“Speak,” Samuel says as he was instructed, “for your servant is listening.” The word for listening is shema, the same root word we get in Deuteronomy 6:4 – “Hear, O Israel…” Let us, therefore, meditate on “listening.”
Listening is inherently receptive. We can turn our heads and tune our perceptions, but we cannot go and get the sound. It comes to us, and we can accept or reject it. Reading is a different experience. Reading is more like hunting. It can be invasive, acquisitive, almost greedy to take and hold and manipulate information.
I think about the different ways we can access books. I am a pretty steady reader, and I prefer reading to listening when I am interacting with nonfiction work. That’s mostly what I read, so I don’t listen much. When it comes to fiction, however, I find listening more effective and much more pleasing. Stories are meant to be heard, received, and accepted.
If you are a parent, you may know the joy of reading books to your small children (and the mild agony of reading the same favorite book a hundred times aloud in the course of a month). I have never outgrown the pleasure of being on the receiving end of such experiences.
If you have read some of my “Throwback Thursday Books” posts, you’ll know that some of my lifetime favorites first came to me as beloved teachers read them aloud. I could close my eyes, take a deep breath, and be carried to a world not of my own construction. I could be swept into a reality greater than myself and beyond my control. “Ecstasy” is the experience of being taken beyond oneself. Listening to a good story can be, for me, an ecstatic adventure.
Paul’s letters were read aloud to his house churches long before they became written “scripture” in a codex. “So faith comes from what is heard,” Paul writes to the Roman Christians, “and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Those Christians heard that word of, or about, Christ before they read it. In fact, nine out of ten of them likely could not have read it if they wanted to do so. Scholars estimate that about ninety percent of Romans were illiterate in the first century.
“Most believers in the early communities of faith did not encounter the Word of God captured in ink on paper as we do today,” writes Phil Ruge-Jones. “Rather, they heard God’s Word spoken with a multitude of inflections traveling from the mouth of one believer to the ears of another, or to a whole community of believers at one time. The Word made flesh,” he notes, “was delivered by flesh and blood” (page 17).
Ruge-Jones notes that the gospel story, at least in Mark’s version, was likely first transmitted by story-telling and ecstatic listening. He is one of a number of contemporary scholars and preachers who have committed the gospel to memory and can present it at one telling, taking approximately two hours. Many of us have experienced such a dramatic re-telling of the story. I find it compelling in ways that reading the gospel story does not produce.
It is perhaps not surprising that Martin Luther called the church a mundhaus, a “mouth house” or a house for speaking. It is a house for speaking and hearing the Word of God. When Luther explains the commandment on Sabbath-keeping in his Small Catechism, he describes our fear and love of God as not despising preaching or God’s word but rather keeping that word holy and gladly hearing and learning it.
Speak, Luther says, for your servant is listening. The illustration of this commandment included in the 1536 Wittenberg edition shows Mary at the feet of Jesus, listening as he teaches (see Luke 10:38-42). In fact, Luther says in his Large Catechism, it is the Word of God that sanctifies the day, not the other way around. “At whatever hour then, God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read, or meditated upon, there the person, day, and work are sanctified thereby, not because of the external work,” he says, “but because of the Word which makes saints of us all” (page 29).
This speaking of the Word and our listening is used by the Holy Spirit to transform us day by day. The Word is the incarnate power of God, enacted by the Spirit to create faith. Luther writes, “such is the efficacy of the Word, whenever it is seriously contemplated, heard, and used, that it is bound never to be without fruit, but always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devoutness, and produces a pure heart and pure thoughts” (page 30).
Luther echoes the promise of Isaiah 55:10-11 – “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Samuel’s obedient reply to the Lord’s call is the end of today’s lectionary reading. That may be just as well. The next paragraph has news, we learn, “that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” The Lord will punish the house of Eli for the systematic theft and arrogant abuse committed by Eli’s sons in the course of their priestly offices. Eli is held responsible, we learn, “because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.” The punishment “shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
Tingling ears and all, Samuel goes to Eli and – at Eli’s command – repeats all the judgment he has heard. It is the end of the House of Eli and the beginning of the career of Samuel the Great. The Word of God will not return empty, but sometimes the purpose is judgment rather than salvation. In either case, Samuel’s response is the listening that leads to obedient trust.
However, judgment is, according to Luther, the “alien work” of the Word. We will hear things that cause us to babble and blush, to tremble and trip, as our brokenness is revealed. That strange work is necessary to clear the way for the Word to do its proper work in our hearts – to convert and save us. The Holy Spirit creates in us the faith we need to have a living relationship with God through the cross and resurrection of Christ. We’ll look more closely at the Spirit’s work in this regard in the comments on the second reading from 1 Corinthians 6.
The proper work of the Word is salvation. That Word comes to us as a gift, as the Word made flesh in terms of John 1. In that gospel reading we witness the drama of not hearing and then hearing that Word. When Nathanael hears the Word made flesh, he is then equipped to see the world with new eyes. But Jesus cautions him at that point as well. Are you impressed by the special effects, Nathanael? You ain’t seen nothing yet! We who have heard the story know, of course, that the place where angels descend and ascend will be the empty tomb that comes only after the Word of the Cross.
“The word of the cross is not just a doctrine,” writes Phil Ruge-Jones,” though it is grounded in doctrine. It is not a theory about what happened between God and Jesus on the cross, although that event shapes it radically. Above all,” he concludes, “the word of the cross is a way of seeing the world from the perspective of the brokenness caused by our quests for glory” (page 88). That last sentence is as good a summary of John’s gospel as one could hope to find. In the gospel reading, Nathanael is just beginning the journey toward that conclusion.
“Speak, your servant is listening.” This is a text that holds a large place in my own spiritual journey. Samuel has instructed me many times on how to wait and listen for the Word necessary for my time and place. That listening has been life to me literally on more than one occasion. And it is life to me again in The Pandemic.
It is so easy to take for granted our access to hearing the Word in more “normal” times. For some of us, however, The Pandemic has been a bit of a famine of the Word. I find myself almost desperate for good preaching Sunday in and Sunday out. I confess that I often hear half a dozen such sermons online on any given Sunday. I must thank Merle Brockhoff, Tobi White, Carm Aderman, Susan Friedrich, and Victoria Parker-Mothershead for their messages over these past months. We have been sustained for the journey.
So Nathanel’s question is replaced by Samuel’s answer. That seems like progress to me.
References and Resources
Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Glaude, Eddie S. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York: Crown, 2020.
Kashdan, Todd. Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Luther, Martin. Martin Luther’s Large Catechism. Bente and Dau, 2012.
Luther, Martin (Timothy Wengert). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.
Morris, Jerome. “Can Anything Good Come from Nazareth? Race, Class, and African American Schooling and Community in the Urban South and Midwest.” American Education Research Journal, Spring 2004.
Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.
Ruge-Jones, Phil. The Word of the Cross and The Word of Glory. Minneapolis, Mn.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2009.