Jan 14: Those With Ears to Hear

Jan 14: Those With Ears to Hear

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Audio of Scripture reading and sermon only

Jan 14: Human Relations Sunday

Scripture: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (also 1 Samual 3:11-20)

a groundhog being held up by a man wearing a black top hat
Puxatony Phil

Who is this fury fellow? It’s Puxatony Phil, the star player of the holiday Groundhog Day. It’s he who lets us know if there’ll be six more week of winter or if spring is just around the corner. If he comes out of his burrow and sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter. But it’ll be an early spring if he doesn’t see his shadow.

Now, I’m guessing that very few of us, if any, put stock in old Phil’s prognostications. What a rodent tells us regarding the weather has no impact on the decisions we make! We recognize it for what it is: harmless fun. And, of course, the plot for a really good movie.

I’m pretty sure we don’t take the same approach to Puxatony Phil’s human counterparts. By and large, we’ve learned to heed the warnings of today’s meteorologists. When they tell us to dress for lots of snow or to stay off the roads unless we really have to go out, we generally listen to them because they know what they’re talking about. For example, this past Friday, after hearing the reports about the coming storm and extremely cold temperatures predicted for the weekend, did any of you say to yourself, “I don’t believe a word of it. If I need to travel anywhere outside of town, I see absolutely no reason to take any precautions just in case anything happens.”? I doubt it. In fact, I happen to know of multiple people who wisely opted out of their out-of-town travel plans because of the weather reports, specifically on account of the dangerously low temperatures made worse by the predicted high winds.

At various times in life, haven’t we all said, “I wish I’d listened.”? Who among us hasn’t at one time or another felt regret or remorse that we didn’t truly hear what someone was trying to tell us? There are proably lots of reasons this happens. Maybe it comes down to a classic case of denial. Or our unwillingness to deal with the reality of the situation. Maybe it’s too painful. Maybe it’s too difficult to accept that things aren’t the way we want them to be or the way we think they should be. Or maybe hearing the truth is too threatening to our own sense of well-being. Maybe there are times when we can’t hear the truth because for some inexplicable reason, the situation makes us feel vulnerable, and frightened, and even angry. Being in any of those places can make it terribly difficult to hear the truth of the matter, truly hear what’s being said.

Knowing how easy it is to minimize another person’s experience, especially if it doesn’t align with our own experience, during premarriage counseling one of the points I try to emphasize with couples is that a problem or issue of concern exists in the marriage if only one of them feels as such. That is, it doesn’t become a problem only when they both agree that it’s a problem. No, if one person has a concern, then there’s something that needs addressing, even if the second person doesn’t yet see it the same way. That’s why we spend quite a bit of time doing communication exercises which give them the tools to help increase their ability to truly hear what the other is saying.

Today’s reading from 1 Samuel is the first part of an important story about listening, hearing, and, I’d argue, the consequences of not truly hearing.

From a very early age, Samuel had been raised by the priest, Eli. Around the age of twelve, while he was in bed one night, God called out to Samuel.  He thought it was Eli calling to him. When Eli eventually figured out what was going on, he instructed Samuel how to respond should he hear the voice again, which he did. So, following Eli’s advice, Samuel responded to the voice, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”

What wasn’t included in today’s reading was the second half of this story, what God told Samuel who, in turn, shared the message with Eli. What God told Samuel that night was really a message for Eli, and it wasn’t good news for the old priest. In essence, God was informing Eli that the prophecy given to him many years earlier by “a man of God” was about to come to come to pass (see 1 Samuel 2:27-36).

Here’s what God told Samuel: “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household—every last bit of it! I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about—how his sons [who were themselves priests and abusing their power as such] were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. Because of that, I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering” (1 Samuel 3:11-14). Upon hearing this news, Eli simply responded, “He is the LORD. He will do as he pleases” (v. 18). The next chapter, chapter 4, describes how the prophecy was fulfilled, including Eli’s own death.

Now, I think it’s fair to ask if what the “man of God” said was going to happen to Eli’s family had to actually happen. Or was there a way out of the fulfillment of that particular prophecy? Aren’t there examples in the Old Testament of people heeding the warning/prophecy, resulting in God not bringing down the hammer as he’d threatened to do? Some might disagree with me, but a part of me thinks that there must have been an opportunity for reconciliation, but that it depended on how Eli and his sons would respond.

If we go back to chapter 2 and find out what brought about the prophecy in the first place, we can see that there were at least two failures to truly hear what was being said. The first was on the part of Eli’s two sons, when they refused to listen to their father’s reprimand for their sinful behavior. They were guilty of a high transgression against God and a transgression against people. And they were doing this in their role as priests, as God’s voice and representatives to the people. They were knowingly and intentionally abusing their priestly power and authority. When Eli confronted them and ordered them to stop, they turned a deaf ear and went right on doing what they wanted to do.

The second was on the part of Eli, when the man of God confronted him with the message, or possibly a warning, about how his sons would be killed and his ancestral line discontinued. Based on Eli’s unceasing passivity regarding to his sons’ well-known transgressions, one never gets sense that the prophet’s warning ever sank in for Eli. It’s like he simply lived in denial that it would ever happen. And when the prophecy was eventually confirmed through Samuel’s nighttime encounter, it was too late. He’d long passed the opportunity to make things right. All he could do was confess that God will do what God will do.

Though I haven’t stated the specific transgressions of the two sons, and the text doesn’t describe how their behavior affected the community at large, what I’ll say is that in all likelihood, their actions had serious negative ramifications on their community life. And more to the point, their unwillingness to hear and take to heart their father’s admonitions, and his unwillingness to hear and take to heart the warning of the prophet, no doubt exacerbated the effects of their actions on the community.

We often approach the idea of our sins and our sinfulness as though it’s mostly a personal issue.  That by and large it mostly effects ourselves. But the truth is, our sins always affect others. Our inability, or unwillingness, to hear a challenging truth and then respond accordingly, can be damaging to many, not just ourselves. It can tear down community.

Martin Luther King, Jr., standing at a podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Over 60 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and, to a crowd of over 250,000 people, painted a word picture of a day when not only there be an end to racism and hatred, but when true equality would be the reality. King dared to dream about a day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” Not just giving lip service to the idea or belief that we’re all created equal, but that our actions and behaviors and choices and decisions would reflect that truth–the truth that we truly are equal in every way imaginable, and that everything we say and do in our citizenry and in our government would validate that eternal, biblical, God-ordained truth.

In light of that, I have a question. How can anyone who has professed faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior who died for all persons align themselves with organizations and dogmas and policies and behaviors which stand in opposition to that truth? For example, when a political district map is redrawn to favor one party over the other and doing so has the proven effect of rendering the minorities who live in that district under-represented, I would argue that such an action fails to live out the truth that we’re all equal. And to support that kind of action on political grounds—because it’s good for your party of choice—is to fail to really hear of the injustice that’s taking place. If the actions we take have the effect of damaging the community on the basis of race, or religion, or any of the myriad of ways which mark our diversity as persons, shouldn’t we who claim to follow the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, open our ears to those cries of injustice? Even if doing so leaves us feeling uncomfortable, and maybe even a little threatened?

Here’s a fact: we’re human beings, and as human beings, we live in community. I believe there are right and wrong ways of living in community. There are good ways of living in community, and bad ways of living in community.  When we order our live such that people are built up and loved and supported simply because they’re a human being, that’s generally a good thing. We don’t have to agree with others politically or approve of their personal life-choices or beliefs, but we can still order our lives in a way that doesn’t have the effect of intentionally tearing them down or limiting their opportunities because we’re not in agreement with them. And I think that when we align ourselves with actions and beliefs which have the effect of tearing people down and damaging the beloved community because of those differences, there’s probably a good chance we’re closing our ears to what God’s telling us.

Let me close with two questions, one for us as a church and one for each of us individually. First, is there more we as a church could be doing right now to help bring King’s dream closer to a reality in Port Huron in 2024? And second, in what ways might I be turning a deaf ear to God’s voice which might be calling me to listen and truly hear a challenging truth about anything in my life that’s contributing to a breakdown of the blessed human community?

Let’s pray.

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