Spiritual Listening

by Mike Clymer
June 3, 2007

I want to talk about listening to God today, and one of the best “listening to God” stories in the Bible is the one about Samuel. For those unfamiliar with the story, Samuel was a young boy living with the high priest of Israel, a man named Eli. Samuel’s mother had prayed for many years for a son, and after he was born she dedicated him to the Lord’s service and sent him at a very young age to live and minister with Eli the priest. So one night while this young boy Samuel was lying down, the Bible says the Lord called Samuel–he called him by name, audibly. Samuel heard his name, looked around, saw no one, so he went and found Eli and said “Here I am, you called me.” Of course Eli answered, “No, I didn’t, go back and lie down.” But the Lord spoke to Samuel again, and again Samuel went to Eli, and again Eli sent him back. When it happened the third time, Eli realized something was up, so this time he told Samuel to go back, but if he heard the voice again, to answer, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Well, the Lord did call Samuel’s name again, and that is how he answered: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And then I can only imagine how his heart must have raced when God began by replying: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.”

The story of Samuel is something of a thriller–it captivates us in part because we imagine the thrill of hearing God call out our name. Many if not all of us here today have indeed heard God speak our name at some point–perhaps not out loud, although maybe some of us have heard the Lord speak to us aloud. The Bible begins the story of Samuel by saying that in those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions. This made God’s calling of Samuel even more startling. The story often makes me wonder about how God calls to us today, and how frequent the word of the Lord is these days. But what I’m primarily concerned with today is Samuel’s, and our, response when God calls us: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, when we Christians remember that we worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost–three in one. This is a theologically mysterious concept for many of us, and we Christians are accused by Muslims and others of being polytheistic–worshiping more than one God. But we understand the Trinity to represent three personifications, if you will, of the same Almighty Being. These are the three ways in which we know and experience God: As the Father who created all things and each of us, as the Son who came to earth as flesh to redeem that creation and each of us, and as the Holy Spirit who lives and breathes among us today. That third one, the Holy Spirit, is where I want to focus this sermon on listening. People know and learn about God the Father by observing and experiencing Creation–hiking at Pine Lake Camp, watching a baby grow and develop, farming the land. We know and learn about Jesus the Son from the accounts of his life and teachings in the New Testament. But the Holy Spirit is both more mysterious and more intimate to us. It moves in organic ways, it speaks to us here and now, both individually and corporately. In fact the Holy Spirit helps us understand and interpret what we learn and know about the other parts of the Trinity. I’m suggesting that careful listening to that Holy Spirit is our most intimate connection to God as Father and Son as well.

In our sermon text (John 14 and 16), Jesus is speaking to his disciples at a pivotal moment–his ministry on earth is ending, and he is about to face his death. Resurrection and ascension will follow of course, but Jesus is really saying good-bye to his disciples, trying to help them make sense of what has happened over the few years they have been with him, and to help them prepare for his departure. He comforts them by promising to send them the Holy Spirit, who will serve his disciples as Counselor, Teacher, Spirit of truth, and an ever-present Companion. The Holy Spirit will remind them (and us) of Jesus’ teachings and commands, convict us in regard to sin and righteousness, and will guide us into all truth. Numerous times in these verses Jesus makes the connection between God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Spirit that is to come. This Spirit not only completes the Trinity, but is clearly an important part of God’s grand plan of revelation and redemption–so important that Jesus says that he must go away so the Counselor can then be sent. “All that belongs to the Father is mine,” Jesus says, and “the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.”

I’ll say it again: Listening to the Holy Spirit is our most intimate connection to Jesus and God the Father. But then the question becomes, how carefully and attentively do we listen to the Spirit? Speaking for myself, the answer would have to be “Not very.” I’m afraid I’m too much like Samuel the first two or three times–or on second thought, maybe I’m more like Eli. Maybe I’m too naïve and unsuspecting to recognize the still small voice, or maybe I’m too experienced and world-wise to take it seriously. In any case, I know I’m too busy–and probably too consumed with my own cares–to really be a good listener.

When I think of the most “spiritual” people that I know (I won’t call any of you out in public, don’t worry), that’s what I recognize in them–that they are good listeners. I don’t just mean listening to other people, although most of them are good at that, too; I mean they seem to listen carefully to the Spirit that Jesus was talking about. They therefore seem grounded, rooted in “all that belongs to the Father.” They seem to have that intimate connection to their Creator and to their Redeemer because they have listened and learned from their Counselor.

When Jesus promised to send the Spirit, he didn’t promise that the Spirit would take away all our problems, or protect us from all suffering, or bring us success or prosperity. The comfort he offered was that our connection, our relationship with him would be continued, we could still walk with him, talk with him, learn from him. Being guided into all truth is not always pleasant; sometimes the truth is painful. (Go back and read the rest of what God told Samuel in that story, for example.) But the Spirit is there, even in our pain, to accompany us on our journey, even to teach us new lessons–if we will only listen.

I’ve heard Elaine and Christine both quote the author Ann Lamont, who says there are really only two kinds of prayers: “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” But the listening I’m talking about today is a third kind of prayer, where we aren’t the ones doing the talking, where we aren’t the ones bringing the agenda, where our posture is neither needy nor grateful, but simply attentive. “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” This is the posture I imagine the most “spiritual” people I know adopting–at least more frequently than I usually manage. When I do manage that posture, however, when I do manage to listen more carefully to the Spirit instead of dictating or pleading or controlling the agenda myself, I find myself closer to God and Jesus, and learning more of goodness there.

Please don’t get me wrong–our “Help me” prayers and our “Thank you” prayers are important, too. One year ago this week, I was preparing another sermon when I got a call from Melody, from the site of the multi-car accident on the interstate that involved several of our families in this church. Believe me, I prayed many “Help me” prayers on the way to the accident, and many, many “Thank you” prayers in the hours and days and weeks afterward. I know many of us did–in fact that was our church service a year ago today, instead of the sermon that I had been preparing. But I also have found that beyond the praying that I had to do, beyond the overwhelming relief and gratitude I felt, that there was some listening that I needed to do as well, that were things the Spirit could teach me from the experience. A key lesson for me has been to realize anew that everything I have, everything we have, is a gift. This past year, in particular, has been a gift for us as a family. Every new word learned, every preschool show-and-tell, each and every AR point, was a gift. Not just the highlights for our family, but even the lows–the frustrations and fights and disappointments–it was a gift to struggle through them together. It still is a gift. See, the relief and gratitude I felt were understandable and fine, but next year isn’t guaranteed, either–not even next month or next week, for that matter. And when I learn to appreciate each moment I have with Melody and my children as a gift–whether it’s a delightful moment or a maddening one–then I am going to be living more spiritually.

Let me close by recognizing that listening to the Spirit can be complicated by the fact that there are so many “unholy spirits” calling out to us as well. It can be confusing, for us as individuals and as communities of believers, to discern the Holy Spirit from the unholy ones. While the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, the unholy spirits–we could call them demons–are deceitful and deceptive and speak lies. Unholy spirits like addiction, materialism, and domination–to name a few–disguise themselves and make claims on the truth, but listening to them, of course, leaves us ultimately less spiritual, less connected to God. That’s why I like Galations 5:22 so much, because it gives us a list–called The Fruit of the Spirit–of the touchstones by which we can discern if the word we are hearing is from the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus or not. So I’ll close with this reminder from the apostle Paul: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May we all live more spiritual lives.

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