We’re great at eavesdropping, at reading other people’s mail. That’s what we do when we read the Bible, our holy scriptures, all the writings complied in this book, letters and stories written to other people, ancient peoples in faraway lands. But in these words, in these stories, we’ve come to hear echoes of God’s voice—God speaking to us through others. We overhear what God has said to other people, and we somehow receive their word from God as a word for us, as God’s voice echoes through history, reaching us—God speaking to us, here.
I have three stories for you—stories about God’s voice, about people who have listened for God’s words. In their lives I hope you can hear accents of that same voice that called out to Samuel in the night, as we heard in our Bible passage for today.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born a Baptist preacher. It was in his lineage, written in stars. His father and his grandfather were both pastors. King grew up at the center of attention at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The role of pastor was familiar to him. But he lacked one thing, a requirement for ministry in the Baptist church: a call from God, a voice from heaven.
In his church tradition, every minister has to have a call. You don’t become a pastor because it’s convenient or because it comes naturally to you or even if you demonstrate pastoral gifts. You do it because God tells you to. And you better have a good testimony ready for the congregation when they ask about your calling—something like Samuel’s call, a dramatic experience, being woken up in the middle of the night.
King didn’t have that. Here’s what he said about his calling: “My call to the ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural something, on the contrary it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity”—an inner urge to serve humanity, King said. That sounds like a weak substitute for a voice from heaven. But it turned out to be good enough. He was ordained on February 25th, 1948.
But, eight years later, something happened—a “supernatural something,” he said. At the time he was the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was the middle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which had gone on much longer than anyone expected. The whole city was raging with anger—and King was the focus of their anger because he was the leader of the boycott. At one point he was receiving 40 phone calls a day at his house, death threats for him and his family.
One night after a boycott strategy session, he got home around midnight, overwhelmed with despair. He was in over his head. He was just a pastor who got pushed into a community leadership position and he didn’t want to be there anymore. He couldn’t sleep, so he sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. Then the phone rang. Another death threat: If you want to live, the voice said, if you want your family to live, you better leave Montgomery tonight. Click.
He slumped back into his chair and started to give up. Let me read to you what he said about that night: “I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward…”
King was devastated and exhausted. But he heard a voice call out to him, startling him at his kitchen table: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for Truth.” That was his call from God, a voice from heaven—“a miraculous something,” he called it, “a supernatural something.”
After his kitchen experience, three days later, he woke up to a terrible explosion. Someone bombed his house. His family wasn’t harmed. But they began to take precautions. Then, exactly a year to the day after God spoke to him in his kitchen, King heard a noise outside. He opened the door and found a bundle of dynamite. The fuse was lit but fizzled out. He was spared, at least for a few more years, so he could do a little more work.
The story from our passage from the book of 1 Samuel opens with this statement: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Sam 3:1). Some time had passed without hearing from God. Years of silence… until one night.
Samuel was lying in bed, asleep. “Then the Lord called out,” it says, calling him by name, “Samuel, Samuel,” but he thinks it’s his mentor, Eli, in the room down the hall, calling him. So he runs to Eli, in the middle of the night, and asks what he needs. But it’s not Eli’s voice, and Samuel goes back to bed. This happens again and again, three times.
No one knew what God’s voice sounded like anymore. But Eli wondered if God’s voice might be heard again, and that God might be speaking to this boy. So Eli told Samuel what to say when he heard the voice again: “if he calls you again, you shall say: ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening’” (v. 10). Samuel returned to bed and heard God’s voice one more time—the voice of God returned to the people.
One thing this story teaches us is that we need help in figuring out what God might be saying to us. Samuel doesn’t know God’s voice at first. He needs Eli’s help. We need help, in our listening to God. We need help learning what God sounds like. We rely on others, other people who guide us as we try to pay attention to God.
There’s also something else we learn about what happens when God speaks. Sometimes it’s bad news—sometimes it’s a word, a truth, that we wish we didn’t hear. That’s what happens to Samuel. God wanted to let him know that punishment will befall Eli’s sons, in response to their abuse of power, their mistreatment of God’s people.
It’s a word of judgment, and I wonder if Samuel wished God didn’t end up sharing this news with him, now making Samuel the one who has to announce God’s judgment upon Eli and his sons.
In an interview many years ago, Dan Rather asked Mother Teresa about her prayer life. He asked, “Mother Teresa, you are a woman of prayer; what is it that you say to God when you pray?” She answered: “Well, I don’t say anything; I just listen.”
So Dan Rather followed with another question: “What is it that God says to you during prayer?” Mother Teresa thought for a moment, then responded: “God doesn’t say anything. God just listens.” Teresa and God, sitting together in silence, enjoying each other’s presence.
In 2007 one of Mother Teresa’s spiritual directors published a book of her letters. The book was controversial, partly because the pages revealed her struggle to keep believing, to keep on having faith, despite her doubts. “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss,” she wrote, “of God not being God.” There’s a passage that has stayed with me over the years, bouncing around in my head ever since I read it—here it is: “If I ever become a saint,” she said, “I will surely be one of darkness.”
In her letters she returned again and again to the silence. 50 years of silence, she said, 50 years of doubt, 50 years of feeling abandoned by God. But she did hear God’s voice, once. She remembered the date: September 10, 1946. She was on a train in Calcutta. And God spoke to her. “I want Indian nuns,” God’s voice said, “missionaries of charity who would be my fire of love amongst the poor, the sick, the dying, and the little children… Wouldst thou not help?” Teresa said yes and spent the rest of her life in the slums of Calcutta—a fire of God’s love amongst the poor and the sick and the dying and the children.
Teresa was that fire for love that God asked for. She obeyed God until she died in 1997. And over those 50 years God offered her only silence in return, a half a century without reassurance: without a second word to confirm the first, to keep it fresh.
With the dying, Teresa sat with God, listening for whispers of a voice, listening for the rhythms of divine breath, wordless sighs, God’s silent voice.
A Last Word
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days,” as we heard in our passage from 1 Samuel. Maybe that’s true for you today. If so, we’ve overheard God’s voice speaking through these three people, their lives echoing God, even if all that’s here to ease our doubts is a breath—our own, perhaps, a gift from God, the Spirit’s comfort.
 Quoted in Richard Lischer, The Preacher King (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 27.
 Quoted in Lischer, p. 176.
 James Martin, “A Saint’s Dark Night,” The New York Times (August 29, 2007). Also Carol Zaleski, “The Dark Night of Mother Teresa,” First Things (May 2003): “And it gave her access to the deepest poverty of the modern world: the poverty of meaninglessness and loneliness.”