"This Is No Time To Sleep"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 1/16/2000

John 1:43-51; I Samuel 3:1-10


     This morning we are going to explore the way God guides, connects or communicates with us. If we were reared by parents who taught us how to pray, we may remember many of our childhood experiences where we spoke to God around mealtime or bedtime. Of course, we are not referring to "Now I lay me down to sleep . . ." or "God is great and God is good . . ." Parents who actively encourage their children to talk to God, move beyond such "cute" word formulas. Prayer is what we do when we share our thoughts with God.

     But suppose we consider such communication in reverse. How many of us have been taught how to listen when God prays to us? Are we even aware when God initiates contact? Think about it. If God were to communicate to you, what form would it take? Today we are going to consider many of the forms God uses. Yet as we will discover, it is easy to be asleep at the steering wheel of our lives and not experience a thing.

     The Samuel passage for today contains an episode of prayer in reverse. Unexpectedly, God decided to communicate to a little boy named Samuel. Most of us will recall that Samuel was the son of Hannah, a woman who initially could not bear children. One day Hannah agonized to God about her plight. Soon thereafter, she conceived and bore a son. Making good on her promise to God, she brought her weaned son to the Temple at Shiloh, and presented him to the priest Eli to rear.

     According to our lesson, Samuel's bedroom was the sanctuary of the Temple. Interestingly enough, the sanctuary was also the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The Ark had been a powerful symbol of God's abiding presence for the Hebrews. At one time the Ark exerted vast power over people. It was said that armies would flee in terror when they saw the Ark being carried into battle by the Israelites. Rumors about the Ark's mysterious power were well known in the ancient world. But during this period of Israel's history, the Ark had become just another piece of sanctuary furniture.

     Our lesson tells us, "There were very few messages from the Lord in those days, and visions from God were quite rare." Apparently, Israel's deep religious heritage was largely being ignored. The once life-motivating power of the Hebrew faith had become distilled into empty rituals and rites that were practiced by a few. It was into such an environment that Samuel's drama unfolded.

     Very early one morning just prior to daybreak, God decided to communicate to Samuel. Our lesson says, "The boy did not know it was the Lord, because the Lord had never before spoken to him." Twice Samuel went to Eli believing that it was he who had called him. Each time, Eli told him he was mistaken and to go back to sleep. But when Samuel inquired a third time, Eli realized that it must be God calling the boy. He said, "If the voice calls you again, say, 'Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.'"

     First, how many of us are tuned-in when God is communicating to us? And secondly are we prepared to say, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening"? Unfortunately, most of us are like Samuel. In our fast-paced culture, it is amazing how easy it is to remain asleep. We are surrounded by human activity that can worry us. People make demands. Our time is structured. And if we have not been communicating with God, we are not expecting anything of "a divine nature" to happen.

     What is interesting is that Samuel had not been praying. It was God who initiated the dialogue. Samuel might have remained confused and uninformed had it not been for Eli's hunch that the communication was coming from God.

     Sometimes it is challenging for us to understand all the ways God can communicate. God can use every vehicle imaginable. God can use temptation, pain, everyday occurrences, and the words of others. God can use anything that is capable of getting our attention. But we are too much like Samuel who did not recognize the source of the voice.

     Most of us have heard the story of the man who tested his faith during a devastating flood. The police drove through the community announcing the mandatory evacuation. The man's faith in God was so strong that he decided to stay with his house. The police came again but this time in a motor boat, and again he refused to leave his home. He kept believing that God would not allow anything to happen to him. Eventually the rising water forced the man to climb to his roof. A helicopter hovered over head and lowered a ladder. He waved off the helicopter, trusting God completely for his safety.

     Soon the rising water put so much pressure on the house that it collapsed, sending the man to his death. When he arrived in Heaven, he took his circumstances directly to God. He told God, "Your Son taught us that if we have faith even as small as a grain of mustard seed that we would be able to move mountains. I have such a faith. Why did you allow me to die?" In a very gentle manner God explained, "On three occasions help came to you and you did not recognize me." Such a thing happens all the time with us. We can be asleep and miss the obvious.

     Recently I asked the Tuesday morning "Angel Gang" how many of them had either fallen asleep while driving their cars or had become so tired that their heads were bobbing and weaving? With a show of hands, the vote was nearly unanimous. That is a frightening percentage. If most of us have experienced difficulty staying awake while driving our automobiles, think of how difficult it is to remain attentive to God.

     Most of us do not know how to listen. We do not know what to look for. Through the years people have teasingly said to me, " We need you to attend this meeting. After all, you are the one with the connections." The question has never been who has more power when it comes to communicating with God. The real question is, "How many of us spend time learning how God communicates?"

     During periods when God appeared absent in the lives of the Israelites, it was not because God was elsewhere. During such periods, the people had lost their ability to tune in to the symphony that had never stopped playing. The people had gone to sleep. They forgot that a relationship means a dialogue, a relationship implies giving and receiving. If we have no active relationship with God, to our perception we are essentially living on our own.

     We can easily miss this dialogue on Sunday mornings. A worship service is not meant to be a source of entertainment whether by a thrilling music program or by the thoughtfulness of sermons. We should come here anticipating an experience with God. The worship experience is a good time to participate in such a dialogue. Worship prepares our minds and spirits to be open.

     We must recognize that there is a lot of static around us. We pay attention to such news events as grandparents having to sue for visitation rights with their grandchildren. We pay attention to the opposing demonstrations in Florida and in Cuba over the status of a little boy. We pay attention to the volatility of the stock markets. After all, our pension funds are there. We are faced with gridlock during our daily commutes. We have vocational insecurities. We may face health issues. Within the framework of such distractions, how does God connect with us?

     It is interesting that it took God three attempts before Samuel learned that it was God communicating, not Eli. Think about this for a minute. Why was God unsuccessful? God is God and can do anything. Could it be that God failed to get through for the same reason that God is unsuccessful in establishing contact with us on a regular basis? Remember, God created us to be free. We have to seek in order to find and to knock before the door will be opened. If we are not seeking and knocking, then we better have someone like Eli in our lives who can help us understand more deeply what is happening in our experiences.

     Three times Samuel went to Eli. How many of us have the same life-themes cycling in our lives? The names and circumstances change, but the same theme outcrops over and over again. For example, someone is rude to us and automatically our initial hurt evokes our anger. We have not learned how to manage our money successfully so we are always overwhelmed by credit card debt. We are trying to find the right mate but every relationship that kindles our hope mysteriously dissolves. We believe such things are the result of bad luck. We believe that nothing will change because our lives have always been this way. Does any of this sound familiar?

     What has been happening is that to every similar experience we have brought the same response. Consistency and constancy produce habits. Too many of us have become very successful in finding things about which to complain. We find ourselves repeatedly involved with unrewarding activities because we have never learned how to say, "No." We want respect and yet our history is that we become irritated the minute someone does not treat us fairly. Talk about being asleep!

     Each one of us right now knows the cutting-edges in our lives. We know the places where we have not grown in years. The same experiences come up again and again unless we have an Eli in our lives who says, "God is trying to get your attention." Remember, God is never cruel. Repetitious circumstances that reveal our weaknesses and shortcomings are an invitation for us to choose differently.

     This is how creation serves humanity. God has been saying, "Learn to crawl and I will teach you how to walk. Learn to walk and I will teach you how to run. Learn to run and I will teach you how to fly. I gave you the car. You are free to drive anywhere you wish. If you ever need a map to get some place specific, ask for one."

     What we experience on a personal level we can also experience as a world community. Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Many of you are old enough to remember the signs that said, "Whites Only." Many of us were alive when Martin shook our nation when we were sleeping in.

     America had public policies that separated people by color. There were buildings where the more privileged entrances were determined by race. What were people thinking? How long did it take for Americans to hear that "Love Thy Neighbor" applied to us? Truth has never been disguised. We were too asleep to understand that what Jesus taught applied to us.

     Anyone who read the article on Sierra Leone last Sunday in the Washington Post's magazine had to ask, "What are people thinking?" One group cannot have all the power it wants so it decided to cut off the hands of the men, and rape the young girls as a means of sending a message to those currently in office. How long will it take people to hear "Love thy neighbor"?

     The signs of God communicating are everywhere. Knowing that God communicates all the time should cause us to look more intentionally at routine experiences, particularly when near identical circumstances occur again and again. We need a coach like Eli who says, "This may be God trying to get your attention." When we learn how to reinterpret experiences that appear routine, perhaps we will be able to stand with Samuel and say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     Loving and ever-faithful God, we thank you for the mysteries of life. We thank you for giving us so much to do. There are problems to solve and you have equipped us with the desire to find the answers. We have learned how to bring water into our homes. We have discovereed how to defy gravity with our aircraft. We have perfected ways of keeping our bodies healthy when faced with the challenges of disease. Before us is the task of awakening more fully to the possibilities of spirit. We come to you seeking the motivation to change the way we think. We come seeking ways to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We come seeking ways to unravel the mysteries that make fear and selfishness so compelling. Lead us, O God, to the discovery that we have come to earth to make love more visible. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     We thank you, God, for your eternal nature. How grateful we are that time means nothing to you. No one can exhaust your patience. No evil can be so hideous that your light is damaged. No belief system held by any of the world's religions could possibly block your compassion and understanding for all people.

     Yet in spite of your infinite nature, we labor with our mistrust of each other. We use our faith heritage as a tool to lift up our superiority without having the ability to love our neighbors just as we find them. We fail to give away the quality of love that you model for us each time you hold us with compassion in spite of the messes we sometimes create with our choices. We make judgments of others while forgetting that such thoughts reveal who it is we have become.

     Lord, we pray that we might elevate our relationship with you to become our highest priority. Sadly, we pay lip service to that. We pray that one day our greatest achievement will be to make you visible every day. Inspire us to see the value in keeping our motivations noble, our spirits sincere and our desires wholesome. Inspire us so that our doubts become stepping stones and our fears become opportunities to exhibit our faith. Hasten the day, O God, when our harmony with you will be so profoundly a part of who we are that together we will experience, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven." We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .