Epiphany 2: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

“Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Words from the Book of Samuel. Amen.

More years ago than I care to remember I was shown the Chinese Character for listening. We were told that it contains five symbols, Ear: what we use to listen (hear), King: pay attention as if the speaker were a king (obey), Ten and Eye: observant as if we have ten pairs of eyes (heed), One: listen with individual attention (attend to), and Heart: listen also with your heart (harken). Basically to give your undivided attention. This really struck a chord with me and I have found it to be a great tool in life.

Our youngest grandson, like many young children, appears to suffer from very selective hearing. The five minute warning for ‘tidy up time or time for bed’ are completely ignored, yet, ‘would you like an ice cream or shall we go to the park’ are met with an immediate response. It seems that listening and hearing are quite different in practice, and this was never more important than in my working life both at the hospital and now as a priest.

As a member of the clergy team I need to be clear and concise in recognising the problems that are brought to our attention. This involves what is called Active listening. The skill of Active listening intentionally focuses on who you are listening to, in order to understand what they are saying. As the listener, you should be able to repeat back in your own words what they have said and this doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with, but rather you understand, what it is they are saying.

In our Old Testament reading this morning we read the story of the boy Samuel who lived with the prophet Eli in the temple at Shiloh. Three times Samuel heard a voice calling out his name, “Samuel, Samuel,” as he lay sleeping in the temple precincts. Samuel was sure that Eli had called him. But Eli discerned finally that the voice was the Lord himself who wished to speak with Samuel. Eli told Samuel to answer, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”. From then on Samuel’s ears were attuned to the voice of God and he grew in his ability to discern and obey the word of the Lord.

Listening for the voice of God doesn’t come easily to most of us. We can hear his message in the readings from the Bible, in the teaching of our clergy, and in the words of our fellow pilgrims. The Lord also speaks to us when we quiet our hearts and incline our ears to hear his “still small voice”. But our ability to listen well can be easily crowded out by life. And if we are honest with ourselves, there are times when like children we don’t want to listen. We stop our ears or pretend we didn’t hear in the first place.

As we see in the Chinese character we don’t only listen with our ears, but with our hearts and minds. If our heart is not engaged or if our mind is closed or distracted, there will be little chance for real understanding to take place. Our Lord wants to open our ears and speak to us, but we have to allow him to teach us how to listen to his voice.

Hearing the Lord involves more than simply listening to his word. The Lord wants his word to also form and shape us into the kind of people who please him in the way we think, speak, and act.

The word obedience seems out of fashion today, but Scripture presents it as a key part of our relationship with God. The Hebrew word shama literally denotes "to hear, listen, and obey." Suggesting the Word in action.

The new disciple Philip, wanted to share his exciting news and for Nathaniel to meet Jesus. Nathaniel’s reply is a warning for us all. In a flash of prejudice he questions if anything good can come from Nazareth. Philip responded, “come and see”, and that is all God asks of us, be open “come and see, come and listen”.

We know from experience that hearing and obeying does not come naturally. We have to learn through teaching and by example how we grow in hearing and obeying the voice of the Father. We look to Jesus for our model.

When the Father sent him into the world, Jesus had to listen and obey, and to learn what his Father wanted him to say and do. Jesus understood that the prophecy of the suffering servant given to Isaiah applied directly to his mission as the one who would lay down his life as an atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world.

In Isaiah we read:

 “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught… Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward.”

When Jesus described to his disciples his relationship with his Father, he emphasized his attentive listening and obeying of his Father’s instructions. John writes in the gospel ‘Jesus said’, "When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him".

In the Revelation of John, he describes the company of heaven singing a new song, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and from every nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth”.

If we find it difficult to hear the Word, we do not need to lose hope. God himself will open our ears if we ask. Even when he seems distant and we are struggling, he is, in reality, very close.

“And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him". Therein lies the message for us this morning, on its own, it is not enough to listen, mark and inwardly digest the Word of God. We are commanded to do what is pleasing to him, and to go out in peace to love and serve the Lord, In the name of Christ. Amen.

The Rev'd Mo Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 17/01/2021