from your “sitting down” to your “rising up,” known on all your “journeys” and “resting places.”
If you learn how to hear scripture in this way, you will find this healing process extended to you week after week in countless variations. By reading the Bible, and reflecting on it together, you would have learned with young Samuel what to listen for when listening for God’s voice. If you can do it here, you can do it other places and with other people. You’ll even hear it where you long ceased to expect it, in your own version of Nazareth.
Almighty God, amid all the shouting we are surrounded by, remind us to listen, help us to better at it with you and with one another, so that we can learn to know as well as we are known, and hear what we most need to hear when we need to hear it, until that day when hearing gives way to vision and we see you face to face. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet