Sermon for Sept 25th, 2016, “Prayer Is Wasting Time”
1 Samuel 3:1-10, The Lord Calls Samuel
3 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.
2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called Samuel.
Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 5 And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
6 Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”
7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
8 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Do you ever think that God tries to speak to us and tells us: Shhhh! Listen! Or like the old cell phone commercial God asks us, “Can you hear me now?” It’s been the challenge of faith since the beginning. How do we listen for God’s call in our lives? As a pastor, it’s a question I have received often: How do I listen for God; how do I know it’s God’s voice and not my own? And sometimes we even ask God “Can you hear me now?” wondering why God seems to be absent in our prayer life. Yet, could it be that God asks us “Can you hear me now?”
Prayer is something that sustains us in our journey of life and faith. Over the last few weeks, Pastor Steve has been talking about the journey, our journeys, individually and collectively. Prayer is the fuel that fills us up time and again to continue moving forward. “The most limiting misconception about prayer is that its secret lies in the words we sandwich between ‘Dear God’ and ‘Amen’. We devote ourselves to a method—the right words said in the right order at the right time of day—instead of devoting ourselves to the Master,” writes author Jennifer Kennedy Dean.
Prayer is speaking, yes, but it is also listening. It is a continual conversation with God. I have often thought about our relationships in light of prayer. In our human relationships, we talk to one another. I should say in our healthy relationships. We speak, we listen. We support, we love. Isn’t that the same with prayer? We speak, we listen. Yet, too often, we rely heavily on spoken prayer to God as what prayer means to the church today, but it goes deeper than just speaking to God, it’s also allowing God to speak to us.
There was a young boy born to a woman who could not have children. After Hannah begged God for a child in prayer, Eli, a priest, tells her that she will have a son. So grateful to God, Hannah offers her young boy to the Lord, and the young Samuel remains with Eli at the holy place in Shiloh. It was during a time of political upheaval, uncertain times in the life of Israel, when Samuel was born. In a time when the word of the Lord was rare, when God seemed silent, God spoke.
Does God still speak today? I think most of us would agree that God does still speak in some way today. In fact, the campaign of the United Church of Christ is “God is still speaking.” More specifically, the campaign quote is “God is still speaking (comma).” It’s inspired by the Gracie Allen quote, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” It’s not that God is silent, that God doesn’t speak to us today; it’s that God’s people aren’t listening.
This would have been the prophet’s word to Israel during Samuel’s day. Listen up, God is still speaking. In fact, God spoke to Samuel. The young boy was with Eli when God spoke in the middle of the night. Samuel runs to Eli, “Here I am; you called.” I can picture the older man, Eli, half asleep saying, “Go back to bed.” Again, the Lord called and Samuel went running went to Eli. He is told the same thing, “Go back to bed.”
Clearly Samuel is hearing something. He thinks its Eli, not God. Samuel is hearing something, but he can’t quite discern what or who is calling. Prayer is allowing the time and space to hear in a world so full of voices and noise. I do believe we are people who listen, but whose voices are we tuned to hear? It’s easy to allow the voices in the media, TV, radio, on the internet cloud our understanding and experience of the world and even our own lives. Prayer is about tuning our spirits, the deepest parts of ourselves, into God’s voice.
So, how do we tune our hearts, our spirits, our lives into God’s voice? The third time Samuel is called by God, Eli finally gives some advice to the young man. He tells him, “If God calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” That’s all you have to say. That’s all you have to do, Samuel. Say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Too often we feel like our prayers have to be long and wordy, filled with amazing literary phrases and Scripture verses to impress those who are hearing and impress God. Yet even Jesus told us not to go on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. But go to into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father in secret.” We don’t have to use many words, but we can allow God’s words to speak to us. Sometimes all we have to say is “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” then wait in the stillness and quiet of the moment that God has gifted us.
But what if we’re like Samuel and we begin to hear other things, other voices, and we become distracted in our silent, listening prayer? Do you ever become distracted in prayer? It’s easy to become distracted in prayer, as our mind wanders to all sorts of thoughts and feelings. What do I have to do this afternoon? Who told me about that concert I wanted to attend? What are we having for dinner? No, back to prayer. I’m tired. I have other things to do. Time to pick up the kids. There’s a million ways our prayers can become distracted.
I have this problem too. I sit down, take my prayer book, my Bible, and I offer my prayers, when my mind beings to wander to all of those things I just mentioned. Those weren’t just general examples, those were all of my personal examples of thoughts I have during silence prayer.
It’s important to have a focus in prayer. Maybe those thoughts are guiding you into prayer for your day or the people who keeps popping up in your mind. Perhaps we can take Eli’s advice to Samuel and allow our prayer focus to simply be “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” That’s all we have to say. Maybe that’s all we have to do.
Prayer is really “useless” time or “wasting time” as the spiritual writer and master Henri Nouwen put it. Prayer is not about being busy with God, as opposed to being busy with someone or something else. Prayer is primarily a “useless” hour to be with God. Not to have control, but to be useless, so God can use us and speak to us.
Prayer is wasting time with God, just being present with God. Have you ever heard a pastor say that before? Prayer is about allowing God the time and space to speak. And if God does speak, and if we actually listen and are able to hear God’s message for us, then it is God’s work that does it, not us. It is not about us having control; it’s about God revealing God’s hidden message and agenda for us.
If you notice in the story of Samuel’s call, he didn’t do anything to receive it, except be open to God’s call. He obviously went searching, maybe to Eli and not God initially, but his call began with God not Samuel. It’s the same for us. If we think about prayer in terms of its usefulness to us, God cannot easily speak. If we think of prayer as its usefulness to us to get God to do what we want, we will be disappointed. Especially if God doesn’t answer our prayers exactly how we desire, then we might wonder what’s the point. But if we detach ourselves from the idea of usefulness in prayer and the results of prayer, we become free to “waste” time with God in prayer. After time, we’ll find ourselves more connected to God’s Spirit speaking deeply to us in the silence of prayer.
“A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together through a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old, beautiful tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice: “Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?” The apprentice looked his master and said: “No…why?”
“Well,” the carpenter said, “because it is useless. If it had been useful it would have been cut long ago and made into tables and chairs, but because it is useless it could grow so tall and so beautiful that you can sit in its shade and relax.”
Prayer is being with God not doing. Too often our lives are defined by our doing rather than our being. “We’re not human doings, we’re human beings” wrote Kurt Vonnegut once. It’s true, we’re called out of Psalm 49: 10 to
“Be still and know that I am God.” Be still, just be and all you have to do is be open, all you have to say is “Speak, Lord.” That’s all it takes.
The point of prayer is to be with God, to be embraced and enfolded by God’s presence and love. The 14th C. English mystic, Julian of Norwich wrote “God is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces and shelters us, surrounds us for his love.” That’s prayer.
God still speaks today. Just as Israel was in a time when they felt like God was silent, we might think that God is silent today, but I believe God still speaks. We just have to answer the call and say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” and waste some time with God.
Let us pray:
Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.
Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.