1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Solitude of the Heart

Samuel Anoints David as King, Syrian Orthodox Church, 3rd Century C.E.

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So, he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

So, he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

So, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. (NIV)

Solitude by Polish artist Piotr Dura

Appearances can be deceiving. One of the best ways to see beyond mere physical sight is to engage in the spiritual practice of solitude. Solitude is not loneliness but a deliberate retreat from normal routines to be alone with the Lord. The faith of both Samuel and David were strengthened through solitude. It prepared them for public service and made them godly. Because they had established patterns of being alone with God, they had an inward solitude even when in a crowd. That is why Samuel could have an interaction with the Lord, even when among lots of people.

Solitude is important because it is the true path to listening well.  A person whose faith has been shaped through solitude has an ability to carry on a dialogue with God while, at the same time, having a conversation with others.

Christ’s relationship with the Father was formed through solitude. Jesus was able to have simultaneous conversations with God and people since he practiced solitude on a regular basis. Jesus began his ministry with solitude (Matthew 4:1-11); made major decisions through solitude (Luke 6:12); and taught his disciples to practice solitude (Matthew 17:1-9; 26:36-46).

Solitude is necessary because engaging the world is important. Effective interaction with others requires times of retreat for solitude with God. Solitude as a spiritual discipline:

  • Gives us freedom from the need for constant noise and activity.
  • Allows God to shape our faith rather than conform to the world.
  • Liberates us from other people’s expectations for us.
  • Helps quiet internal noise and racing thoughts so we can better listen to God.
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection upon and preparation for future events.
  • Creates encouraging speech for the benefit of others.
  • Fuels a desire to keep practicing solitude because of its benefit.

Solitude taught Samuel obedience.

Samuel learned obedience through years of solitude with old Eli the priest. “Speak Lord, for I am listening” became a way of life for Samuel, as he was trained in how to listen well. 

Samuel’s greatness as the Judge of Israel did not lie in his original ideas or the initiatives he took, but in simple obedience to the commands of God. Years of obscurity and solitude as a child created the ability to hear and carry-out what the Lord told him to do.

Even Samuel, as godly as he was, could not rely on personal observations about choosing the next king of Israel. Because he had long years of practicing solitude with the Lord, Samuel was able to clearly hear divine speech and anointed the right person as king. Samuel did not trust his own judgment but relied on God’s direction.

Solitude characterizes God.

Christians serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit. God has complete and perfect solitude along with focused engagement with humanity. Through spending time with God, people can simultaneously interact with divinity and humanity. It is a bit like my wife who began her broadcasting career in radio by simulcasting the AM station in one ear of her headphones, and the FM station in the other ear. She could que a record for the FM station while, at the same time, forecasting the weather for the AM station. Her ability was born of practice and commitment to her craft.  In the same way, we have been given a vocation to engage the church and world, and the ability to have a solitude of heart while interacting with others.

God, unlike us, sees us completely, inside-and-out – which is why we are dependent upon solitude of heart so that we can make proper judgments. God urged Samuel to not look at the outward appearance because this is how wrong judgments happen.

Solitude formed David into a king.

David was on nobody’s short list to become king. He was so far out there as a candidate for the position that his own family did not even think it necessary to have him present for the sacrificial feast. It is just like God to have a way of choosing the people we think would be the least likely to do anything.

Being in the pasture day after day and night after night by himself was just the right curriculum that trained the next king. Shepherding was not a lonely affair for David. It was a rich experience of solitude which developed a solid relationship with God. Out in the field, away from all the wrong judgments of the world, David learned to discern God’s voice – a skill he carried with him the rest of his life.

Solitude might seem unrealistic for extroverts, and only something for introverts. Yet, solitude is essential to creating a robust faith in God. The following are some steps toward the practice of solitude and allowing it to bring you into a closer walk with the Lord.

  1. Practice “little solitudes” in the day. The early morning cup of coffee or shower, the drive-time to work, the lunch break, the quiet at night when all is dark and everyone in bed are opportunities for solitude with God to reorient and redirect our lives.
  2. Find or create a quiet place designed specifically for solitude. It might be a room, a closet, or a chair. It might be outdoors. It can be anywhere that helps you be free from distraction and invites you to connect deeply with Jesus.
  3. Begin the day by spending at least 10 minutes alone with God in silence. Over time, work your way to even more minutes, even hours. I am a believer in an hour a day keeping the devil away. Eventually, take an entire day away, every few months. Consider taking a weekend or even a week away once a year.
  4. Read Holy Scripture slowly and meditatively. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying in your reading.  Keep a journal handy and write down your observations. Allow prayers to arise from what you hear from the Lord.

This might seem optional only for those with discretionary time – but it is no more optional than planting in the Spring to get a harvest in the Fall. Such fruit results in the slaying of giants….

1 Samuel 3:1-21 – Speak, Lord, for I Am Listening

The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night, Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 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. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 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.

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.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

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. 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.

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. At that time, I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore, I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’”

Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”

Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

“What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything that he told you.” So, Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. (NIV)

Old Testament stories are typically arranged in such a way that we can perceive clear contrasts between the good guy and the bad guy. In our lesson today, Samuel is the good guy and Eli the bad guy. The contrast between them are two different ways of being quiet.

On the one hand we have the boy Samuel, who took a posture of listening. Samuel was quiet and heard the voice of the Lord. He responded with few words, with a spirit of listening. Eli the old priest, on the other hand, was also quiet, but for all the wrong reasons. Eli’s sons were also priests. They received sacrifices from God’s people and deliberately mishandled their responsibility. The sons cared not a whit for what the Lord really wanted. Eli knew what his sons were doing, and he was eerily quiet about their gross negligence as priests.

There is a time for everything – a time to speak and a time to be quiet. And when being quiet is required, it is for the purpose of listening. Listening seems a lost art and a forgotten ability in our day and age. People can be so concerned to express their opinions and say what they want to say that the virtue of listening is neither valued nor cherished.  However, God puts a premium on listening.

“A person who talks too much gets into trouble. A wise person learns to be quiet.”

Proverbs 10:19, ERV

One of the reasons the art of listening is not well-practiced is that we esteem busyness over taking the time for silence. We cannot seem to slow down enough to listen. Yet, if we are to hear the voice of God, we must be still and silent long enough to listen to what the Spirit is trying to say to us.

We might be uncomfortable with silence and seek to fill any quiet space with noise to not have to deal with what is really going on inside of us. I once attended a ministerial retreat. One of the pastors I got to know was a church planter in an urban ministry. He grew up in a large family in the inner city. And he talked – a lot! He was a beehive of words and constant locomotion. During our lunch together, the retreat host made a pronouncement: Beginning after the meal, there was to be absolutely no talking until lunch the next day. There was to be a full twenty-four hours of total silence.

Some might think this was some sort of punishment. But that line of thinking exposes how much words and noise mean to us. The sole purpose of the silence was to put us in a position for listening to God. As you might imagine, my church planter friend had a difficult time. When we broke the silence the next day, he confessed he had never in his entire life been quiet for more than fifteen minutes. However, here is what he said about his time of silence: 

“Those twenty-four hours of silence were the loudest hours I have ever experienced. My mind was so noisy and so filled with stuff that when night came it nearly drove me nuts. But in the morning, as the noise started to fade away, I could begin to hear the still small voice of God.” 

This wonderful brother went back to his church a different pastor, determined to sit still long enough and be quiet long enough to hear what God wanted for his life and work.

If we want to hear God speak to us, we must take the same approach as the boy Samuel and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Then, be quiet and listen. Any fool can babble on about their gripes and opinions. But the wise person discerns that talking is overrated. Silence, solitude, listening, and learning were the virtues practiced by Jesus. The kingdom of God comes to earth when those ideals are cherished.

Another reason we might not value listening is that we do not want to hear what God is saying. After all, it might not be something we would like to hear. Old Eli did not get good news from Samuel’s listening to the Lord. Yet here is where words are to follow listening. When we take the time to listen to God, we must do and say what God tells us to do and speak. And that can be scary. 

I would like you to do something: Take ten minutes every day for the next week to do nothing but sit in silence for the purpose of listening. Begin your time with Samuel’s phrase: “Speak, Lord, for I am listening.”  Then, be quiet, and listen. Pay attention to what is going on inside of you. Meditate on that phrase, or another Bible passage. Afterwards, take a few moments to write down how you felt during the time, and any insights you discovered.

Loving God, we admit to being uncomfortable with silence. Listening is such hard work! We confess to you our propensity of filling every nook and cranny of our lives with being busy and productive, achieving and doing. We admit that we keep looking for you to act without first listening to what you are saying to us. We choose today to take the posture of listening to your Holy Spirit speak to us through your Holy Word. Give us the courage to act on what you tell us. We lean into the faith we have in the Lord Jesus so that our lives may be shaped and formed in ways that please you. Be gracious to answer us and lead us to the green pastures and quiet waters of your sacred space. Amen.

Matthew 12:46-50 – Family

En la Cena ecológica del Reino (At the Ecological Kingdom Dinner) by Spanish artist Cerezo Barredo

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (NIV)

Jesus obviously did not get the memo that blood is thicker than water. When his own blood family were waiting outside for him, Jesus used the occasion to speak of what makes up a true follower of God. Christ boldly asserted that his true family is made up of people who do God’s will.  By saying this, Jesus brought the point home that the kingdom of God turns on obedience.

Rather than solely confessing belief, or appealing to a family heritage of faith, Jesus said that a genuine believer in God is one who listens to God’s words and then promptly obeys them. Therefore, a Christian is defined by allegiance to Jesus, and not by having a certain bloodline. 

Identity determines activity. For example, if I identify myself primarily as a worker at my job, my activity will show it – I will spend long hours at my labor, and will do whatever it takes to please my boss and gain promotions. If I identify myself primarily as an athlete, I will spend long hours honing my skills, and do whatever it takes to please the coach and to win. If my identity is mostly wrapped around being a husband and father, I will focus most of my attention on my family and seek to please my spouse and children in all things. 

If my identity is first and foremost as a Christian, I will always seek to please Jesus. I will then view my job as an opportunity to express the ethics of God’s kingdom, as a calling from God, and as a means for God to transform me for his glory. I will view athletics as means to glorify God, and not as an end in and of itself but as a special gift for God to teach me about the importance of community and working together. 

If my identity is clearly in Christ, I will view my kids as belonging to God and I will steward the trust of children given me by doing whatever it takes to teach and train them in the way of Jesus. I will thank God for my family and not confuse them with being God by idolizing them.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was inside a house, with his family on the outside. So, why were the family members of Jesus not inside the house sitting at his feet, taking the posture of a disciple? The disciple Matthew wanted to communicate more than physical distance between Jesus and his physical family – being “outside” was meant to convey the posture of Christ’s family as spiritually distant, skeptical of him, and indecisive about who he was and what he was up to. In fact, the disciple Mark made this spiritual and emotional distance clear:

Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!” (Mark 3:20-21, CEB)

Christ’s earthly family were not looking for Jesus to give them warm-fuzzies and have a family group hug. They were there to tell him: “Cut it out, Jesus, because you’re acting like a nut-cake and embarrassing us all!” The kid brothers of Jesus (James and Jude) would go on to become powerful Christian preachers and each pen a New Testament letter, but that does not happen till after Jesus’ resurrection.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Christ and his disciples

Jesus was saying that identifying only with a biological family leads to only pleasing that family. However, identifying with Jesus leads to a radical form of following God that seeks to please him instead of submitting to family practices, mores, and beliefs which are inconsistent with the kingdom of God. 

For the follower of Christ, the church is the family of God, and we are to act consistent with being in such a family.  We are to go hard after God’s will, serve one another, and adopt outsiders into our family.  The church is a family, not a restaurant.  When we go to a restaurant, we either like the food and the service, or not. If the experience was unpleasant, we might complain to the waitress and may or may not come back.  Try doing that with your mother and see where it gets you!  As a biological family, we are committed to each other. There is no complaining about mom because of dad’s wrath. Instead, we are expected to clear our plates and put them in the dishwasher, to sweep the floor and clean the table, and to work together for the benefit of the entire family.  In the same way, following Jesus means being committed to his family, the church.

Priority is to be given in doing God’s will, regardless of blood, because obedience to Christ identifies us as being in the family of God.  Our actions and the way we live points to what we honestly believe and where our commitments truly lie. 

The first step of God’s desire for us is quality focused time in sitting at Christ’s feet and listening to him because this is at the heart of all Christian discipleship. We cannot do God’s will until we have clearly heard it; and we cannot hear God’s will unless we take the time to be at the feet of Jesus. 

Both listening and doing are necessary.  Listening without engaging the world is a failure of mission; and doing without first listening leads to misguided acts and eventual burn-out. Allow Jesus to call the shots and let him instruct us so that we can act wisely and obediently. 

Jesus did not devalue blood relatives as irrelevant. Rather, Christ emphasized that our primary allegiance is to him, and not to our biological family.  The kingdom of God seeks to restore and redeem all things, including family. Both church and family are important. The relationships within each are to be nurtured.

The family of Jesus, the church, is important because Christ suffered and died for her. So, we are to be committed to the church, love the church, and serve the church because we are family. If we have a good grasp of this, we will make decisions based in what we believe God’s will is, instead of whether a relative will get upset, or not. 

Our biological families are important.  Jesus never pitted one against the other, because he wants to see families redeemed and work together as the family of God. Every Christian family can do this:

  • Appoint a time to read Scripture together and listen to Jesus and discuss it.
  • Show hospitality so that we can eat and drink our way into the kingdom of God. 

We need to persistently pray for spiritually lost family members, and those whom we are estranged from. Most families have at least a few toxic persons in their orbit. Here is how we might pray for them:

  • That God will arrange divine appointments between them and other believers who love Jesus.
  • That God will draw them to the mercy of Christ.
  • That God will hinder the devil’s schemes against them.
  • That they will understand and respond to the good news of God’s grace.

Soli Deo Gloria

Judges 2:16-23 – Listen

From time to time, the Lord would choose special leaders known as judges. These judges would lead the Israelites into battle and defeat the enemies that made raids on them. In years gone by, the Israelites had been faithful to the Lord, but now they were quick to be unfaithful and to refuse even to listen to these judges. The Israelites would disobey the Lord, and instead of worshiping him, they would worship other gods.

When enemies made life miserable for the Israelites, the Lord would feel sorry for them. He would choose a judge and help that judge rescue Israel from its enemies. The Lord would be kind to Israel as long as that judge lived. But afterwards, the Israelites would become even more sinful than their ancestors had been. The Israelites were stubborn—they simply would not stop worshiping other gods or following the teachings of other religions.

The Lord was angry with Israel and said:

The Israelites have broken the agreement I made with their ancestors. They won’t obey me, so I’ll stop helping them defeat their enemies. Israel still had a lot of enemies when Joshua died, and I’m going to let those enemies stay. I’ll use them to test Israel, because then I can find out if Israel will worship and obey me as their ancestors did.

That’s why the Lord had not let Joshua get rid of all those enemy nations right away. (CEV)

Listening seems to be a lost art and a forgotten skill. Genuine focused attention on another person through careful listening takes practice. Maybe that is one reason there is a paucity of authentic hearing these days – it is just so doggone hard. Throw into the mix that a lot of folks like hearing their own voice, and you have a recipe for poor communication.

God is good at everything, especially listening.

The Lord is the Master Listener. In fact, God is so good at it that divine ears hear the prayers of people all over the world. The same careful attention is given to both the little girl in the West who intercedes for her parents and teddy bear at night, as well as halfway around the world with the national leader who requests wisdom for decisions in a heated meeting.

The Lord God Almighty is gracious, merciful, and kind, hearing us when we call, and listening when we our hearts long for the divine. God always bends low in a posture of listening to all creation. As creatures in the image of God, we were meant from the very beginning of creation to listen well. Yet, ever since humanity fell into disobedience, people have the tendency to talk more than they listen, to sometimes refuse to hear what another is saying. There are even those who ignore God’s speech.

The ancient Israelites in the book of Judges were fickle in their attention to God. When things were bad, they cried out to the Lord. Because God attentively listens, they were heard, and a merciful divine response came. However, when things were better, the people went about their business and forgot about God’s deliverance.

It was God who sent judges, rulers, and leaders, to the people for their own welfare. Instead of graciously receiving such a gift from God, the people were quick to be unfaithful and to refuse even to listen the divinely sent judges. Listening, really listening, was not a high value to the people. They talked and talked, incessantly droning on, and so could not hear what God through the divinely appointed rulers was saying.

We are to listen well because God listens well.

We are to pay attention and hear because we are designed by our Creator to do so. Perhaps our society would not be so perpetually upset and polarized if we would just take the time to take notice and take advice through a posture of humble hearing.

Try this little exercise of listening: Take just ten minutes and do not talk, read, check your phone, or do anything but just listen to the sounds around you…. What do you hear?… What do you think God is saying to you through those sounds?… How will you to respond?

Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity, allowing us to hear the still small voice of God. Sound is amplified through silence. If we desire a clear word from the Lord, then stillness and silence are the spiritual practices that will allow it to happen. Life’s most precious moments are not all loud or uproarious, for silence and stillness have their own virtues which connect us with the divine. Never underestimate the power of doing nothing.

God of all creation, you have made me with two ears for listening. Help me to so hear and distinguish you through creation and the voices of others so that I will follow Christ with confidence in my daily life. Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.