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The Sounds of God Calling -- 1 Samuel 3:1-20 (4th Sunday After Epiphany)

About a year ago, Al Nelson got me thinking about sound design. That is what Al does professionally.[1] Sound design is his craft – and he’s pretty brilliant. There’s a PBS interview where Al explains how sounds are an essential and integral part of story-telling.[2] When we’re telling a story, we want to immerse folks in an experience – not just the words – but the sounds and sights and every manner of sensation. What was it like – what is it like – to actually be there in the midst of the story?

In that interview,  Al describes how when his team gets a new project, when they start working on a new movie, they go out into the field to gather sounds – whatever the story they are telling – whether it’s an elevator sound for Toy Story 2 or the sounds of an aircraft carrier for Top Gun: Maverick. They immerse themselves; they work to be fully present and to experience what’s going on – and then to collect the sounds that help tell the story. Sounds – Al says – can convey intensity, danger, emotion – they can help describe and bring to life the relationships unfolding in the story.


So this got me thinking about the sound design of the sacred stories that we find in Scripture. These stories we turn to – shared out of an ancient world – as we look for a fresh word for today – How did these storytellers describe and convey the sounds of their world?  And – What might those sounds have to tell us about how and where they experienced God – or maybe where they didn’t?


In this morning’s Scripture, the boy Samuel hears God calling – “Samuel, Samuel” – to which, Samuel responds “Here, I am.” That’s the part of the story we may know by heart.[3]But all around that, the scripture offers what I’m going to call three critical sound moments. Let’s enter into the story – and spend some time – there.


This morning’s Scripture begins with a sound moment. As the scripture begins this morning, we hear that Eli and Samuel are living in a time when the Word of God has become rare. The Word of God – the Word that spoke everything into being – the Word that called the people out of Egypt – the Word that guided the community through the wilderness – the Word of God that has always been there – has become rare.

 What does that sound like?


Maybe first we should give some context and say that this is an in-between time in the Old Testament.  The people have escaped from slavery – survived their 40 years in the wilderness – and after they cross the Jordan, they try to govern themselves – to pick leaders for themselves. And it doesn’t go well. They keep picking lousy leaders.

Basically, a series of tribal leaders rise up – one after the other – and again and again, it's the same thing. The tribal leader – they are called “judges,” but that’s a misnomer – the new leader rises up – becomes corrupt – abuses power – and their world descends into violence and chaos. And then another judge – another tribal leader rises up – becomes corrupt – abuses power – and their world descends into violence and chaos. And as this story opens, it’s the same old story – this time it’s Eli’s sons who have risen to corrupted power. Again and again, all this just drones on and on.


In those days, the Word of God became rare, and visions were no more. What does that sound like – when the Word of God becomes rare?

·      Is it just silence? Does God just throw up their hands and say, “I’m done”? [SILENCE]

·      Is it silence – or is it more like the sound that TV stations used to make when they went off that air at night?[4] Does the world eventually just fade into to the dull drone of a static hum?

What does it sound like in days when it feels like the Word of God has become rare?

·      Is it silence, or static – or is more like the sound of weeping? That soft weeping that comes in the night, when we are alone with our sorrow – hoping, hoping to hear a word out of the silence?

·      Or is it more intense – is it more like Nina Simone’s piercing lament – as she sings  “Strange Fruit” – as she sings of people hanging from a lynching tree?[5]

·      Or, I think about this week, and I wonder, does it sound more like a shout? Does it sound like parents storming a legislative committee meeting, because their children have been taken hostage, and no one in power – any power – seems to care?

·      Or is it the sound of bombs? Bombs raining incessantly down on neighborhoods. Loudspeakers telling you to flee the place where you are already a refugee? Is it the sound of mortar and missile?

·      Or is it the sound of all creation groaning? Of superstorms and floodwaters and fire?

What does it sound like in days when it feels like the Word of God has become rare?

For Eli and Samuel and their world, it must’ve involved the sounds of violence and mayhem. And we find them, in the midst of all that, in the quiet of the Temple, settling in for the night. Maybe the Temple is quiet because it’s not used for much of anything anymore.  Eli is the old priest; Samuel is a young boy training to be a priest. Eli goes to bed in his room, and Samuel lies down near the Ark. And there’s that beautiful image –in this dimming world, Scripture says – “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” In this world where the Word of God had become rare, and visions were no more – the lamp of God has not yet fully gone out.

And Samuel hears a voice, calling his name: “Samuel, Samuel.”

Thinking it’s Eli – who else could it be? – Samuel jumps up and pads across the stone floor to Eli’s room. (flop flop flop flop flop flop)

Eli, here I am. You called me?” Eli, shakes himself out of a restless sleep. No, Samuel, I didn’t call. Go back and lie down.

So Samuel goes back to his cot. (flop flop flop flop flop flop) And he lies down, and he hears the voice again. (flop flop flop flop flop flop)

Eli, here I am. You called me?” No, Samuel, I didn’t call. Go back and lie down.

The third time this happens – Eli gets what’s going on, and says to Samuel, “Samuel, this may just be God – it may be the Word of God we don’t hear that often anymore. Go back, and if you hear that voice again, say, ‘Speak, God, for your servant is listening.’”

And Samuel goes back. He’s there now on his cot – he is tuned in. He’s ready. And we come to the second sound moment.

God appears to Samuel and says, “Samuel, I am about to do something that will make both ears of everyone who hears it tingle.” What on earth is that? In this world, where the word of God has grown rare, God is about to speak a word “that will make both ears of everyone who hears it tingle?” What might that sound like?

·      Will it be a sonic boom? That’s a very embodied image – the two ears of everyone who hears are going to be a-tingling? Set a-quivering – shaking – trembling.

·      What sound brings a bodily reaction like that? It must be more than just fingernails on a blackboard – maybe more like sound of an earthquake – the dishes clattering in the cabinet – the sound of buildings beginning to crumble.

·      It’s a word that will provoke a bodily response – maybe that gut-feeling when we hear a word that calls us to account – “That thing you’re doing – well, it may be a little racist.”(OUCH) – OR, maybe it’s more like the sound of our own voice, saying something unkind, we hear ourselves speaking it, and we can’t stop ourselves, and our whole body clenches up with regret.

A word that will set the two hears of everyone who hears it a-tingling. It’s a Word – a sound – that cries out for a response – for an embodied change.

In a world where the word of God has become rare, God tells Samuel, “I’m about to set both ears of everyone who hears this a-tingling.” And then God says, “Time’s up, the end has come for corrupt leaders who do violence to the people – and that includes Eli’s sons.” And then later, Eli asks Samuel what God said – and Eli makes him tell him – this ear-tingling word – against Eli and his sons. And Samuel speaks that hard word out loud. “Eli, God says that you and your sons are done.” And Eli to his credit says, “It’s God. May God do what seems good to God.”

And we come to the third sound moment:

In those days, when the word of God had become rare.

In maelstrom of that world, in the quiet of this night,

God says to Samuel, I’m about to speak a Word that will make both ears of everyone who hears it tingle.

Samuel takes that Word in, and speaks it out loud himself.  That Word comes to life. In him. And look what happens. The Scripture says that words start to flow out of Samuel – out of Samuel the boy prophet – and God doesn’t let a single one of those words fall to the ground. In a world where it has seemed like the springs of the Word of God had dried up, the streams gush forth.

·      Could that be the sounds of rivers flowing into all the parched places?

·      Or the laughter of children playing on a spring day?

·      Or is it the quiet that comes, when bombs cease, and peace comes, with justice, at last?

Let’s notice some things about this story and these sound moments.

1.   In those days, the Word of God had become rare.

2.   God speaks a word that sets the two ears of everyone who hears it a-tingling.

3.   And the Word of God begins to flow with abundance out of Samuel so that not a word that he utters falls to the ground.

Let’s notice that in this story the Word of God has never really disappeared. The word of God is never not there. In fact, it’s everywhere. In this story – that phase “the Word of God” occurs 15 times in just 20 verses – twice as many times as any other term.[6] As one writer says: “It is as though, in a story about the scarcity of the word of [God], the word of God is literally lying about all over the place, waiting for someone to hear” – if we don’t pay attention, we can’t help but trip over it.[7] The lamp of God has not yet gone out. It’s not the Word of God that changes over the course of this story.

What changes – what vacillates – over the course of this story is whether – and the extent to which – we are paying attention. And that’s the invitation of this text: Pay attention. Listen. Look. Feel it in your bones – this life you are living now – this world we inhabit together. What it is like to be here – to be human – in this moment – living this life with God? Pay attention?

It is all too easy – in a world of confounding chaos and struggle – in a violent, noisy world – where wars rage, and corrupt leaders never seem to go away – it can be all too easy to turn the volume down – or to just turn it off. Sometimes, it can feel easier to do that in our daily lives as well – things are just too hard. But one of the most dangerous things we can do – is to stop paying attention – to numb ourselves, not only to the realities of the world, but to the possibilities that God is still and always at work – calling us always into a better day.

This Scripture invites us to stop pretending that the Word of God has become rare – and to pay attention. That could start as simply as regularly taking a breath, and asking, “What is really going on here?” A basic mindfulness practice. Not the chatter and the chaos – listen through that – but rather, in this moment, What’s really happening? What am I sensing – what am I hearing, and seeing, and feeling – in the people and the world around me? From there, maybe add – at the end of the day, where did I feel near to God? Where did I feel far from God? The invitation of this Scripture is to pay attention.

Now this means, that we may feel things – we may feel more things – difficult things – our two ears may start a-tingling – and our gut may clench – and we may be changed – but we also may start feeling – more fully alive.

And notice, that Samuel and Eli pay attention together. Eli – who has the most to lose when they listen with honest hearts for the Word of God – and Samuel, who is just learning how to listen. It takes both the wisdom of experience, and a fresh attentiveness – in conversation and respect – to start to hear again the Word they thought had become rare.

The Word of God has always been there in this story. From the beginning, when all was chaos, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters and speaks – speaks everything that is into being. The Word of God calls the people into community; calls them out into freedom; calls to them as they wandered through the desert; and when they find themselves in exile, the Word of God will call them back home. We continue that story when we speak of Jesus – the Word from the beginning – who becomes flesh in us, full of grace and truth – saving us and the world from everything that does us harm.

Last year, after I first heard that interview with Al Nelson, I sat down and watched Top Gun: Maverick, for which Al and his team had done the sound design. There were all those aircraft carrier sounds that Al talked about. I expected that – it is, after all, Top Gun.  But there was also this scene on a sailboat. I’ve sailed, and I’ve always thought it a quiet experience. But I could hear the sounds – intense sounds – of the boat cutting through the choppy waves – and the sharp slap of the sail in the wind. And then there were some scenes – when things got real – where what I could hear, when the talking stopped, was breathing. Just breathing.

The invitation of this Scripture is to pay attention – to listen, and look, and feel – and when we do that... what we just might experience, even more deeply... is life.

© 2024 Scott Clark

[1] Al Nelson, a member of First Presbyterian Church San Anselmo, is a sound designer and supervising sound editor at Skywalker Sound.

[2] See Al Nelson’s Sound Design Journey From “Jurassic Park” To “Top Gun: Maverick,” PBS American Masters podcast, at

[3] For general background and commentary on this text and 1 Samuel, see Paul C. Hooker, Commentary in Connections, Year B, vol. 1(Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), pp.183-85; Bruce C. Birch, “The Books of First and Second Samuel,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), pp.989-995; Valerie Bridgeman, Commentary on Working Preacher at

[6] Hooker, p.184.

[7] Id.

Photo credit: Jeff Finley, used with permission via Unsplash


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