It was at the Methodist Church Ministerial Selection Committee where I found myself facing a barage of questions. Desperately trying to explain myself I found myself talking ten to a dozen. But then I made a mistake by referring to the importance of listening to others. A sharp and rather daunting looking member of the panel raised his head and slowly said to me;"I shouldn't think you stop talking enough to do much listening."
Ouch! For a moment or two I was floored. That is until I managed to ignore the question and resumed doing what I was most comfortable doing - namely more talking!
And yet listening is so important. If we do not listen to God, we have no good news to be shaped by or to share. If we do not listen to others we leave them feeling that their feelings are not important and we fail to get to know them.
Listening is very much a part of today's scripture readings. Our Old Testament reading has reminded us of that venerable judge, Samuel. Samuel was a man of high renown whose story is intertwined with the stories of those memorable Kings, Saul and David. He was very much of the Old Testament prophetic tradition. And by the time of the exile when the two books of Samuel were probably completed, he was doubtless remembered as one of the great men of the past.
And more than that, he was capable of being relevant to the world that then existed a good few centuries after his lifetime. Because the literature produced during the time after Jerusalem's destruction and the carrying off of Israel's elite to over half a century of exile in Babylon, was a literature that sought to comprehend the disaster that had happened. And the answer that such literature came to was that Israel had failed to behave as God's people over a prolonged period of time.
Now the story we have heard concerning the calling of Samuel became very important. For it relates to apast low point in religion. Even the family of the priest Eli, were behaving in a throughly irreligious and even debauched way. And Eli was failing to stop them.
Enter Samuel, who had been dedicated to God by his long barren mother Hannah. The lad would seemd to have grown in devotion to God. But now he hears God calling him. On three occasions he thinks it is Eli but each time Eli assures him that he has not called. On the third occasion, Eli tells him that it must be God who is calling Samuel and that next time Samuel should answer;"Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
And so that is the response that Samuel gives on the fourth occasion he hears God's call. But what he hears is no tidings of great joy but a distrubing message of judgement on Eli and his family.
So listening to God is a mighty fine thing but this story serves to tell us that not all we hear from God will be comfortable for us. It may change both us and our experience of life.
From the gospel reading, we have heard of a man named Nathaniel who was changed by listening to Jesus. Nathaniel is a very Jewish name unlike the names of others in John's narrative whose names point to the influence of Greek culture.
Anyhow, Nathaniel's friend Philip tells him about Jesus. To Philip, Jesus is the one to whom the Law and the Prophets have pointed. But Nathaniel is certainly not easily impressed. Indeed, you may get the impression that Nathaniel is a man dominated by his prejudices - a sort of Jewish Alf Garnett. And we get a taste of that when his first reaction to hearing of Jesus of Nazareth is a somewhat bigoted response of;"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?"
Now he may have had good reason to feel negatively to mention of Nazareth. But he is still caught in the utter grimness of prejudice which is a throughly destructive quality. And it is the miracle of the dialogue, both recorded and unrecorded, that the walls that Nathaniel has erected come tumbling down. Now in a prelude to that climax of John's gospel in which Thomas who has doubted the news of resurrection, cries out;"My Lord and my God!"
Nathaniel makes the startling confession;"Rabbi you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!"
What a change! The bearer of prejudice now sees the Nazarene who will confront prejudice as the "Son of God" and the "King of Israel." And Jesus promises him that he will see much greater things for in what is an echo of that story of Jacob's ladder, heaven will be opened and angels of God will ascend and descend on the Son of Man.
So what do these stories tell us in Alwington as we come for our Covenant Service? I think the common theme is that we need to be listening for God in our lives. One of our problems today is that we are low on expectancy of God having something to say to us. Perhaps our age is a bit like that in which Samuel grew up - an age in which words from the Lord were rare. And if that is the case the temptation to rely on our wisdom or the norms of the day become high. And yet as the story of Samuel reminds us, in such times God does not cease to be lovingly concerned for us. At the times when we shut God out, we need once more to hear the challenge to be alert to the callings of God. And ready to respond with a;"Speak for your servant is listening!"
The message Samuel would hear would be unsettling and disturbing yet hear it he must if he is to be a true follower of God. And the word of God continues today to challenge us and to move us forwards. Nathaniel learnt that he would have to see the world in a very different way. Staunchness would not be enough especially when it was combined with a harsh exclusiveness. Instead, he would need to learn of the generous and inclusive love that would be at the heart of the ministry of Jesus. New vision would be called for.
As people of faith, we can never be static. We need to urgently hear God's word for today. So often we have fallen into thinking of prayer as being about our talking to or even at God with our agendas. How much we need to realise that at the heart of prayer is our listening for God to speak to us those things that we need to hear. For surely we can never be useful followers of the Jesus way if we block out his voice by our cacophonies of noise and busyness.
In just a few minutes we shall renew our Covenant with God in the tradition of generations of Methodists and indeed nowadays of other Christians. As we hear God, we hear the voice of compassion for all humanity. We hear our calling to serve him and his promise that he is with us to the very end of the age. For in serving the God revealed to us in Christ, we are not left alone as orphans. On the contrary we are privileged to share in the divine work with divine help and empowering.
It is because we know that God is good and ever for us that we are able to enter the journey of faith, a journey with surprises and much that we need to learn and apply. God walks with us as we seek to embrace a world of hurt with the love and grace that is the gift of God. But as with any journey we need guidance. And to receive guidance we need to not just hear but to listen.
So on this Covenant Sunday may we cultivate the practice of listening to God so that we might learn how to truly live for God.